Increased Civilian Casualties and a Disturbing Question from President Trump

Back in 2015, candidate Donald Trump caused a stir when he publicly advocated murdering the families of terrorists. At the time, this was widely condemned for its immoral cruelty and as a violation of the laws of war. Richard D. Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at the Texas Tech University School of Law, described  “a policy of intentionally and directly targeting the families of terrorists” as “a war crime.” 

To the relief of many, the New York Times  reported  in March 2016 that Trump had “reversed course on his vow to kill the families of terrorists…saying he now recognized that such actions would violate international law.”

A disturbing report published yesterday in the Washington Post suggests President Trump may not have really changed his mind. The Post’s Greg Jaffe reports:

[W]hen the [CIA’s] head of drone operations explained that the CIA had developed special munitions to limit civilian casualties, the president seemed unimpressed. Watching a previously recorded strike in which the agency held off on firing until the target had wandered away from a house with his family inside, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?” one participant in the meeting recalled.

The article is vague about when this incident occurred, but it seems to strongly imply that Trump, as president, discouraged the CIA from taking precautions to limit civilian casualties. If the reporting is accurate, and the implication behind Trump’s question accurately portrayed, it may indicate presidential advocacy of war crimes.

Trump has directed the military to loosen the rules of engagement in its bombing of multiple countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Numerous recent  reports  point to a signficant rise in overall deaths as well as confirmed civilian casualties from U.S. bombs over the past fifteen months. According to a Washington Post article last month, in 2017, the number of “people killed in strikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition” increased by “more than 200 percent over the previous year.” Quoting the watchdog group Airwars, an Associated Press report from October cited the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” 

This should be a major concern to Americans, but as the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan rightly pointed out last month, “the subject, considered a stain on President Barack Obama’s legacy even by many of his supporters, has almost dropped off the map…the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal.”

To state the obvious, calling for the deliberate killing of civilians should be beyond the pale in American politics. Trump’s alarming question to the CIA, together with the widely reported increase in bombing and civilian casualties during his presidency, should prompt a Congressional inquiry into U.S. combat operations across several countries. Congress has an obligation to check and balance indications of possible executive branch abuse of this kind.