Counterterrorism Plus, or Intervention Under a Different Name: A Look at a Biden Administration’s Middle Eastern Policy

Written by: Cooper Stewart

With the 2020 election results virtually finalized, all appears set for former vice president Joe Biden to be sworn into the oval office in January 2021. While many leaders from around the globe expressed “hope” and “relief” with his victory, the reaction from the Middle East was far more mixed regarding his ascendent administration. Specifically, his mixed track record regarding military intervention in the region has led many to wonder to what degree Joe Biden would potentially utilize intervention as a means of conducting U.S. foreign policy.

Throughout his time in the Senate and as Vice President, Joe Biden has fluctuated from siding with both the pro and anti-intervention camps. Among his more notable instances residing in the pro-intervention camp, he was unabashedly in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (“I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again”) and had openly advocated for regime change as early as 1998, where he declared that the removal of Saddam Hussein was the only way to ensure Iraq’s disarmament. However, Biden also pushed less intervention during his time as Vice President, as he famously argued against NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 and opposed sending more soldiers to Afghanistan in 2009 when he attempted to persuade Obama not to send another 30,000 soldiers to the country. While Joe Biden’s more recent shift toward abstaining from intervention under the Obama administration appears to demonstrate a clear turn in that direction, there are still aspects of Biden’s official policy plan that hint he may not completely shy away from intervention all together.

In the Biden’s campaign’s official foreign policy pledge, one of the main tenets is to “End Forever Wars.” Although this is encouraging, Biden does not advocate for a total withdrawal of troops, only stating that he advocates bringing “the vast majority of our troops home” and to narrow the scope of American missions to those focused “on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.” On the surface, these two notions contradict each other: How can you pledge to end the seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East without bringing back every American soldier? The answer harkens back to a very specific strand of foreign policy thinking that Biden proposed and endorsed back in the Obama administration known as “counterterrorism plus.”

After his orders caused the number of American troops in Afghanistan to swell to 100,000 in 2011, President Obama embarked on withdrawing the soldiers to the point where they were just under 10,000 by January 2015. This move demonstrated the administration’s pivot towards counterterrorism plus. Essentially, counterterrorism plus is based in the idea that the United States could more effectively combat global terrorism without a major presence of boots-on-the-ground forces by opting to utilize small scale special forces units along with drones. Much like how a surgeon uses a scalpel to remove a tumor, the core idea behind Biden’s plan was to battle terrorism across the globe in an efficient and focused manner without the controversy of the deployment of thousands of American servicemen and women. Obama embraced this approach during his second term as president. On paper, it would appear that this strategy served as a palpable alternative to large scale intervention. But as long as American forces are still present on foreign soil, it remains intervention all the same. Even this modern style of intervention has grave consequences.

At the beginning of 2009, American military involvement was contained to three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), but by 2016 and the inauguration of Donald Trump, America’s military was actively involved in 8 countries. Furthermore, although the combination of drone strikes and special forces was advertised to be a winning pair to deal with terrorists and keep casualties low, this did not turn out to be the case. Obama alone conducted 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor George Bush. Even more concerning is that around 90% of the fatalities from these drone strikes were civilians, not the intended targets. American special forces were also greatly strained, with the majority of American military casualties being concentrated amongst U.S. special forces groups since 2015.

Considering that Biden’s administration is already putting together its Middle East foreign policy team with many former Obama-era officials, I largely expect Biden to pick up where he and his former administration left off back in 2016. Although Biden’s campaign promised to put an end to forever wars, the president-elect appears to be signaling a continuation of intervention, albeit a more covert form of it with counterterrorism plus. The only question that remains is to what extent Biden will seek to push this agenda, with either more or less drone strikes than Obama and if he will expand American operations into new theaters. Whatever extent he pursues his policy to, the fact of the matter remains: Joe Biden will be an interventionist president. This style of intervention will mean drone strikes (likely with large civilian casualties) will continue to occur and American servicemembers will continue to die overseas. Despite the optimistic signals expressed in his campaign statement, “forever wars” will not end. America has now definitively entered into its next chapter of military intervention in the Middle East.