The President Drones On

The long arm of Uncle Sam, his fingers tipped with death, has reached around the world to Pakistan again, this time killing two innocent hostages, the American Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto.  President Obama took the novel step of declassifying and revealing the fatal mistake, and of course he took full responsibility for the deaths, which has always struck me as a relatively meaningless gesture.  In the announcement he continually referred to the victims as “Warren” and “Giovanni,” suggesting, I suppose, that he was close to these men or that the deaths were a personal loss.  Who knows?

President Obomber

President Obomber

The subsequent press conference with the aptly named Presidential Press Secretary, John Earnest, was the usual exercise in evasiveness, repetition and empty statements.  The secrecy is once again mind boggling.  He stated that he could not reveal any details about where and how the raid was carried out, which has me puzzled.  The terrorists can hardly fail to know where the strike took place, and one would think the how is pretty clear: they observed the target for days, determined there was a terrorist “signature” and hit the building with a missile.  Why the actual day cannot be revealed also strikes me as mysterious.  But then, I am not a “national security professional,” as Earnest continually called the spooks, who were dedicated patriots just doing their job, which for me conjures images of black uniforms and caps with skull and crossbones on them.  Somehow “targeted strike” does not sound as sinister as “assassination” or “murder.”

"I don't deal with hypotheticals...or truth."

“I don’t deal with hypotheticals…or truth.”

No one asked why if this strike and the resulting casualties can be revealed – at least revealed three months after the fact – why such details of other strikes cannot be made public.  A reporter did ask why, if it is our policy not to negotiate for hostages, did the government trade captives for captured soldier Robert Bergdahl, who was in fact a deserter.  The question was dodged, and the ever helpful Press Secretary explained once again why we do not deal with terrorists.  I am not impressed by the major reason – this would only encourage them to take more hostages – inasmuch as they are going to seize any westerner they can get their hands on anyway.  Israel negotiates with terrorists; who would gainsay them in this business?

Earnest also reminded us that the he (along with most politicians) does not deal in “hypotheticals,” which has become the standard reply to questions regarding policy.  But a comprehensive policy is based on the consideration of “what if’s,” and we are essentially being told that we are not to know the full implications of a government policy, especially when it concerns national security and blowing up people half way around the world.  It might be argued that we do not want our enemies to know what our reaction will be if x happens, but this leaves the citizenry in the dark regarding exactly what our policies are in very critical areas of war and peace.

Also killed in January were two al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Farouq in this strike and Adam Gadahny in another, both of them US citizens, raising again the uncomfortable issue of what business the government has assassinating Americans.  Well, Obama has informed us that Attorney General Eric Holder, his man of course, has assured him that it is Constitutionally permissible to zap these jerks, the contrary position of many legal scholars notwithstanding.  Yes, they are entitled to a trial, but if they cannot be captured wadda ya gonna do?  And trying them in absentia will not work because time is always of the essence.  Do you want efficiency or justice with these “imminent threats” to Americans?  National security, always defined by the government, often requires sacrifice, frequently, as in this case, of Constitutional rights.  Besides, the President has assured us Congress has oversight of these operations, which recent history regarding the NSA suggests is a not even close to true, and in any case, does the involvement of Congress make anyone feel comfortable?

"Of course it is all perfectly legal."

“Of course it is all perfectly legal.”

Imminent threat?  Most people would agree that imminent meant someone was pointing a gun at you or walking towards a shopping mall with an assault rifle and suicide vest or massing troops on your borders.  But as with the Red Queen, for the government words mean exactly what it wants them to mean.  Thus, a guy in Waziristan who might be plotting an attack against the US is an imminent threat, regardless of how difficult it will be for him and his comrades to pull it off.  An American citizen in Somalia recruiting new fighters for al-Qaeda is an imminent threat requiring action, just as the possibility that Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether they would ever be stupid enough to try to use it, is an imminent threat, justifying a first strike.  Traditional understandings of international law among civilized nations is disappearing, at least for the US and Israel.

