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.
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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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Biden has settled one of Trump’s feuds with a close US ally, but there are still thornier issues to deal with

south korea military exercise
South Korean marines in blue headbands and US Marines take position during a joint amphibious landing exercise in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

  • By signing a new military cost-sharing agreement with South Korea, the Biden administration has settled a fight picked by the Trump administration.
  • But the US-South Korea relationship still faces long-term bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The completion of a long-term, military cost-sharing deal resolves a point of tension between the United States and South Korea, signaling a renewed US emphasis on regional allies.

But it still leaves thornier bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region, which will change the US-South Korea defense relationship over the next 10 years.

On March 8, US and South Korean negotiators reached an agreement in principle on the renewal of their military cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement (SMA) after three successive days of talks in Washington, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced March 8.

The US State Department said on March 7 that the agreement would extend through 2025 and include a “meaningful increase” in South Korea’s share of the expenses to support US troop deployments in the country.

  • Although the full details have not been released, earlier leaks indicated that as part of an effort to smooth over ties with South Korea, the Biden administration was willing to accept a 13% increase in South Korean contributions over the previous $925.3 million agreement. If confirmed, this is far short of the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s reported hardline push for a fivefold increase to $5 billion per year.
  • As part of a global push to increase the military burden-sharing of allies, Trump had pressured South Korea to substantially expand its contributions. A one-year 2018-2019 agreement expired and gave way to over a year of fruitless talks that saw South Korean personnel furloughed for three months from April before Seoul offered $200 million in stopgap funding.
  • On February 17, a US-Japan cost-sharing agreement was reached on their deal expiring in March that extended the current agreement to April 2022. The deal didn’t change the $1.9 billion in annual Japanese contributions to allow time for negotiations on a longer pact. The Trump administration had reportedly been pushing for an annual payment of $8 billion.
us korea joint training
A South Korean K1 tank fires during a joint military exercise with the US in Pohang, South Korea, July 6, 2016.

Inking this cost-sharing deal, however, was relatively easy compared with ongoing thornier discussions on issues, such as South Korea’s desire to regain wartime control of its armed forces from the United States.

With around one year before South Korea’s next presidential election, such talks will be highly politicized given the internal divisions in South Korea between progressives favoring greater military independence and conservatives focused on continuity in the US alliance.

  • Before the March 2022 presidential election, the administration of President Moon Jae-in aims to regain Operational Control Authority (OPCON) from the United States, which would allow the South Korean government to control its military during wartime in contrast to the current arrangement in which such forces would be led by a US general. The progressive arm of South Korean politics sees this as necessary to allow greater latitude in dealing with North Korea.
  • The United States, however, may hesitate to make sweeping changes in OPCON given the continued North Korean threat amid the stagnation in the US-North Korea outreach on denuclearization – a factor that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said in 2018 could allow for a drawdown during progress with Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
US soldiers take part in a US-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016.

The precise nature of the US-South Korea defense relationship is still in flux.

While the United States will continue to focus on South Korea as a key regional partner, it may shift away from massive troop deployments on the Korean Peninsula in favor of flexible and mobile troop deployments with greater standoff distance from the Asian mainland, with a particular focus on Japan.

  • With countering China’s regional rise firmly established as the key US objective in the Indo-Pacific, Japan offers greater latitude for the US military to maneuver without the liabilities of South Korean troop deployments, which are costly and leave US personnel in the line of fire in the event of a deterioration in North Korean relations.
  • On March 8, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US troop numbers in South Korea were not fixed and pointed to Biden’s pledge to carry out a global posture review to realign military deployments with the global threat environment.
  • On March 5, US leaks indicated long-term plans to station precision-strike missiles along the so-called “first island chain,” which geographically runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, as part of the $27.4 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative military fund that aims to counter Chinese regional clout.
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Top House Democrat says the US should be ‘really careful about stumbling into a cold war with China’

House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith Thomas Waldhauser
Rep. Adam Smith, right, then ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, before a hearing, March 6, 2016.

  • US efforts to counter China militarily raise the risk of “stumbling into a cold war,” the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee says.
  • “We need to embrace containment and deterrence,” Rep. Adam Smith said last week.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith warned Friday that any notion of building a military force to rival China’s should be replaced with a strategy based on deterrence and dialogue in order to avoid war.

“I’m worried as we look at our sort of war planning,” Smith during a Brookings Institution-sponsored virtual discussion. “It runs the distinct risk of creating conflict where it doesn’t need to be. … We need to be really careful about stumbling into a cold war with China.”

