For decades, the war on terrorism has been the underbelly of the US-led global order. Compared to the tens of trillions of dollars circulating among G20 nations, the resources at play in the main zones of America’s conflicts are modest. More than half of Afghanistan lives below the poverty line, and the populations of Yemen and Somalia are even poorer. But although the immediate economic stakes appear paltry, the human impact of US militarism beggars description. Washington’s post-9/11 wars have taken an estimated 800,000 lives from “direct war violence,” including more than 335,000 civilians, while displacing tens of millions of people across multiple countries.1 There is no sign that the new administration will redress this legacy.

On the question of US military intervention, President Joe Biden is likely to follow the contours that President Barack Obama set during his second term and that President Donald Trump preserved. When a ground escalation in Afghanistan failed, Obama — with support from his risk-averse vice president — moved to safeguard US service members while continuing to kill US adversaries. Air campaigns and surrogate fighters formed the new arsenal against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State. This “light footprint” strategy inflicted a heavy toll in some of the world’s least developed countries while minimizing US casualties, justifying historically high Pentagon budgets, and handing enormous rents to US arms firms.

Obama’s successor, despite promises about “stopping the endless wars,” extended these practices. Trump pulled more American boots off the ground in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. Meanwhile, he expanded US bombings and weapons deals, and he exceeded Obama’s second-term defense spending.

Much of Biden’s foreign policy agenda remains to be determined, but when it comes to anti-terrorism policy, the new administration appears inclined to preserve the status quo of shadow wars and corporate welfare. Biden and several of his foreign policy principals participated in crafting this approach during the Obama presidency. More significantly, though, the drone campaigns and proxy militia battles will continue because, unlike the calamitous ground wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, those operations have not inflicted a domestic political price on policymakers. For any organized efforts to actually stop the endless wars, they would need to alter that calculus.

Forty Years Working on the Dark Side

Ever since President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, warned of an “arc of crisis” stretching from Kabul to Mogadishu, successive administrations have tried to control the course of events around the Western Indian Ocean — without risking a new Vietnam and incurring the electorate’s wrath.2 This strategy has favored local clients over US forces, leaned into US airpower before committing soldiers or Marines, and promoted secret operations over high-profile campaigns. US presidents who bucked these rules have risked devastation overseas and political fallout back home — such as Carter’s failed hostage rescue mission in 1980, the deaths of 258 US servicemembers in the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the infamous “Black Hawk Down” losses in Somalia in 1993. However, even as these fiascoes shocked the public, many more operations slipped silently down the memory hole, including the fomenting of the Iran-Iraq War that killed hundreds of thousands, crippling sanctions and bombing campaigns in Iraq during the 1990s, and the start of extraordinary renditions under President Bill Clinton.

The latest incarnation of these practices is the “war on terrorism,” now well into its twentieth year. In September 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney told distraught TV audiences, “We … have to work sort of the dark side … We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.”3 In actuality, Cheney and President George W. Bush were seeking wider latitude for existing operations. The US Congress overwhelmingly obliged. In near-unanimous votes, the House (420-1-10) and Senate (98-0-2) passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF gave the Bush administration unprecedented legal cover to enlarge the web of kidnappings and killings that the CIA and Pentagon were already conducting. Bush and company expanded extraordinary renditions, authorized torture, opened indefinite detention centers at Guantanamo Bay and black sites around the world, and carried out the first known US armed drone strikes. Obama and Trump would stretch this network of repression further.

The antecedents and evolution of the war on terror throw into relief the large-scale ground component of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of their steep toll, it is tempting to regard Operation Iraqi Freedom and the height of Operation Enduring Freedom as synonymous with post-9/11 US intervention. In the longer historical record, they were aberrations — not because US politicians are squeamish about shooting up other countries, but because ground wars bring steeper political risks than other methods. After the country squandered thousands of US lives battling Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, US foreign policymakers would revert back to options that were politically safer but no less lethal.

