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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Trump and Biden’s anti-China foreign policy is fueling violence against Asian-Americans

Atlanta shooting vigil
Demonstrators at a vigil for the Atlanta shooting victims, in New York City, March 19, 2021.

  • The recent killing of six Asian-American women highlights the link between domestic and foreign policies.
  • Many officials have condemned the attacks, but they need to acknowledge that over-the-top language about China fuels fear and anxiety that spurs violence against Asian-Americans.
  • Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

“Our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit,” President Biden declared in Atlanta last Friday. “We have to speak out. We have to act.”

While President Biden’s condemnation of the murder of eight people in Georgia, including six Asian-American women, is welcome, it misses the mark in an important way.

Both the speech and the statement issued by the White House failed to acknowledge that Washington’s over-the-top language about China is fueling an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, which boomerangs in the form of violence against Asian-Americans. If there was any doubt that American foreign policy is domestic policy, these shootings should quell them.

To see how toxic the American discourse on China has become, one only needs to look at what transpired in Anchorage last week and the ongoing congressional debate on the annual Pentagon bill. The vitriol that was exchanged by American and Chinese officials in Alaska was unprecedented for its harsh and undiplomatic tenor, and will likely make cooperation on critical areas such as pandemics and climate change that much more difficult.

But when seen in the context of bipartisan efforts in government over the past five years to label China as a threat to America and the US-led world order, the debacle in Anchorage is not that surprising.

The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy mentions China 33 times, more than twice as many as the Obama administration’s version did. Similarly, the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance repeatedly singles out China as a direct threat to national security.

Neither document mentions how the US government would advance legitimate national security interests without creating an environment of hatred against Asian-Americans, similar to how the Muslim American community faced retributive violence after 9/11.

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US and Chinese officials at their first meeting under the Biden administration, in Anchorage, Alaska.

In Congress, members regularly use China to show that they are tough on national security without any regard for how their out-of-control language could shape American perceptions of Asians.

For example, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) tweeted that “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States” in response to the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus’ call to cut the Defense budget and channel resources to under-resourced areas such as global health. Such overt China bashing makes it nearly impossible to have a rational debate about areas of cooperation between the world’s two largest economies.

The truth is that what happened in Georgia is the latest manifestation of hatred borne out of racially charged language deployed by a growing number of public officials on both sides of the aisle to cast blame on China, and indirectly, all East Asians and Asian-Americans.

Rep. Wittman, the top House recipient of campaign contributions from arms manufacturers and military contractors, offers perhaps one of the egregious examples of stoking fear and anxiety in order to advance a military-centered US foreign policy toward China. But he is hardly alone.

Rather, Rep. Wittman is a part of an ecosystem that reinforces and normalizes such extreme views. And by not addressing this vicious cycle, government leaders are distracting the public from addressing the cause, rather than the symptoms, of violence against Americans of Asian descent.

The tragic incident in Georgia is only one of nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes against Asian-Americans since terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” have become commonplace in Washington.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes targeting Asians rose by nearly 150% in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020, when China was routinely blamed by presidential and congressional candidates for America’s ailments.

Given the barrage of anti-China language in government and media, why would anyone be surprised that Asian-Americans have become collateral damage?

coronavirus racism asian americans
Members of the Asian-American Commission hold a press conference outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to condemn racism toward the Asian-American community over of coronavirus, March 12, 2020.

One person from Milpitas, California described experiencing verbal assault this way: “I was shopping when a man started making faces at me. When I asked him what was wrong, he said ‘We delisted your companies, we shipped back your international students, when do you ship out?”

The message is clear: Anyone who looks Chinese is suspect and should be expelled from this country.

Another person in College Park, Maryland reported the use of xenophobic language in the classroom: “One of my professors was talking about the public health response to COVID-19 during a virtual lecture and explicitly called it the “China Virus.” “We’ve got to be very careful about that country, and what they’d do to us,'” he told the class.

This, despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s warnings against stigmatizing people of Asian descent for COVID-19. The World Health Organization has also warned against naming diseases to certain populations or nationalities as far back as 2015.

Asian-American discrimination has a long history, dating back to 1871 when 17 Chinese immigrant men were lynched by a mob in Los Angeles. But the current situation is particularly explosive due to the hypersensitive domestic environment in which Americans are looking for someone to blame for the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic.

In response to the shooting in Georgia, President Biden has called on members of Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Grace Meng, as a way to expedite government response to hate crimes.