The Democrat from Washington state called for a deterrence approach that stresses alliances, partnerships, diplomacy, and direct dialogue with China to prevent an armed conflict that experts have warned about for decades despite nothing close to war ever materializing.

The perceived threat of war with China, however, helps the armed services secure billions annually from Congress – and US weapons manufacturers to rake in the profits from arms programs that typically run years behind schedule and well over initial price estimates.

Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, US Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil Davidson warned that in a decade, China can achieve overmatch capability and permanently reshape the region.

“Make no mistake about it, China seeks a new world,” Davidson said. “China has modernized its military more than any other nation on the planet through the course of this century.”

biden xi jinping china
Chinese President Xi Jinping with then-Vice President Joe Biden in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 4, 2013

Of course, US flag officers and hawkish lawmakers and industry executives have been making such claims for some time – while also boasting that the US military is the best equipped and most lethal in world history.

Davidson’s remarks follow a $27 billion wish list submitted to Congress this week. Lawmakers already approved some $6.8 billion as part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a plan to modernize the capability of partners and allies in the region.

Smith agreed with the PDI’s goal of courting and making capable regional partners who could act to respond quickly to aggressive action by China.

“If we had quick-strike deterrent capability, that would impose a cost upon China and not drag us into a larger war,” he said. “That’s about alliances and partnerships.”

Smith said if partners and allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and India were ready to act in response to Chinese aggression, it would deter China from doing anything harmful in the first place.

Smith also called for dialogue, something former Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper signaled when he announced his intent to travel to China to meet with his People’s Liberation Army counterpart.

The trip never happened after Esper was sacked following the November election.

US Navy China sailors
US Navy sailors in front of US and Chinese flags as US Navy destroyer USS Stethem arrives in Shanghai for an official visit, November 16, 2015.

When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked at his only press conference (so far) if he saw any opening for cooperation with China, the new Pentagon leader acknowledged the possibility before taking a hard line.

“We are, in this department, are going to do everything possible to ensure that we have the right operational concepts, the right plans in place, and that we have resourced those plans with the right capabilities to present a credible deterrence to not only to China, or any other adversary, who would want to take us on,” he said.

Austin has signaled China will be the Defense Department’s pacing challenge, but he will wait up to four months before he decides how the Defense Department should change gears.

The former US Central Command leader, who spent much of his career focused on the Middle East, ordered a China Task Force to assess where the department currently stands before deciding his priorities.

In the meantime, Smith was happy to offer unsolicited advice.

“President Biden doesn’t have any illusions about how bad China is, but we have to work with them as a major factor in the world,” he said.

“We need to embrace containment and deterrence,” he added. “Be clear-eyed about China. Fine. All right. But understand that there are alternatives to dealing with that threat to all-out conflict.”

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Biden can end the US war in Afghanistan in 2 months. He just has to do what Trump agreed to do.

Joe Biden soldiers troops Bagram Kabul Afghanistan
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with US soldiers at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, January 12, 2011.

  • Under a deal signed by President Donald Trump, US troops would leave Afghanistan by May 1.
  • President Joe Biden pledged to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” but he looks set to renege on Trump’s deal.
  • If Biden wants end the US war in Afghanistan, he has to stick to that deal, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The war in Afghanistan is over, if President Joe Biden wants it.

Well, to be a little more precise, the 20-year US military intervention in decades-long Afghan civil strife is scheduled to be concluded on May 1 of this year per the terms of an agreement negotiated between our government and the Taliban.

That deadline can be met and Biden’s campaign pledge about Afghanistan fulfilled if he chooses to ignore his advisers and stick with his predecessor’s plan.

That’s a big “if,” and a recent report from Vox, citing unnamed officials in the administration, suggested Biden keeping the deadline is already “off the table.” It shouldn’t be.

For all their differences, leaving Afghanistan is a point on which Biden and Trump agree – and for all Trump’s failure to end the US role in this war as he promised, the May 1 deadline is worth keeping.

The reasons to leave are manifest: We’ve occupied Afghanistan for the span of a generation. We’ve fielded deployments north of 100,000. We’ve suffered and inflicted tens of thousands of casualties, many on innocent civilians. We’ve spent and borrowed trillions.

And, for all that, we have not eradicated terrorism or built a stable democracy or guaranteed human rights or fostered peace. Another year of fighting won’t change that. Nor will another 10.

