The declaration of War on Terror in 2001 was enthusiastically greeted by a more-than-usually jingoistic American population rallying around the flag after September 11th. George W Bush’s sky-high approval ratings granted him wide latitude to engage with ‘terrorists’ (and other members of the ‘axis of evil’) around the world, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Bush’s popularity, and that of the wars he started, waned over time, the willingness of the United States to identify and strike terrorist around the globe only expanded with the expanded use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly referred to as ‘drones’. Drone warfare, though frequently decried for its secrecy, lack of clear rules of engagement, and propensity to kill civilians, was utilized by President Bush but grew into a major feature of the Obama and Trump presidencies. Its persistence, as well as the apparently endless occupation of Afghanistan, became a symbol for many of the similarities between the two parties when it came to the use of American military force, some, like Glenn Greenwald, have used drone warfare and belligerent foreign policy (along with issues like privacy and criminal justice) to argue that indeed there is little significant difference between Democrats and Republicans. It became ‘common knowledge’ that no matter what party was in power, drones would be used to kill throughout the world, with little accountability, and American foreign policy would adopt a generally bellicose tone.
Then something unexpected happened—Biden stopped using drones. For many months in 2021, drone warfare ceased entirely. While strikes have since been used, including a tragic, panicked strike that killed many innocents in Kabul, their number and death toll have dropped precipitously. Airwars, an organization dedicated to tracking civilian deaths in these kinds of strikes, has noted 2021 as the lowest cumulative total of US-caused civilian air strike casualties since 2006. Another reminder of the War on Terror, the stationing of US troops in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, also ended in Biden’s first year as president, as those soldiers—and tens of thousands of civilians—were withdrawn in an evacuation that was itself broadly criticized as being disorganized or too hurried.
Outside the direct involvement of American troops, Biden has also overseen the curtailment of military conflict involving US allies. The horrific but often overlooked war in Yemen has reached a long term ceasefire, which means that desperately needed supplies have started flowing again into Northern Yemen through the Port of Hodeidah. Prior to the ceasefire, the UN had anticipated tens of thousands of deaths would result from the continued closure of the port; now, likely due to Biden’s pressure on the Saudi government, many lives will be saved. Further, Biden has chosen to pursue a re-establishment of the JCPOA, an agreement to maintain peace with Iran, and has entered into active negotiations on the matter—just a handful of years after his predecessor ripped up the agreement and killed Iran’s top general.
Finally, in the largest war of our time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden has stubbornly insisted his top priority is to avoid direct conflict between US and Russian troops. The Pentagon withdrew all of its troops, who had been on an extended mission training Ukrainians, from the country in expectation of the invasion (even as Russia and many commentators insisted such an attack would never happen), clearing the way for Russia to assault Ukraine without the danger of US casualties creating a clamor for more escalation. The State Department has cautiously put limits on the weapons given to the Ukrainian government and on how those weapons may be used. While this has limited Ukraine’s ability to respond to Russian’s devastating cruise missile attacks, it has also avoided scenes of Russian civilian casualties inflicted by American weapons—further sidestepping the possibility of direct confrontation between powers.
Sadly, although this drawdown in hostilities and focus on domestic policies may mirror what Americans say they want, in polls, it has not earned him popularity. Since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden’s approval numbers have never recovered to their early highs and have been consistently underwater. Predictably, Republicans have jumped on the president as weak and blamed him for the increased bellicosity of Russia and China.
One would think that organizations and outlets that had admirably opposed the invasion of Iraq and other excesses of the War on Terror would be rushing to shore up the position of the best advocate of their positions in two decades. Unfortunately, Biden’s dovish turn has not earned him many friends, particularly on the left. The Nation has not run any pieces on the diminution of drone strikes by the Biden admin; while there are occasional off-handed mentions of its winding down, they are more than drowned out with headlines like “Biden is Fine with Mass Civilian Death.” That criticism—of Biden’s post-withdrawal policy of freezing the assets of the Afghan national government rather than handing them to the Taliban-controlled central bank—may well be fair, but the headline contributes to an overall tone that fails to acknowledge any change in US policy compared to Biden’s predecessors. Notably, The Nation has offered extensive coverage on the conflict but nothing substantial on the ceasefire.
Jacobin has run a piece about Biden’s successes in ramping down the war in Yemen, describing them in February of 2021 as ‘tentatively hopeful’—but is again tight lipped about Biden’s near-moratorium on drone strikes, excoriating him for a ‘forever war’ in Somalia instead (never mind that the ‘war’ is waged at the behest of the internationally recognized Somali government and the paucity of civilian casualties noted there since Biden took office). The New Republic admitted that “The Biden Doctrine is not the Trump Doctrine”, but also insisted that the president was merely ‘rebranding’ our ‘forever wars.’ While Mother Jones has rightly drawn attention to continued fighting around the Syria-Iraq border, the editors there apparently forgot to mention anything about the pause or dramatic decrease in drone strikes. Center-left outlets like MSNBC have similarly devoted little attention to the shift.
Of course, politicians wanting more credit for what they perceive as their good works is nothing new, and an improvement over the status quo does not mean that criticism of continuing failures is inappropriate. Nevertheless, the media treatment of Biden’s foreign policy is significant and ultimately dangerous. If there is no constituency for the most anti-war president since 2001 (and likely since Jimmy Carter), it is unlikely that future presidents will choose to walk this path. The constant drumbeat of left criticism contrasts sharply with the loyalty much right wing media showed to Trump, even when his foreign policy was markedly inconsistent. This in turn creates a media environment enforcing strong structural advantages for pro-war politicians, especially those on the right.
There is of course an opportunity cost for each article published—even digitally, media bandwidth is limited, and there is a natural tendency, on the left especially, to see criticism of power as the highest calling. But that instinct runs a real danger of making more peaceful policies untenable. If Biden ends his presidency as a popular war-ender, the stage will be set for even more humane policies in the future. On the other hand, if he goes down in flames, abandoned by both doves and hawks, the clear message will be that ‘giving peace a chance’ is tantamount to political suicide. With Biden’s first term less than halfway over, there is still ample time to change course.
Featured Image is Joe and Jill Biden, by Gage Skidmore