This is a welcome move but falls woefully short of what is needed given the magnitude of the problem at hand. A more holistic, self-reflective strategy that connects the dots between foreign policy and domestic policy is urgently needed.

There must be more discussions among national-security experts with domestic-policy experts about the scope of the challenge at hand.

Even if the Hirono-Meng bill passed the House and got enough Republican senators’ votes to pass in the Senate (a high bar), it would not address the underlying motivations for these hate crimes. Members of Congress who deploy zero-sum language on China to justify a bloated Pentagon budget must be called out and held responsible for the secondary order impact that their rhetoric is having on Asian-Americans.

Asian community protests Atlanta shooting
Demonstrators at at Rally Against Hate to end discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, New York City, March 21, 2021.

The current situation has grave national-security implications for the federal government as well.

The stigmatization of Asian-Americans in government and exacerbating concerns of dual loyalty will only make it harder for patriotic Asian-Americans to serve in government. Such discriminatory efforts could also lead to poor foreign-policy decisions, as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Biden administration’s interim National Security Strategic Guidance recognizes that the United States confronts a wide range of challenges, from a global pandemic to a deepening climate emergency. But it also assumes the worst about China’s intentions, which will make constructive engagement between two of the world’s largest economies difficult.

The Quincy Institute presents an alternative approach to thinking about China and East Asia, one that emphasizes stability and regional cooperation, and diplomacy over military dominance. In other words, there are other ways to manage US-China relations without marching into war.

Thirty-nine years ago, at the height of the auto trade war with Japan, a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. The people who killed him thought he was Japanese. Rather than paying lip service to Asian-Americans while perpetuating grossly oversimplified narratives about China, President Biden and the Congress should stop demonizing China. They must stop using China fear tactics to justify more military spending.

As Rep. Marilyn Strickland stated on the House floor, “Words matter. Leadership matters.” It is time for American policymakers on national security and domestic civil liberties to work hand-in-hand to create policies that actually help Americans rather than pit them against one another.

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute.

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The ‘border-industrial complex’ is bigger than Trump or Biden, and it thrives on crisis

us-mexico border arizona
US Border Patrol agents follow the tire tracks of drug smugglers through the Sonoran Desert in the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona, near the US-Mexico border, December 9, 2010.

  • President Donald Trump made the US-Mexico border, and migration there, a centerpiece of his presidency.
  • An influx of migrants at the border has become a dominant issue of President Joe Biden’s first weeks in office.
  • How Biden addresses the border remains to be seen, but his administration will be no less caught in the border-industrial complex than Trump’s, writes journalist Todd Miller.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In late February, I drove to see the Trump wall in Sasabe, Arizona. As soon as I parked, a green-striped Border Patrol vehicle stationed a quarter of a mile away began to creep down the dirt road toward us. Just ahead, a dystopian “No Trespassing” sign was flapping in the wind.

It was cold as I stepped out of the car with my 5-year-old son, William. The wall ahead of us, 30-feet high with steel bollards, was indeed imposing as it quavered slightly in the wind. Through its bars we could see Mexico, a broken panorama of hills filled with mesquites backed by a blue sky.

The Homeland Security vehicle soon pulled up next to us. An agent rolled down his window and asked me, “What are you doing? Joyriding?”

After I laughed in response to a word I hadn’t heard in years, the agent informed us that we were in a dangerous construction zone, even if this part of the wall had been built four months earlier. I glanced around. There were no bulldozers, excavators, or construction equipment of any sort. I wondered whether the lack of machinery reflected the campaign promise of the recently inaugurated Joe Biden that “not another foot” of Trump’s wall would be built.

Indeed, that was why I was here – to see what the border looked like as the post-Trump era began. President Biden had started his term with strong promises to reverse the border policies of his predecessor: families torn apart would be reunited and asylum seekers previously forced to stay in Mexico allowed to enter the United States. Given the Trump years, the proposals of the new administration sounded almost revolutionary.

Border wall
A Honduran migrant grabs his son as they climb the border fence before jumping from from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego, California.

And yet something else bothered me as we drove away: Everything looked the same as it had for years. I’ve been coming to this stretch of border since 2001. I’ve witnessed its incremental disfigurement during the most dramatic border fortification period in this country’s history.

In the early 2000s came an influx of Border Patrol agents, followed in 2007 by the construction of a 15-foot wall (that Sen. Joe Biden voted for), followed by high-tech surveillance towers, courtesy of a multibillion-dollar contract with the Boeing Corporation.

