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National Security & Defense

The Trump Administration Is Considering Relaxing the Rules for Drone Strikes. Good.

Lost in a news cycle dominated by the health care CBO report was this important item from the Washington Post:

The Trump administration is close to finishing a review that would make it easier for the Pentagon to launch counterterrorism strikes anywhere in the world by lowering the threshold on acceptable civilian casualties and scaling back other constraints imposed by the Obama administration, senior U.S. officials said.

The ongoing review, which is being considered at senior levels of the National Security Council, would undo a series of rules that Obama imposed, beginning in 2013, to rein in drone operations outside active war zones.

The Trump review must still be approved by the president, but recent drafts of the new policy would represent a major change in the way the United States approaches drone strikes and other targeted-killing operations in places such as Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The changes to the Obama-era Presidential Policy Guidance would empower the Pentagon to make decisions on targets without approval from the White House and potentially scrap the “near-certainty” standard of no civilian deaths for strikes outside war zones. The Trump plans are also likely to relax the requirement that potential terror targets pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to U.S. personnel, officials said.

While it’s important to learn more about the details, in concept these are all good changes. As a general matter, military decisions should be made by military commanders, not bottlenecked at the White House where an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief micro-manages the war. Moreover, the “near-certainty” standard of avoiding civilian deaths incentivized the use of human shields and went well beyond the requirements of the laws of war. Finally, by relaxing the requirement that targets pose a threat to U.S. personnel, commanders will have greater ability to help allies under fire. In other words, the drone program stands to become more agile, more lethal, and more responsive to the needs of combatants in the field. 

There’s much to say about all this (perhaps I should do an extended piece), but for now it’s important to note that the Obama restrictions on the drone program were not required by the laws of war. Even the Trump changes may result in a legal regime stricter than that required by the law of armed conflict. I’m uncomfortable with any policy regime that ties commanders hands beyond the traditional rules of war, but the Trump administration’s potential changes represent an important step in the right direction. 

I know from first-hand experience that responsible commanders don’t always use all the tools in their toolkit, but it’s important to give them options, and it’s important to give them a degree of autonomy in the exercise of their military judgment. Presidents select the leaders who direct the fight. They shouldn’t run wars from the Oval Office. 


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