The Apogee of US Ground War in West Asia

After two decades of aggressive but risk-averse US military intervention, the 2003 Iraq invasion threw caution to the wind. President George H. W. Bush had anticipated that a US occupation of Baghdad would be “disastrous,” and his former national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, slammed the lead-up to the Iraq War as a digression from the fight against terrorism.4 Such positions showed the spectrum of debate: when it came to Iraq, the most prominent “antiwar” critique was in fact an argument for sticking to the savvier kind of warring that vested most of the fighting and sacrifice in client militaries and militias rather than putting US personnel on the battlefield. The next ten years brought US officials and voters a grim reminder of the American lives the latter strategy required.

Rather than minimizing US involvement on the ground, Bush had committed approximately 150,000 soldiers and Marines to the initial Iraq War and roughly 10 percent of that number to the 2007 escalation. During his first years in office, Obama put an additional 70,000 men and women in uniform into Afghanistan (on top of an existing 30,000). Hence, the most intense period of US ground fighting in Iraq was 2003–2007, while the high-water mark in Afghanistan was 2009–2012.5

These years thrust US soldiers and Marines into the United States’ most intense combat missions since Vietnam. No conflict in the era of post-Carter armed interventionism came anywhere close. During the ten years of 2003–2012, the US military suffered, annually, an average of 660 US battle deaths across the two theaters. That number was more than twice the casualties inflicted by the devastating suicide truck bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983. It was four times the 146 total combat and noncombat fatalities of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm during 1990–1991.6

The scale of American losses also eclipsed anything in the recent past of the Afghanistan War, or in subsequent years of either war. When one adds up all US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan during nineteen years of post-9/11 war, the losses in 2003–2012 make up 93.6 percent of the total. These commitments represented exactly the kind of high risk and low return that presidents and national security teams from both parties had dreaded ever since the last Marine helicopters left Saigon in April 1975.

Unlike in Vietnam, the Pentagon’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought by an all-volunteer force. Just because the general public was not at risk of being drafted, however, did not mean ordinary Americans were inured to the human toll borne by the individuals who were fighting and their families. Decades of polling shows ordinary Americans favor investing resources in the “security of [their] domestic well-being” rather than pursuing a grand strategy overseas.7 They are especially averse to campaigns for regime change and operations that will bring US casualties.8 Surveys during Bush’s terms showed that these sensibilities persisted.9 (Recent research also indicates that war-weary voters helped Trump win traditionally Democratic swing states in 2016.10)

US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan compelled a rethink. Even as the White House pointed to new threats — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia — American boots would be largely kept off the ground or positioned behind the scenes, to “advise and assist” local militaries. By turning once more to air power and non-US surrogates, Obama and his successors could “fight terrorism” without triggering public resistance. Sparing US ground forces while raining down munitions, Obama and then Trump pummeled a sweeping range of “terrorists.”

Light Footprint, Heavy Payload

The return to shadow wars was formalized in a May 2013 address at the National Defense University. Obama’s speech drew a clear contrast between risky conventional military actions, including special operations raids, on the one hand, and the option of killing alleged terrorists, such as Sunni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, on the other:

Our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. The risks in that case were immense … So it is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against Al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.

Arguing that al-Awlaki “was continuously trying to kill people,” Obama defended his decision to “authorize … the [September 2011 drone] strike that took him out.”11 He also moved to normalize extrajudicial killings.

Obama contended that such drone attacks were not only ethical, they were legal. His argument involved both reviving and exploiting the sweeping reach of Bush’s AUMF. The original text stipulated that then-president Bush could “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.”12 Obama threw al-Awlaki into this protean frame. The drone strike that took the cleric’s life was legal because: “Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”

The concept of “associated forces” became a catchall for blasting nettlesome foes without receiving a fresh congressional mandate. In 2013, “associated forces” already included Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), with which al-Awlaki had been affiliated. In September 2014, Obama claimed the AUMF also applied to its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He stuck to this sketchy expansion of military power through his final days in office. In December 2016, with Trump just weeks away from commanding the world’s mightiest military, Obama officially stretched the 2001 AUMF to cover al-Shabaab in Somalia, a local militia that had only been classified as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in 2008.13

Although Obama’s May 2013 address highlighted drones, he ratcheted up all forms of US air attacks. Indeed, when it came to smart bombs and missiles, he and Trump were neither anti-interventionist nor isolationist. US air strikes against al-Shabaab increased annually between 2015 and 2019, even as African Union forces proved ineffective and the central government in Mogadishu remained feeble.