US soldiers troops war in Afghanistan
US Marine Sgt. William Olas Bee has a close call after Taliban fighters open fire near Garmsir in Helmand Province, May 2008.

“Washington has spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan just to stay exactly where it was almost two decades ago,” as the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford recently explained at Foreign Policy. “And if Biden doesn’t withdraw now, we’ll all still be having this argument in five or 10 years, with no substantive improvement to the situation.”

This is a lost war which is not worth our while to continue, and everyone but the Washington establishment knows it.

And speaking of Washington, that brings us to the absurdities typically presented as reasons to stay. As Ashford observed, it’s “the Washington establishment that wants Biden to throw out Trump’s Afghanistan policy.” She pointed to the findings of the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), which were published last month.

“The group actually ignored the recommendations of its own advisors,” Ashford said, “which advocated two options: withdraw by the May deadline, or negotiate a single, one-time extension to push for political settlement.”

Instead, the ASG advised the Biden administration to keep US boots on the ground in Afghanistan indefinitely, prolonging the occupation until an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state” somehow emerges from the ether.

It should go without saying that any person of good conscience wants Afghans to live in freedom, peace, security, and prosperity with a transparent government that respects – and is competent to protect – their rights.

But by now, approaching the 20th anniversary of the US invasion in 2001, it should also go without saying that these are not conditions the United States can create for Afghanistan. It’s not that the goal is wanting in merit. It’s simply a goal we have proved, year after year and administration after administration, we cannot accomplish.

Biden would be wise to recognize this difficult truth and break this miserable and pointless pattern. That means putting the May 1 deadline back on the table and bringing all our troops home.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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With millions of vaccine doses, Russia is showing off a different kind of power in Latin America

sputnik v bolivia russia coronavirus vaccine distribution
Workers unload containers of Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at the International Airport of El Alto, Bolivia, January 28, 2021.

  • Russia has pledged to distribute millions of doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to countries in Latin America.
  • The deliveries are a demonstration of Moscow’s “soft power,” building influence and relationships through non-military and non-coercive means.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

For the Kremlin, the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine is an opportunity to win over the “hearts and minds” of people in faraway places – including in Mexico where it has pledged to send 24 million doses.

So says Victor Jeifets, a professor of Latin American studies at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, who describes this as a form of “soft power.”

“Sending Sputnik to Latin America is a chance to demonstrate that Russia can be a country that is not sending ideology or arms for a regime, but rather, is sending medicine that is necessary for surviving,” he said.

The Russian government has pledged to distribute the vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology to at least a dozen countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and Mexico.

Historically, Soviet Russia was interested in exporting its ideology to like-minded governments, Jeifets said. But now, Russia wants to reach out to more conservative leaders, like those of Colombia and Paraguay, who are in talks to receive shipments, Jeifets said.

Argentina President Alberto Fernandez Sputnik V vaccine vaccination
Argentine President Alberto Fernandez receives a dose of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at a hospital in Buenos Aires, January 21, 2021.

Mexico, meanwhile, cannot be picky about where it gets its vaccines. The country began distributing 200,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine on February 24, an important lifeline as the country’s health officials have struggled to quickly receive and distribute doses from labs abroad.

In December, Mexico and Chile became the first two countries in Latin America to receive vaccines, with shipments from Germany-based BioNTech. But health authorities in Mexico, which has also received vaccines from China-based Sinovac Biotech, have since been criticized for confusion and inefficiency in their distribution. (Chile is on track to inoculate 80% of its population by June.)

Mexican health authorities, initially, coordinated distribution nationally, but appeared at the last minute to punt responsibility to state governments with little warning or preparation, said Malaquías López-Cervantes, a professor of public health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Even as some states have begun to give vaccines to the general population, many doctors and nurses in public hospitals haven’t gotten shots, and health workers in private facilities have been largely ignored.

“My perception is that the federal government is making an effort that should be recognized, but there has also been terrible discoordination,” López-Cervantes said.

Mexico City Sputnik V vaccine vaccination
Medical personnel immunize adults 60 years and older with the Sputnik V vaccine in Bosque de Tláhuac, Mexico City, February 26, 2021.

Many in Mexico who’ve already received the Sputnik vaccine say it’s a huge relief.

Sofia Avila Velasco, 68, was one of the first people in Mexico to receive a dose of the Sputnik vaccine on February 24 at a school in Mexico City’s southern borough of Xochimilco, which started with people over 60.