Believe me, the forces that shaped our southern border over the decades have been far more powerful than Donald Trump or any individual politician. During the 2020 election, it was commonly asserted that, by getting rid of Trump, the United States would create a more humane border and immigration system. And there was a certain truth to that, but a distinctly limited one.

Underneath the theater of partisan politics, there remains a churning border-industrial complex, a conjunction of entrenched interests and relationships between the US government – particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – and private corporations that has received very little attention.

The small border town of Sasabe and its surrounding region is a microcosm of this.

The cumulative force of that complex will now carry on in Trump’s wake. Indeed, during the 2020 election the border industry, created through decades of bipartisan fortification, actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans.

The complex

border wall
Government contractors erect a section of Pentagon-funded border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, September 10, 2019.

In the 12 years from 2008 to 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dolled out 105,000 contracts, or a breathtaking average of 24 contracts a day, worth $55 billion to private contractors. That sum exceeded their $52 billion collective budgets for border and immigration enforcement for the 28 years from 1975 to 2003.

While those contracts included ones for companies like Fisher Sand and Gravel that built the 30-foot wall my son and I saw in Sasabe, many of them – including the most expensive – went to companies creating high-tech border fortification, ranging from sophisticated camera systems to advanced biometric and data-processing technologies.

This might explain the border industry’s interest in candidate Biden, who promised: “I’m going to make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.”

Behind that bold, declarative sentence lay an all-too-familiar version of technological border protection sold as something so much more innocuous, harmless, and humane than what Trump was offering. As it happens, despite our former president’s urge to create a literal wall across hundreds of miles of borderlands, high-technology has long been and even in the Trump years remained a large part of the border-industrial complex.

One pivotal moment for that complex came in 2005 when the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Jackson (previously Lockheed Martin’s chief operating officer), addressed a conference room of border-industry representatives about creating a virtual or technological wall.

“This is an unusual invitation,” he said then. “I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organization.”

Of course, by then, the border and immigration enforcement system had already been on a growth spurt. During President Bill Clinton’s administration (1993-2001), for example, its annual budgets had nearly tripled from $1.5 billion to $4.3 billion.

Clinton, in fact, initiated the immigration deterrence system still in place today in which Washington deployed armed agents, barriers, and walls, as well as high-tech systems to block the traditional urban places where immigrants had once crossed. They were funneled instead into dangerous and deadly spots like the remote and brutal Arizona desert around Sasabe. As Clinton put it in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“[O]ur administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.”

Sound familiar?

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An US Border Patrol agent near the border fence in Columbus, New Mexico, February 19, 2017.

The Clinton years, however, already seemed like ancient times when Jackson made that 2005 plea. He was speaking in the midst of a burgeoning Homeland Security era. After all, DHS was only created in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

In fact, during George W. Bush’s years in office, border and immigration enforcement budgets grew from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $15.2 billion in 2008 – more, that is, than during any other presidency including Donald Trump’s. Under Bush, that border became another front in the war on terror (even if no terrorists crossed it), opening the money faucets. And that was what Jackson was underscoring – the advent of a new reality that would produce tens of thousands of contracts for private companies.

In addition, as US war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wane, many security and defense companies pivoted toward the new border market. As one vendor pointed out to me at a Border Security Expo in Phoenix in 2012, “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.” That vendor, who had been a soldier in Afghanistan a few years earlier, smiled confidently, the banners of large weapons-makers like Raytheon hanging above him.

At the time (as now), an “unprecedented boom period” was forecast for the border market. As the company VisionGain explained then, a “virtuous circle … would continue to drive spending in the long-term based on three interlocking developments: ‘illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration,’ more money for border policing in ‘developing countries,’ and the ‘maturation’ of new technologies.”

Since 9/11, border-security corporate giants became big campaign contributors not only to presidential candidates, but also to key members of the Appropriations Committees and the Homeland Security Committees (both House and Senate) – all crucial when it came to border policies, contracts, and budgets.

Between 2006 and 2018, top border contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon contributed a total of $27.6 million to members of the House Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the House Homeland Security Committee. And from 2002 to 2019, there were nearly 20,000 reported lobbying “visits” to congressional offices related to homeland security. The 2,841 visits reported for 2018 alone included ones from top CBP and ICE contractors Accenture, CoreCivic, GeoGroup, L3Harris, and Leidos.

