Biden is signing onto Trump’s trillion-dollar plans for new nuclear weapons

Biden
President Joe Biden in an electric Ford F-150 lightning at the Ford Dearborn Development Center in Michigan, May 18, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden’s first defense budget, totalling $752.9 billion, continues a Trump effort to “modernize” US nuclear forces.
  • That modernization could cost upward of $1.5 trillion over 15 years, and Biden’s plan will only add to simmering debate about whether the US needs those nukes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For those anticipating a significant shift in national priorities in the wake of the huge increase in defense expenditures during the last administration – to the tune of some $100 billion over four years – President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 national defense budget is a major disappointment.

On Friday, the Biden administration submitted its fiscal year 2022 budget request – with a whopping $752.9 billion set aside for national defense, $715 billion of which is designated for the Pentagon. The proposed funding actually increases defense expenditures by some $11 billion from the Trump years.

Congressman Mark Pocan and Congresswoman Barbara Lee called the Biden defense budget “a failure that doesn’t reflect this country’s actual needs.” The joint Pocan-Lee statement, released last Friday, slammed Biden’s proposal, pointing out that “the defense spending increase” by itself is “1.5 times larger than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s entire $8.7 billion budget.”

Defense hawks, on the other hand, were as outspoken in their criticism, arguing that the Biden defense budget does not account for inflation, which means that, to keep pace, Pentagon spending should be ramped up to the tune of 3% to 5% annually.

“President Biden’s defense budget request is wholly inadequate – it’s nowhere near enough to give our service members the resources, equipment and training they need,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla), and his House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala), said in a statement. “It’s disingenuous to call this request an increase because it doesn’t even keep up with inflation – it’s a cut.”

Air Force Vandenberg Minuteman ICBM test
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, February 5, 2020.

The opposing positions are likely to be a source of contention in the weeks ahead, as Congress hammers out the details of who gets what.

Most disappointing for progressives is the Biden administration’s apparent endorsement of the Trump administration’s decision to spend big in “modernizing” America’s nuclear forces – a decision that could cost the nation upwards of $1.5 trillion over the next 15 years and as much as $634 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Congressional progressives describe the amount as a wholly unnecessary and extravagant expenditure. As an example, the Biden budget reflects a White House decision to double the amount the nation will spend on developing and deploying the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to a proposed $2.6 billion from $1.4 billion.

The monies do not include upgrades to launch facility locations and nuclear laboratories, which would cost tens of billions more. The GBSD is intended to replace the 50-year-old Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile – the ICBM.

While the $2.6 billion figure might seem modest compared to the bulk of defense expenditures, the GBSD serves as a template for the nuclear modernization program (accounting for $27.7 billion in the Biden budget), while committing the United States to maintaining the nuclear triad – the three-legged mix of missile-launched, submarine-launched and bomber-launched nuclear weapons.

In total, an upgrade of the Minuteman III could cost upwards of $264 billion over the period of its development and deployment. Then, too, in addition to the funding for the increasingly controversial GBSD, the Biden defense budget includes expenditures for a new Columbia-class submarine, further development and deployment of the B-21 bomber, and a long-range standoff weapon.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base ICBM missile silo Wyoming
An airman gives a tour of ICBM training facilities on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, July 22, 2012.

In the weeks preceding then ew budget’s release, Congressional progressives and their allies among anti-nuke NGOs had been gearing up for a fight over nuclear modernization, arguing that land-based nuclear missiles pose the most destabilizing part of the US arsenal – and that part of the triad that is most susceptible to an accidental launch.

These advocates argue that spending for the GBSD is unnecessary since the Minuteman III can be regularly upgraded over the next 10 years without adopting the budget-busting numbers proposed by the Trump administration.

That thinking is in line with a series of options detailed in an intriguing study by the Congressional Budget Office that would cut back the number of delivery systems and nuclear warheads over a period of 10 years – saving tens of billions of dollars – but without any erosion in nuclear deterrence.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of those likely to lead the charge against the nuclear modernization program, particularly given her focus on it during the Senate’s February confirmation hearings for Dr. Kathleen Hicks to be deputy secretary of defense.

“I know that you believe in a safe, and secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent, but we’re going to spend $44.5 billion on nuclear weapons this year, which is more than the entire budget for the State Department and foreign operations accounts,” Warren said to Hicks back in February. “Will you commit that your review will not simply be a rubber stamp of our current nuclear strategy, but that you really will examine and re-question the core assumptions that underpin it?”

Hicks assured Warren that she would. “Absolutely, senator,” she responded.

Now, in the wake of President Biden’s seeming endorsement of a large portion of the previous administration’s nuclear modernization program, that reassurance is very much in doubt, despite Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s public testimony last week before a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that the Biden team will be conducting its own review in the months ahead.

icbm missile silo
A missile silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base, July 17, 2007.

In all of this, there is a sense that both the White House and Pentagon are attempting to downplay just how similar the Biden administration’s defense budget is to the most recent defense budget proposed by Donald Trump.

The strategy included a last-minute postponement of the budget’s release until late in the day on the Friday before Memorial Day (“not an accident,” as one senior Pentagon civilian told Responsible Statecraft).

It was a purposeful soft-pedaling of the dollar amount for defense in comparison with other administration priorities and heavy-handed public statements that emphasized Biden’s commitment to “innovation,” “advanced capability enablers,” and “cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technologies” (like microelectronics, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, machine learning, 5G networking).

It was a purposeful, if transparent, sleight-of-hand, as if the Biden team wasn’t actually committed to buying weapons, but rather to a “visionary” and “forward-leaning posture,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described it.

Few, it seems, were fooled: “At a time when the greatest challenges to human lives and livelihoods stem from threats like pandemics and climate change, sustaining Pentagon spending at over three quarters of a trillion dollars a year is both bad budgeting and bad security policy,” the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung said.

Hartung’s criticism will be echoed in the weeks ahead, as the Biden defense budget becomes an increasing focus for a badly divided Congress.

While there’s much for both the left and the right to attack, the Biden administration’s seeming unwillingness to take on the nuclear weapons lobby will likely mark the most contentious issue for both sides. It will be round one of a Congressional donnybrook over whether the United States is protected by buying, building and fielding more nuclear weapons – or placed at increasing risk.