Avila Velasco said she’s been stuck at home – gaining weight, getting older and becoming consumed by anxiety. So, the shot, she said, means a lot.

“I feel calm,” she said.

Susana Balcazar, 62, arrived at about midday to the same site and waited for about two hours under large tents. She was the 2,149th person in line, she said.

She was glad to get a shot, she said, but was fully aware that only a relative few in the country have had that opportunity.

“This isn’t an instant cure for the entire population,” she said. “But we have to do our part to prevent the virus from becoming more aggressive.”

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Biden is on the verge of making the same dangerous mistakes as the presidents before him

Biden speech
President Joe Biden during his inauguration at the US Capitol, January 20, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden enters office amid simmering tensions with US foes all over the world.
  • The costs of pursuing US global preeminence have been made clear, and it’s time for US leaders to take a different path.
  • Frank Giustra is co-chair of the International Crisis Group. Andrew Bacevich is president and cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

If the escalating tensions between the United States and China aren’t causing you concern yet, you’ve not been paying attention.

Any conflict between the two superpowers would result in unimaginable devastation – if not physical, at least economic. And don’t forget: both China and the United States possess nuclear arsenals.

There’s a lot going on right now in our Covid-besieged world. But war remains an omnipresent danger. Antagonism between the United States and China is only one source of concern. The broken relationship between the US and Iran is another.

A year ago our two countries came dangerously close to full-scale war. After Tehran-backed forces launched several missiles at a military base in Iraq housing US troops, Washington retaliated by assassinating Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and both sides walked back from the brink. But tensions between the US and Iran remain high. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

Joe Biden Iraq
Biden, then Vice President, talks to soldiers at Camp Victory, on the outskirts of Baghdad, July 4, 2009.

The bad blood between Tehran and Washington derives from many sources. Yet one proximate cause stems from the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, as a part of a crude “maximum pressure” campaign.

That campaign failed abysmally, and in a hopeful sign, the Biden administration has now signalled its interest in rejoining the JCPOA. The journey from aspiration to achievement is likely to be arduous. But the effort is a necessary one.

Sadly, the Trump administration’s reliance on coercion in dealing with Tehran falls within a tradition of American statecraft which long predates Trump himself. Since World War II and especially since the end of the Cold War, a succession of administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, have opted for force, overt and covert, direct or through proxies, to shore up US global preeminence.

Trump revived the incendiary slogan “America First.” But keeping American first, by whatever means necessary, defines the through line of US policy going back several decades. Taking stock of that approach and measuring its costs have become an urgent priority.

In a famous speech, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of a president and destined himself to occupy the White House, warned Americans against the temptation to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

To indulge in this temptation, Adams believed, was to risk involving the United States “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”

aircraft carrier
Sailors watch the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis sail alongside the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean, May 5, 2015.

This aptly describes the situation in which the United States finds itself today, mired in senseless “forever wars,” maintaining over 800 foreign bases, seeking to contain the rise of China by military intimidation, and expending roughly a trillion dollars a year for what is loosely termed national security, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans are felled by disease. There is something radically amiss with the reigning ideas of security.

It is time for a change. America needs policies that emphasize diplomacy, promote peaceful coexistence, and regard military intervention as truly the option of last resort. Interestingly, American public opinion has been moving in the direction of non-intervention. Which raises the question, why haven’t we seen the public’s will make its way to the decision makers in Washington?

President Dwight Eisenhower once warned against the dangers of the “Military Industrial Complex.” Simply put, the defense industry is big business. It makes a lot of money and creates some jobs, which, in turn, buys lobbying power.

The defense industry is not the only one exerting influence on Washington. There are also many foreign powers that support the status quo because it benefits their own political interests in their respective regions. Both groups have vast resources to spread around and gain influence. Too often, the results are unnecessary conflicts or tensions with countries – from Cuba to Libya to Iraq to Iran – that don’t pose a significant threat to the American people.

Institutions such as the two that we are privileged to lead offer an alternative conception of America’s role in the world, emphasizing military restraint and diplomatic engagement. Might the moment to try such an approach now be at hand?

Frank Giustra is co-chair of the International Crisis Group. Andrew Bacevich is president and cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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The House votes to expand legal safeguards for LGBTQ people in passing the Equality Act

Equality Act
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., right, with Senate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, and Sen. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks about the Congress Equality Act, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is behind Nadler.

