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Has Biden Really Ended The Drone War?
A serious look into the popular liberal claim.
Some people really, really want to like Joe Biden.
It can be hard, though.
For most Americans, including his own voters, President Biden came into office with few expectations for major changes. The then-former Vice President ran his campaign in 2020 consciously presenting himself as an almost non-ideological figure: a “bridge” to future generations who would unite the country without fundamentally changing anything along the way. Larger debates about the role of the government in America, or America’s role in the world, would come later. A crisis manager, not a visionary, was what the country needed, because the country, after all, was in crisis under Trump and COVID-19.
And Biden, at the very least, has managed those crises. Trump was removed from office after the election, and COVID, after some ups and downs, has mostly receded from everyday life. We have returned to normalcy, at least in the sense that American life in 2023 resembles what life was like in 2019 far more than what it was like in 2020 or 2021. So, going off of the most basic expectations from 2020, one could declare the Biden administration to have been a success. He has, in a sense, fulfilled his role in history.
But four years is a long time. With all of the tension, stakes, and grand narratives surrounding politics today, nobody wants to admit that any figure, much less a sitting President, is little more than a “bridge.” They’ve invested too much into them. This is especially the case when said figure has made it clear that they are not going away anytime soon. So for Biden supporters, something of a cottage industry has developed: where various writers, commentators, and even politicians attempt to spin a narrative of the 46th President as a highly relevant agent of change. Far from a self-admitted placeholder, they say, he is actually transforming the country. You (and seemingly the rest of the public) are just too blind to see it.
And this story of change has, ironically, been defined by how often the story itself has changed. At the start of his Presidency, Biden’s transformative role was supposed to be through the economy: how he broke away from 40 years of Reaganite consensus by embracing big government. This was one of the more interesting stories, and actually had some merit given the size of the legislation he passed and proposed early in his term. But after the negotiations for his signature “Build Back Better” legislation stalled and eventually collapsed, the comparisons between Biden and FDR or LBJ were sheepishly shelved. Others expected that the author of the 1994 Crime Bill could have served as sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China role in pushing long-dormant socially liberal priorities. No dice: Biden’s flagship civil rights laws were blocked during his period of unified government control, and reactionary efforts at the state level have made civil rights rollbacks far more of a fixture of his tenure than any expansions. And when Biden has actually made big, history-making moves, like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the political results have been suboptimal, to say the least.
So, in light of all of this, what is there for the politically engaged liberal to point to? What establishes Biden as more than a mere seat-warmer in the history of the 21st century?
They have found their answer in the drone wars—specifically, in claiming that Biden has “ended them.”
Now, to start off with, there is a grain of truth to this claim. Under Biden’s tenure, the number of American airstrikes across the globe, both declared and alleged, have fallen from the rates seen during the Trump administration. That itself is a major change, notably marking Biden as the first President since the beginning of the War on Terror to de-escalate this form of intervention instead of ramping it up. The fact that it has happened at all goes against some of the priors of the most cynical views of U.S. foreign policy, and—obviously—throws a massive wrench in the narrative that the American reactionary right serves as a meaningful anti-war force in any capacity.
At the same time, however, it is also well worth not overstating Biden’s record on this issue. De-escalating the drone war is far from ending the drone war, and under Biden, the U.S. still remains directly involved in several conflicts around the world. In all of these conflicts, we lack an exit strategy. In some cases, our involvement has outright increased. These are real engagements, where Biden has kept the U.S. consciously involved, with real human consequences. It’s not a “gotcha” to bring them up. They should be central to how we understand the issue.
But as the 2024 campaign comes ever closer, I do not expect this to be a subject with a meaningful public discourse of any kind. Those on the right will, depending on how they feel that day, attempt to cast Biden as either insufficiently committed to our “overseas interests” or as a bloodthirsty globalist obsessed with sending money to the establishment. Those who love Biden, paid or unpaid, will attempt to spin his record on drones as one transformative change, where the lack of credit given to him by the left has exposed them as hacks who don’t really care about the issue. It’s hard to imagine any circumstances for a real, serious discussion about the President’s actual actions.
This is a shame. For all the times it has been brought up disingenuously, the actual question of U.S. overseas intervention, the use of unmanned drones, and forever wars in general still stands as one of the most important of the 21st century. At the very least, it should be possible for there to be a clear, baseline understanding of what is going on: the places around the world where the U.S. is still involved, what that involvement looks like, and what it means.