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China will allow couples to have 3 children in a major policy shift designed to reverse shrinking birth rates

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

  • China is now allowing married couples to have three children, up from the previous limit of two.
  • The new three-child policy is in response to a declining birthrate in China.
  • Experts say the main barrier to having children in China is the high cost of raising kids.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China said on Monday that married couples may have up to three children, a major policy shift from the existing limit of two, after recent data showed a dramatic decline in births in the world’s most populous country.

Beijing scrapped its decades-old one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child limit that failed to trigger a sustained surge in births. Raising children in Chinese cities remains expensive.

“To further optimize the birth policy, (China) will implement a one-married-couple-can-have-three-children policy,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a report following a meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping.

The policy change will come with “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an ageing population and maintaining the advantage, endowment of human resources,” Xinhua reported.

It did not specify the support measures.

“People are held back not by the two-children limit, but by the incredibly high costs of raising children in today’s China. Housing, extracurricular activities, food, trips, and everything else add up quickly,” Yifei Li, a sociologist at NYU Shanghai, told Reuters.

“Raising the limit itself is unlikely to tilt anyone’s calculus in a meaningful way, in my view,” he said.

In a poll on Xinhua’s Weibo account asking #AreYouReady for the three-child policy, about 29,000 of 31,000 respondents said they would “never think of it,” while the remainder chose among the options: “I’m ready and very eager to do so,” “it’s on my agenda,” or “I’m hesitating and there’s lot to consider”.

The poll was later removed.

“I am willing to have three children if you give me 5 million yuan ($785,650),” one user posted.

Shares in birth- and fertility-related companies surged.

Early this month, China’s once-in-a-decade census showed that the population grew at its slowest rate during the last decade since the 1950s, to 1.41 billion. Data also showed a fertility rate of just 1.3 children per woman for 2020 alone, on a par with ageing societies such as Japan and Italy.

China’s politburo also said it would phase in delays in retirement ages, but did not provide any details.

Fines of 130,000 yuan ($20,440) were being imposed on people for having a third child as of late last year.

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Biden and Putin shouldn’t waste time arguing about things they can’t fix

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  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will use some of their meeting this week to prepare for an even more important meeting this summer.
  • A summit between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin should focus on topics where they can agree on something rather than rehashing irreconcilable differences.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet at an Arctic Council ministerial today, the two will be using some of their time together to prepare for an even more important meeting this summer.

A potential summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, likely to take place in Europe, would come at an especially turbulent time in the US-Russia relationship.

The two countries, however, don’t have the luxury of taking the path of least resistance and allowing bilateral relations to atrophy into a permanent state of animosity. Washington and Moscow may not like each other, but they can’t ignore one another either.

For Biden, a summit with his Russian counterpart would be the best opportunity to date to at least inject some predictability into the US-Russia relationship – an objective the president himself emphasized during his April 15 address at the White House.

Putin is the stereotypical autocratic nationalist, a man who puffs out his chest, exaggerates Russia’s power and broadcasts an aura of Russian determination to the world. But the fact is that Russia suffers from a long list of socio-economic problems.

Alexei Navalny Protest
Russians clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, January 23, 2021.

Real disposable incomes for the average Russian citizen have dropped five out of the last seven years. Russia’s GDP is down by 25% since 2013; at $1.7 trillion, the Russian economy is less than one-tenth the size of the US and less than half the size of Germany’s. The gap between the Russian political class and the Russian population is rising, with 75% of Russians skeptical they can influence the Kremlin’s decision-making.

Domestic problems aside, Russia remains a formidable regional power and has demonstrated to the world it will use military force (Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015) if Moscow perceives its core security interests are threatened.

While its defense budget can’t compete with the US or NATO-Europe, Russia doubled its military expenditures between 2000-2017 – much of which has gone into modernization and procurement. Russia is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the world’s largest nuclear weapons power, possessing over 6,200 nuclear warheads.

For the US and Russia, respecting the other’s baseline interests is imperative if both want to move forward. This requires Biden to recognize which issue areas are irreconcilable and which hold promise.

The irreconcilable issues are easy to discern. It is no surprise that Putin will recoil from any topic that touches upon Russia’s domestic affairs. While Biden will likely condemn Alexei Navalny’s persecution and excoriate Putin for cracking down on Russian opposition movements, the Russian government is highly unlikely to change its behavior based on US urgings.

Biden Putin climate change
Putin listens to Biden during a virtual global climate summit, in Moscow, April 22, 2021.

Ukraine, too, will be a contentious issue. US demands that Moscow move its forces out of the Donbas and allow Kiev to retake full control of the Russian-Ukrainian border will fall on deaf ears.

In the seven years since Ukraine’s war in the east began, Russia has made it abundantly clear that a total military victory by Kiev won’t be permitted. The best we can expect is a reaffirmation of support for the Minsk II peace process – hardly a satisfying outcome.

Areas of collaboration, however, are available if both men are willing to seize them.

First, Biden and Putin could use a potential summit to wind down a cycle of diplomatic escalation that shows no sign of ending. Washington and Moscow have traded tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, visa restrictions and entry bans this year.

Those expulsions are largely emotional reactions that do little to solve ongoing disputes like cyberattacks and disinformation operations and in fact just accentuate the grievances. Biden and Putin should at the very least come to an understanding on stopping the escalatory cycle at its current state.

Ideally, a mutually-acceptable arrangement on reversing those measures would be reached – some of which leave ordinary Americans and Russians in the cold.

US Embassy in Moscow
The US Embassy in Moscow.

Second, the US and its NATO allies should resurrect the NATO-Russia Council. This joint council, formed in 2002 to bring NATO and Russian decision-makers together for consultations on areas of mutual interest, has been in a state of purgatory since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Tensions have only risen in the years since. But it’s precisely during times of strained relations when consultative mechanisms like the NATO-Russia Council are so important.

Third and most consequentially, strategic stability should be at the top of any Biden-Putin agenda. Washington and Moscow have already had some success in this regard, when both agreed to extend the New START agreement, which caps deployed strategic nuclear weapons and launchers.