In June 2016, Obama announced that Operation Inherent Resolve (the two-year-old military campaign against ISIL) was “firing on all cylinders.” After a total of 13,000 air strikes, plus limited ground missions in support of local forces, he stated, “We’ve taken out more than 120 top ISIL leaders and commanders.”14 In Syria and Iraq, Trump scaled back the level of US troops — to about 500 and 3,500, respectively — but in 2017–2018, the Pentagon hit ISIL almost as frequently as under Obama.15

In Yemen, the US air campaign peaked in 2017 (with at least 127 confirmed strikes). US involvement in Yemen came on top of a much larger scope of bombings and missile attacks by Saudi Arabia, which Obama armed and supported when Riyadh first intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015. (One component of this policy was a push by Raytheon, which locked in $3 billion in bomb sales and deployed ex-officials to make sure the deal won the State Department’s imprimatur.16) US and Saudi attacks have contributed to prolonging a war that has so far taken a hundred thousand lives and made Yemen the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Finally, Obama oversaw more than a thousand airstrikes in Afghanistan during his last year in office. Under Trump, the scale of this war ballooned to levels unseen since the surge: over 7,000 conventional and drone strikes in 2019 (Table 1).

Table 1.

Minimum Number of Confirmed Air Strikes in Select Conflict Zones

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Afghanistan (US) 235 1,071 2,609 1,985 7,167
Iraq and Syria (US and anti-ISIL coalition) 7,781 7,743 10,712 3,071 0
Somalia (US) 11 14 35 45 63
Yemen (US) 21 37 127 36 8
Yemen (Saudi Arabia–led coalition) 5,444 5,107 5,233 3,365 1,181

Sources: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Drone Wars: The Full Data” (accessed December 26, 2020); Airwars, “Conflict Data” (accessed December 26, 2020); Yemen Data Project (accessed December 26, 2020).

Table 2.

Recent US Arms Sales Around the Persian Gulf

Total Authorized Foreign Military and Direct Commercial Sales (in thousands of current USD)
FY 2016 FY 2017 FY 2018 FY 2019
Afghanistan 3,025,676 2,607,843 2,742,041 1,701,067
Bahrain 223,815 193,281 2,511,040 1,993,329
Kuwait 166,527 632,916 7,592,759 469,034
Qatar 1,170,231 14,534,124 361,765 886,491
Saudi Arabia 8,470,690 4,929,265 16,046,932 17,251,898
United Arab Emirates 3,650,424 2,869,258 4,765,070 3,134,730
Fiscal year total 16,707,362 25,766,687 34,019,608 25,436,549

Sources: Section 655 Annual Military Assistance, US Department of State;; Department of Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Historical Sales Book: Fiscal Years 1950–2020.

Even as Trump ordered more US aircraft in the skies of Afghanistan, he pushed US policy toward a Janus-faced arrangement in which the United States would stop fighting the Taliban but arm the central government to the hilt. The “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” was cosigned on February 29, 2020 by US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.17 The core of the bilateral deal was a strategic trade: US military withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban commitment that “the soil of Afghanistan” would not be used for attacks on the United States. Pursuant to the agreement, the number of US servicemembers in the country dropped to 2,500 by the time Trump left office in January 2021 and, unless Biden reverses course, will reach zero by mid-2021.

While the drawdown proceeded, the United States passed ground and air operations to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the internationally recognized government in Kabul, led since 2014 by President (and ex–World Bank analyst) Ashraf Ghani. Ghani’s government had been conspicuously absent from the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. Although the document set an opening date for “intra-Afghan negotiations” about a full cease-fire, it did not deliver a treaty for ending the country’s civil war. Thus, there remains every likelihood that the US government can withdraw from high-risk direct involvement in Afghanistan while US businesses equip the ANDSF and make a killing off the civil war’s next chapter.

During fiscal years 2016–2019, the Pentagon and the State Department authorized more than $100 billion in government-to-government and commercial sales across six countries of the Gulf region, including Afghanistan, where US military aid financed the purchases (Table 2).