By the time Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, the border-industrial complex was truly humming. That year, he would oversee a $20 billion border and immigration budget and have at his disposal nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents (up from 4,000 in 1994), 650 miles of already built walls and barriers, billions of dollars in border technology then in place, and more than 200 immigration-detention centers across the United States.

He claimed he was going to build his very own “big, fat, beautiful wall,” most of which, as it turned out, already existed. He claimed that he was going to clamp down on a border that was already remarkably clamped down upon. And in his own fashion, he took it to new levels.

That’s what we saw in Sasabe, where a 15-foot wall had recently been replaced with a 30-foot wall. As it happened, much of the 450 miles of wall the Trump administration did, in the end, build really involved interchanging already existing smaller barriers with monstrous ones that left remarkable environmental and cultural destruction in their wake.

Trump administration policies forced people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico, infants to appear in immigration court, and separated family members into a sprawling incarceration apparatus whose companies had been making up to $126 per person per day for years. He could have done little of this without the constantly growing border-industrial complex that preceded him and, in important ways, made him.

Nonetheless, in the 2020 election campaign, the border industry pivoted toward Biden and the Democrats. That pivot ensured one thing: that its influence would be strong, if not preeminent, on such issues when the new administration took over.

The Biden years begin at the border

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

In early January 2021, Biden’s nominee to run DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas disclosed that, over the previous three years, he had earned $3.3 million from corporate clients with the WilmerHale law firm.

Two of those clients were Northrop Grumman and Leidos, companies that Nick Buxton and I identified as top border contractors in “Biden’s Border: The Industry, the Democrats and the 2020 Election,” a report we coauthored for the Transnational Institute.

When we started to look at the 2020 campaign contributions of 13 top border contractors for CBP and ICE, we had no idea what to expect. It was, after all, a corporate group that included producers of surveillance infrastructure for the high-tech “virtual wall” along the border like L3Harris, General Dynamics, and the Israeli company Elbit Systems; others like Palantir and IBM produced border data-processing software; and there were also detention companies like CoreCivic and GeoGroup.

To our surprise, these companies had given significantly more to the Biden campaign ($5,364,994) than to Trump ($1,730,435). In general, they had shifted to the Democrats who garnered 55% of their $40 million in campaign contributions, including donations to key members of the House and Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

It’s still too early to assess just what will happen to this country’s vast border-and-immigration apparatus under the Biden administration, which has made promises about reversing Trumpian border policies. Still, it will be no less caught in the web of the border-industrial complex than the preceding administration.

Perhaps a glimpse of the future border under Biden was offered when, on January 19, Homeland Security secretary nominee Mayorkas appeared for his Senate confirmation hearings and was asked about the 8,000 people from Honduras heading for the US in a “caravan” at that very moment.

The day before, US-trained troops and police in Guatemala had thwarted and then deported vast numbers of them as they tried to cross into that country. Many in the caravan reported that they were heading north thanks to back-to-back catastrophic category 4 hurricanes that had devastated the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts in November 2020.

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Guatemalan migrants in Guatemala City after their deportation from the US, April 30, 2020.

Mayorkas responded rather generically that if people were found to qualify “under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly, if they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won’t.” Given that there is no climate-refugee status available to anyone crossing the border that meant most of those who finally made it (if they ever did) wouldn’t qualify to stay.

It’s possible that, by the time I went to see that wall with my son in late February, some people from that caravan had already made it to the border, despite endless obstacles in their path. As we drove down Highway 286, also known as the Sasabe Road, there were reports of undocumented people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all traveling through the rugged Baboquivari mountain range to the west of us and the grim canyons to the east of us in attempts to avoid the Border Patrol and its surveillance equipment.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans against what he dubbed “the military-industrial complex” in 1961, he spoke of its “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual… felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government.”

Sixty years later, something similar could be said of the ever-expanding border-industrial complex. It needs just such climate disasters and just such caravans (or, as we’re seeing right now, just such “crises” of unaccompanied minors) to continue its never-ending growth, whether the president is touting a big, fat, beautiful wall or opting for high-tech border technology.

For my son and me, the enforcement apparatus first became noticeable at a checkpoint 25 miles north of the international boundary. Not only were green-uniformed agents interrogating passengers in any vehicle heading northward, but a host of cameras focused on the vehicles passing by.

Whether they were license-plate readers or facial-recognition cameras I had no way of knowing.