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To begin with, I think it’s worth looking at the promises made by then-candidate Biden on the issue. In doing this, however, it should be understood that these promises, or foreign policy in general, was not a major issue of the 2020 campaign. Unlike Obama in 2008 or, to a lesser extent, Trump in 2016, Biden did not come into office saddled with highly salient expectations that he would make massive changes to U.S. foreign policy. His background as a highly experienced establishment figure involved in decades of foreign policy planning, from Ukraine to Vietnam, always meant that he was going to give off the exact opposite impression. As long as he was presenting himself as a representative of pre-Trump politics—a role he was glad to play—he was always going to be associated with the status quo.
It’s an association the then-candidate was happy to promote. A look at the archive of his campaign’s “American Leadership” page—the only segment of his 2020 website that directly addressed his foreign policy plans—largely reflects this. Much of it consisted of reiterations of his plans for domestic policy, which were reframed as ways for America to re-establish its role as a “moral leader” for the rest of the world. Also included was a plan for a global democracy summit, another tool for the United States to lead by “the power of its example.” As one might expect from a man who voted for the Iraq War, there were few expressions of skepticism towards the merits of America’s role as a global hegemon.
It is only near the end of the page, on a single bullet point, where the Biden campaign laid out his plans for a drawdown in direct American involvement in the War on Terror. This paragraph, entitled “End Forever Wars,” proclaimed that Biden would “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” This would be done by bringing the “vast majority” of U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and ending U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen. Biden would do this, in their words, because “staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.”
Compared to the bloodthirsty jingoism and countless military escalation that defined Trump’s tenure, it was a refreshingly mature sentiment. It was also not an anti-war one. At no point does it mention many of the other U.S. interventions around the globe. In fact, his site doesn’t even mention drones at all. Given that a drastic expansion in drone usage was a defining aspect of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, this was a curious omission—one that could have been reasonably interpreted as a very dire sign.
Eight years of Obama showed the world that even politicians who had taken strong rhetorical stands against the War on Terror could end up fully capable of not only embracing, but expanding, actions once considered to be beyond the pale. And here, Biden was not taking a strong stance against the War on Terror by any means. To the extent that he made note of America’s role as global hegemon, it was to argue that he would do a better job of managing it than Trump had. And it’s not as if there were any political considerations keeping Biden from criticizing Trump’s methods: he was pillorying him on practically every other decision he ever made. It seemed as if Biden was setting himself up to maintain the absurdly high levels of intervention Trump was set to hand off to him.
Biden has actually done this sort of policy rope-a-dope in other areas, most notably (and disastrously) on immigration. But in foreign policy, things have been different—or, at least, a little more mixed. On Yemen, Biden would go half-and-half: he would end direct U.S. military involvement in the war two weeks into his tenure and remove the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations, but has refused to stop arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, even in the face of pressure from Congress. On Afghanistan, the President would be somewhat more decisive, staying committed to fully withdrawing U.S. troops even at a significant political cost—although he did say that he retained the right to conduct “over the horizon” drone strikes in the country. That Biden went out of his way to make this point would make many observers worry that our involvement in Afghanistan had only ended in name only, after his approval of a botched airstrike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians. Like his predecessors, Biden seemed to be setting himself up to center drone warfare even further at the core of U.S. foreign policy.
But it would be that exact subject—drones—where Biden would be the most surprising. Despite not really campaigning on the issue during the election, the President would set up a new system requiring White House approval for airstrikes outside of active war zones—a new restriction that, according to Ryan Cooper in The Week, applied “mostly everywhere” following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The effects of this would not be apparent immediately, but by the end of 2021, the results looked staggering. Also according to Cooper, “where Trump oversaw more than 1,600 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria during his first 11 months in office, Airwars reports just four during Biden's term so far. Strikes in Somalia fell from roughly 75 last year to fewer than 10 this year, with no civilian casualties. And in Yemen, the annual total dropped from about 18 to maybe four, with fewer than 10 casualties of any kind.”
