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President Biden Must Change the U.S.’s Catastrophic, Dehumanizing Drone Program

On February 4, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden announced the end of US military aid for the calamitous Saudi-led war effort in Yemen. The statement was hailed as a judicious—and long overdue—move for the United States; the much-criticized Yemen conflict has descended into the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. However, an official added that “actions against” al-Qaeda in the region would not cease. This means deadly US drone strikes—the continuation of which contradicts the “moral leadership” Biden cited in his Yemen communiqué. 

The United States imagines itself as a bastion of freedom and justice for all. But this fallacy belies the government’s proclivity for covert drone strikes that massacre civilians alongside alleged terrorists who never once step foot in a courtroom. Although the prospects look slim, under President Biden the US drone program must be overhauled to save the lives and livelihoods of its victims and to move away from the United States’ legacy of imperialism.

President Barack Obama transformed the nascent US drone strike program into the clandestine killing machine it is today. From the beginning, Obama recognized that drone warfare heralded a new frontier for counterterrorism. Drone strikes have many upsides: they remove risk to soldiers (though not completely), disrupt terrorist communication and recruitment networks, and have eliminated many prominent terrorist leaders. The faceless machines themselves are not inherently instruments of atrocity. But, like all tools, their application determines their effects—and the utility of drones does not justify the US government’s abuse of them. The Obama administration showed its true colors in its devastating first Yemen intervention: on December 17, 2009, the Navy launched an airstrike in Yemen that tragically murdered at least 41 civilians, including 21 children. Although the Yemeni government initially claimed responsibility, in January 2010 WikiLeaks published classified documents showing how a US general had secretly arranged for Yemen to do so. 

This massacre, and the attendant deception of the US public, foreshadowed the appalling trajectory of drone strikes over the next eight years. Indeed, despite longstanding public outcry over Obama’s secret ‘kill list,’ there was no official White House policy on drone strikes until 2013. Nearly all parts of the process, from the identities of the deceased to the reasons for their deaths, were shrouded in secrecy. Even the divulged policies drew protest: how could all military-age males be written off as combatants? The bounds of governmental impunity seemed to be ever-expanding. 

In 2011, Obama ordered the execution of an al-Qaeda-linked American citizen via drone (the dubious legal justification for this was hidden until 2014). The man, Anwar al-Awlaki, was a known al-Qaeda recruiter, but had never been criminally charged. Then, two weeks later, the CIA used a drone to murder his 16-year-old son. Obama was apparently “surprised” and “upset” by this killing, but has never commented publicly about it—unlike his press secretary, who told reporters that the boy should have had “a more responsible father.” And notwithstanding Obama’s claims that drone operation approvals required a “near-certainty of no collateral damage,” after years of pressure his administration reported between 64 and 116 drone-related noncombatant deaths from 2009 to 2015. But this number is most likely a severe undercount; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported that the true range was between 380 and 801. To his credit, as Obama’s departure neared, he initiated hesitant moves toward transparency—including an effort to shift drone strike jurisdiction from the top-secret CIA to the military—but it was too little, too late. The wanton violence had been normalized, the standard set.

Consequently, when Donald Trump ascended to the presidency, the carnage and covertness of the drone strike program reached previously unimaginable levels. Despite vowing to end “forever wars” and reestablish isolationism, Trump escalated the global drone war and quietly loosened already-loose regulations on drone strike procedure. This has resulted in a staggering rise in civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. But it is effectively impossible to fully grasp the destruction wrought by the Trump administration’s brutality overseas—eschewing the Obama approach of lying or prevaricating about civilian casualty data, they just stopped reporting it entirely.

Human rights advocates have laid out many of the problems with the United States’ drone warfare. They condemn the government’s naked duplicity, and how drone strikes circumvent their victims’ Constitutional right to a fair trial. Some argue that drones actually  generate terrorism due to how extremists exploit the specter of US drone strikes to radicalize new recruits. But it is a grave, if not typical, error to center the issues with drones around US politics rather than the communities they indiscriminately incinerate. 

