A little less than two months ago, I predicted in MEMO that the botched Yemen raid that constituted Donald Trump’s first major military action was only a sign of things to come. The bloodthirsty Trump doctrine is even bloodier than I imagined. Last week, up to two hundred Iraqi civilians were killed in US air strikes in Mosul, following American targeting of a Syrian school, where dozens died, and another mosque the week before, which killed forty unarmed Syrians. The Pentagon has quietly approved rules of engagement that permit air strikes against Daesh even when US missiles have the potential to cause significant civilian casualties.
What has happened here is unforgivable. For all his many faults, President Barack Obama pushed American decision-making on civilian casualties in the right direction, by tightening up the rules of engagement. This was a source of moderate frustration to the United States Air Force and even more frustration to America’s Iraqi allies, who wanted many more bombs to be dropped on so-called “Islamic State” than Obama would allow. Those rules have now been torn up. As Glenn Greenwald has analysed correctly for the Intercept, “The number of air strikes actually decreased in March, even as civilian deaths rose — strongly suggesting that the US military has become even more reckless about civilian deaths under Trump than it was under Obama.” In January and February, for the first time, Western coalition civilian casualties outstripped those killed and maimed by Russia. That is a remarkable shift which has gone completely unnoticed by the Western media; Trump is killing more Iraqis and Syrians than Putin.
The most galling aspect of this is that these additional civilian deaths are entirely unnecessary. It is a bitter fact of war — and one of the reasons why it should always be a last resort — that civilians will be killed, and that war crimes of some description will take place. Yet even as Trump took office in January, Daesh was in deep crisis. It had lost much of its territory, and been routed from strongholds including Fallujah, Ramadi, Minbaj and Palmyra. It was fighting Hezbollah, the Syrian army, the Russian air force and Special Forces, as well as Kurdish units and Iraqi special and regular forces. Its last strongholds, Mosul and Raqqa, were within reach of the group’s enemies. When Trump moved into the White House, despite his rhetoric playing on Americans’ general ignorance of the wider world, Daesh was in fact a beleaguered and belittled organisation that was failing to provide water and electricity because of plummeting revenues; being forced to raise taxes on an already restless population; and even reducing the salaries of its fighters. Why then, has Trump deemed it necessary to up the ante?
Partly, I think, this is about macho propaganda. The yee-hah Hollywood hero approach to warfare is certainly in line with Trump’s own churlish and tacky view of the world. During his election campaign he famously said, “I would bomb the **** out of them… I would just bomb those suckers, and that’s right, I’d blow up the pipes. I’d blow up the refineries. I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.” I’m sure it made Trump feel like a big strong man, and the oafs cheering for him from the floor perhaps felt some pseudo-masculinity creeping through their veins, but that sort of rhetoric doesn’t really marry up to the serious business of soldiering.
Secondly, Trump’s key ideologue lieutenants Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka seem to regard Muslims as sub-human and, at the very least, part of the terrorism problem per se. Hence, having Muslim civilians being killed is less of a problem to them than if Christians were being killed. Both men are totally inexperienced in international security matters — but, incredibly, still sit on the National Security Council — and it shows. Rita Siemion, the international legal counsel at Human Rights First, suggested that, “When our operations harm civilians, we weaken those partnerships, lose intelligence opportunities, provide propaganda and recruitment to terrorist groups and increase harm.” She is right; Gorka and Bannon are wrong.
Thirdly, the American media is largely failing to report or criticise this spike in civilian deaths. Even Vox, which sets its stall out as a liberal, go-to news source, doesn’t seem to get it: “US air strikes are killing a lot more civilians. And no one is sure why,” it claims, as if the strange new orange man in the White House isn’t the blindingly obvious cause.
There is no doubt that the people living under “Islamic State” want to be freed and that they should be. The question is, to put it crudely, how few of them can be killed in order to save the rest? Obama may have made himself out to be more pacifist than he really was — just look to his killer drone programmes — but Trump is taking the American tradition of wild belligerence and gung-ho warfare to a whole new level. He also risks losing the goodwill of the people he is claiming to care for; those who are enduring Daesh directly, although if he is anywhere near as anti-Muslim as his advisers are, then he probably just doesn’t care anyway.