This article would be one of the earliest acknowledgments of this trend. And for as surprised as Cooper was about the fact that these changes were happening at all, he was equally surprised at how low-profile they were. To him, Trump had shown in 2016 that ragging against the forever wars can pay untold political dividends. In this story, Trump was able to benefit from it without really doing much of anything. But here, Biden had “actually curtailed the American war machine.” He had actually made a popular move against the establishment. But, for some reason, he wasn’t taking credit for it.
In response to this, some liberals in the media took it upon themselves to correct Biden’s seeming PR mistake and amplify this piece of news on their behalf. But it was clear from the start that this wasn’t about promoting a policy decision that they agreed with or even an opportunity to commentate on a major international issue. It was, instead, about settling scores against those who had hung the issue over their head in the past. And they did so triumphantly.
It’s impossible not to see how happy they were to rush to this conclusion. After years of dealing with self-proclaimed anti-interventionists denigrating their worldviews with constant references to those pesky extrajudicial killings, the problem had resolved itself! And even better, those condescending moralists had been caught totally unawares! Despite having supposedly cared about this issue so deeply, it now turned out that they were either refusing to acknowledge something that didn’t fit their narrative, or just had never kept track of the issue at all!
So much for the moral superiority of the left. The system works!
Now, in fairness, a lot of the people who were being mocked here absolutely did deserve to be called out. The hypocrisy demonstrated by those like Glenn Greenwald, who (justifiably) relentlessly focused on the drone war under Obama only to ignore it after, was and is patently ridiculous. And yes, it reflects badly on the broad anti-war movement that such a major change in American actions was not given widespread attention. We deserve better than that.
But that is all almost completely and utterly beyond the point. What media figures were or weren’t saying is never what mattered here. The issue in question—automated extrajudicial killings—isn’t just yet another mind-numbing subject of yet another interminable online “discourse.” It is a real-world problem, with real-world lives on the line. By only bringing up the issue to score points, these liberals were hardly any better than the people they were calling out for, well, only bringing up the issue to score points.
Especially when the drone war hasn’t actually ended.
Remember how the initial question here was why the Biden administration wasn’t attempting to advertise their efforts at drawing down America’s role as world policeman? Well, it turns out the answer for that was pretty simple: that was never what they were trying to do. The Biden administration never once intended to actually end the usage of drone warfare. They’ve kept it in their back pocket the entire time, with executive authority just as unchecked as it was during the Trump and Obama eras. Despite the reduction in raw numbers, nothing about the nature of the issue has fundamentally changed. And nothing illustrates this more than the case of Somalia.
First, some context. Direct American involvement in Somalia began in the early 1990s, shortly following the collapse of the U.S.-backed regime led by Siad Barre, making it one of our oldest interventions of the post-Cold War era. That’s not to say, however, that the U.S. has been continuously involved in the country for 30 years straight. The intervention has consisted of two discrete stages: the first being direct American combat support for a UN-led nation-building effort in the country from 1992 to 1994, and the second occurring from 2007 to the present day. It is the first of these stages, however, that is far more well known. That operation would (quite famously) culminate in the Battle of Mogadishu, a U.S. defeat that, at the time, stood as the bloodiest single day of combat for the country since the Vietnam War. This defeat, forever memorialized in popular consciousness in the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down, would have a tremendous political impact, leading to both a U.S. withdrawal from Somalia and the imposition of limits on American involvement in the country by Congress.
It’s hard to imagine an American overseas intervention today being that brief and resulting in such a sane response—or any response at all—by Congress. And as might be expected, the efforts by the United States and the UN did little to stabilize the African country. The situation in Somalia would deteriorate even further until the mid-2000s, when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a fundamentalist Islamist group, took control over much of the country. Of course, the U.S. had never truly left during this period: several CIA efforts were undertaken at the closing stages of the ICU’s campaign to prevent them from seizing power in the country. These efforts would completely fail, prompting the U.S. and its allies in the region to change course back towards direct intervention.
With the post-1993 limitations on U.S. military action in Somalia now long since eliminated by new War on Terror designations of the country as a terrorist hotspot, the Bush administration had a free hand to return to the country. That is not to say, however, that the U.S. was acting entirely alone. Boots on the ground would be provided by neighboring Ethiopia, which had long had its own interests and allies within the country. With U.S. assistance, they would quickly push the ICU out of Mogadishu in December 2006, once again ending any semblance of central authority in the country.