Simply put, the US transmutes entire regions across the Middle East and Africa into war zones, all in the name of national security. Drones rain down death via remote control, obliterating entire households in seconds and destroying the mental health and physical environments of those they do not slaughter. By holding the potential of sudden death over entire populations, drones inexorably reconstitute the lives of innocent people who are, unsurprisingly, almost all nonwhite foreigners. And yet, in 2015, after years of public reckoning with Obama’s various offenses, the majority of US citizens still supported US drone strikes. Our collective tacit acceptance of this ongoing travesty, from Obama to Trump, speaks volumes.

Indeed, the issue of drone strikes is a microcosm of the violent xenophobia at the United States’ core. Trump stylized himself as an “America First” isolationist; paradoxically, though, he not only increased systematic extrajudicial executions of people abroad but also aspired to “take out their families” in fiery displays of US imperialist might. In this contradiction lies a quintessential truth: drones have just bolstered the US government’s age-old effort to strip its victims of their humanity. Whereas before, US citizens contended with possibly losing their loved ones in conflicts overseas, drones now provide the illusion of a sanitized warfare—the Obama administration bafflingly (but tellingly) described them as “exceptionally surgical.”

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether much will change under President Biden. Throughout the presidential race, Biden said nothing about the drone program. Although The Daily Beast recently reported that he has opened a “classified review” of drone strikes and counterterror raids, the initiative is inauspiciously led by a former top Obama adviser and, based on the terse elaboration offered, seems to be more focused on who dictates the strikes than the strikes themselves. (Notably, no other major newspapers have covered the review so far.) The president’s near silence is all the more ominous and hypocritical when placed into political context: Biden bet correctly on riding the anti-Trump political tsunami into the White House. He campaigned on racial equity, governmental accountability, and correcting Trump’s human rights abuses. Yet, he has not once brought up Trump’s drone bloodletting.

Perhaps Biden is reluctant to obliquely criticize Obama. But there are other indications that the Biden administration will be no less hawkish than the last: retired General Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Secretary of Defense, led troops in the shameful Iraq War and just left the board of major defense contractor Raytheon. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines repeatedly obstructed attempts to hold the CIA accountable for its illegal use of torture and was a key architect of the Obama-era drone apparatus. She’s just one of many former Obama appointees who now fill the ranks of Biden’s national security team, from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. 

In reality, no matter what Biden does, drone killings are not going away. They are a new fixture of modern warfare worldwide. Even so, Biden and his majority-Democrat Congress can begin ameliorating the current degree of carnage by prioritizing transparency over unbridled executive and military power. Democrats, the putative backers of human rights in Washington, hold the presidency and both chambers of Congress. They could finally create a Department of Defense desk to track civilian drone deaths. Congress could repeal or update the Authorization for the Use of Military Force—the post-9/11 act that ostensibly legitimates drone strikes—to reclaim the oversight over acts of war that Congress is supposed to have. Congress could also expand courts’ jurisdiction over the military and its drone contractors, which would bolster the legal system’s ability to tackle US drone war crimes abroad. These proposals are far from perfect; they barely scrape the surface of the crisis. But realizing them would save lives and hopefully spur momentum for more meaningful restrictions in the future. Some top Democrats have already expressed support for the ideas. All it takes now is Biden’s go-ahead and simple legislative action. What is he waiting for?

A repeat of Obama’s insidious drone war, especially after Trump’s desecration of Obama’s late-stage transparency initiatives, would be unacceptable for a president supposedly focused on restoring “decency” to the United States. Biden can and should reverse course on drone strikes. US citizens, too, should examine their role in the crisis. Back in the 1980s, when the baleful threat of nuclear warfare loomed, a groundswell of domestic anti-nuclear activism successfully rose up against the government’s foray into nuclear weaponry. Compared to today, it’s hard not to see the disturbing hypocrisy: now the US public just averts its eyes as its government spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on lethal technologies. We must stop ignoring the bloodshed; we must demand better. Children whose names we will never know should not suffer violent deaths in the name of our safety.

Graphic: Lucia Li