The deaths of the hostages was the result of a “signature” strike, that is, there was no intelligence that a valuable target was at that locale but rather the patterns of movement in and out of and around the locale suggested a group of terrorists.  Now, this is a good one.  So, if a group of men in one of these wild areas regularly gathered to play cards and some brought coolers with whatever it is Muslims drink, they would sooner or later be blown up.  What it boils down to is that any male of military age is considered a terrorist.

Incidentally, so far as named targets are concerned, what precious little evidence that can be gleaned about the drone program indicates that it takes many strikes to get the designated terrorist.  That means far more chance and perhaps the certainty that innocents will also be killed, and while it is extremely difficult to come up with any sort of precise estimates given the veil of secrecy, it is very clear Bomber Obama is vastly underestimating the number of civilian casualties.  Ayman Zawahiri is still alive after two attempts; 76 children and 29 adults are not.  Killing Qari Hussain, whom I suspect very few people have ever heard of, cost the lives of 128 people.  The human rights group Reprieve estimates that as of last November attempts to assassinate 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1147 individuals, while strikes on some two dozen named terrorists in Pakistan ended up killing 874 people.  The Council on Foreign Relations has concluded that 500 strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3674 unfortunates.

Touched by the hand of Sam

Touched by the hand of Sam

On a related note of governmental duplicity, America agreed that no operations involving armed drones would take place on Germany territory, inasmuch as that would violate German law and the Status of Forces agreement.  Now, German counterintelligence (together with the American patriot Edward Snowdon) has produced classified American documents demonstrating that the giant American air base at Ramstein (the largest foreign American military base) is in fact the hub for all attack drone activity in the world.  Once more the US government has blatantly lied to and abused the hospitality of a close ally.  The Merkel government has suspected this but despite the complete lack of American response to the NSA spying revelations has refused to take any action for fear of further injuring relations with the bully across the Atlantic.  One hopes that domestic political pressure will now force her hand and lead to charges of war crimes against American military and intelligence personnel.

Drone Central at Ramstein

Drone Central at Ramstein

But the President has assured us that the drone program is critical to the security of the country and safety of the American people, and Presidents never lie, right?  Meanwhile, we are further tarnishing our image around the globe, and every civilian casualty mean more recruits for the terrorist organizations.  And Obama ticks names off kill lists supplied by the CIA, reminiscent of Stalin going through lists of those to be shot by the NKVD.

OK, that’s stretching it beyond the breaking point, but the fact is we seem less and less to be the good guys.

The old symbol of  America

The old symbol of
America

The new symbol of America

The new symbol of America

 

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Je Suis Charlie (Mais Non Est Obama)

 

What is wrong with Barack Obama?  On January 11 1.6 million people, including more than forty presidents and prime ministers, gathered in the Place de la République in Paris for a show of solidarity against Islamic terrorism.  But unless you recognized the face of the American ambassador in Paris you would search in vain for a representative of the United States among the heads of state marching with linked arms.  The American Attorney General happened to be in France, but did not attend the rally.

Surely the American President, the leader of the global anti-terror war, had no business more important (a fund raiser?) than showing his face in Paris.  The White House then added another insult by bringing up concerns about the President’s safety (though the Secret Service was never consulted), suggesting that the French security forces are inept, an opinion apparently not shared by the leaders who did show up.  Since the President may presumably ignore the concerns of his advisors, Obama ends up looking a bit like a coward or an aloof jerk, especially since the very first national leader to hurry to the US after 9/11 was Jacques Chirac, the President of France.

Je suis Barack

Je suis Barack

One leader who did show up, apparently against the wishes of the French President, Francois Hollande, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prompting Hollande to immediately invite Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority.  Netanyahu proceeded to make a fool of himself, waving to the crowd, unlike the others in the somber march, and inviting French Jews to emigrate to Israel, where they would be safe, a completely outrageous statement for a guest of the French to make.  Of course, the presence of people like Vladimir Putin and the representative of Saudia Arabia was a study in hypocrisy as they memorialized the Charlie Hebdo journalists, all of whom would be in prison in their countries.