All in all, it was a classic Bush-era operation. In response to the ascension of fundamentalist factions in an unstable country, the U.S. would forcefully remove them from power and put a corrupt and unstable allied clique in its place. This, in turn, would induce even more instability, creating an indefinite commitment to fight their nebulous and newly radicalized remnants. It wasn’t hard to see where this would lead, especially after years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Democrats, fresh off their victories in the 2006 midterm elections, were more than willing to call the administration out. Speaking right before Ethiopia’s intervention, one congressional Democrat would declare that, “By making a bad bet on the warlords to do our bidding, the administration has managed to strengthen the [ICU], weaken our position[,] and leave no good options. This is one of the least-known but most dangerous developments in the world, and the administration lacks a credible strategy to deal with it."
Quite scorching language—especially since the Democrat in question was Delaware Senator Joe Biden, incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden’s words would prove to be entirely prescient. After surrendering the capital without a fight, the ICU’s youth movement, known as al-Shabaab, would flee to the south of the country and begin an insurgency against the new, internationally recognized government. This made it clear that, as is always the case, truly establishing control over the country would require far more than kicking out the top of the old power structure and establishing control over the capital. Al-Shabaab would need to be confronted directly. To this end, the African Union would establish a peacekeeping force, also with U.S. support. It wouldn’t go very well. The specter of foreign intervention in what had been a Somali conflict would correspond with both the strengthening and further radicalization of al-Shabaab. Even in the face of international intervention, they would take back swaths of territory across the south and center of the country. With no clear path to victory, the appetite for continued involvement among regional African powers would wane, setting up the U.S. to take center stage in the conflict.
Ever since then, America has played this role. Our involvement has taken many forms, from manned airstrikes to the direct deployment of special forces to, yes, drone warfare, but ultimately it has all been part of a single feedback loop. In this loop, al-Shabaab—an organization only tenuously connected to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks—is officially designated to be closer and closer to al-Qaeda to legally justify further escalation. Following this new round of escalation, al-Shabaab invariably becomes both stronger and more aligned with al-Qaeda. This, in turn, leads to higher-level terror list designations, more bombings, and more operations, all the way until what was once a locally focused faction of one country’s civil war is declaring allegiance to international terror networks and launching attacks across all of Africa.
Nothing has been stabilized. No progress has been made. American military leaders were declaring their “optimism” in 2006, and they’re still declaring it again in 2023. As for what has happened in between then and now, Obama, of course, continued Bush’s policy decisions, escalating the war to such an extent that the sheer number of drones in the country’s airspace posed a danger to air traffic. By the time he handed the Presidency over to Donald Trump, any “progress” that was made had been stalling for years. Trump, for his part, would even further liberalize the rules of engagement to increase U.S. involvement in Somalia to record levels, deploying hundreds of special forces and approving dozens of drone strikes every year.
And after all of it, al-Shabaab has remained as strong as ever. The conflict has not succeeded in driving out Islamist influence in any respect. They have only become more powerful across all of Somali politics, to the point where the former chairman of the ICU once served as the President of the internationally recognized government. The entire conflict cannot be any more pointless.
And as one might expect for a 15-year war, there are countless harrowing stories, records, and statistics out there that show in great detail just how depraved our intervention has been. But to me, the one that summarizes this the best is an incident in August 2017, less than a year into Trump’s escalation of the conflict. Upon entering a village in southern Somalia, U.S. special forces and Somali National Army soldiers committed a Vietnam-style massacre that left 10 civilians, including a child, dead.
Two months later, a man from the village, enraged by the attack, drove a truck bomb up to Mogadishu and detonated it, killing up to 1,000 people.
This is the face of our involvement. This is the drone war. By the most literal definition possible, the U.S. strategy in Somalia is just creating the terrorists it's there supposedly to fight.
So, in his two and a half years as President, what has Biden done in regards to this conflict?
First things first, I will start off with an accusation I will not make. It would be possible, in a technical sense, to accuse Biden of escalating the conflict by re-deploying U.S. troops to the country after Trump “withdrew” them at the end of his presidency. I am not going to do that because I do not believe that Trump’s “withdrawal” deserves any credence whatsoever. Throughout his entire term in office, Trump only cared about Somalia to the extent that he could find new ways to increasingly brutalize its people for no reason. It was only a month after he lost the 2020 election when he haphazardly ordered all U.S. troops to leave the country.
