Less than two months after taking office, most of President Joe Biden’s national security policy is under review.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is reexamining worldwide troop deployments, and the administration is taking a hard look at global counterterrorism operations. Biden’s team is also reviewing the Trump administration’s peace deal with the Taliban and the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, which Biden, like Barack Obama before him, has promised to close. Meanwhile, a Pentagon task force is reviewing China policy, and the State Department has paused arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives, and advances our foreign policy,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said last month.
The highly publicized reviews indicate Biden’s desire to distance himself from Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, to distinguish his policies from those of the Obama administration in which he served. They are also a sign that one month into his presidency, many of Biden’s most important national security decisions are still in front of him.
That is partly a result of Biden’s slow start as president. Even after it was clear that he had won the election, the Trump administration held up the transition for weeks. The Defense Department in particular paused briefings in December, citing a “mutually agreed-upon holiday,” which the Biden transition disputed.
The flurry of reviews, along with early moves such as Biden’s decision to strike an Iranian militia outpost in Syria last month, have left progressives struggling to evaluate his emerging policy. Biden campaigned on ending “forever wars” but appears poised to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline negotiated by Trump. In Somalia, however, Biden has yet to conduct an attack — a major departure from the Trump years, which saw a record-setting number of airstrikes in a conflict that has raged nearly as long as the Afghan war. While Biden has been criticized for failing to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally accountable for dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, his decision to halt U.S. support for offensive operations by Saudi forces in Yemen is a significant departure from both Trump and Obama administration policy.
Biden’s strike in Syria, a response to attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. military targets in Iraq, has been criticized as proof that his White House prioritizes the use of military force over diplomacy. But the administration’s decision to leak details about the strike, including that Biden called off a second attack in an effort to spare civilians, seems calculated to signal restraint. Senior administration officials told the Wall Street Journal that the strike was meant to let Iran know that the United States would respond to attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, but were adamant that they were not seeking to escalate tensions and had sent an unspecified confidential communique to Tehran as well. “We had a pretty coordinated diplomatic and military plan here,” an anonymous administration official told the Journal. “We made sure the Iranians knew what our intent was.”
The strike may not have had the desired effect, however. Less than a week later, a barrage of rockets hit an Iraqi base used by U.S. forces. No U.S. service members were hurt, but an American contractor died of a heart attack. The Biden administration “may feel a need to respond,” Pentagon officials told the New York Times.
For the better part of two decades, the United States has turned large swaths of the globe into a battlefield without borders, engaging in ground combat or air attacks from Burkina Faso to Yemen, Tunisia to Somalia. Substantive changes to these policies might upend the national security paradigm that has come to define the American way of war in the 21st century. Biden recently pledged to work with Congress to repeal the post-9/11 authorizations for the use of military force that have been employed to justify military operations across the globe for the last 20 years — often against groups that didn’t even exist in 2001 — although the White House offered no specifics on what, if anything, might replace them.
Perhaps no review will have a more significant impact on national security policy over the next four years than the administration’s comprehensive reexamination of Trump-era rules governing counterterrorism drone strikes and commando missions outside of conventional war zones. This reexamination of attacks in countries like Yemen and Somalia, first reported by the Daily Beast, offers Biden an opportunity to differentiate his administration from those of Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush. When Biden was vice president, armed drones were a relatively new technology. But since Obama left office, countries like China, the UAE, and Turkey have built up their armed drone capabilities, and the remotely piloted weapons have been used in Syria, Libya, and last year’s Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. U.S. drone policy is arguably more important than ever in terms of setting the tone for their use globally.
U.S. drone policy is arguably more important than ever in terms of setting the tone for the use of armed drones globally.
The administration is reportedly still gathering data about drone strikes outside of war zones under Trump, and Biden has issued “interim guidance” centralizing decision-making in the White House. But the review will determine whether such strikes should require White House approval, as they did during the Obama administration, or whether the responsibility will be outsourced to the Defense Department or the CIA, as it was under Trump.
If American drone strikes continue in places like Yemen and Somalia, Biden will be the fourth president in a row to use them outside of declared U.S. war zones. Now, more than 18 years after the CIA conducted its first drone strike in Yemen in 2002, national security experts as well as human rights and civil liberties groups see in the review an opportunity to limit and reevaluate whether the U.S. should conduct those strikes at all.
“If the government is going to be killing people around the world on an indefinite basis, they ought to at least be transparent with the American public as to why they’re doing that, what the standards are that guide those operations, and what the results of those operations are,” Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama White House told The Intercept. “This is an opportunity to ask some hard questions about where the U.S. should have forces deployed, how frequently they should be conducting operations, and whether there are alternatives to the use of force that they should be considering.”