Biden himself floated a strategic stability dialogue with Moscow that would, in his words, “pursue cooperation in arms control and security.” The Russian Foreign Ministry suggested such an initiative was possible. Any strategic talks will prove remarkably difficult. Yet the alternative of no discussions is even worse.

US-Russia relations will be tense for quite some time. But given that Washington and Moscow hold 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, Biden would be wise to approach Russia not as an ally, friend or adversary, but as a nation that must be engaged with whether we like or not.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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If Biden and Putin actually do meet, they shouldn’t waste time listing the things they’re mad about

FILE PHOTO: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Joe Biden, then US vice president, in Moscow, March 10, 2011.

  • After hawkishness during the campaign, President Joe Biden has taken a pragmatic approach to Russia.
  • Now the world’s two largest nuclear-weapons powers have a responsibility to reduce tensions.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

During his long campaign for the presidency, Joe Biden presented himself as the consummate Russia hawk – a man who would hold the Kremlin accountable for a litany of sins ranging from cyber-espionage to meddling in US elections.

Whereas Biden called China a competitor, he referred to Russia as an “opponent,” a country seeking to bully its neighbors in the post-Soviet space and challenge US hegemony around the world.

In the first 100 days of his term, however, now-President Joe Biden has adopted a more pragmatic mindset with respect to the Kremlin.

While Biden is no dove when it comes to Russia – the administration has enacted several rounds of economic sanctions against Moscow, the latest on April 15 in response to the SolarWinds cyber-breach – he is also cognizant that the US-Russia relationship is too big to fail completely.

If the first several months of Biden’s tenure are any indication of where things are going, dialogue will remain a key plank of US Russia policy going forward.

While the US and Russia won’t be resetting their relations anytime soon, the world’s two largest nuclear-weapons powers have a unique responsibility to ensure tensions between them are mitigated, one another’s core interests are respected and cooperation on common agenda items is preserved.

Russia police protest Alexei Navalny
Law-enforcement officers in front of a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in St. Petersburg, January 23, 2021.

Currently, US-Russia relations can be categorized charitably as unproductive. Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Ambassador to the US, hasn’t been in his Washington, DC, office for a nearly two months. US Ambassador John Sullivan isn’t in his Moscow office either, having traveled back to Washington for consultations partly at Russia’s urging.

Only weeks ago, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin were calling each other names. Before the Russian Defense Ministry ordered a pullback of forces last week, Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s eastern border prompted senior US officials to warn Moscow of unspecified consequences in the event of a second invasion.

And of course there’s the situation with Alexei Navalny, Putin’s political foe who the Russian government has tried to silence in more ways than one – first by poisoning, then by a two and a half year prison sentence for violating his parole.

The imminent branding of Navalny’s organization as extremist will re-confirm in the minds of many in Washington that Putin’s Russia is on an irreversible authoritarian track.

However, the question isn’t whether Russia is becoming increasingly autocratic or whether Washington and Moscow can see the world through the same lens.

The question, rather, is whether two powers that control 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpile can find a way to coexist peacefully and settle on a relationship that at least stalls further confrontation.

Minuteman III ICBM missile launch
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, October 2, 2019.

Biden’s remarks at the White House on April 15 are a positive step in the right direction. Stressing that additional deescalation would have negative repercussions for both the US and Russia, Biden emphasized that “[t]he way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process.”

Assuming Biden’s proposed summit with Putin actually happens (the meeting could occur as early as June), this would be a significant development given the current state of US-Russia relations.

But if Biden and Putin are sincere in making some degree of progress, they need to spend far less effort reciting grievances and focus more on what is realistically possible.

Because strategic stability remains the top priority in US-Russia relations, it should be at the very top of the agenda for any summit meeting.

Washington and Moscow have already made strides in this regard by extending New START for another five years, an accord that places strict caps on deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers and provides both countries with rigorous inspection protocols to verify compliance.

Saving New START from imminent death, however, is literally the bare minimum the US and Russia could do.

Both nations have now bought themselves additional time to explore more comprehensive arrangements on what strategic weapons systems are next-up for limitations – the Biden-Putin summit would be a perfect forum to jump-start those discussions.

Biden Putin climate change
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to President Joe Biden during a virtual global climate summit via a video link in Moscow, April 22, 2021.

Washington and Moscow also need to discover a way to move their relations from one of mutual antagonism to one of normality.

Over the last several years, both countries have expelled one another’s diplomats, closed one another’s consulates, and banned certain high-level officials from getting visas. While some of this may have been justifiable in the moment, none of it is conductive to a pragmatic, working relationship over the long-term.

Biden and Putin should therefore use their conversations as an opportunity to stop further expulsions and, when appropriate, to begin lifting current restrictions.

This would admittedly be a small deliverable for a meeting at the head-of-state level. Yet at a time when the US-Russia relationship is at its lowest point in the post-Cold War era, even minor remedial steps can have major dividends down the road.

“The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia,” Biden told the American people earlier this month. “We want a stable, predictable relationship.”

This is the right objective. The Biden administration must now put those words into action.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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Smaller drones don’t let the US off the hook for war crimes

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021
The XQ-58A Valkyrie releases a ALTIUS-600 small UAS during a test in Arizona, March 26, 2021

  • The US has relied heavily on drones for many missions – including lethal strikes – for decades.
  • Drones are only a platform, and what matters for international law is how those platforms are used.
  • In the US, focus on the drones themselves has overshadowed debate with the wider ethics of armed violence.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When it comes to armed drones, is smaller and more precise necessarily better?

The question came to my mind upon seeing the news that the US Air Force just successfully test-launched a new weaponizable drone, the ALTIUS-600, making it the smallest drone in operation. Even more remarkably, this tiny aircraft was launched from the second-smallest-drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, while the Valkyrie was in flight.

There is nothing objectionable about the development of mini-drones. One could even argue they would be improvements, in humanitarian terms, over the use of the much larger Reaper to deliver 500-pound bombs in allegedly “precise” strikes that instead often sweep up scores of civilians and destroy the property their surviving family members rely on for their livelihoods.

But the US military’s obsession with minimalism – from fewer boots on the ground to lower-payload munitions – also minimalizes public engagement with the wider ethics of armed violence.