What I did know was that Northrop Grumman (which contributed $649,748 to Joe Biden and $323,014 to Donald Trump in the 2020 election campaign) had received a valuable contract to ensure that CBP’s biometric system included “modalities” of all sorts – face and voice data, iris recognition, scars and tattoos, possibly even DNA sample collection, and information about “relationship patterns” and “encounters” with the public.

And who could tell if the Predator B drones that General Atomics produces – oh, by the way, that company gave $82,974 to Biden and $51,665 to Trump in 2020 – were above us (as they regularly are in the border regions) using Northrup Grumman’s VADER “man-hunting” radar system first deployed in Afghanistan?

As we traveled through that gauntlet, Border Patrol vehicles were everywhere, reinforcing the surveillance apparatus that extends 100 miles into the US interior. We soon passed a surveillance tower at the side of the road first erected by the Boeing Corporation and renovated by Elbit Systems ($5,553 to Biden, $5,649 to Trump), one of dozens in the area.

On the other side of that highway was a gravel clearing where a G4S ($49,233 to Biden, $33,019 to Trump) van usually idles. It’s a mobile prison the Border Patrol uses to transport its prisoners to short-term detention centers in Tucson. And keep in mind that there was so much we couldn’t see like the thousands of implanted motion sensors manufactured by a host of other companies.

border wall arizona
Border fence construction on a mountain in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Lukeville, Arizona, January 7, 2020.

Traveling through this border area, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a profitable version of a classic panopticon, a prison system in which, wherever you might be, you’re being watched. Even 5-year-old William was startled by such a world and, genuinely puzzled, asked me, “Why do the green men,” as he calls the Border Patrol, “want to stop the workers?”

By the time we got to that shard of Trump’s “big, fat, beautiful” wall, it seemed like just a modest part of a much larger system that left partisan politics in the dust. At its heart was never “The Donald” but a powerful cluster of companies with an active interest in working on that border until the end of time.

Just after the agent told us that we were in a construction zone and needed to leave, I noticed a pile of bollards near the dirt road that ran parallel to the wall. They were from the previous wall, the one Biden had voted for in 2006.

As William and I drove back to Tucson through that gauntlet of inspection, I wondered what the border-industrial world would look like when he was my age and living in what could be an even more extreme world filled with ever more terrified people fleeing disaster.

And I kept thinking of that discarded pile of bollards, a reminder of just how easy it would be to tear that wall and the world that goes with it down.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. His latest book is “Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders.” You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddmillerwriter.com.

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Joe Biden is still stuck in the 20th-century world

US President Joe Biden, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department during his first visit in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department, February 4, 2021.

  • Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden committed his administration’s foreign policy to the pursuit of the US’s “cherished democratic values.”
  • But Biden and his team appear wedded to 20th century narratives about the world and the US’s role in it, writes Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

You may have noticed: The Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party.

So if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.

The boss shows them how it’s done.

Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived – SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it’s convenient to do so, but without exception.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.

Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values.

The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by The Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.

Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally, as a “pariah state” that possessed “no redeeming value.”

Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals – they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington “check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional US-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the “friendship” between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil.

In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship’s tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.

While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.

Threading the needle

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.

The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the US government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass.

MBS’s sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York’s JFK airport or Washington’s Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.

Recalibration also means that the United States is “pausing” – not terminating – further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy.”

Translation? Don’t expect much to happen.

Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for US arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however. Mr. Khashoggi’s demise has complicated but will not derail the US-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.

US Air Force Army airmen soldiers Prince Sultan Air Base Saudi Arabia
US airmen and soldiers arrive at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019.

Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times.

Biden, he added approvingly, is now “trying to thread the needle.” Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role – on Iran, on competing with the Chinese.”

Ultimately, it’s that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.

As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine.

The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China’s emergence as a great power. And let’s face it: The United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MBS’s insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.

So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as “national security.”

More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.

Second thoughts?

trump sword dance saudi arabia
President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone The New York Times consults on issues of the day.

So should we attend to Professor Conway’s contrarian perspective? Very much so and here’s why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden’s employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He’s open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired.

Consider his provocative essay “Making Trump History,” recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been “History as Illuminated by Trump.”)

By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been “an insult to the historical narrative,” a living, breathing “refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the US are supposed to work.”

Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden’s job is to hasten its return.

Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.

Conway boldly rejects the media’s preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province January 11, 2011.

