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.