Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The (Not-So) Peaceful Transition of Power: Trump’s Drone Strikes Outpace Obama

by Micah Zenko
March 2, 2017

Women walk past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen February 6, 2017 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah).

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[Note: This post was updated to reflect additional strikes in Yemen on March 2, March 3, and March 6.]

As a candidate, President Donald Trump was deeply misleading about the sorts of military operations that he would support. He claimed to have opposed the 2003 Iraq War when he actually backed it, and to have opposed the 2011 Libya intervention when he actually strongly endorsed it, including with U.S. ground troops. Yet, Trump and his loyalists consistently implied that he would be less supportive of costly and bloody foreign wars, especially when compared to President Obama, and by extension, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This might be true, but nonetheless the White House is considering deploying even more U.S. troops to Syria, loosening the rules of engagement for airstrikes, and increasing the amount of lethal assistance provided to Syrian rebel groups.

By at least one measure at this point in his presidency, Trump has been more interventionist than Obama: in authorizing drone strikes and special operations raids in non-battlefield settings (namely, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia). During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 such targeted strikes in 2,920 days—one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 36 drone strikes or raids in 45 days—one every 1.25 days. These include three drone strikes in Yemen on January 20, 21, and 22; the January 28 Navy SEAL raid in Yemen; one reported strike in Pakistan on March 1; more than thirty strikes in Yemen on March 2 and 3; and at least one more on March 6.

Thus, people who believed that Trump would be less interventionist than Obama are wrong, at least so far and at least when it comes to drone strikes. These dramatically increased lethal strikes demonstrate that U.S. leaders’ counterterrorism mindset and policies are bipartisan and transcend presidential administrations. As I have noted, U.S. counterterrorism ideology is virulent and extremist, characterized by tough-sounding clichés and wholly implausible objectives. There has never been any serious indication among elected politicians or appointed national security officials of any strategic learning or policy adjustments. We are now on our third post-9/11 administration pursuing many of the same policies that have failed to meaningfully reduce the number of jihadist extremist fighters, or their attractiveness among potential recruits or self-directed terrorists. The Global War on Terrorism remains broadly unquestioned within Washington, no matter who is in the White House.

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