Opinion

Biden nearly ended the drone war, and nobody noticed

Why is the White House so silent about this significant achievement?

Our infamous drone war has largely faded from the headlines. Aside from one strike that went horribly wrong during the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, there has been vanishingly little coverage of what's going on with the signature American tactic of the war on terror: remote-controlled death robots.

So I was rather taken aback to discover President Biden has almost totally halted drone strikes, and airstrikes in general, around the world. It's a remarkable foreign policy reform, but also a remarkable failure of both government communication and media coverage. A hugely significant change in foreign policy has happened — and almost nobody is paying attention.

Not long ago, the drone war was subject to fierce public debate. It started under former President George W. Bush, then became a favored tactic of former President Barack Obama. He'd come to power on the strength of his record opposing the Iraq War but was, at bottom, a devoted imperial chauvinist. Obama wanted to avoid being bogged down in new overseas occupations (except in Afghanistan, where he idiotically boosted troop levels to no positive effect) but never truly questioned U.S. global imperialism or the military-industrial complex.

The drone strike was thus the perfect tool for his presidency: a cheap, high-tech, and supposedly super-accurate method of fighting terrorism (and extending U.S. military hegemony) at no risk to American soldiers. (U.S. airstrikes with human pilots increasingly operate in similar safety, rarely flying over targets with anti-aircraft defenses.) "Turns out I'm really good at killing people," Obama told aides in 2011. "Didn't know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine."

That was only true if "really good" is measured by quantity, not quality, of the strikes. The intelligence used to pick targets was routinely atrocious, and airstrikes blew up weddings, markets, and random civilian houses. A C-130 gunship annihilated a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan in 2015. Many people in drone-ridden areas, especially children, developed chronic PTSD from the constant buzzing whine of a machine that could and quite often did kill them out of nowhere for no reason.

Former President Donald Trump, naturally, was even worse. At the start of his presidency, he rolled back even the modest protections for civilians Obama had implemented. Both air strikes (from drones and normal planes) and civilian casualties increased dramatically in 2017. To be fair, strikes were scaled back in the following years, but the damage was done. According to Airwars, during Trump's term American air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria created more than twice the number of casualties compared to Obama's second term (more than 10,000 vs. about 5,000). In Somalia, casualties increased roughly eight-fold.

It turns out airstrikes alone are just as militarily limited as they were back in the 1940s, when terror bombing accomplished little in the fight against the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Years of strikes in Yemen and Somalia achieved nothing but further destabilization of those beleaguered countries. Only in support of ground forces — as strikes were sometimes used to support the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga in their fight against the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017 — is air power even tactically effective. And in the process of defeating ISIS, Trump's callous disregard for human life led to a botched 2017 airstrike in Mosul that killed 278 civilians, the worst death toll from a single American attack in the entire Iraq conflict.

To my considerable surprise, Biden seems to have internalized some of these lessons. Immediately after taking office, he set up a new system requiring White House approval for any strikes outside of active war zones (and later published Trump's loose rules that enabled so many civilian massacres). Now that the occupation of Afghanistan is over, that requirement applies almost everywhere, and it appears Biden is extremely reluctant to grant approval. 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. (Precise figures are unclear because some strikes are classified.)

That's a major shift — and this is probably the first you've heard of it. 

It's not hard to guess why most of the media isn't paying attention to the near-ending of a longstanding and highly controversial policy: U.S. foreign affairs are often treated as little more than a backdrop for narcissistic psychodrama where actions are judged according to how much they make warmongers feel big and strong. Airstrikes are generally out of sight and therefore out of mind, and death robots terrorizing little kids don't play well on cable news.

But the quiet from Biden and his foreign policy staff is more mysterious. Maybe they're wary of sparking another media backlash, as happened with the exit from Afghanistan, or maybe the fear is Republicans accusing Biden of being weak on terrorism.

Whatever the reason, this silence is a mistake. The war on terror has been a gigantic blunder from the beginning. It has wasted more than $6 trillion and turned half a subcontinent into a smoldering ruin. Trump made a great deal of political hay out of loudly promising that he would be the one to stop the stupid wars and take care of the American people instead of playing world police. Biden actually curtailed the American war machine and deserves to reap the political benefits.

Risk of backlash is all the more reason to lean into the achievement. Trump proved that if a president is stubborn, repetitive, and boastful enough, he can do a great deal to sway public opinion, especially among his loyal partisans. And here we have a policy that isn't some Trumpian dishonest exaggeration — it's a real achievement.

This drastic reduction in airstrikes, like Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan, was genuinely politically courageous and morally correct (though both fell short of a full imperial rollback). Some well-earned bragging is in order.

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