U.S. forces have recently unleashed a flurry of airstrikes in Somalia and Afghanistan, continuing a long string of bombings targeting militants in those and other countries. More attacks are sure to come, especially in Afghanistan as the United States works to support the Afghan government from afar to fend off the Taliban. President Biden offered no public remarks on bombings in either country, which is now strangely normal for U.S. presidents. Presidents Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden have felt free to bomb countries and say little or nothing in the way of explaining or justifying the use of force. That must change now that the United States will not be actively at war anywhere in the world.
Remembering a time when U.S. airstrikes were rare enough to merit a presidential address can be difficult given the past two decades of counterterrorism efforts, which have included open warfare in two countries and repeated airstrikes in half a dozen others, most notably Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Now, the United States launches any number of airstrikes in faraway countries with little public attention apart from outcry by a dedicated group of lawmakers and human rights activists regularly questioning the legality, morality, and effectiveness of such U.S. actions.
Contrast the recent spate of airstrikes in Afghanistan and Somalia to the ones launched in 1998, when President Clinton authorized attacks against suspected al-Qaida sites in Afghanistan and Sudan in response to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that year. These days those airstrikes rank as a footnote in the “war on terror” and go mostly remembered for the missed shot at killing Osama bin Laden and the bungled intelligence on a supposed chemical weapons facility in Sudan. Meanwhile, Clinton’s personal handling of the matter fell under the shadow of a presidential sex scandal that transfixed the media. It was not a shining moment in presidential leadership on foreign policy.
Still, the episode represented perhaps the last time a president adhered to previously longstanding norms about the use of force before the “war on terror” made such strikes ubiquitous. The embassy bombings provided a clearly credible rationale for military action, as did al-Qaida’s open commitment to further attacks against American targets. President Clinton personally involved himself in the planning and greenlighting of the airstrikes. Immediately after the attacks, Clinton addressed the nation and explained both the reasoning and, importantly, the objective. Importantly, Clinton generally treated the attack with the kind of gravity and sobriety it deserved as a public matter. The United States had used deadly force abroad while not formally at war. That required a public justification from the commander in chief. This is what normal used to look like when it came to U.S. airstrikes — and what the Biden administration ought to restore.
Yes, presidents since then have spoken publicly about airstrikes. In 2011, President Obama publicly explained the killing of Anwar al-Awkaki, a U.S. citizen accused of working with al-Qaida who died in a drone strike in Yemen. More recently, Trump addressed the nation in 2020 after U.S. airstrikes killed Iranian Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani, whose death very nearly sparked open war between the United States and Iran. But those and other times when presidents have taken personal responsibility for U.S. airstrikes in recent years differed from the moment in 1998 and others farther in the past. Obama and Trump barely bothered to justify the attacks. Any threats Soleimani and al-Awkaki posed to the American public remained unclear, and the sitting presidents seemingly felt no need to divulge significant details. Those strikes and so many others amounted to just another day in the “war on terror” as U.S. troops continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the situation is supposed to be different now. President Biden has wisely chosen to withdraw U.S. troops fully from Afghanistan and appears inclined to eventually do the same with American forces in Iraq. No one doubts that U.S. involvement in those countries will continue. But the United States is no longer actively at war as it was during the past three presidencies. The “war on terror” continues of course, and airstrikes remain an important element in dealing with imminent threats. But such attacks should be handled by Biden and future presidents much like they were before the “war on terror” — conducted rarely, only in the face of credible threats and fully explained to the public by the commander-in-chief. Letting airstrikes go unremarked except for perhaps a terse Pentagon press release is at best callous and at worst indicative of a lack of oversight on the part of the White House regarding the use of military force.
Biden’s seeming inattention to increasing airstrikes is all the more concerning given his role as vice president during the Obama administration, which oversaw a dramatic rise in the number of U.S. bombings outside the active war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. When Biden was last in the White House, the administration used an expansive view of imminent threats to widen a drone war that drew credible allegations of human rights abuses. Any uptick in airstrikes under President Biden should be scrutinized heavily for human rights concerns, and Biden arguably has a special responsibility to oversee U.S. airstrikes with care considering the Obama administration’s troubling record in this area.
Plenty of people in Washington will find the idea of Biden personally addressing each U.S. airstrike as implausible given the current frequency of bombings. And perhaps as a practical matter in the near term that is true. But that must change if Biden means what he says about ending forever wars. Otherwise, the forever wars simply continue from over the horizon. Drone warfare is exactly that — warfare. It cannot be allowed to remain the everyday business of an administration claiming to move America beyond the 9/11 era. Biden and all presidents coming after him must once again treat use of armed force as a rare and unfortunate exception for the United States deserving the highest levels of accountability.
Mark Kukis is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the Minerva Schools, where he teaches government. Kukis spent a decade as a journalist before joining academia, including three years covering the American occupation of Iraq for Time magazine from 2006 to 2009. Kukis also covered the early phase of the American intervention in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist and served as a White House correspondent for United Press International. His writings have also appeared in The New Republic and Aeon, among other places. He is the author of Voices from Iraq: A People's History, 2003-2009 (2011), an oral history of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as told entirely by Iraqis. Kukis grew up in the Dallas area and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied journalism and government as an undergraduate. Kukis did his doctoral work at Boston University, where he studied U.S. foreign policy and political history under Prof. Andrew Bacevich. Kukis has been an invited speaker at RAND, Princeton University and Boston University and done numerous television and radio interviews discussing the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He currently lives in the Boston area with his wife and daughter.
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.