As a first step toward grasping what’s now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to “bury their narratives of the twentieth century” – on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a “history of the present” is emerging. And he identifies “three trig points” to begin mapping the “uncharted landscape” that lies ahead.

The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has “burst its banks,” Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are.

Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) “footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists” who “communicate more directly and effectively with the public.” Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?

Conway’s second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract – individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits – no longer applies. Instead, the “new politics of the bazaar” shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion).

Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden’s efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.

His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned “political frontiers of the left and right.” In the History of the Present, politics emphasize “identity and grievance.” Citizens lend their support to causes centered on “emotions, group identity, or aspirations,” while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. “Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms” are being “replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics.” Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.

Conway doesn’t pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway’s History of the Present portends.

Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the 20th century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.

Wrong thread, wrong needle

BIDEN-TRUMP

Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway’s analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway’s primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West.

That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden’s awkward effort to “thread the needle” regarding Saudi Arabia.

Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of 21st-century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won’t even make it anywhere near the first tier.

His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other US military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very “narratives of the twentieth century” to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important – indeed beloved – narrative celebrates the US role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden.

Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic US global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world.

As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and “its most cherished democratic values” in neat alignment.

By discarding the narratives of the 20th century, Conway’s History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is – a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman.

A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MBS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.

What this country does need is to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious.

If Professor Conway is right – and I’m convinced that he is – then it’s past time to give the narratives of the 20th century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.

Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump’s failures, they will perpetuate their own.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” His new book, “After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed,” is due out in June.

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Biden’s restrictions on drone strikes are about much more than drones

drone strikes
A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan.

  • On his first day in office, President Joe Biden quietly implemented new restrictions on US drone strikes.
  • The temporary measures make such strikes subject to review by the National Security Council, and they have potentially far-reaching implications.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Pentagon confirmed this week that President Joe Biden has imposed new, temporary restrictions on counterterrorism drone strikes outside of active battlefields, making them subject to review by the National Security Council.

According to The New York Times, which first broke the news, the rules were quietly put in place on Biden’s first day in office, as a stopgap measure while his national security team conducts a broader review of US counterterrorism operations.

According to Charli Carpenter, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst specializing in the laws of war, the Biden administration’s review is a long-overdue opportunity to rein in the practice of targeted extrajudicial killings, like the drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. She joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman on the Trend Lines podcast this week to discuss the potentially far-reaching implications of Biden’s move.

The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, U.S., June 25, 2015. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS
An MQ-9 Reaper over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, June 25, 2015.

World Politics Review: What impact do you expect the Biden administration’s new rules will have on the frequency of US drone strikes around the world?

Charli Carpenter: I think it will immediately result in fewer drone strikes. Essentially what Biden is doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders.

What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.

WPR: What was the basis on which the Trump administration devolved the authority to commanders in the field? What impact did that have on the dynamics of the war on terror and also on the actual relationships with countries where these strikes were taking place?

Carpenter: One of the interesting things about Trump’s drone policy is we know much less about it than we knew about Obama’s policy, because he didn’t really explain his thinking or justify it publicly. A lot of those documents are classified. So, there’s a limited extent to which I can speak to it. My understanding of the rationale was that it was partly just to empower those in the field – lower-level commanders – to be much quicker on their feet.

Trump, of course, was not as concerned as the Obama administration was with the legal nuances of whether these strikes were really lawful under human rights law and under the laws of war. He also had a different perspective on grand strategy and the war on terror. I will say that I think that there was – to a great extent on the right during the Obama years – a sense that a commander’s hands were really being tied by all of the legal requirements and legal oversight for these strikes.

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

WPR: How else did the rules that the Trump administration put in place differ from what the Obama administration was doing?

Carpenter: Essentially what he did is he removed oversight on strikes. He also removed the requirements to count and publicize civilian casualties.

In some respects, this really signaled to the military and to the CIA – which is not part of the military, it’s a civilian agency, but it does also have a drone program – that the gloves were coming off a bit. They wouldn’t be dealing with JAG lawyers [Judge Advocate General, the US military’s legal arm] at the highest levels, going over every strike. There was much less scrutiny on these pilots and on their commanders to account for collateral damage.

One thing that we do know from global civil society groups that track civilian casualties from drone strikes, or from airstrikes in general – groups like Airwars – is that civilian casualty counts went way up during the Trump administration. So that’s one of the concrete impacts and one of the regretful things that we would hope would be rolled back a bit by Biden’s new policy. We would hope to see civilian casualties go down.

