Editor’s note: This article is the second installment of our Values in Foreign Policy symposium.

“American values,” claimed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, “are not luxuries but necessities, not the salt in our bread, but the bread itself.” If values in foreign policy are the bread – something essential – then ambition is the salt. Small portions enhance, excessive portions spoil, and large enough portions kill. This lesson applies to a range of foreign policy issues, including U.S. remote warfare. Going forward, the Biden administration should be more circumspect in its reliance on lethal force as a foreign policy tool and more ambitious in expanding protections for civilians in and outside of traditional war zones.

A Morally-Directed Approach to Targeted Killing?

The Biden administration has made its commitment to a values-based foreign policy explicit, most recently in its October 2022 National Security Strategy. The document contains familiar references to democracy, freedom, human rights, and the need to counter autocracy, all framed around an assumption of the indispensability of American global leadership. The section on the Middle East, in contrast, contains a franker admission of limits: 

We have too often defaulted to military-centric policies underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change to deliver sustainable outcomes, while failing to adequately account for opportunity costs to competing global priorities or unintended consequences.

These types of statements, coupled with Biden’s decision to fully withdraw U.S. ground forces from Afghanistan, reveal the administration’s reluctance to rely on force alone, and willingness to curb its military ambition accordingly. 

Yet while Biden has dramatically decreased the tempo of drone strikes, his drone playbook remains largely the same as that of his predecessors. In the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden pledged to continue to eliminate terrorist threats through “over-the-horizon” operations, avoiding the political, financial, and human costs of large-scale troop deployments.

This “lighter footprint” approach is favored not only for its lower political cost, but also as a way for the United States to better align its values with its interests. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan did improve the lives of many Afghans, particularly girls and women in cities. These benefits, however, generated at a cost of over $2 trillion, were only ever partial and never truly durable. The United States lost its war against the Taliban; failing to recognize this and risking more lives in service of an unachievable goal would have been not only imprudent but immoral. “Over-the-horizon” operations, it is hoped, will eliminate terrorist threats to the United States and innocent civilians abroad, while shielding American forces from unnecessary combat risks. 

This targeted killing approach to conflict management assumes an efficacy not borne out by the evidence. As we have seen in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, remote warfare does not necessarily make the United States – nor the civilians who occupy affected areas – safer. These legally contested strikes also do little to address the political and economic conditions on the ground that create and sustain terrorism and militancy in the long term. In the absence of a coherent strategy and clearly delineated benchmarks for success, it is difficult to see how, from a moral perspective, the administration can justify the civilian harm resulting from such strikes. 

Remote warfare is no panacea, and the belief that it is or will eventually be has led to harms and injustices at odds with the “values-based” foreign policy the Biden administration espouses. U.S. policy toward the Middle East going forward should be rooted in humility – a stronger presumption against violence; a rejection of ambition unmoored from prudence; a greater willingness to uphold domestic and international law; and an understanding that not all risks warrant a response and not all responses should be kinetic. 

Moral Ambition and Civilian Harm

Not every airstrike, of course, is immoral and not every target is a victim. There will be times when it is both strategically wise and moral for the United States to strike those who represent a significant and temporally imminent threat. In cases where the use of force is justified, however, the United States should take seriously its moral (as well as legal) responsibilities to develop more ambitious policies to prevent and make amends for civilian harm. 

Civilian harm is a tragic and unavoidable feature of war, an important reason to uphold the prohibition on the use of force that forms the bedrock of international law. But not all civilian harm is equally unavoidable. Far too many deaths result from recklessness and gross negligence – harms that while not intended were foreseen, or harms that were not foreseen but entirely foreseeable. Counterterrorism strategies that rely heavily on remoteness are not a form of “riskless” war—these strikes all too often increase risks to civilians on the ground, particularly when the available intelligence on which targeting decisions are based is outdated, incorrect, or misinterpreted. 

The civilian consequences of remote warfare, and the longstanding moral inadequacy of U.S. responses to this harm, were underscored by the August 2021 drone strike in Kabul which killed ten civilians, including seven children. After initially prevaricating about the outcome of the strike, the Pentagon promised to reduce the risks of collateral civilian harm via broad changes to military planning, doctrine, and training. The Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) released a year later is an important, but insufficiently ambitious, first step.  

Arguably the biggest failure of the CHMR-AP is the refusal to review credible past cases of civilian harm, a morally indefensible stance given that civilian deaths from U.S. actions over the past twenty years may be as high as 50,000. A values-based foreign policy that takes military violence—and its too often ruinous consequences—seriously must look back as well as forward. Without this, commitments to improve ring hollow, particularly when reports show that the U.S. military has systematically and repeatedly failed to learn past lessons on civilian harm. 

Virtually all the problems associated with U.S. remote warfare were known, or at least knowable, far earlier than they were addressed. What was absent was not available facts but the ambition to reconceptualize civilian protection as a positive duty – as something more than the intention not to kill. Going forward, civilian harm issues should be prioritized at every level of government, and the organization, structure, and application of the use of force modified accordingly. In some cases, this will necessitate a relaxation of force protection or a ruling out of strikes altogether. Future reforms should also be implemented proactively to forestall civilian harm, not resisted until a particularly well publicized case of misconduct forces change. 

Civilians will never be entirely safe in war and no change in policy, no matter how ambitious, should delude us into thinking otherwise. But measures can be taken to further reduce civilian harm and more closely align U.S. strategic interests with its values. The Biden administration must have the ambition to make these policy changes and reshape the future of remote warfare.

IMAGE: A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off at sunset while transporting American troops out of a remote combat outpost known as RLZ on May 25, 2021 near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)