Why Joe Biden is probably the least militaristic president of the last 40 years
Joe Biden is probably the least militaristic president of the last 40 years. He has ended a major foreign war and reduced American involvement in overseas interventions across the board.
Yet Biden has gotten little credit for his antiwar efforts. That’s a problem for those hoping to see less military violence in the world.
When a president or any politician does not get credit for their accomplishments, they have little incentive to build on them.
Biden has ramped down conflict, but leading antiwar voices have continued to attack him on the issue. Future presidents may reasonably conclude that the antiwar lobby is fickle, unreasonable and confused – that there’s not much point in catering to them.
Biden’s main accomplishment is showing restraint in Afghanistan.
Critics blamed Biden for the ugly spectacle of the Taliban overrunning the country following withdrawal. But such criticism was going to be leveled at any president who ended the conflict.
When you lose a war, you’re forced to watch enemies win. The US had a choice: stay in Afghanistan forever or acknowledge we lost. Biden was the first president to choose the second and pull out.
Also, Biden has drastically reduced the scale of the drone war.
Barack Obama rightly faced outrage for using of drone strikes in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Somalia. They often killed civilians.
Less reported was that Donald Trump substantially increased drone strikes and virtually ended required reporting and transparency.
Trump launched over 40 in Somalia in 2020; George W. Bush and Obama conducted over 40 strikes over nine years in the country.
Foreign Policy’s Kelsey D. Atherton looked at Trump’s almost invisible, escalating drone violence to conclude that “unaccountable machinery will continue to wage war in relative obscurity. Forever.”
Yet unaccountable machinery has largely been halted.
Biden instituted policies that require White House approval for all drone strikes outside of active war zones. Now that the Afghan war is ended, that means approval is required practically everywhere.
Trump oversaw some 1,600 air strikes in Iraq and Syria in his first 11 months in office. Biden had four in his first year. In Trump’s last year, there were 75 drone strikes in Somalia. In Biden’s first there were 10, with no civilian casualties. In Yemen, strikes dropped from 18 to 4.
An international monitoring group concluded that strikes fell 54 percent in Biden’s first year compared to Trump’s last one. Most of those were in Afghanistan before the US withdrawal. Outside of Afghanistan, the US carried out only 67 strikes altogether.
Antiwar activists could argue that 67 strikes is 67 too many. Biden’s also been rightly criticized for a horrific mistaken drone strike in August 2021 that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
However, it is indisputable that Biden, personally, has massively reduced reliance on drone warfare and has increased accountability.
Biden listened to critics and took them to heart. As a result, his administration has seen less violence and less death worldwide.
But instead of praising Biden for tamping down violence, longtime critics of the drone war have largely ignored his accomplishments.
Glenn Greenwald, an unrelenting critic of Obama’s drone war, has not written about Biden’s reduction in the drone war that I can find.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, another long-time drone-war critic, does little better. He does mention Biden’s accomplishment — once, in a single sentence, linking to someone else’s article.
Biden’s successful, admirable restraint of the drone war has largely been drowned out by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He has been criticized by some antiwar voices (like Greenwald) for involving the US in it. But his response has again been remarkable for its restraint.
Biden helped organize and implement a sweeping series of global sanctions to target Russia’s economy. He’s provided billions in aid for Ukraine’s military. He has refused to send US troops into the conflict. He’s refused to establish a no-fly zone. And he has been careful to avoid situations in which US and Russia forces might collide. He’s clearly and consistently avoided escalation of this global conflict.
What’s indisputable, though, is that Biden did not start the war, and has worked to keep US troops out of it.
During his term, Biden has ended one major war, vastly reduced US involvement in others, and worked actively to prevent a regional imperial war of aggression from metastasizing into a global conflict. He has reduced airstrikes, civilian deaths, and US military deaths.
There is no other president in the past 40 years, or arguably the past 70, with a better record on restraining military involvement.
Whether or not you like Biden, if you care about reducing war and violence, it’s important to acknowledge these accomplishments.
If antiwar voices don’t seem to notice, or care when wars end, politicians are reasonably going to conclude that their concerns about violence aren’t serious, principled, or informed. If there is no political benefit to restraint, politicians will not engage in restraint.
Biden has given the antiwar movement a series of solid victories. People who care about reducing military violence need to take yes for an answer. If they don’t, it is likely that they will go back to hearing a series of “nos.” And that means more people around the globe will needlessly die.
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