  • The House passed legislation expanding civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community. 
  • The bill passed by a vote of 224-206 with three Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes.
  • Biden made clear his support for the Equality Act in the lead-up to last year’s election.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Democratic-led House passed a bill Thursday that would enshrine LGBTQ protections in the nation’s labor and civil rights laws, a top priority of President Joe Biden, though the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

The bill passed by a vote of 224-206 with three Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes.

The Equality Act amends existing civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identification as protected characteristics. The protections would extend to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations and other areas. Supporters say the law before the House on Thursday is long overdue and would ensure that every person is treated equally under the law.

“The LGBT community has waited long enough,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who is gay and the bill’s lead sponsor. “The time has come to extend the blessings of liberty and equality to all of Americans regardless of who they are and who they love.”

Republicans broadly opposed the legislation. They echoed concerns from religious groups and social conservatives who worry the bill would force people to take actions that contradict their religious beliefs. They warned that faith-based adoption agencies seeking to place children with a married mother and father could be forced to close, or that private schools would have to hire staff whose conduct violates tenets of the school’s faith.

White House pride lights
The White House is blanketed in rainbow colors symbolizing LGBT pride in Washington on June 26, 2015.

“This is unprecedented. It’s dangerous. It’s an attack on our first freedom, the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, religious liberty,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.

The House passed the Equality Act in the last Congress with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of eight Republicans, but Donald Trump’s White House opposed the measure and it was not considered in the Senate, where 60 votes will be needed to overcome procedural hurdles. Democrats are trying to revive it now that they have control of Congress and the White House, but passage still appears unlikely in the evenly divided Senate.

The Supreme Court provided the LGBTQ community with a resounding victory last year in a 6-3 ruling that said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to LGBTQ workers when it comes to barring discrimination on the basis of sex. Civil rights groups have encouraged Congress to follow up that decision and ensure that anti-bias protections addressing such areas as housing, public accommodations and public services are applied in all 50 states.

Biden made clear his support for the Equality Act in the lead-up to last year’s election, saying it would be one of his first priorities.

Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Penn., said the Equality Act is needed to end “the patchwork of state laws” around gay rights and create “uniform nationwide protection.”

“It’s been personal since my baby sister came out to me almost 40 years ago,” Scanlon said. “For many people all across this country and across this House, that is when the fight hits home.”

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Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

The debate among lawmakers on Capitol Hill also become personal. Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., whose daughter is transgender, tweeted a video of herself placing a transgender flag outside her office. Her office is across the hall from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who was recently blocked from serving on two committees because of past comments and tweets.

“Our neighbor, @RepMTG, tried to block the Equality Act because she believes prohibiting discrimination against trans Americans is “disgusting, immoral, and evil.” Thought we’d put up our Transgender flag so she can look at it every time she opens her door.,” Newman tweeted.

Greene responded with a video of her own in which she puts up a sign that reads: “There are Two genders: MALE and FEMALE. “Trust The Science!”

“Our neighbor, @RepMarieNewman, wants to pass the so-called “Equality” Act to destroy women’s rights and religious freedoms. Thought we’d put up ours so she can look at it every time she opens her door,” Greene tweeted.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pointed to the exchange to advocate for the bill Thursday.

“It breaks my heart that it is necessary, but the fact is, and in fact we had a sad event here even this morning, demonstrating the need for us to have respect,” Pelosi said, at one point pausing and taking a deep sigh. “Not even just respect, but take pride, take pride in our LGBT community.”

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Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., is an openly gay member of Congress from New Hampshire who supported the Act.

Gay and lesbian members of Congress spoke about how meaningful the bill is for them.

“Look, we’re not asking for anything that any other American doesn’t already enjoy,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “We just want to be treated the same. We just want politicians in Washington to catch up with the times and the Constitution.”

Leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote lawmakers this week to say they had grave concerns about the bill. Among the concerns they raised is that the bill would expand the government’s definition of public places, forcing church halls and equivalent facilities to host functions that violate their beliefs, which could lead to closing their doors to the broader community.

Republicans cited an array of consequences they said could occur if the bill passed into law, from eliminating the existing ban on the use of government funds for abortion, to allowing transgender people into women’s shelters and transgender youth into girls sports. Democrats likened the effort to past civil rights battles in the nation’s history.

Cicilline challenged Republicans, “I hope you will bear in mind how your vote will be remembered years from now.”