The Arc of Crisis Bends Toward Profit

It would be inaccurate to draw a straight line from commercial interests to armed conflict. For one thing, recent security rents constitute a sliver of capital accumulation in the United States. In FY 2020, amid a $20 trillion economy, four of the largest defense firms pulled in $200 billion from both civilian and military sales.18 Even more significant, history is replete with examples of major business leaders opting for compromise over confrontation when the cost-benefit calculus favored that tack.19

What can be observed is that America’s leading weapons makers have historically outperformed their peers in the Fortune 500 and, further, that they have operated in a context of perpetual war.20Therefore, in the absence of an equally lucrative alternative strategy, defense executives and connected policymakers have no incentive to alter course. This path dependency was manifest in the Obama and Trump eras. While American workers struggled through economic hardship and multiple public health crises, the business class enjoyed bailouts and tax breaks.21

As US ground missions in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, outlays for military operations remained high. The bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) was supposed to restrict all discretionary spending, including defense, but it exempted “overseas contingency operations” (OCO), which could include anything related to war. Obama and Trump exploited this giant loophole, turning OCO into a Pentagon slush fund when other budget items were under the knife.22

The Department of Defense watched its military campaigns shrink while its budget swelled. The cost of the anti-ISIL campaign in Iraq and Syria was pocket change by Pentagon standards: a mere $25 billion.23 Given that Operation Inherent Resolve was Obama’s most active intervention during his second term, one might expect overall defense spending to decline dramatically. However, when Obama left office, the total defense budget (base and OCO) was still a staggering $660 billion (in constant 2018 dollars), 40 percent higher than in 2001.24 Under Trump, the defense budget grew further, reaching $719 billion in 2019, a sum larger than what the world’s next ten biggest military spenders put into their armed forces.25 Adjusted for inflation, the Pentagon received more money under Trump ($2.9 trillion) than during Obama’s second term ($2.7 trillion).26

For CEOs of the major weapons makers, these were very good years. Sales by four of America’s largest arms merchants (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics) held steady at just over $160 billion during the Obama administration, then ballooned under Trump to reach $211 billion.27 This windfall for defense corporations came mostly from sales to the US government, yet business overseas also brought dividends. Revenues from foreign military sales, already a robust $42 billion when Trump entered the Oval Office, rose to $55 billion in each of the next two fiscal years.28

The flood of cash from Pentagon programs and foreign arms sales amounted to state capitalism for industry elites.29 The Center for International Policy has documented how CEOs raked in profits while laying off workers. Between 2012 and 2018, Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest aerospace company) reduced its US workforce by 14 percent (16,000 jobs) even as the company brought in tens of billions of dollars in government (i.e., taxpayer-funded) contracts and saw its stock price nearly quadruple. Other top defense firms, including Raytheon, were also cutting jobs, while the national economy grew and overall unemployment fell. The two exceptions, General Dynamics and Northup Grumman, expanded their payrolls — but only by swallowing up smaller companies (CSRA Inc., Orbital ATK) and taking on a portion of those workforces. While employees got pink slips, executives made out like bandits. The salary of the CEO of General Atomics tripled, from $6.9 million to $20.7 million.30 It speaks volumes that these masters of war were unfazed by Biden’s election.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown cast a pall over the American labor force, leading weapons manufacturers have been upbeat. Kathy Warden, the CEO of Northrup Grumman, stated before the November 3 election: “Today’s threat environment warrants a strong defense … and we believe both political parties are committed to effectively countering these threats.”31 In recent years, Boeing’s weapons branch (which makes up 29 percent of its $93 billion in annual sales) kept the company aloft when civilian aircraft sales cratered. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun had no concerns that a Biden administration would threaten that revenue stream. Likewise, Raytheon Technologies CEO Gregory Hayes called his company’s defense business “resilient” and expected it would “help us offset near-term commercial aero headwinds” from COVID-19 and the accompanying recession.32 It stands to reason that these industry chiefs were bullish about Biden because they expected him to continue the war posture that has benefited them financially.

Biden and His National Security Team

Biden’s candidacy and election did nothing to disrupt the political economy of US interventionism. On the contrary, his political career, his recent positions, his personnel appointments, and the domestic political landscape presage continuity: four more years of US violence overseas through drones, special operations, and American-armed surrogates.