The emphasis on size, mobility and precision is the product of a highly limited and limiting view rife in American political discourse: that the key ethical and legal problem presented by armed drones is collateral damage. This narrative – reflected in public opinion surveys, Hollywood films and political discourse – circumscribes debate.

As Sarah Kreps, a Cornell professor and WPR contributor, notes in her book with John Kaag, the question of collateral damage is but a subset of a subset of a subset of the wider international law on the killing of human beings by governments.

Drone Strikes
Demonstrators burn the US flag during a protest against US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, in Karachi, November 8, 2013.

At the overarching level, that law applies to governments in peacetime, not in war. The basic legal rule, enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is clear: “No arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.”

Due process is required for state-sanctioned executions; guilt must be proven, not assumed. And even the death penalty for criminals convicted of the worst genuine offenses is increasingly frowned upon and must be carried out using humane means. The only exceptions to this prohibition on the use of deadly force are in cases of imminent harm to others where no other options for preventing that harm are available.

Of course, in times of war, things shift, and the law of war applies. The default proscription against killing is lifted, but only under strict conditions, reflecting the fact that war is considered an aberration, a small subset of the variety of circumstances in which states might direct lethal force against individuals. Among the conditions that must be met, a state of war must apply.

Those doing the violence must be members of the state’s armed forces; civilian CIA pilots would be unlawful combatants. The targets must be military objectives, not civilians. And the harm and suffering caused even to legitimate military targets must be minimized to what is necessary to weaken the enemy and not involve inhumane methods or disproportionate or indiscriminate collateral harm.

Here and only here do the rules of collateral damage apply, with the central question being, How much harm to bystanders and infrastructure is acceptable given the necessity of hitting a particular legitimate military target with a particular military means deployed by a particular military actor in a particular military context?

In short, the collateral damage question is embedded within the rules governing who may be targeted, which are in turn embedded within the rules governing who may do the targeting, which are subordinate to the bigger question of whether a situation falls within the scope of war law at all, rather than peacetime human rights rules.

Yet, popular attention so often focuses on this tiny subset of the rules governing collateral damage, eliding these higher-level issues.

drone strike yemen
People gather at the site of a drone strike on a road in the southern Yemeni province of Lahj, August 11, 2013.

Suppose a drone were not only perfectly precise and relatively humane, but also carried a firearm rather than explosives or sword blades. Suppose it killed quickly, rather than burning its victims alive or hacking them death, as a new Hellfire missile is designed to do in the name of limiting collateral damage. And suppose the identity of the target could be determined without fail, using biometrics before a bullet was fired.

The accuracy of such an attack does not resolve the question of whether a kill decision is correct in the first place. These targeting decisions often rely on human intelligence – reports from locals – to determine who is allegedly a mortal danger to US interests.

But in insurgencies and civil wars, reports from local sources are just as often used to settle old scores as to provide accurate intelligence, as the research of Stathis Kalyvas, a professor at Yale, has long showed.

At times, in fact, the US has often relied not on specific kill orders of specific individuals, but rather on “signature strikes” – a best estimate of who is likely to match the profile of a suspected militant in a particular context – to determine whether to launch a strike that often targets whole groups.

As the NGOs Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will have documented, signature strikes have been carried out based on criteria as arbitrary as the sex and age of the victims, with nearly any military-age male in a frontier region vulnerable to lethal strike. These combinations of false stereotypes, faulty intelligence, mnemonic shortcuts and sheer hubris have killed scores of civilian teenage boys, not by accident, not by precision weapons failure, but by design.

These civilian men and boys directly targeted by the US include 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a soccer player, amateur photographer and anti-drone activist. Aziz died in late October 2011 in Waziristan, Pakistan, when a CIA-fired Hellfire missile burned him and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan beyond recognition as he drove to give his aunt a ride home from a wedding.

Even in a precise strike carried out far from other villages, with no collateral damage, the killings of these boys would have been not only tragic, but criminal. In a real war, we would have called this a case of civilian targeting – a war crime. In peacetime – a more accurate view of the state of relations between the US and Pakistan – we would simply call this murder.

That the Pakistani government approved or perhaps even requested the strike doesn’t make it legitimate. It merely makes both governments complicit in political murder.

US drone strikes
Pakistani protesters shout slogans against US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region, October 2014.

All these important legal concerns are lost in a view of weaponized drones and targeted killings that sees the main issues as those of precision, human intelligence, accuracy and the reduction of collateral damage to “bystander” civilians, as if the civilians we are directly targeting merit no outrage on their own.

Reducing collateral damage is important in real wars, but that is not the only or even the primary concern with the use of ever-smaller lethal technology to wage ever-more subtle forms of peacetime political violence.

Terrorism is a crime. States are obligated to capture criminal suspects, put them on trial, allow them to defend themselves and free them if they are found innocent. Drones enable the opposite, as do special operations teams with kill orders.

But drones do something else as well: They provide a veneer of precision and bloodlessness that directs our attention to efforts at collateral damage control, obfuscating the reality of what is and has always been a campaign of extrajudicial execution sweeping up civilians whether by accident or by design.

Arguably, that has been the point. In November, the Center for Civilians in Conflict published a report entitled “Exceptions to the Rules,” tracking 20 years of US drone policy.

It concludes, “A policy that allows the use of covert, lethal force under the laws of armed conflict outside of the context of an armed conflict undermines the protection of internationally recognized human rights and international law.”

It added that any reform agenda must not make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on any single abuse, which “risks missing the emergence of a more problematic phenomenon, the gradual accumulation of legal loopholes.”

US drones
Graffiti protesting against US drone strikes in Sana’a, Yemen, September 2018.

As a result of this ethical devolution, not limited to but certainly epitomized by drone politics, our understanding not only of political-legal reality, but also of political-legal possibility, becomes smaller and more insignificant.

Leaders of the free world would be wise to reverse course and return to fundamental principles. One reason to be heartened is the fact that President Joe Biden’s review of the use of US drones outside of active battlefields is really a review of America’s targeted killing program.

Another is the fact that the US military might prefer to be kept in reserve for conventional wars, rather than thrust into counterterror and counterinsurgency missions for which it is ill-suited.