Some of the nation’s largest corporations are part of a coalition in support of the legislation, including Apple Inc., AT&T, Chevron and 3M Co., just to name a few of the hundreds of companies that have endorsed it.

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North Korea’s nukes aren’t going anywhere, and the US needs to get over it

Joe Biden South Korea
Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, August 11, 2001.

  • The Biden administrations departure from Trump’s approach to North Korea is a useful change.
  • But Biden’s continued insistence on denuclearization is counterproductive, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
  • If the US sets that aside, a multitude of more practical goals become achievable.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Observers should not mistake the absence of direct engagement between Washington and Pyongyang for disinterest in the fate of US-North Korea relations, State Department representative Ned Price said in a recent press briefing.

Price stressed that the administration’s “strategic goals” with the Kim Jong Un regime will be “focus[ed] on reducing the threat to the United States and to our allies as well as to improving the lives of the North and South Korean people. And, again, the central premise is that we remain committed to denuclearization of North Korea.”

The Biden team’s workmanlike approach is an expedient change from their predecessors’ photo-op diplomacy. But this continued insistence on denuclearization as the primary goal in US-North Korea engagement is incredibly counterproductive.

Hwasong 15 North Korean missile (ICBM)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviews a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in an undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, November 30, 2017.

If Biden and his team are serious about making headway on their first two strategic goals – threat reduction and humanitarian gains on the Korean Peninsula – they must drop the third. For progress with North Korea, forget denuclearization.

We can do that safely for three reasons. First, as Price himself noted, “the United States, of course, remains the most powerful and strongest country in the world.” Even with nuclear weapons, North Korea’s military might is miniscule by comparison. In nuclear and conventional weaponry alike, the US advantage is overwhelming, as the Kim regime well knows.

This is not to say Pyongyang couldn’t do real damage. It could – the South Korean capital of Seoul, a city of 10 million, is only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, well within North Korea’s strike range.

But Kim is unquestionably aware of the consequences unprovoked aggression against a US ally (let alone the United States proper or our military, which has an extensive South Korean presence) would bring. He would not finish the resultant conflict in power; he might not finish it alive.

That glaringly obvious truth creates a powerful deterrence for the United States, and it is a deterrence which maintaining the nuclear status quo indefinitely will not obviate.

Kim Jong Un Missile
Kim at what was said to be a missile test site at an undisclosed location in North Korea, May 15, 2017.

Second, Price repeats the longstanding claim that denuclearization is itself a goal. This is not – or, at least, should not be – quite correct. The proper goal is avoidance of horrific, world-changing, history-altering nuclear war.

Denuclearization is one means of accomplishing that avoidance. But it is not the only way, and the mere existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons does not mean they will be used.

The United States is already securely coexisting with a nuclear North Korea. We are stably coexisting with other nuclear powers, too, including several (chiefly China and Russia, but also Pakistan, if conventional wisdom is correct) that are hardly reliably friendly to America.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is of a similar strength to our own, and China boasts a far more powerful military and economy than North Korea ever could. Yet complete denuclearization of these countries is not standard US policy, not only because it is an unachievable aim for Washington but because it is not necessary to avoid nuclear war.

We can likewise avoid nuclear conflict involving North Korea without attaining denuclearization – indeed, we have done it for decades.

Finally, forgetting denuclearization for now may ultimately get us to denuclearization, and it will certainly help us toward the administration’s other two goals of de-escalation and improved quality of life for the Korean people.

Joe Biden South Korea troops
Biden, then vice president, with Joint Joint Security Area soldiers in Panmunjom, December 7, 2013.

If we set aside denuclearization – a concession Pyongyang will not make so long as it perceives any risk of forcible, US-orchestrated regime change like that in Iraq and Libya – a multitude of more practical and feasible goals become accessible to us.

Working-level diplomacy by the Biden administration could accomplish a nuclear freeze, regular inspections of Kim’s arsenal, or even some reduction of his nuclear stockpile or missile systems. It could produce, seven decades late, a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War. It could bargain for concessions from Pyongyang by offering cessation of US sanctions that harm ordinary North Koreans. It could permit expanded, Korean-directed engagement between North and South Korea, including trade and reconnection of divided families.

It could take steps toward making North Korea a far more normal country, opening the “hermit kingdom” to the global culture and economy and giving its people a shot at deprograming themselves from their government’s sadistic brainwashing. And it could ultimately lay the groundwork for a new era in North Korean foreign relations, one which might mature someday, probably long after this administration is over, into a denuclearized and even democratic Pyongyang.