In many respects, the present paradigm of US militarism — lucrative for Wall Street, negligible on Main Street — is ready-made for Biden. Since the Carter era, he has been a quintessential neoliberal Democrat, accepting free-market ideology while undermining the American welfare state. When Biden won his second Senate term in 1978, he was already aligning his political imagination with the interests of Delaware’s largest companies, chief among them DuPont, and presenting himself as a fiscal conservative.33

On national security, Biden generally supported lopsided interventions and balked at missions where enemy armies or insurgents could hit back. He endorsed US assaults on weak Third World and post-communist militaries (the 1983 Grenada invasion, the 1986 Libya bombing, the 1989 Panama invasion, and NATO campaigns in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s) but voted against Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (to force Saddam Hussein from Kuwait) and opposed Bush’s troop surge in Iraq in 2007. As Obama’s vice president, Biden also pushed back against the 2009 decision to escalate US ground war in Afghanistan and the US-led invasion of Libya in 2011. Important exceptions to this pattern include Biden’s vote for the AUMF, which ushered in Operation Enduring Freedom (the Afghanistan War), and his 2002 vote (amid his last Senate reelection campaign) for the Iraq War.34

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden stuck to his traditional positions, which would sustain US military operations by keeping them out of the headlines. Two months before his election, Biden told Stars and Stripes,“These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism.” Fighting “terrorism” meant “we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies,” and Biden anticipated keeping “1,500 to 2,000” US servicemembers in conflict zones from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa.35 Deploying only a few thousand Americans for “special ops” that “coordinate with … allies” steers clear of calamitous land wars while maintaining the overall pattern of destructive military operations from Obama’s second term and the Trump years.

When a crisis hits, Biden may be the most dovish person in the Situation Room. Although the president’s record suggests a measure of foreign policy restraint, he has assembled a team that is more comfortable with never-Trump neocons than left-wing anti-interventionists.

Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken specialized in European affairs in Clinton’s White House, then worked with Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Between 2009 and 2013, he served as then-vice-president Biden’s national security advisor. During Obama’s second term, Blinken was deputy national security advisor to the president and then deputy secretary of state. In these capacities, Blinken was a key participant in the highest-level discussions as Obama pulled back from the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires and increasingly imposed US interests through special ops, air power, and clients. In 2015, as the administration backed the Gulf monarchies waging war in Yemen, Blinken spoke from Riyadh to defend US arms sales and declare, “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force.”36

After Obama and Biden left office in 2017, Blinken entered the private sector as a founding partner (with former undersecretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy) of WestExec Advisors. As a “strategic consultancy,” WestExec skirted restrictions on lobbying while monetizing its staff’s government experience and promising customers an “on-call National Security Council.” The firm’s client list is shrouded in nondisclosure agreements, but WestExec is known to advise at least one of America’s top five defense firms, likely Raytheon, which in 2019 sold Saudi Arabia more than $3 billion worth of arms. Blinken has also worked for the investment firm Pine Island Capital Partners, which is likewise entwined with arms makers.37 In terms of his worldview, Blinken tipped his hand when he hopped onto arch-neocon Robert Kagan’s Washington Post column to claim, ludicrously, that if Washington stopped spreading war, “the world will descend into chaos and conflict, and the jungle will overtake us, as it did in the 1930s.”38

While Blinken is running US diplomacy out of Foggy Bottom, Jake Sullivan will be at Biden’s elbow as national security advisor. Sullivan carries the dubious distinction of being the youngest national security advisor since prodigy McGeorge Bundy counseled military escalation in Vietnam.39 During the past twelve years, Sullivan, like Blinken, has looped from foreign policymaking to corporate consulting and back. Sullivan worked in a range of capacities under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose hawkish sentiments he shared, then succeeded Blinken as national security advisor to Vice President Biden. According to Obama’s former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, Sullivan leaned toward “responses that would incorporate some military element.” He backed Obama’s war in Libya, supported the assassination raid against Osama bin Laden (which Biden opposed), agreed with the US arming Syrian rebels, and balked at talking with the Taliban until the group accepted US preconditions.40