To be clear: Weaponized drones themselves are also not the problem. Drones are only a platform, and what matters in international law terms is how platforms are used. But if there is a reason to focus on drones, it is because of the way in which, as Gregoire Chamayou shows us, our conceptual understanding of drones as a particular technology has also impacted our ability to even notice what is wrong with their use in international law terms.

Focusing on technology relaxes our legal and ethical horizon and narrows our parameters of debate, and this needs to change. Smaller and simpler is not always better. Less is not always more.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.

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Biden has finally found a country the US can rebuild

Highway collapse traffic
A collapsed freeway overpass near downtown Oakland, California, in 2007.

  • The Biden administration has made an ambitious $2 trillion proposal to address the US’s infrastructure problems.
  • That influx of money would be welcome after two decades and billions of dollars squandered trying to rebuild other countries.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that America’s domestic infrastructure is in utter disarray. Travel down I-95 between New York City and Boston, and you will be lucky not to hit a 5-inch-deep pothole in the middle of the lane.

The United States, the most prosperous country in the world, is now 13th in terms of infrastructure quality, below many of its peers in Europe. Over 20% of its roads are in poor condition. About 127,000 bridges across the US are either structurally deficient or need to be replaced. And as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan showed, even clean water supplies aren’t a given.

The United States, in other words, is in desperate need of investment at home. The alternative is watching as Americans who live in cities continue to suffer from dilapidated highways while their fellow citizens in rural areas are left searching for a basic broadband connection.

The juxtaposition outside US borders is stunning. Over the last two decades, as US infrastructure was worsening, Washington was busy conducting reconstruction initiatives in nations that to this day remain consumed by conflict and led by unaccountable and corrupt governments.

Afganistan Iraq embassy troops soldiers
Afghan policemen stand guard outside the Iraqi embassy in Kabul after an attack, July 31, 2017.

As of December 2020, the US has spent approximately $143 billion of taxpayer money on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

The projects were designed to kickstart the Afghan economy, introduce a degree of self-sufficiency over the long-term, and ensure ordinary Afghans were able to enjoy the kinds of public goods – accessible water supplies, highways, access to hospitals – that are often taken for granted in the West.

Yet the results, to put it generously, have been poor. $1 billion was devoted to schools in Afghanistan that weren’t even operating. A $8.5 billion program to wean Afghan farmers away from growing poppy was unsuccessful, evident in Afghanistan’s current status as the world’s foremost producer of opium.

As Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified to Congress last month, systemic corruption in Afghanistan undermines US-funded reconstruction initiatives to the point of irrelevancy. Of the $7.8 billion in US reconstruction funds SIGAR investigated, just $1.2 billion – 15% – went to their intended purpose.

Many of the buildings paid for by the US taxpayer were left abandoned. Afghanistan still relies on international donors for 80% of its budget; remains dominated by corruption at all levels of government; and is seemingly incapable of exhibiting the slightest degree of responsibility in how it spends US taxpayer money.

US Soldier Selfie Iraq
A US soldier takes a selfie at the US Army base in Qayyara, south of Mosul, October 25, 2016.

The US experience in Iraq isn’t much better. Despite their good intentions, US officials ran into problems on the reconstruction front almost immediately.

After an infusion of $172 million to restore the Baiji power plant after the initial invasion, the plant was only churning out half of its potential output. The United States sunk billions into large and costly projects the Iraqi government was unable to handle or finance.

Schools and prisons funded by Washington were left idle, while water treatment plants in dangerous areas like Fallujah were overbudget and woefully inadequate for the population. Today, Iraq remains a country so riddled with parochialism and multiple power centers that Shia militias are building up their own revenue streams separate from the state.

As US soldiers and aid workers were essentially throwing billions of dollars in the toilet in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s own schools, roads, and bridges were falling apart.

Total spending on US domestic infrastructure fell between 2007-2017. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US a “C-” on its infrastructure score and estimated that the US economy could lose $10 trillion in GDP by 2039 if Washington failed to plug the infrastructure spending gap.

The Biden administration, like its predecessors, is hoping to solve (or at least mitigate) America’s infrastructure problems with an ambitious $2 trillion proposal that would be paid for over a period of 15 years.

Flint Water Crisis
Michigan Army National Guard soldiers hand out bottled water at a fire station in Flint, Michigan, January 17, 2016.

The plan would dump $600 billion into improving and modernizing ports, railways, bridges and highways. $300 billion would be devoted to supporting domestic manufacturing, while an additional $100 billion would be invested into building up an electric grid prone to occasional outages.

Biden’s initiative will run into steep opposition due to the cost. But leaving the details aside, one can’t help but feel a sense of jubilation that US policymakers are actually showing some interest in investing in America rather than in countries overseas that have proven to be perpetually weak, dysfunctional, and perhaps even immune to US generosity.

Policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits still like to describe the United States as an exceptional nation in a league of its own. But no nation, not even the United States, can thrive if it underinvests in its own communities or takes its eyes of the ball to what is truly important: expanding its own strength domestically.

It’s a lesson the old denizens of the Soviet Union learned the hard way – and when they finally appreciated the concept, it was too late.

America’s source of power overseas is anchored in its prosperity at home. If the US is so keen on nation-building, it should start and end in its own cities and towns.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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There are no victories left to win for US troops in Iraq and Syria. It’s time for Biden to bring them home.

Army soldiers Syria Bradley fighting vehicle
US soldiers walk to an oil production facility to meet with its management team, in Syria, October 27,2020.

  • The US still has 3,500 troops in Iraq and several hundred more in Syria.
  • Any benefit the US may get from those deployments is dwarfed by the risks of keeping them there.
  • Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and former US Army lieutenant colonel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The United States will engage in a “strategic dialogue” with Iraq this month, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week. The key agenda item, she explained, was the US combat deployment there.

How or whether to extend the operation should not be part of the discussion. Nailing down details of the withdrawal should.

The 3,500 US troops currently in Iraq serve no purpose related to American national security. They don’t have a militarily attainable mission which could be recognized and signal the end of the deployment. The only benefactor is the government in Baghdad and even they are ready to show America the exit.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told reporters in Iraq he is approaching April’s dialogue with Washington as a chance to push for the withdrawal of American troops. He cited what he considered a positive outcome from the June 2020 strategic dialogue with the US in which Iraq “succeeded in reducing the size of the US combat forces in Iraq by 60%.”