None of that is possible, however, if the Biden administration insists on denuclearization now. A shortsighted demand for Kim to concede what he views as his sole guarantee against American invasion will ensure Biden leaves office just like former President Donald Trump, having moved the needle on US-North Korean relations not an inch.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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Biden’s approach to Iran is better than Biden makes it sound

Iran missile launch
A missile is launched in a drill in Iran, January 16, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden’s comments in his first weeks in office have raised concern about whether he’ll pursue the diplomacy with Iran he promised during his campaign.
  • But posturing is to be expected, and Biden’s more substantive moves, and the personnel he picks, that merit attention, writes Defense Priorities fellow Shahed Ghoreishi.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In a recent interview, President Joe Biden said the US will not return to the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, until Iran stops enriching uranium first. A “US senior official” clarified the remarks, repeating a campaign line that Iran has to “stop enriching beyond the limits of the JCPOA” – not “all” enrichment.

Understandably, diplomacy advocates were concerned by Biden’s initial remarks, but there are good reasons to remain hopeful. The public posturing is par for the course. President Barack Obama did the same, before approving secret talks in Oman in 2013 that laid the groundwork for the deal.

While public announcements remain important, the real scrutiny should be directed at substantive moves – some of which are happening behind the scenes. In this regard, Biden has made a number of positive moves signaling his desire to de-escalate away from the crisis the Trump administration created with Iran, return to the Iran deal, and ultimately avoid another endless war in the Middle East.

First, Biden quickly moved an aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, out of the Persian Gulf in an early signal to Iran that he desires lower tensions.

Iran Biden Trump protest
Protesters burn pictures of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, November 28, 2020.

In mid-January, Iran conducted its fifth military drill in two weeks, while the Trump administration sent the USS Nimitz, along with multiple B-52 flights, to the region as a threat to Iran. Between the Trump administration’s military threats and Iran’s increasing stockpile of uranium, tensions were high and speculation that Trump might order a strike on Iran churned until his last days in office.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East” and therefore didn’t need to send any provocative signals to Iran.

The merits of having a “robust presence” in the region deserve their own scrutiny, but in this case avoiding dramatic displays is meaningful, even if more routine military activity in the Persian Gulf continues.

Second, the Biden administration suspended offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reversed the decision to place Houthis on the official terrorism designation list. The suspension came in the context of Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling out Saudi Arabia for “contributing” to the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”

While these actions were done in the context of the Biden administration ending US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, they do send a signal the US is hoping to have a more balanced approach to the region.

After all, it was the Trump administration that spent four years following our authoritarian partners’ lead in the region, even after the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

It was Obama who originally said Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to “share the region,” instead of embracing regional competition.

In fact, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail. This is the first step in giving the US a more balanced approach to the region and greater strategic flexibility – rather than taking the Gulf States’ side in their regional rivalry with Iran.

Third, Biden has already signaled his intentions with his personnel choices by bringing on a number of experienced, pro-diplomacy advocates that know how to engage Iran.

This includes the Biden administration’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal; national security advisor Jake Sullivan, who met with the Iranians in Oman prior to the JCPOA negotiations; and nominee for CIA Director William Burns, a veteran diplomat. Since the Biden administration has stated its intention to expand diplomacy with Iran even after returning to the JCPOA, these veterans will be that much more critical.

Lastly, there is a lot that we still do not know. The preliminary talks in Oman during the Obama administration became public nearly a year after they took place, when higher level negotiations were underway.

FILE PHOTO: (L-R) Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry listen as President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki address reporters after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 1, 2013.     REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
Biden, then vice president, and Antony Blinken, then deputy national security advisor, in the Oval Office, November 1, 2013.

The Biden administration has to deal with congressional hawks, advocacy organizations that prefer continued animosity, lobbyist firms, and regional partners that benefit from the status quo of a heavily sanctioned Iran.

Israel has already threatened to strike Iran if the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA. The current team in the White House has not forgotten the lessons of the Obama administration and understands the public-relations sphere.

It goes to show the real progress diplomacy has had when expectations for diplomacy are as high as they are. The Biden administration’s move to review US sanctions policy and how it undermines COVID-19 response in various countries, including Iran, was praised, but has been quickly forgotten since. These important moves should not be taken lightly.

