Obama Is Expanding Trump’s War-Making Powers on His Way Out the Door

From drone strikes to Navy SEALs, the next president will have more lethal options than ever.

US President Barack Obama leaves after speaking about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama leaves after speaking about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The scope of war-making authorities and powers available to the Trump administration depends on decisions made by the Obama administration. Two recent news reports shed some troubling light on its approach to the coming transition.

The Obama administration’s present mindset reflects a departure from its approach in the fall of 2012. In anticipation of an election it believed Republican challenger Mitt Romney might win, the Obama White House accelerated the development and implementation of a “drone rule book” that codified the procedures for drone strikes in non-battlefield settings. As one official worried aloud in November 2012, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.”

The latest reporting suggests that, rather than restraining and limiting Trump, the Obama administration, in its final weeks in office, is further expanding the geographic scope of airstrikes, the nature of combatants who can be targeted, and the legal justification underpinning such strikes. The incoming president-elect, who has previously pledged to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” will have the capabilities and authorities to do just that — for the Islamic State and other terrorist and militant armies.

On Friday, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe revealed the creation of a new unit within the military’s highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). According to the reporting, this new entity, known as the “Counter-External Operations Task Force,” is authorized to conduct clandestine operations outside of the battlefields of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, without the approval of regional combatant commanders, such as Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, who himself once led JSOC.

This essentially elevates U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) — within which JSOC resides — to a truly global combatant command, with the resources and authority to strike targets seemingly anywhere, rather than only after being placed under the authority of a regional combatant command. Obama administration lawyers and officials have always contended that there are no geographic limits to where U.S. forces may conduct operations against terrorism, with the battlefield being anywhere “from Boston to the FATA.” Now, it appears that it has set up an organizational command structure to support such limitless targeting. As Gibbons-Neff and Lamothe quote a defense official: “Layers have been stripped away for the purposes of stopping external networks. There has never been an ex-ops command team that works trans-regionally to stop attacks.”

There have been previously reported changes to the relationship between SOCOM and regional combatant commanders, each with the objective of integrating them with one another, and speeding up the decision-making cycle for approving strikes. It is unclear, however, if these changes have increased the volume of clandestine military operations. In a rare interview last year, the current SOCOM commander, Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas (who also once led JSOC — you might be sensing a pattern) stated that when it came to such operations: “I’m told ‘no’ more than ‘go’ on a magnitude of about ten to one on a daily basis.” But the most recently announced changes seem precisely designed to make it easier for JSOC to be told “go” in the last weeks of Obama’s leadership — and when it is under the ultimate command of Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, in today’s New York Times, Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Mazzetti reported a puzzling new legal and policy interpretation for U.S. airstrikes in Somalia. The article, appropriately titled “Obama Expands War With Al Qaeda to Include Shabab in Somalia,” has revealed that the U.S. military can now undertake “collective self-defense” strikes in support of foreign partners, even where there are no Americans service members or contractors at direct risk. In other words, U.S. military assets are now permitted to provide close air support against the enemies of foreign ground forces, even if those enemies pose no threat to Americans. Though this mission draws its legal justification from the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the designers of that law could never have imagined it being used to such ends.

The Obama administration’s new legal interpretation, expected to be disclosed next month, will further entrench its counterterrorism strategy in Somalia. But the Times story would not surprise anybody who reads U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) press releases. On September 28, for example, a drone strike was conducted in Galcayo, Somalia, against what were believed to be al-Shabab attackers on behalf of the local Puntland Security Forces (PSF). AFRICOM labeled this a “self-defense strike,” even though, as Kevin Sieff reported, the U.S. advisors were not alongside the PSF while they began taking fire. A subsequent, brief AFRICOM press release stated that the strike killed no al-Shabaab members, but rather ten members of “local militia forces,” who themselves had worked with U.S. advisers to fight al-Shabaab in the past.

Under this broad concept of “collective self-defense,” it seems that U.S. military close air support airstrikes may be called upon anywhere U.S.-partner forces are threatened, whether or not that threat extends to American personnel on the ground. To give some sense of what that could potentially entail, in 2015, a spokesman from the command acknowledged that SOCOM forces had deployed to 147 countries. Undoubtedly, these deployments primarily consist of short-term military-to-military engagements, like training and education programs, with few direct-action operations. However, the Obama administration’s claim that certain foreign partner forces can be incorporated into the U.S. military’s inherent right to self-defense could open up the scope and intensity of airstrikes even further.

The Times piece concludes with a quote from yours truly: “this administration leaves the Trump administration with tremendously expanded capabilities and authorities.” Indeed, it has, and with far greater capabilities and authorities then they would have handed over to a President Mitt Romney. After Obama leaves the White House in January, let us hope that his successor faces far more rigorous scrutiny from congressional members, journalists, and research organizations over these military operations. Lethal drone strikes and special operations raids that were exceptional under President George W. Bush became semi-routine under President Obama. Under President Trump they may further define U.S. counterterrorism strategy and how the world perceives U.S. foreign policy more generally for years to come.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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