It’s not really clear why Trump did this. Perhaps he was belatedly attempting to buttress his “anti-interventionist” credentials for future political endeavors. It’s also a possibility that, given his personality and seeming belief that Somalia represented a concrete danger to U.S. national security, he saw it as a way to hand over a (perceived) terror threat to Biden as something of a housewarming gift. In any case, it was a complete farce. The troops Trump “withdrew” were just moved over to Kenya and Ethiopia, where they continued doing what they had been doing in Somalia. In every other sense, the war—including the airstrikes—continued.
After entering office, Biden would continue the war, eventually reversing this bizarre bit of trolling by his predecessor. In 2022, the troops Trump had sent over to neighboring countries were re-deployed within Somalia, where they remain to this day. But preceding them were the airstrikes—lower than the numbers seen during the worst years under Trump as a result of new guidance, but still matching the highest rates seen under the Obama administration.
Liberal pundits have interpreted this change in intensity as inevitably portending a change in policy—an indication that the administration is drawing down the conflict, along with the rest of our forever wars. They are wrong. After approving a total of 19 airstrikes on Somalia (both declared and alleged) in 2021, he increased this number to 20 in 2022—an escalation, not a drawdown. And this escalation has only continued. In just the first six months of 2023, Biden has declared a staggering 23 drone strikes in the country. It’s a number that already exceeds his two previous yearly totals and matches Obama’s most violent year. It puts him on track to surpass some of the once-inconceivably high totals seen under Trump, all while there is still no end in sight for the conflict.
And he will do all of it while those same commentators still present him as a hero on the issue.
Of course, this is far from the full story of Biden’s record on drones. Like Obama, he has refused to make an effort to legally codify his aforementioned more restrictive standards of engagement, providing future Presidents with full latitude to choose whatever rules they want in the name of keeping more control to themselves in the current moment. And even his supposedly more restrictive guidelines have only been loosely followed. The botched August 2021 Kabul airstrike that killed 10 civilians—including seven children—was said to have resulted in a new shift in policy to avoid more massacres, even as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called it a “righteous strike.” But after an airstrike in Syria earlier this year resulted in yet another civilian death, there were no consequences.
Speaking of Syria, U.S. operations there are very much still ongoing despite the war having essentially ended for years. It’s hardly clear at all what we’re even supposed to be doing there—especially since the operations there have become so opaque that Biden has refrained from even naming the groups he’s targeting. In the periodic letters he is legally required to send to Congress, the President only refers to them as “Iran-backed militias” or “Iranian proxies”—a curious and quite risky justification given that we are not at war with Iran. Or, at least, we’re not supposed to be.
But while it may not carry the same risk of escalation, Somalia is what defines Biden’s record on this issue. This is not a necessary conflict. In 15 years of fighting, we have ended up the opposite of where we have supposedly wanted to be—that is, if you assume we are involved in the conflict to actually fight Islamist groups. The U.S.-backed Somali government recently approved seven oil exploration and production sharing agreements with the U.S.-based Coastline Exploration Ltd. might provide a better indication as to what our intentions in the country have always been.
So, where does this leave us with the Biden administration? Ironically, not very far away from where you’d be if you took the things that he, his administration and his campaign have said literally. Biden is not a game-changing dove. He never really promised to be one—despite the wishful thinking (or outright lies) of liberal commentators who have tried to promote him as such. All he has ever said is that he would be a more competent manager of America’s empire than Trump. To the extent that certain illegal wars or practices do not work to that effect, he has been willing to end them. But it is crucial to recognize that this does not come from any place of principle.
The truth behind all of Biden’s actions is that they are all only means to the same ends perused by Trump, Obama, Bush, or any other modern President. If Biden believed that expanding the drone war, remaining in Afghanistan, or any other kind of horrific maneuver served what they understand to be the interests of American power, he would do it. Everything is downstream from reality. So, on a day-to-day basis, our methods may be more realistic and sober than those undertaken under Trump. Trends may look positive. Harm may be reduced. The people in power may even understand, at least in their minds, how destructive our actions have been.
But, fundamentally, the insane, tortured, inhuman logic that has guided U.S. foreign policy for generations is never questioned. And as long as people like Joe Biden remain in power, it never will be.
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