In the first two months of Joe Biden’s presidency, you could feel the country holding its breath. Sheltered in place, hidden behind masks, unsure about whether to trust in a safe-from-pandemic future, we are nonetheless beginning to open our eyes collectively. As part of this reemergence, a wider array of issues — those beyond Covid-19 — are once again starting to enter public consciousness. Domestically, attempts to repress (or preserve) voting rights have been consuming activists and dominating headlines, along with this country’s missing infrastructure and a need to raise the minimum wage. The foreign affairs agenda isn’t far behind. From rising great-power rivalries, notably with China and Russia, to cyberattacks like the Solarwinds hack that affected agencies across the government, to the question of whether American troops will leaveAfghanistan, a growing number of issues loom for the administration, Congress, and the public in the months to come.
On the domestic front, the response to the new administration (and especially its $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill) has been a collective sigh of relief — as well as much praise, as well as fierce partisan Republican attacks — when it comes to the reform agenda being put in place domestically. In the realm of foreign affairs, however, criticism has been swift and harsh, owing to several early administration actions.
On February 25, at the president’s order, the U.S. launched an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in Syria, killing 22. On February 26, the administration released an intelligence report pointing the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, only to follow up with an announcement that, while there would be sanctions against individuals close to the prince, no retaliation against him would follow. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the absence of strong retribution against MBS akin to letting “the murderer walk,” setting an example for other “thuggish dictators” in the years to come.
Meanwhile, there is still, at best, indecision about whether the U.S. will pull its last troops out of Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set during the Trump administration as part of a deal with the Taliban. President Biden recently termed meeting that date “tough.” Others have called hesitancy about the May 1st deadline a step towards an escalation in violence and “even more deaths” in a nearly 20-year-old “unwinnable war.” November has now been floated by the Biden administration as a more “reasonable” deadline.
While each of these acts (or the lack of them) should be scrutinized in light of the lessons of the past, a rush to condemn could prove too quick to be helpful. Yes, it would have been more satisfying if the administration had said, “We will respond in our own time and in our own way,” when it came to the murder of Khashoggi. Yes, it would have been good to see a full-scale new drone policy in place prior to any future strikes. It will, however, take some time for the new administration to sort out the issues involved, to unearth what promises, deals, and threats were imposed by predecessors and to assess the meaningfulness of plans for a new agenda. My own suggestion: Why not set an agenda of expectations and goals — a list of imperatives if you will — and then check back in a relatively short time, perhaps six months from the January 20th inauguration of President Biden, to assess what’s truly developed?
Given our chaotic and troubled world, the list of must-dos is already long indeed, but here’s my own personal list of three, all tied to an issue I’ve followed closely for nearly the last two decades: the war on terror and how to end it.
Three Ways to Begin to End the War on Terror
The Biden administration has offered up its own list of priorities and challenges. Setting out its national security agenda, the president has committed his administration “to engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.” In a new strategy paper, “Renewing America’s Advantages: Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” his administration has made its priorities reasonably clear: the development of a multidimensional strategy, led by diplomacy and multilateralism (though not averse to the “disciplined” use of force if necessary) with an overriding commitment to strengthening democracy at home and abroad.
Among the priorities set out in that strategy is one that should — if carried out successfully — be a relief to us all: moving beyond the global war on terror. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” the paper states, pointing to ending “America’s longest war in Afghanistan,” as well as the war in Yemen, and helping to end Africa’s “deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones.”
These war-on-terror-related goals are not only upbeat but distinctly achievable, if kept at the forefront of the American foreign-policy agenda. To achieve them, however, the institutional remnants of the war on terror would have to be eradicated. And at the top of any list when it comes to that are the lingering war powers granted the president; the authority to commit “targeted killings” via drones in more and more places around the globe; and the existence of that symbol of injustice, the prison established by the Bush administration in 2002 at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Eliminating such foundational war-on-terror policies is essential, if we are to move into an era in which national security exists in tandem with the rule of law and adherence to constitutional norms.
So here, on those three issues, are the basics for my six-month check-backs in late June 2021.