Sullivan returned to Clinton’s side for her failed 2016 bid at the White House and has spent the past four years serving Fortune 500 companies while peddling woke neoliberalism.41 In January 2017, Sullivan took up a strategic consultancy at Macro Advisory Partners (MAP). Like WestExec, MAP’s “shadow lobbying” connects moneyed interests to policymakers while avoiding the legal constraints on official lobbying.42 Jonathan Guyer has uncovered that the firm, led by “former British spy chiefs,” has served “mining companies in developing countries, sovereign wealth funds, and the rideshare company Uber.” While advising Uber, Sullivan assisted the company’s California branch’s unsuccessful attempt to get Uber drivers to redesignate themselves as independent contractors.43 By the time Uber imposed the same outcome through Proposition 22, Sullivan had joined the Biden campaign and was valorizing American workers.44 A fellow Biden campaign staffer judged Sullivan’s conflicts of interest utterly disqualifying for a top policymaking post: “We don’t need a tool of hedge funds and mining companies in the White House,” they said.45

To the extent that Biden’s other national security principals are imbricated in America’s shadows wars, they are unlikely to rethink US policy. Many of the top appointees have traveled in the same government and corporate circles as Blinken and Sullivan. Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, was deputy director of the CIA and then deputy national security advisor during Obama’s second term. Subsequently, she worked for WestExec and also consulted “for the controversial data-mining firm Palantir.”46 Biden has tapped retired general Lloyd Austin to be secretary of defense. Austin oversaw the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq during 2010–2011 and led US Central Command (CENTCOM) from March 2013 until March 2016. He then joined Raytheon’s board of directors.47 The most prominent exception to this pattern is career diplomat and recent president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, William “Bill” Burns, who Biden chose as director of the CIA.48 As for the rest, it will be tough to get Blinken, Sullivan, Haines, and Austin to question whether the United States should be arming absolutist monarchs or disseminating killer drones when their future sinecures in the private sector may depend on such policies.49

Relations with Iran, Russia, and China

Although Biden and his team may be especially ill-suited to ending America’s endless wars, the problem is structural; it supersedes variations in which party occupies the Oval Office and which individuals hold the levers of state power. After decades of internalizing the lessons of Vietnam, US elites briefly embraced large-scale ground wars (2003–2012). The public backlash over US losses in Iraq and Afghanistan propelled a rethink. Policymakers then fell back to the politically expedient approach of air campaigns and proxy fighters. As the apparent costs of intervention dropped, public resistance ebbed, and the new strategy solidified.

But the material toll of American armed drone and covert operations has never gone away — instead, it has been funneled to less vocal constituencies (the people of the war zones) and less tangible forms (creeping social spending cuts). Large amounts of killing and dying continue, but the casualties are overwhelmingly non-Americans in West Asia and parts of Africa. The economic cost is diffuse, as mammoth Pentagon budgets trample government spending for education, the environment, health, and infrastructure. Meanwhile, US office seekers and business leaders realize immediate benefits from supporting the war on terrorism — and accessing its rents.

In this context, foreign policymakers in the Biden administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress are set to take the path of least resistance: avoid costly interstate wars but defend US primacy and the dominance of America’s most belligerent allies. In West Asia, Biden may rejoin the “nuclear deal” with Iran while accepting Israeli expansionism and arming an anti-Iranian axis to the hilt. With respect to China and Russia, the president and his team are circling the ideological wagons, hoping to pit Western relations with Beijing and Moscow as a battle between freedom and autocracy. Opponents of US interventionism should expose the costs of these approaches and urge diplomatic compromise in place of unilateral dictates.

The landmark achievement of Obama’s diplomacy in West Asia, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as “the Iran nuclear deal,” was a salutary departure from US efforts to punish Iran’s people and overthrow its government. However, the JCPOA hovered in a political vacuum, without any broader connection to US-Iranian normalization or US constraint on Israel and other anti-Iranian antagonists. Further, by aiming to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon — without denuclearizing the region — the JCPOA positioned Iran’s leaders to forego the one proven deterrent to US-led invasions.

Trump unilaterally abrogated the deal in 2018, and it is easy to see why Biden and the Democrats may want to rescue it. Preventing Iran from developing a nuke, even as it is surrounded by nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, Israel, US-armed vessels in nearby waters), is a surefire way to keep Iran on its back foot and constrain the country’s influence. It is less clear why Iran’s leaders would want to return to the agreement, unless they receive the kind of massive economic relief and meaningful security guarantee that no US administration has yet granted.