Slaughtering innocents, especially children, is certainly barbaric, but the assault on the writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was a blow against what I believe to be the most important of our rights, that of free expression.  If one cannot say what one pleases, short of creating an immediate physical danger, all other political freedoms become meaningless.  Limiting free speech because someone, be it an individual or an entire group of people, may be offended is tantamount to eliminating free speech.  Freedom of expression comes with a sometimes onerous responsibility: tolerating the offensive or inane speech of others.  “Hate” speech and certainly stupid speech are unfortunately facets of free speech.

Islamic extremism, at least when it targets what it considers offensive expression, might be considered a sort of political correctness gone wild.  Instead of facing censure or job loss because of criticism of some group, you now face death threats and violence.  There are well meaning-people who believe that if we do not insult these individuals by criticizing or lampooning their bizarre and brutal interpretation of Islam, they will not be moved to such barbarous behavior, a ludicrous idea.  And there are far less well-meaning people (see for example the official Turkish press), who suggest this sort of violence is happening because of excessive free speech, implying that the victims at Charlie Hebdo deserved what they got.  Well, all governments (and university administrations) are uncomfortable to some degree with real free speech, and it is a never ending struggle to secure our right to say what we will.

Free speech aside, these jihadi scum are reminiscent of a violent group that has actually contributed a common noun to the English language – the Thuggees or Thugs.  The Thugs were a criminal/religious association plaguing India since at least the fourteenth century, until they were virtually eliminated by the British in the nineteenth.  The Thugs originally traced their roots back to seven Muslim tribes, but their theology was Hindu during their reign of terror.  They were essentially a criminal underclass, specializing in strangling and robbing travelers, but they believed themselves (Muslims notwithstanding) to be the children of the violent goddess Kali, consort of Shiva, thus providing a kind of religious justification for their murderous activities.  The Thugs were at root thieves, but they inevitably murdered their victims, making them something more than just another robber band.  Estimates vary wildly, but the Thugs may have killed as many as two million people during their centuries of terror.

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Thugs

Thugs

And what to do about the wave of Muslim fanaticism that is rolling around the planet?  I wish I knew.  These deluded jihadists are like the Terminator: they can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be bought off and they can’t be intimidated.  The British were able to turn many Thugs by sparing them the death penalty, but how can one do this with someone who believes that getting blown up is a good thing?

Killing them is the only immediate answer, but without an effective army actually engaging ISIS in Syria and Iraq this will be a long and difficult process.  Cutting off the supply of new recruits means improving living conditions, including education, for young Muslim men, a tough enough challenge in Europe, especially France, where there is a rising tide of Islamaphobia, and perhaps impossible in the Middle East.  Of course, droning innocents in Pakistan and Yemen is not helping the cause, although the ISIS fanatics would likely still be trying to build their caliphate even if the West had no history of colonialism in the Middle East and no war on terror.

Perhaps western leaders need to begin thinking outside the box.  Declare that Syria is a province of the Israeli empire and let them take care of the situation.  Or make it clear to the jihadists that if captured they will be put in stocks and pelted with pork and forced to listen to historians and theologians explaining Islam to them.  Or send in attorneys and administrators to help ISIS construct a true bureaucratic state, in the wake of which they will be unable to get anything done.  Just saying. enhanced-30843-1420643123-9[1]enhanced-15505-1420644639-7[1]

Green Eggs and Cicero

I was of course surprised to discover that US Senator Ted Cruz was a cum laude graduate of Princeton University; he must have missed the class on rational thought.  Remember, this is the man who read all of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster.  In any case, in a recent speech he balanced this, I suppose, by paraphrasing an oration of M. Tullius Cicero, the In Catilinam (Against Catiline), delivered before the Roman Senate in 63 BC.  Cruz quotes the opening passage (I.1-3) of the first of the four Catiline speeches, adding and removing words in order to modify the oration into an attack on President Obama, whom he believes is threatening the American Senate and the Constitution.