Early in his first term as vice president, Biden pushed a “counterterrorism plus” strategy in Afghanistan that prioritized an aggressive drone campaign and use of Special Operations forces over a large influx of U.S. troops. Some saw it as an initial template for the use of these tactics in Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.
The Obama administration dramatically escalated the use of drone strikes during his first term, even killing a small number of U.S. citizens in Yemen, like radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and later his estranged 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman Awlaki. From January 2009 to January 2013, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted a minimum of 59 U.S. strikes in Yemen.
“Any review of that policy and efforts to tighten the restrictions to better protect civilians is very welcome,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA. “Outside of war zones, the U.S. government should not be using lethal force unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect against an imminent threat to human life. That’s required by international human rights law, and it’s unfortunately not the standard the Obama administration adopted.”
The review would not be the first attempt to create internal limits on drone strikes. In 2013, after facing criticisms from civil liberties groups, the Obama administration unveiled a policy guidance that set a standard of “near certainty” about the identity of targets when launching strikes outside of recognized U.S. war zones.
“[Counterterrorism] actions, including lethal action against designated terrorist targets, shall be as discriminating and precise as reasonably possible,” the guidance said. “Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action against an identified high-value terrorist (HVT) will be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target and located at the place where the action will occur. … Direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.”
But despite the near-certainty standard, the Obama administration went on to make some high-profile mistakes. Six months after announcing the rule in December 2013, U.S. drones struck a vehicle convoy in Yemen. Initial leaks to the press suggested that there may have been Al Qaeda members in the cars, but a subsequent investigation by Human Rights Watch found that the drones had struck a wedding party and killed at least 12 people and wounded six others.
Later, in January 2015, a CIA drone strike in Pakistan killed two aid workers, one American and one Italian, both of whom had been kidnapped by militants. The mistake led to Obama taking the rare step of declassifying the operation and apologizing to the families of the victims; the administration later paid out money to the Italian worker’s family.
“A review of the drone program is certainly what’s needed. But that review needs to be a real review — not one that simply asks whether we should go back to 2016 and policies as they were under President Obama.”
But the Obama administration never embraced the same standard of accountability for Yemeni or other victims of drone strikes or their family members. After Obama’s public apology to the Western aid workers’ families, his administration was sued by Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni man whose nephew and brother-in-law were killed in a 2012 drone strike. Faisal asked for $1 and a public apology from Washington, but the Justice Department fought the case right up until the end of Obama’s presidency in 2016, and it was dismissed the following year.
Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a George W. Bush appointee who wrote the opinion for the three-judge panel dismissing the case, nonetheless called congressional oversight of the program a “joke” and said that though the “spread of drones cannot be stopped,” the president and Congress should “establish a clear policy for drone strikes and precise avenues for accountability.”
“Faisal’s case highlighted the hypocrisy in the program,” Jennifer Gibson, a human rights lawyer with Reprieve who assisted with bin Ali Jaber’s case, said in an email. Obama had been right to apologize to the aid workers’ families, she noted, but “the U.S. has never issued the same apology to Faisal or any of the hundreds of other families who have lost innocent loved ones to this program.”
But in key regions outside of active war zones, Trump’s drone campaign was more aggressive than the shadow wars waged by Obama. In Somalia and Yemen, the most important American battlefields beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, attacks skyrocketed during the Trump administration.
In Somalia, there were 32 declared airstrikes over eight years under Obama, while the number of attacks jumped to 205 during Trump’s single term, according to data compiled by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The reasons center around a reported March 2017 decision by Trump to designate parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” removing Obama’s near- certainty standard that strikes would not hurt or kill noncombatants. While the Trump White House refused to explicitly confirm or deny this, retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time of the change, previously told The Intercept that the “burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically.” That change, he added, led the United States to conduct airstrikes that previously would not have been carried out.
Similarly, during Obama’s second term, there were 138 confirmed or possible U.S. actions in Yemen, according to an October 2020 Airwars analysis. That same report concluded that there had been at least 230 alleged or confirmed U.S. ground or airstrikes in Yemen between Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 and last October— 196 of which Airwars confirmed or assessed had occurred with high confidence.
After four years of such escalations under Trump, a rollback to Obama era-levels of attacks outside of war zones would be welcomed in some quarters and treated as a return to national security normalcy. Other experts are calling on the Biden administration to do more, but remain skeptical that a complete reevaluation of counterterrorism policy is actually on the table.
“A review of the drone program is certainly what’s needed. But that review needs to be a real review — not one that simply asks whether we should go back to 2016 and policies as they were under President Obama,” Reprieve’s Gibson told The Intercept “The review as reported has all the hallmarks of doing just that.”