In this upcoming meeting, al-Kadhimi added, he will seek the complete “redeployment of [US] forces outside of Iraq.” The administration, however, appeared interested in cooling such talk.

Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter Iraq
A US Army crew chief looks over the Tigris River from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, March 3, 2021.

At the recent press briefing, Psaki sought to “further clarify that coalition forces are in Iraq solely for the purpose of training and advising Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIS cannot reconstitute.” If the troops are not officially engaged in direct combat, some believe, the deployment will be more palatable to the American people.

There is little evidence the US population cares about the nuance, however. Upward of 75% want the troops to return home. Such views are well-founded, as the troops no longer provide even nominal support for US security interests.

The reason troops are in Iraq at all today is because President Barack Obama sent them to help Baghdad fend off the rise of ISIS in the summer of 2014.

When President Donald Trump assumed office, he beefed up the military presence and gave them the mission of helping the Iraqi military (and later Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria) retake the territory ISIS had captured. That mission was completed in Iraq in November 2017 and in Syria in March 2019.

Today ISIS has been driven underground, as is the case with numerous other violent insurgent groups in the Middle East. Though ISIS poses a potential terror threat – as literally scores of other radical groups do – the threat they pose is limited and in any case is not diminished by having a few thousand troops on the ground in either Iraq or Syria.

Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert, commander of the US-led counter-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria, told Defense One that ISIS’s “ability to reemerge is extremely low right now.”

What does concern Calvert, however, are the volatile cultural and political conditions in both countries. “It’s clear to me and people that I’ve talked to [in Iraqi government],” Calvert said, “there’s a significant amount of concern in terms of the possibilities of an internal Shia civil war.” Things in Syria are even worse.

Army soldier M2 Bradley fighting vehicle Syria
A US soldier next to an M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle in northeastern Syria, December 16, 2020.

Aside from the ongoing civil war, operating within Syria are Iranian troops fighting alongside Syrian troops, Russian Air Force bombers striking anti-Syrian targets, Russian mercenaries, Shia militias, Kurdish elements Turkey considers terrorists, and Kurdish groups the US considers allies.

American troops have sometimes narrowly avoided armed clashes with Russian combat troops, Syrian troops, and even its NATO-ally Turkey. In somewhat of an understatement, Calvert said the “level of complexity in Syria is immense and is probably one of the most complex environments I have seen in the 33 years that I’ve been serving.”

Whatever incremental security benefit may exist with US troops being deployed in Iraq and Syria, they are dwarfed by the strategic risk we incur every minute we remain on the ground there.

We are in a sea of civil conflict in Syria and in danger of semi-regular rocket attacks in Iraq. Our military presence cannot influence the political outcome in either country.

The best thing Biden can do for the security of the United States and to preserve the lives of our service members from unnecessary risk at the security dialogue with Baghdad is to withdraw our troops, in full, from both Iraq and Syria as soon as possible.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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Historic visit to Taiwan by a US ambassador draws ‘red line’ warning from China

Palau Taiwan ambassador John Hennessey-Niland
Palau President Surangel Whipps, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, and US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland at a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, March 29, 2021.

  • The US ambassador to Palau joined the Palauan presidential delegation visiting Taipei this week.
  • It is the first visit by a US envoy since the US switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Beijing has warned Washington not to cross its “red line” on Taiwan after a US envoy arrived on the island as part of a delegation from Palau, one of Taipei’s 15 remaining allies.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that “the Chinese side resolutely opposes any form of official contacts between US and Taiwanese officials,” adding that any such contact would hurt US-China ties and affect stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The warning came after Palauan President Surangel Whipps arrived in Taiwan on Sunday for a five-day trip to launch a “travel bubble” to ease coronavirus between Taipei and Koror, Palau’s biggest island.

US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland was part of the delegation, becoming the first US envoy to visit Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be returned to its control by force if needed, has repeatedly warned the US against official contacts with the island.

On Monday, a day after the US ambassador was reported to be visiting Taiwan, Beijing sent 10 warplanes to Taiwan’s southwest air defence identification zone to ramp up pressure on the island, according to Taiwan’s defence ministry.

In Taipei, Whipps said his country needed support from both Taipei and Washington.

“Having the US ambassador here with us is just a demonstration of how we work together to get this ‘sterile corridor’ or ‘travel bubble’ started,” he said, referring to US supplies of vaccines to Palau that enabled the formation of the travel bubble.

“As a small country, we could easily be infiltrated, and we depend on our partners to protect us and give us security. So I appreciate [Hennessy-Niland] joining us … which demonstrates [the US] friendship and commitment in protecting us and giving us security.”

Observers said Hennessey-Niland’s presence was a strong signal from the US that it would respond to any effort by Beijing to bring Palau into its fold.

“According to normal diplomatic practice, Amb. John Hennessey-Niland would not be able to come to Taiwan without permission from the State Department,” said Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

“[His visit] signals the US effort to assist Taiwan in securing diplomatic ties with Palau against pressure from Beijing.”

Whipps told Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency that soon after he was elected president late last year, Beijing tried to persuade him to switch diplomatic recognition to the mainland but he rebuffed Beijing’s overtures, saying he valued Palau’s ties with Taipei.

Hennessey-Niland has said Pacific nations need to be aware of the risks and the potential loss of autonomy in siding with Beijing. And in a US Senate hearing in December 2019, he said Taiwan was a US partner and critical to helping contain Beijing’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.

Huang said Hennessey-Niland’s visit “implies that the Biden administration has observed the Taiwan Travel Act and the decision made by its predecessor to lift unfair and unnecessary restrictions on certain official engagements with Taiwanese counterparts.”

Former US president Donald Trump approved the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018 to allow high-level official visits with Taipei. His administration also removed decades-old, self-imposed restrictions on how its diplomats and other officials interact with the island.

Observers said the US envoy’s presence on the trip also indicated that US partnership with Taiwan had gone beyond just the US-Taiwan level, but also involved a third party such as Palau.

“It looks like a concerted action,” Huang said, adding that more evidence was needed to assess whether the three had established a formal partnership.