As far as I’m concerned, the first six-month marker for the Biden administration should be the repeal of the 2001 and 2002 congressional Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) that granted the president the right to continue to pursue conflicts in the name of the war against terror without further recourse to Congress. Three presidents over the last nearly 20 years relied in ever-expanding ways on just that supposed authority to expand the war on terror any way they saw fit.
The first of those AUMFs, passed in Congress with a staggering unanimity (lacking only the brave “no” vote of California Representative Barbara Lee just days after September 11, 2001), authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” The second authorized the president to use force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to counter the (supposed) threat posed by Iraq to the “national security of the United States” and “to enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq,” a reference to weapons of mass destruction monitoring and compliance. Both AUMFs provided a basis for future unilateral war-making decisions that excluded Congress and, as such, superseded its constitutional authorization to declare war.
Those two AUMFs, the first aimed at al-Qaeda, the second at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, have ever since been stretched to provide the president with the power to wage wars and engage in other military interventions across much of the Greater Middle East and increasing parts of Africa — and to focus on targets far removed from the perpetrators of 9/11. The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify military engagements and drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen among other places. And Donald Trump referred in part to the 2002 AUMF to justify the drone assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport in January 2020.
“Woefully outdated,” those AUMFs have provided what one critic recently called “a blank check to wage war on virtually anyone at the president’s discretion.” In 2013, President Obama acknowledged that ever-expansive first AUMF and expressed his desire to engage
“Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
Conversely, in May, 2020, Trump vetoed a bill forbidding him to take action against Iran without first obtaining Congressional approval. In sum, neither president stopped using those congressional authorizations.
Repeatedly, since 2001, Representative Barbara Lee and others in Congress have called for the repeal of the 2001 AUMF to no avail. In March 2019, Senators Tim Kaine and Todd Young introduced a bipartisan plan to repeal the 2002 AUMF on the grounds that Iraq was no longer an enemy. Lee led a parallel move in the House which voted to repeal the act. Nothing further happened, however.
“It makes no sense that two AUMFs remain in place against a country that is now a close ally. They serve no operational purpose, run the risk of future abuse by the president, and help keep our nation at permanent war,” Kaine said. Given the increasing U.S. attacks in Iraq on Iranian-backed militias, this might prove an uphill battle, but it’s nonetheless an important one. Kaine and Young have recently reintroduced legislation to repeal the 2002 authorization. Although for Biden’s strike in Syria against Iranian-backed militias, the supposed powers of the commander-in-chief were cited rather than the 2002 AUMF, the worry is that, if tensions continue to escalate between Washington and Tehran, it will be cited in future attacks, however unrelated to its original intent.
On March 5th (two days after Kaine and Young introduced their plan), the White House announced through Press Secretary Jen Psaki that it would itself seek to “replace” the two authorizations “with a narrow and specific framework.” In a further gesture towards a more constrained use of force, Biden reportedly cancelled a second strike in Syria after finding out that civilian casualties might result.
First Six-Month Check-Back: The repeal of those endlessly expansive authorizations is a must and should be a top priority for the Biden administration. Any new AUMFs should include consultations with Congress before any attacks are launched on potential foreign enemies, should limit exactly who those enemies might be, and specify both a time frame and the geographical reach of any authorization.
Under President Obama, drone warfare — the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) to target individuals and groups — became a signature tool in Washington’s war on terror arsenal. Such “precision” strikes (chosen in “Terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House in the Obama years) were justified because they would reputedly reduce American deaths and, over time, battlefield deaths generally, including the “collateral damage” of civilian casualties. Obama used such drone strikes expansively, even targeting U.S. citizens abroad.
In his second term, Obama did try to put some limits and restrictions on lethal strikes by RPAs, establishing procedures and criteria for them and limiting the grounds for their use. President Trump promptly watered down those stricter guidelines, while expanding the number of drone strikes launched from Afghanistan to Somalia, soon dwarfing Obama’s numbers. According to the British-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, Obama carried out a total of 1,878 drone strikes in his eight years in office. In his first two years as president, Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes. When it came to civilian casualties, at first the Trump administration merely ignored a mandated policy from the Obama era whereby a yearly report on civilian drone strike casualties had to be produced and made public. Then, in March 2019, Trump simply cancelled the requirement, consigning the drone killing program to an even deeper kind of secrecy.
