Biden Can't Have It Both Ways on Drone Strikes

If the combat mission is over in the Middle East, Biden should follow—and make permanent—more cautious drone guidelines.


The U.S. drone strike which killed several Islamic State leaders in Syria on Thursday was, by the Defense Department's account, a very successful affair. "Initial assessments indicate no civilians were killed or wounded during this operation," said the press release. "No U.S. forces were injured or killed and there was no loss or damage to U.S. equipment in the execution of this operation."

Maybe that's all true, though with the August 2021 drone strike in Afghanistan fresh in mind—the one originally touted as a hit on the Afghan ISIS branch, then later revealed to have killed seven children—it is reasonable to be skeptical. But even if it's all true, this strike should raise two red flags.

One is that its planning and execution were not subject to the Biden administration's comparatively strict rules for drone warfare. Intended to reduce civilian casualties, which had increased under the Trump administration's more reckless approach, these rules were implemented on a temporary basis in early 2021 and helped to dramatically scale down the U.S. drone war across the greater Middle East. The White House formalized that new, more careful procedure just this past Friday with a classified memo to the CIA and the Pentagon.

The policy indicates this administration "intends to launch fewer drone strikes, and commando raids away from recognized war zones than it has in the recent past," as The New York Times summarized, by requiring "Mr. Biden's approval before a suspected terrorist is added to a list of those who can be targeted for 'direct action,' in a return to a more centralized control of decisions about targeted killing operations that was a hallmark of President Barack Obama's second term." 

Insofar as it is an improvement over the methods of the Trump years—admittedly, a low bar to clear on this front—that's all to the good. But the Biden rules have two major flaws: First, this is a presidential policy memorandum, and not a law; it did not go through Congress. It has, therefore, no binding power beyond the end of the Biden administration. 

If the next president wants to return to a Trump-era approach, he can do so in the blink of an eye. As the next president could well be former President Donald Trump himself, he might want exactly that. A presidential policy memorandum, like an executive order, need not be retained by the next president if he doesn't want it. However admirable, then, it is a fleeting executive whim, not a reliable, long-term reform.

Second, and more to the point where this Syria strike is concerned, the new rules do not apply in "areas of active hostilities," a category in which, at present, the Biden administration places Iraq and Syria. In these "conventional war zones," "commanders in the field will retain greater latitude to order counterterrorism airstrikes or raids without seeking White House approval," the Times reported, citing an unnamed administration official.

And that brings me to the second red flag: Iraq and Syria are still being treated as active war zones. They're still classified as areas of active hostilities even though the territorial defeat of ISIS was completed in early 2019. The remnants of the terrorist organization are largely a regional threat, not a direct danger to the United States, and President Joe Biden said he ended the U.S. combat mission in Iraq last December. 

Biden can't have it both ways: If the combat mission is over, the more cautious drone guidelines should apply. But beyond the details of drone policy in particular, Biden's continuation of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria is indicted by his own case for a U.S. exit from Afghanistan. 

"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence … hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result," he argued of Afghanistan in April of 2021. The prudential case Biden made in that speech is, if anything, even truer of our lingering military entanglements in Iraq (where the initial argument for invasion was grounded in falsehood) and Syria (where U.S. intervention was always illicit in that it was never authorized by Congress as the Constitution demands).

The Biden administration deserves credit for reducing the number of U.S. drone strikes and taking new pains to prevent civilian casualties when they do happen. It should likewise be lauded for last year's withdrawal from Afghanistan and its partial shift of the U.S. role in Yemen's civil war. Yet we can praise those positive changes to our inhumane and stagnant Middle East policy while still recognizing how much remains to be done. Last week's drone strike in Syria was a timely reminder of all that hasn't changed.