Lin Ting-hui, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Society of International Law, said he did not rule out a joint coastguard drill between Taiwan, Palau and the US, given that Palau had a coastguard agreement with Taiwan and the US had a similar arrangement with Taiwan and a defence deal with Palau.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Palau had asked the Pentagon to build ports, bases and airfields in the island state, offering a boost to US military expansion plans in Indo-Pacific region, as Washington aims to counter China.

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Biden can’t afford to laugh-off Kim Jong Un’s provocations

september missile north korea 2017 kim
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea on September 16, 2017.

  • President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend.
  • With that attitude, Biden may miss a chance at diplomacy, leading to more back and forth tension-creating events by both sides in the months ahead.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

We can fill a book full of troubling adjectives to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, and all of the times they have needless raised international tensions to the point that many analysts worried about the possible resumption of the Korean War – a conflict that almost certainly would go nuclear.

Whatever the case, we rarely talk about the times when US policy toward the DPRK adds unneeded kindling to an already smoldering situation, when policymakers in Washington and even our own chief executive make a rhetorical or tactical mistake that makes a bad situation on the Korean Peninsula even worse.

So when President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend, missing a chance at more needed diplomacy, the stage was set for what Pyongyang always seems to do best: match pressure or perceived loss of face by a show of strength, or its own style of maximum pressure.

And this is just the beginning. We should expect more back and forth tension-creating events coming from both sides in the months ahead.

joe biden korea
Joe Biden, then vice president, meets South Korean and US soldiers at Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone near the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, December 7, 2013.

First up is the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review findings, which will set the direction for Korean Peninsula strategy for years to come. Having failed to learn from the Trump years that there is a possibility of talking with the Kim regime, Team Biden seems to have all but determined to apply more pressure and double down on sanctions that have so many holes in them one could drive a truck through them.

Washington also seems set to want to try and make China somehow responsible for sanctions enforcement, and is already trying a shaming strategy to get them to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile advances. Clearly this is something Beijing won’t do, as it will never allow North Korea to become destabilized in any way – and that is what it would take for the Kim family to come to the bargaining table on its knees.

Sadly it seems we are set to replay what every administration has tried to do for nearly three decades now, apply some sort of new pressure strategy to get North Korea to give up the only weapon it has to fend off its greatest fear, a future US military campaign that seeks to change the regime in Pyongyang.

Considering the billions of dollars invested and likely hundreds of thousands of North Koreans that have died due to a lack of investment in the most basic of societal needs because of its nuclear quest, there is no magic formula to get them to denuclearize.

NOrth Korea missile launch kim may 2017
Kim Jong a Hwasong-12, May 15, 2017.

And yet, we play what politicians here in Washington have determined is a necessary game of posturing, as if we have some way to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or missiles, because no administration wants to take on what is perceived as the political fallout of such an admission that only arms control and threat mitigation are the only rational policies left.

What does all of this mean? Well, most likely, North Korea will lash out when it knows for sure the squeeze from Washington is coming once again, and will show off a weapon system that can do real damage, like a new medium or intermediate missile platform that can range US bases in the Pacific, such as Guam.

North Korea could also even show off in some way that its longer-range missiles can survive atmospheric reentry, settling the silly debate once and for all that, yes, even a third-world state like North Korea can develop missile technology from the 1950s to hit the US with a nuclear missile.

This could come in the form of a test that shows off an ICBM going deep into the Pacific Ocean and dropping a dummy warhead into the sea or something more static, but the point would be clear: US cities could be turned into nuclear fireballs within 30 minutes.

North Korea's new ICBM
North Korea’s new ICBM.

From here, what would the Biden team decide to do? Clearly with pressure off the table as a viable denuclearization strategy, the administration would find itself historically at the same crossroads as every other group of US policymakers finds itself when it comes to Pyongyang.

My hope is for as short of an escalatory period as possible followed by a push toward diplomacy coming from Washington with major prodding courtesy of the Moon government in Seoul.

If the Biden Administration can learn from its likely mistakes fast enough and pivot toward an agreement that caps the size of the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal for sanctions relief, the faster it can move to what it seems to be its more important task, figuring out what it will do about China’s rise and moves to alter the status quo in Asia to its liking.

The only question now is how many weeks or months we will waste on a pointless pressure campaign, and can we avoid an accidental escalation that could cost lives or spark a horrific war no one wants?

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Stop asking the US military to fight terrorism and rebuild countries

US soldiers troops patrol war in Afghanistan
A US soldier digs out a vehicle stuck in mud in southeastern Afghanistan, April 23, 2007.

  • The US military spent much of the past 20 years on tasks for which it is ill-suited: counterterrorism as well as stability and support operations.
  • The solution isn’t to weaken laws for counterterrorism operations or to diminish the role of civilian agencies in peace building but to take the military out of those roles.
  • Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Have know-nothing civilian bureaucrats, lily-livered humanitarian do-gooders and misguided academics tied the military’s hands with increasingly restrictive norms that don’t correspond to the laws of war, let alone the rigors of battle and requirements of victory?

That’s the premise of a new article in Military Review by Army Lt. Gen. Charles Pede and Col. Peter Hayden. Pede and Hayden write derisively of the three-decades-old shift in US military doctrine toward enhanced civilian protection, exemplified by the population-centric counterinsurgency approach to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is a danger, they argue, since troops trained in restraint and respect for civilian life would be tactically, bureaucratically and morally hobbled if faced with a massed formation of Russian, Chinese or Iranian tanks.

For all this argument’s numerous flaws, it contains one underappreciated insight. The US military has been asked to take on tasks to which it is ill-suited, affecting mission readiness for its primary role: winning wars.

The solution, however, is not to water down the laws of war as they pertain to counterterrorism operations or to diminish the role of civilian agencies in peace building. Instead, the US military should get out of the counterterrorism and nation-building business and stick to the battlefield where it belongs.

US troops soldiers war in Afghanistan
An Afghan boy looks at US soldiers as they patrol a village near the town of Makkor, southwest of Kabul, April 20, 2007.

Pede and Hayden make some valid points, even if their conclusions miss the mark. It is true that the laws of armed conflict are more permissive than most civilians believe and most humanitarians wish. But NGOs and academics are the first to acknowledge that. Advocating for stronger rules is not the same as pretending they already exist.