On the subject of drones, in the first weeks of the Biden administration, there have been some potentially encouraging signs. His appointees have signaled an intention to revamp and limit drone policy. On Inauguration Day 2021, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan issued an order announcing the administration’s intention to review the use of RPAs for targeted-killing missions outside of war zones. While the review takes place, some of the Trump-era freedom of the CIA and the military to decide on drone targets on their own was suspended. According to reporting by Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, “The military and the CIA must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant American ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen.”
Second Six-Month Check-Back: The Biden administration minimally needs to revise its use of drones for targeted killings of any sort, anywhere, so that they become a rarity, not the commonplace they’ve been. The president must further insist on transparency in reporting on the uses of drone warfare and its casualties. He and his key officials must create a policy in accordance with both domestic and international law.
Last (but very much not least) on my list, it’s time to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. This past January was the 19th anniversary of its opening, the moment when the first prisoners from the war on terror were flown to Cuba, offshore from American justice and away from the eyes of the world. In 2008, while George W. Bush was still president, Gitmo received its last inmates. Twelve years ago, Barack Obama pledged to close it within a year.
When Obama left office in January 2017, he had at least made some headway towards its closure, though failing ultimately to shut it down. Gitmo’s population had been reduced from 197 prisoners to 41, thanks to the efforts of the Office of the Special Envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, which Obama had set up in 2013, and to its head, Lee Wolosky. He aggressively pursued the mission of transferring detainees out of that facility during the final 18 months of Obama’s presidency. One-third of the remaining prisoners were facing charges from, or had already been convicted by, the military commissions that Obama revived in 2009 and that made remarkably little headway towards trials, no less resolutions, during his two terms.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump infamously pontificated that he would “load [Gitmo] up with some bad dudes.” In actuality, no new detainees would be transferred to the facility during his time in office. Meanwhile, military commission prosecutors proved unable even to mount what should have been the centerpiece case of the Guantánamo years — the trial of the five men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks.
As with the AUMFs and the drone-strike policy, there are, in the early moments of the Biden years, some encouraging signs that closure could once again become a priority. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, for instance, expressed his thoughts on the subject in questions submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearings. “It is time,” he wrote, “that the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay close its doors.” Similarly, Dr. Colin Kahl, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, told Congress, “I believe that it is time to close the DoD detention facility at Guantánamo Bay responsibly.” President Biden has also signaled his support for closure, claiming that he wants it shut by the end of his presidency. And there has already been an announcement that the National Security Council is looking into plans to do so.
Meanwhile, after years of delays, reversals, governmental misdeeds, and the dark shadow cast over cases in which torture has been an integral part of the evidentiary record, some movement does seem to be underway. The day after Biden’s inauguration, for instance, the administration set the date for a trial that has been stalled for years — that of three Southeast Asian men accused of bombings in Indonesia in 2002 and 2003. All three have been in U.S. custody since 2003, first at CIA “black sites” and, from 2006 on, at Guantánamo. However, as of February 2nd, the date for that trial had already been postponed, due to Covid-19.
Third Six-Month Check-Back: It’s imperative that the Biden administration shut down Guantánamo — and the sooner the better. The catastrophic cost of that detention facility is hard to overestimate. It continues to stain the American reputation for fairness and justice worldwide and is the ultimate reminder of the trade-off made between security and liberty in the war on terror. Until Guantánamo closes, the door to detention without due process and so to an alternative judicial system outside the law, as well as to unlawful secret interrogations and brutal treatment remains open. And after all these years, six months should be more than long enough to at least put in motion, if not complete, plans for that closure.
It’s one thing to have good intentions, and quite another to realize those intentions in policy. While I understand the concerns of the early critics of Biden’s developing war-on-terror-related decisions, my own preference is for a modicum of patience — though nothing like an open-ended time frame. After all, it’s way beyond time to consign those war on terror deviations from law and from anything like reasonable norms of action to the history books.
This column was distributed by TomDispatch.