Obama vs. Trump on Drones: What’s Changed?
By Joseph Gibson, Courage to Resist
Back in 2011, the University of Michigan’s Michael Heaney and Indiana University’s Fabio Rojas released a study that confirmed something many had already suspected: the election of Barack Obama effectively demobilized the anti-war movement which had developed under George W. Bush. “As president, Obama maintained the occupation of Iraq and escalated the war in Afghanistan,” explained Heaney, assistant professor of organizational studies and political science, “The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama’s ‘betrayal’ and reinvigorated its protest activity. Instead, attendance at anti-war rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the anti-war movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions.”
Atop the list of Obama’s pro-war decisions sits the drone program, which Noam Chomsky referred to as “the most extensive global terrorism campaign the world has yet seen.” According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, Obama carried out one drone strike about every five days–ten times more than the Bush administration did. There is ample reason to distrust official government numbers on most things, and strong evidence that the highest amount of skepticism should be reserved for official civilian casualty counts.
“Trump has taken Obama’s massive and limitless drone war and quadrupled strikes—more than one a day now. My hope is that because it’s now The Donald lawlessly murdering people with flying robots, folks will begin to realize how insane this ‘less interventionist’ policy is.”
Last year, the US government released a report that claimed that between 2,803-3,022 “combatants” were killed by drone strikes, while “only” 64-117 innocent civilians were killed. However, as the Intercept news journal noted recently, “Organizations such as the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that at least 200 and as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in nations where the US is not at war since Obama took office.” One possible reason for the different body counts of innocent people? The US government usually doesn’t actually check the aftermath of such strikes on the ground, relying primarily on aerial battle damage assessments (BDAs). A study in Afghanistan, released last June by the Open Society Foundations, showed that these types of assessments “failed to identify civilian casualties in 19 out of 21 cases.”
A US drone strike once a day now
Not only has Trump inherited Obama’s massive murder program, he also immediately eradicated its few meager restraints, aiming to make it even easier for the government to carry out assassinations. Under Trump, the military has classified parts of Yemen and Somalia as “areas of active hostilities”, a designation which allows the military and CIA to kill alleged militants in these countries without a presidential sign-off. In his first 75 days in office, Trump has launched at least 74 strikes–about one a day. “Some of the Obama administration rules were getting in the way of good strikes,” a US official told NBC.
Now that the face of the US government is once again a cartoonish leader hated by liberals, will we see a rebirth of the antiwar movement? If so, how much attention will drones get and what would an effective resistance to the drone program look like? Unlike ground wars, where U.S. soldiers die and there’s often a substantial amount of reporting, everything about the drone program is impersonal and often secretive. Even Obama himself admitted that future presidents would be able to wage completely secret, perpetual drone wars despite failing to acknowledge his own personal role in establishing such a reality.
“With drones, our citizens don’t have to physically come into contact with the people we are killing anymore, just like we don’t come in contact with the animals we eat in our food,” explained Cian Westmoreland, a former drone program technician, to Courage to Resist in a recent interview. “It allows us to live in illusionary worlds where we are deprived of the exposure to our own personal violent consequences and have very little incentive to improve how we interact with the world,” Westmoreland noted.
Courage to Resist’s Jeff Paterson hopes that these shifts, coupled with the new optics, will lead to a backlash. “Trump has taken Obama’s massive and limitless drone war and quadrupled strikes—more than one a day now,” said Paterson. “My hope is that because it’s now The Donald lawlessly murdering people with flying robots, folks will begin to realize how insane this ‘less interventionist’ policy is. Aside from being a terrorist recruiting tool, it’s morally unjustifiable. We need to resist, and support those with the courage to do so.”
Shut Down Creech!
This week protesters are converging at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada for the third straight year. The weeklong “SHUT DOWN CREECH” protest aims to nonviolently “disrupt business as usual” at the base. In 2005, Creech became the first US base to carry out remote controlled drone assassinations. Today military personnel continue to sit behind computer screens at Creech, carrying out the assassinations of “suspects” located thousands of miles away.
In 2015, four Air Force drone veterans, formerly based at Creech, wrote President Obama a letter denouncing their own actions. “We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay,” the letter read. “This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”
Toby Blome, an organizer with CODEPINK Women for Peace, will be at Creech this week, and has been protesting drones for years. She sees a few small differences between the two administrations on the issue but points out that Obama essentially paved the way for Trump’s foreign policy. “The inherent racism in the US drone program became evident under President Obama when it was revealed publicly that any male of ‘military age’ is a potential suspect unless proven otherwise, posthumously,” explained Blome, “The very nature of executing a person on suspicion alone, as they go about their day to day lives, attending wedding parties, funerals, mosques or other daily activities, and sacrificing all of those who happen to be in the area, labeling them ‘associates’ is the most extreme form of racism that a nation can exhibit toward other people.”
Since Trump was elected protests have become a daily occurrence in the United States and many young people are becoming invigorated by politics for the first time. I asked Toby if she had any advice for people concerned about the drone program who were unable to attend such protests consistently.
Militarism itself has to be deconstructed
“Racism and militarism go hand in hand. If we want to get rid of one, we must get rid of the other,” she told me, “Local counter recruitment work and activities to stop police violence in our city streets are an important beginning. I strongly feel that for any meaningful movement to succeed, it has to come from a foundation of nonviolence. To get rid of state sponsored violence, we must also denounce war, in all of its forms. Young people must educate themselves deeply about the bloody and violent history of the US in the world. The Vietnam war and our current wars are a start. Martin Luther King’s words of 50 years ago are equally prophetic today: ‘The greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own country.’ Nothing has changed in 50 years. The US is committing perpetual war atrocities and destabilizing countries on a scale never seen before.”
Toby also stressed the that focus couldn’t be on merely stopping one war, or even just the drone program: militarism itself has to be deconstructed. On this point she had specific suggestions for young people. “I encourage young people across the country to ‘adopt their nearest military base’ and occupy it regularly and peacefully during commute hours,” she told me. “Over time, if done well, we will gain the respect and support of people who are trapped in the military and don’t know how to get out. With all of our many ongoing protests at Creech AFB and Beale AFB, including repeated human blockades while interrupting traffic, we are getting many signs of support from people from within…We have to create an environment where making war is no longer an honorable activity, much like cigarette smoking has become more socially unacceptable. But the challenge is to do it in a way that is still respectful to each human being who is ‘imprisoned’ in the military machine. Military propaganda is very successful in demonizing peace activists.”
There’s evidence to suggest that activists have already chipped away at this mindset, although it’s not a development you’re liable to read about in the mainstream media. Ironically, you can read about it in National Guard Magazine, where a base commander declared, “We are not popular among the American public. It doesn’t make you feel warm inside.”
The protesters at Creech hope to make drones even more unpopular. Courage to Resist is a proud co-sponsor of the action. For up-to-date information: shutdowncreech.blogspot.com