It is also true that NGOs, lawyers, scholars and activists are actively involved, alongside militaries, in promoting, augmenting and implementing the laws of war. But that has been the case ever since the very first Geneva Convention codified, at the behest of 19th-century Swiss activists, the right of civilian medical workers to rescue wounded soldiers from battle without being shot by warring parties – the origin of today’s Red Cross.

And yes, it is true that the laws of war are evolving today as much through soft law, advisory opinions, jurisprudence and policy initiatives as through changes in the letter of multilateral treaties. But that’s how the laws of war are designed. Geneva and Hague rules are not merely words on paper, but a living, breathing set of norms meant to evolve within limits and change with the times, as new technologies emerge and global temperaments shift.

Where Pede and Hayden are most right, however, is when they point out that neither militaries nor the system of rules designed to regulate their behavior in war were really designed for the kind of operations into which the US military has been thrust for the past two decades: counterterrorism and nation building.

But the solution is not to disparage or undo the humanitarian achievements of the NGO sector, but rather to move the US military out of both counterterrorism as well as stability and support operations. This means acknowledging that those operations require adherence not to the law of war at all, but to human rights law.

The law of war, as the authors note, is a more permissive framework meant to apply only in genuine situations of armed conflict, and not to peace building or counterterror operations. But the strained relationship between military readiness and international law is not the result of the norm entrepreneurship of humanitarians, but rather of the misguided marrying of military power to law enforcement and peace-building operations.

What former President Barack Obama once called “overseas contingency operations” do require different mindsets, strategies and legal regimes than do operations on conventional battlefields. And it is equally true that this is not what troops are trained for, nor what they do best.

us soldiers iraq
US military vehicles in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an operation against ISIS militants in Mosul, November 7, 2016.

This has arguably led to the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it has required an expansion of war law restrictions, causing officers like Pede and Hayden to chafe over fears of defeat on “Battlefield Next.”

On the other hand, this trend has also diluted human rights law, which is the branch of international law that ought to apply in law enforcement or nation-building situations. And worst of all, it has muddied the important distinction between the two branches of the law and their respective scopes of application, contributing to failures of political imagination and foreclosed policy options.

Consider the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Carried out with the blessing of the international community and in alignment with the United Nations Charter, it led to a quick and decisive tactical, strategic and moral victory. But rather than quit while ahead, the US then stayed for an extended bout of nation building, resulting in an enduring quagmire, with the promise of a power vacuum upon the inevitable withdrawal of American forces.

Worse still, during the so-called nation-building stage, the US military continued to treat Afghanistan and the surrounding region as a hot battlefield, operating in a war law mindset rather than a human rights law mindset. The US continues to speak of “civilian casualties” instead of “innocent bystanders,” of “enemy combatants” rather than “accused insurrectionists,” and of “peace talks” rather than “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.”

The death toll from continued US armed violence continually exacerbated the situation, yet for the US to withdraw abruptly would likely leave civilians even more at risk from a renewed civil war. It is the same no-win scenario America has continuously faced when it has melded wartime victories into nation-building projects.

Now, imagine a counterfactual: The US enters Afghanistan briefly in 2001 to topple the Taliban, applying the law of war as best it can during a conflict as brief and relatively bloodless as that in Kosovo or Libya. It then turns the rebuilding of Afghanistan over – as happened in Kosovo but not in Libya – to a UN-authorized peace enforcement mission combining civilian and military police with civil society experts from Muslim-majority countries, with a robust mandate to protect civilians.

US troops soldiers patrol war in Afghanistan Afghans
Afghan children gesture at US soldiers standing guard near an Afghan police checkpoint in Nangarhar province, December 19, 2014.

As Page Fortna and Lise Howard have shown, such missions have a far better track record of success in peace building than what the US military calls “stability and support operations.” This is because they are structured around principles, norms and rules of engagement designed to win the peace, rather than win wars.

With burden-sharing across many nations, UN missions also have staying power, avoiding the no-win scenario of remaining forever or leaving a power vacuum, as NATO mistakenly did in Libya and former President Donald Trump set the stage to do in Afghanistan. Most importantly, UN missions are incubators for training post-conflict nations in human rights law and democracy – the ingredients of stable peace.

If nation building might be better left to other actors than the US military, what about counterterrorism?

As Kenneth Roth argued early in the war on terror, what the US calls counterterrorism is much better thought of as an effort to apprehend and punish transnational criminals than as a form of all-out war, and thus best handled not by militaries but through the tools of international law enforcement: extradition, arrest, trial, detention and ultimately punishment or rehabilitation.

This would be not only consistent with human rights law but also far more effective and ethical than the arguably illegal campaigns of extrajudicial execution the US has been instead carrying out with drones.

Instead of drones aiming to kill, imagine special forces commando raids to arrest terror suspects in much the way the FBI arrests and tries mass shooters in the US.

Such suspects would then be turned over to Interpol, or a neutral third country for detention and trial, or be tried in US criminal court. Those found innocent would be released. Those found guilty would be rehabilitated in prison – a process that Saudi Arabia, for all its flaws, has been particularly good at.

US troops soldiers medics war in Afghanistan
US Army medic Staff Sgt. Rahkeem Francis treats an Afghan boy with a broken leg aboard a helicopter in Helmand Province, August 19, 2010.

The distinctions between civilian and combatant, between battlefield and home front and between unlawful combatant and POW rightly become irrelevant within such an architecture.

This was the world before 9/11; before then-President George W. Bush declared “war” on a band of criminals; before Congress authorized the use of force without due process against anyone, anywhere suspected by the US to be a threat; and before the U.S. military was erroneously tasked with transnational law enforcement, nation building and operational support in the world’s various civil wars.

To be sure, where useful, members of the US military might be deployed under UN auspices to support peacekeeping missions. US special forces could become a useful adjunct for Interpol and/or any country willing to try alleged terrorists under universal jurisdiction.

But the military as an institution is not equipped to orchestrate the building of nations or effectively police transnational crime, nor should it be entrusted with these tasks. The attitude underpinning Pede and Hayden’s article is itself an example of why.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.

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