But at the same time, I think that it’s important to note that part of the impetus for Trump’s shift comes from a sense that you heard from many commanders and troops in the field during the Obama years that their hands were really being tied in the war on terror by all of these legal nuances and legal strictures. There was a sense that much more discretion was needed in order to fight the war on terror effectively.

Now, that is disputed by many analysts who study counterterror dynamics. We know that if there’s a very large level of civilian casualties, there’s actually a blowback effect in terms of your effectiveness in counterterror operations. But there was very much a sense that this was going to assist troops. So you can imagine that there’s going to be some sense on the right that this is, again, going to hobble the troops in the field.

drone operators
Two drone operators fly an MQ-1 Predator on October 22, 2013.

WPR: One of the interesting things about this new rule that the Biden administration put in place was its distinction between active battle zones and the fact that the rules only apply to areas outside of those active battle zones. What does that distinction mean in reality? Is there a formal definition for that?

Carpenter: The Biden administration is attempting to create a formal definition, and governments do this – they creatively interpret norms and laws to suit their moral proclivities and their strategic interests at the time. This is not a term in international humanitarian law, but it does map onto an important distinction. It’s a salient distinction, the kinds of theaters where we are using weaponized drones. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is sort of the guardian of international humanitarian law, would use language about “situations of armed conflict, in which the US is a party to the conflict.”

A situation like that would be Afghanistan or Iraq, and to some extent, Syria. But Pakistan is not such a situation. There is to some extent an armed conflict going on there, a low-level armed conflict, but the US is not a party to that conflict. It is not a party to the war in Yemen, or a party to what’s going on in Somalia.

These are three areas in which the US has used drones, to a greater or lesser extent, to essentially decapitate individuals suspected of being terrorists or al-Qaida affiliates or militants. That is a different beast than using air power in an active battle zone where the US is engaged in hostilities against either another state or nonstate armed forces.

The reason why this matters is that in war, there’s one set of legal rules that applies, and within certain constraints, you’re actually allowed to kill people. But outside of situations of armed conflict, those rules don’t apply. The rules that apply are human rights law, which says you actually can’t just carry out extrajudicial executions of individuals you suspect of criminal activity. You’ve got to capture them and try them and punish them for their crimes if they’ve committed crimes, and offer them due process and release them if they’re found innocent.

So, the idea that we would be using military air power – which also risks civilian lives in the vicinity, regardless of how precise we try to be – in areas that are not hot battlefields, is extremely problematic in terms of international law, as many human rights lawyers and human rights groups have argued. So the fact that Biden is actually pointing to this distinction can be very impactful in shifting US rhetoric and international rhetoric on when drones might be acceptable, and when they may not be.

US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone pilot Creech
An MQ-9 Reaper pilot controls an aircraft from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

WPR: We’ve seen a lot of other countries use drones in battlefields, for example, in Libya, and also recently in Nagorno-Karabakh in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But is the US the only one right now using drones for these kinds of extrajudicial executions that you’re talking about?

Carpenter: That’s a good question. I would want to really research that before answering, but it’s certainly the country that is most known for using drones in this way. I will say that there are nonstate actors that have also tried to use drones to assassinate their enemies. It’s rather simple to actually use a weaponized drone to go after anybody you want. It’s one of the ironies that we’ve popularized and proliferated this technology, which could so easily be used against us.

But it’s the United States that has really become known for this tactic, and really criticized for this tactic by many actors, including local groups in Pakistan, a wide grassroots movement in the US and in Europe, and to some extent, the big international human rights and humanitarian law organizations.

These organizations are not so much concerned with drones per se, because drones are really not so different from their perspective from any other aerial platform for delivering weapons in an armed conflict. The concern is that they’re being used essentially for a campaign of extrajudicial execution in areas in which we’re not at war.

This is really a precedent that the US has set that thankfully not so many countries have followed. But it would not surprise me if some were beginning to, and I would expect more and more to do so in the future if this isn’t reigned in a bit. That may be what Biden is trying to do.

It may be that his advisers have decided that the risks of proliferating and justifying a type of act that could easily be used against us by our adversaries, or in areas where our civilians are at risk, isn’t worth the potential hypothetical gains in counterterror operations. They may have determined that we may in fact benefit from – in terms of our counterterror work – using means that are much more likely to protect civilians.

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