Yes, the window of diplomatic opportunity with Iran will not remain open forever, but important gestures have been made. The path toward a balanced approach to the region and avoiding another endless war is still very much before us.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi

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Biden needs to remember what kind of friend Saudi Arabia really is

Mohammad bin Salman king salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, with his father, King Salman, at a meeting in Riyadh, December 9, 2018.

  • President-elect Joe Biden has long been skeptical of the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the way previous administrations have cozied up to Riyadh.
  • As president, Biden should trust his instincts and remember that Saudi Arabia needs the US more than the US needs Saudi Arabia, writes Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As presidential candidates have been doing since the dawn of time, Joe Biden made his fair share of promises and commitments on the campaign trail.

The United States, he said, would be respected again on the world stage. Russia and its spymaster president, Vladimir Putin, would be held accountable. US foreign policy would be smarter, less volatile, and more considerate of Washington’s allies.

Some promises, however, are more important than others. And if there is one idea the president-elect should make good on as he prepares for Inauguration Day on January 20, it’s the absolute necessity of reforming Washington’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Biden has been a relative skeptic of the kingdom during his long career. When he was a senator and influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he frequently pointed out in floor speeches and media interviews that Saudi Arabia was less an iron-clad friend of the United States and more a partner of convenience.

During a 2004 interview with PBS, Biden questioned whether the United States was getting anything out of its bilateral relationship with Riyadh, a statement considered heresy at the time. But however unpopular those words may have been, it was an astute observation: What, exactly, does Washington get for granting the Saudi monarchy special favors?

trump saudi arabia

Biden’s reticence towards the kingdom hasn’t decreased with age – if anything, the feelings have hardened. At one point during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden openly called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” a term normally reserved for folks like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

Biden’s assessment is no doubt driven by the direction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has taken the monarchy, a path that includes state-sanctioned assassinations of journalists, aggressive and bumbling misadventures overseas, and the creation of the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today.

Releasing tough statements, of course, is one thing. Following those statements through with concrete action is another thing entirely. The Biden administration should approach its policy on Saudi Arabia with three key elements in mind.

First, the Biden White House won’t be able to reassess US-Saudi relations if it doesn’t start with an accurate baseline. When it comes down to it, Saudi Arabia needs the United States a lot more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. This frequently gets overlooked in Washington, which tends to view the kingdom as if the world was still in the 20th century. Yes, Saudi Arabia is the world’s second-largest oil crude oil producer, but US oil imports from the Persian Gulf have declined by nearly 70% over the last decade as the US becomes more energy independent.

Unlike the Cold War, when Soviet domination of Middle Eastern oil supplies was very much on the minds of US policymakers, there is no power today – regional or otherwise – remotely close to attaining the status of a market-making oil hegemon. This includes a more assertive China, which despite relying on the Persian Gulf for 47% of its oil supplies watched with glee as Washington got bogged down in the Middle East. Beijing’s conclusion: A permanent military presence in the region is a costly endeavor.

Donald Trump Saudi Arabia

Second, the Biden administration should view the US-Saudi relationship for what it really is: A pragmatic arrangement whose genesis occurred at a very different time, in a very different world with very different circumstances.

While Washington and Riyadh have boasted relatively decent relations since President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz al-Saud met on the USS Quincy in the closing days of World War II, it’s important to remember there is no formal alliance between the two nations. The US is not obligated to defend the kingdom in the event of an attack, nor do the Saudis enjoy the privilege of unconditional US diplomatic or military support. To believe otherwise is to give the monarchy veto power over US foreign policy. Any problem in the Middle East, no matter how detached from US security interests, would automatically morph into a problem for the United States.

Third and finally, it’s critical for Biden and his foreign policy team to recognize just how divergent US and Saudi interests truly are. For the kingdom, Iran is a regional nemesis that seeks to undercut Saudi influence. Yet to Washington, Iran is a third-rate nuisance whose economic, military, and diplomatic leverage is manageable.

Saudi Arabia hopes to increase its influence to the point where it transforms into the Middle East’s perennial power. The US, in contrast, doesn’t have an interest in putting its thumb on the scales or picking winners and losers, which would upend the balance of power and drag the US military further into the region’s internal disputes.

Keeping these three principles in mind will help Biden navigate a US-Saudi relationship in sore need of a reappraisal. Washington doesn’t owe Saudi Arabia anything – certainly not hundreds of millions worth of smart bomb sales, tens of billions of dollars worth of offensive military equipment, or US involvement in a calamity of Riyadh’s own making.

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

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