Rather than reassuring the Iranian government and allowing it to operate as a normal nation in its region, US presidents from both parties have supported an anti-Iran axis that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and, at the helm, Israel. Although Obama did grave damage to hopes for a Palestinian state, his immediate successor helped consolidate this durable coalition against Iran.50 Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trump “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House … it’s not even close.”51 

The capstone of Trump and Netanyahu’s friendship was a set of four normalization agreements, announced from September to December 2020, between Israel and four Arab states: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.52 These diplomatic deals carried little strategic value for Israel’s physical security, which has been rock solid since 1979, when the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty removed the Arab world’s largest army from the Arab-Israeli conflict.53 The biggest material impact of the deals was “normalizing” Israel’s program of appropriating lands taken in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (the Golan Heights and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) while ghettoizing the land’s inhabitants.54

Ratcheting down this hostility would be both simple and profound. On the one hand, the United States could join the international consensus and deal with Iran as a regular state, rather than as a pariah. On the other hand, given the current state of US policy in Iran’s neighborhood, this would require curbing weapons sales to the anti-Iran coalition and calling a halt to Israeli land grabs. Such a stance is highly unlikely, particularly if the Biden administration simply reverts to the liberal anti-Iranianism (including massive weapons deals for Iran’s foes) that was in vogue during Obama’s last year in office.55

With respect to Russia and China, the United States has few cards to play, and the new administration has already displayed a weak hand. Rather than dealing with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping as peers, Biden has proposed a mystifying ideological campaign centered on a “Summit for Democracy.”56 This bid to depict global politics as a battle between forward-thinking democracies and retrograde autocracies is a transparent attempt to undercut rival powers rather than address them on equal terms.

Much like the Reagan-era ideologist Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Biden administration proposes to separate good governments from bad ones based on their obeisance to US-led capitalism.57 Political observers have long cautioned that governments will affix the term “democracy” on their friends — and deny it to their foes.58 Sullivan has clarified that the gathering would encompass only “like-minded democracies.”59 With this critical qualifier, the new national security advisor gives up the game: if you agree with America’s priorities, you are eligible for membership in Biden’s club. Consistent with this standard, the summit may limit attendees to G7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the United States) and the European Union, plus Australia, South Korea, and potentially India. These participants would form a “D10.”60

The gathering of the like-minded will stand in not-so-subtle opposition to China, Russia, and other “dissimilar-minded” governments. Contrary to Biden’s bromides about the “power of America’s example,” the United States’ main influence comes from its ability to preserve dollar hegemony and dominate international markets.61 In 2019, the “D10” controlled more than 57 percent of world GDP, wealth that the United States can leverage against China (16.3 percent of the world economy) and Russia (1.9 percent) when military encirclement and ideological condescension fail.62 They can also apply these resources against freely elected leftist governments (such as Bolivia and Mexico), which have yet to appear on the guest list.63


Although Biden’s presidency has just begun, the recent past offers no indication that his foreign policy will spread peace abroad or serve ordinary Americans at home. Most of his top appointees for international affairs return to government after years serving defense firms and other major business interests. Neither they nor Biden evince the political will and worldview to rein in military spending and curb the secretive wars and arms exports that help enrich CEOs at the leading weapons contractors. Their diplomacy with the world’s major powers is wrapped in delusions of US-led democracy promotion. As for America’s unending wars around the Western Indian Ocean, Biden is set to preserve the “light footprint” strategy that Obama codified and Trump continued.

In an era of upward and often brutal wealth redistribution around the globe, the ultimate question for Biden and his personnel is: Which side are you on?64 The president has pledged a “foreign policy for the middle class.” If he and his chief advisers do not end the proxy wars and drone strikes around West Asia, they will be perpetuating a foreign policy that serves the superrich while pummeling some of the world’s most impoverished countries. The more that popular movements and independent media can call the administration to account for this devastating status quo, the harder it will be to sustain.

About the Author

Jason Brownlee is a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin specializing in comparative politics and foreign policy. He is the author of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance (Cambridge University Press, 2012).