Wednesday, May 30, 2012

President Obama's war … and ours

The New York Times shared a long piece yesterday that amounted to presenting and arguing the Obama administration's case for its strategy of war from offshore.

By withdrawing from Iraq and preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has refocused the fight on Al Qaeda and hugely reduced the death toll both of American soldiers and Muslim civilians. But in moments of reflection, Mr. Obama may have reason to wonder about unfinished business and unintended consequences.

His focus on [remote drone] strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.

Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Not a bad summary. The truly telling bit of the story describes how Obama reacted to the 2010 failed underwear bomber; he apparently demanded that his advisors become even more focused on low-casualty measures to destroy al-Qaeda. And it is clear what spurred him to action:

David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.

If we don't like the President's policy of killing perceived enemies using drones wherever in the world our spooks identify targets, we have to change what Axelrod's participation flags: as a people we continue to insist that our government respond to every threat, however objectively inconsequential, as if it were existential. While the people continue to demand an illusory absolute security from all hostile dangers, Presidents will continue to twist historic assumptions about sovereignty and law like a limp strand of spaghetti. And our leaders will crow over the bloody results.
As for the drone war in Yemen, not all reporters are as sanguine about its success as the Times reporters. Jeremy Scahill from the Nation visited that country last year.

I'm very skeptical of reports that say, you know, 11 suspected militants were killed, because we don't have reporters on the ground that are going to the scene and are evaluating who was killed. The United States is relying entirely on its own imagery from its drones and satellites, as well as intelligence on the ground from Yemeni military officials and Yemeni government officials and intelligence officials who have an agenda to make sure that the United States believes that all the people that they're killing are suspected militants rather than, say, an important tribal leader.

And I bring that case up because there was a case where it appears as though the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, fed the United States bad intel, telling the U.S. that there's an al-Qaida group meeting in a particular area, and they killed an important tribal leader who happened to be an opponent of the regime.

… the U.S. built up, and it began in the mid-2000s, ended up not fighting terrorism but actually defending the failing regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So they were never operating in the territories where al-Qaida figures were believed to be but rather being used to defend the U.S.-backed regime of Saleh as it was crumbing to pieces.

And so there was a lot of resentment from Yemenis. They call them the Saleh family military, the U.S.-backed units. They call them the Saleh family military, not the national military. Anyway, so the U.S. builds up that, they have trainers on the ground, and then you have a network of Saudi informants that are inside of Yemen.

And then you have U.S. airpower in the form of drones, as we've mentioned, but also cruise missiles that are being launched off the coast of Yemen from vessels or submarines that are there ostensibly to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and there have been a number of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. In fact, the most deadly strike that we know of in Yemen to date, authorized by the Obama administration, was his first strike in Yemen, and that was on December 17, 2009, and it was not the CIA, and it was not a drone.

It was cruise missiles launched from the sea, and it slammed into this village called Al-Majalah, which is in south Yemen, and the U.S. had intelligence that was given to it by the Yemeni government that there was an al-Qaida training camp there and storage facilities for weapons.

Well, it turned out that that wasn't true, and the U.S. bombed this village and killed 46 people, and we know the names of all of the people that were killed. I went there myself. I interviewed a woman who lost her entire family. An old man, 17 of those 46 people that were killed were members of his family. There were five pregnant women among the dead.

…I think that we're seeing the future of U.S. war fighting in Yemen. I think this is the model that has emerged over the past decade, where President Obama wants to draw down large-scale military occupations, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are going to be, for decades to come, fighting special operations forces, CIA war of attrition against terrorism or against anyone determined to be an enemy of the United States.

Read or listen to it all here.


Kay Dennison said...

I'm just tired of all this no matter where we're fighting. We need to be taking care of the many problems we have here at home.

janinsanfran said...

I'm completely serious about what I highlight here: U.S. politicians will not stop making war, one way or another, until we, the citizens, demand that they have more important tasks to accomplish. If we stand ready to condemn them for any small scale eruption from cultish nutcases, they'll try to satisfy us. We all need to stop acting like scared rabbits if we want more peaceable policies and more attention to needs at home.

Kay Dennison said...

As usual, you are right on and I agree with you completely. My teabagger Congressman (who walks the party line like a good little robot) just sends tired rhetoric back when I call him on his positions. I can't wait to campaign against him.

I've spent my life with these useless wars and am so weary of them. The money and time wasted on them could have eliminated a multitude of sins.

Rain Trueax said...

We can say all we want about what we want but the first plane that is blown up by an underwear bomber and whoever is president will take the hit. When we were driving down to Tucson, we went through Nevada and saw the drones training. They are frankly scary even in this country. I didn't see them down along the border but have been told they will or are there. I don't have an answer to this. We live in a world where some do want to kill innocents to get their goals. We don't purpose to kill innocents ever but in war it does happen whether goaled or not. If it was my family on a plane that a terrorist managed to blow up, it would be hard to be placid about it or who should pay for it-- the ones who ordered it and don't get blown up with the ones they manipulated into doing it through religion and some mixed up concept of patriotism.

janinsanfran said...

The NY Times returned to this subject today in an editorial.

"The United States cannot be in a perpetual war on terror that allows lethal force against anyone, anywhere, for any perceived threat."

I think that this speaks to the guts of what we are up against. Once upon a time, states declared wars. Minimally, in present circumstances with non-state actors running wild and threatening violence, the state has to declare publicly and opening what constitutes grounds for using lethal force and the people need to debate the question. The government has given up on even a pretense of democracy it decisions are taken in secret "for us." We need to take responsibility collectively, not individually.