T. Tullius Cruz

T. Tullius Cruz

M. Tullius Cicero

M. Tullius Cicero

L. Sergius Catilina (c.108-63 BC) was a familiar denizen of the Late Republic, politically ambitious and an increasingly desperate extremist.  The almost five hundred year old Roman Republic was in its death throes, and little more than three decades after Catiline it would finally give way to the Principate, the military autocracy established by Octavian/Augustus (see Stuff from Way Back #26: Image Is Everything).  These are the final days of the Roman Revolution, which had begun in 133 BC with the attempted reforms of Senator T. Sempronius Gracchus, who understood that in the wake of the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC) and the rapid expansion into the wealthy Greek east Italy had undergone massive demographic change that required reform.  Unfortunately, the Senate had become corrupted and resisted any challenge to their authority, even the relatively minor changes proposed by Gracchus.

The result was the Revolution.  Gracchus resorted to more revolutionary – perfectly legal but unprecedented – tactics by appealing directly to the citizen assemblies, which had generally been content to ratify anything the Senate recommended.  His success drove the Senate to more radical resistance, and Gracchus and his supporters ended up dead in a “riot.”  But they had demonstrated it was possible to challenge the Senate, and as the struggle continued, reform was forgotten as politically ambitious individuals entered the fray on both sides for their own reasons.  Within a half century violence had become endemic in the political arena and was finally formalized by the entrance of the legions, and Rome experienced her first civil war in 83-82 BC, resulting in the effective dictatorship of L. Cornelius Sulla.

Sulla actually retired after destroying the opposition and strengthening the position of the Senate, but he himself was the perfect role model for new men seeking power.  Seemingly restored, the Republic was already dead, and the second half of the revolution, though still witnessing political battles centered in the Senate, was essentially a contest among incredibly powerful men and ultimately their armies.  In the 60s BC those men were Cn. Pompeius Magnus, riding an inflated military reputation, and M. Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and political patron of the up and coming C. Julius Caesar.  In 60 BC the three would form a coalition to dominate the state, the First Triumvirate, which would lead to a civil war between Pompey and Caesar in 49-46 BC.

Catiline was one of the minor losers in this environment.  In 63 BC he failed in his second bid for the consulship (the two annually elected consuls were the highest state officials, able to command troops), and seriously in debt and apparently abandoned by Crassus, he was now desperate enough to form a conspiracy to seize control of Rome.  While his associates in the city created chaos and murdered prominent leaders, including Cicero, he would raise a populist revolt in Italy and march on Rome.  This plan was doomed from the start, since even had he succeeded, the inevitable result would be the return of Pompey from the east with his army to restore order, something Crassus and Caesar certainly did not want to see.

L. Sergius Catilina

L. Sergius Catilina

As it happened, the conspiracy was discovered, and Cicero, one of the two consuls, persuaded the Senate to pass the consultum ultimum (“last decree”), a controversial mechanism that in effect declared a state of emergency and directed the consuls to take extraordinary measures to protect the Republic.  Catiline fled to muster his insurgents in Etruria, while his co-conspirators in Rome were arrested, which led to a hot debate in the Senate regarding their fate.  For his own political reasons Caesar argued that as Roman citizens they could not be put to death without a trial, a constitutional point that swayed the Senate, but up popped M. Porcius Cato Uticensis (the Younger), a man so conservative that even most Romans considered him off the deep end.  (The Cato Institute is well named.)  He argued that the conspirators, who were obviously guilty, were no longer citizens because they had plotted against the government and the Senate had to take bold action to nip any insurrection in the bud.  The Senate was persuaded, and the prisoners were executed.

Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger

Cicero before the Senate

Cicero before the Senate

Cato was of course wrong.  Catiline by now had taken up arms against the state and could be legally killed, but the others had taken no action.  In following the advice of the Senate, which he was not bound to do, Cicero had grossly violated basic laws of the Republic.  The news of the executions, however, caused Catiline’s troops to begin melting away, and he was easily defeated by the other consul, C. Antonius Hybrida.  Catiline fought to the death.

Thus, Cruz takes the role of Cicero, defending the Republic, that is, the Congress and Constitution, from Obama, an American Catiline who is threatening the state, not with an army and murder but with executive action.  Paraphrasing a speech of Cicero, the great orator and defender of the Republic, is clever on Cruz’ part, but the analogy is stretched past the breaking point.  Granted Catiline was a populist, seeking to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction with inept Senatorial rule, but he intended to assassinate members of the Senate and seize Rome by military force, hardly in the same league with an executive action.  Cruz argues that the action would be unconstitutional because Obama would be creating law, yet George W. Bush did the same thing, tinkering with the existing situation, just as Obama claims to be doing.

And it must be remembered that the Republic that Cicero was defending in 63 BC was already dead, and the Senate had become a corrupt body, filled with toadies belonging to Pompey and Crassus.  Perhaps here the analogy is correct, since Cruz is defending a Senate filled with members beholden to corporate financiers.  Further, in the interests of expediency this Senate was willing to violate a basic constitutional right (though the Republic had no written constitution) of Roman citizens in the interests of national security, something of course that resonates with the entire American government.

Though an incredibly vain man, Cicero was eloquent, extremely intelligent and a patriot who preferred to die with the Republic rather than flee.  Ted Cruz is a joke, a man of little dignity.  It is impossible to imagine Cicero tying up the Roman Senate with an extended reading of Viridia ova atque perna.

viridia ova atque perna

viridia ova atque perna

Stuff from Way Back #22: Power Corrupts

(This piece must serve for two weeks since I will be out of town. All dates are BC and translations of Thucydides are by Rex Warner. My thanks to Donald Kagan, who taught me this long, long ago.)

 

 

Defending the ludicrous attempts to establish democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of US politicians have stated that apart from being the right thing to do (regardless of what the locals think), this policy enhances the prospects for peace because “democracies do not attack their neighbors.” One need not look further than our own recent history to see what nonsense this is: Grenada, Panama, Iraq and drone strikes, which are in fact acts of war. Israel has begun numerous conflicts not entirely justified by a credible threat. And democratic states in classical Greece, including the granddaddy of all democracies, Athens, continually attacked their neighbors.

 
Indeed, Athens (along with the US) provides a shining example of democracy acting badly. That power is corrupting is a commonplace, and the presidency of Barack Obama appears to be a demonstration of this notion. Prior to being elected President Obama was a progressive, espousing more open government, dismantling the war and terror apparatus of the Bush administration and promising peace. Instead, he is pursuing a concentrated assault on journalists, defending the Constitutionally dubious powers of the Patriot act, aggressively spying on the American people and our allies and killing innocents by the hundreds with his drones. He underlines the idea that no government, whatever its nature, will voluntarily surrender any power. And if subordinating everything to the quest for reelection and trading favors for campaign funds is corruption, the Congress is a cesspool.

 
In antiquity the ruling elite of the Roman Republic provide a classic example of corruption. Having served the best interests of the state and the Roman people for almost four hundred years, the Senatorial class was corrupted by the powers accumulated in Rome’s wars and especially by the flood of wealth that came in the wake of the conquest of the Greek east. The result was an utterly self-interested Senate and the ultimate collapse of the Republic into military autocracy.

 
But it is Athens that provides a compelling study in the corrupting influence of power, especially in the pressure cooker of war. The moral collapse of the Athenian people, the real rulers in the radical democracy of the later fifth century, is beautifully detailed by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), the showdown between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League. Thucydides is the first modern historian, not only because of his attempt to provide an entirely factual narrative, but also because of his analysis of the broad currents flowing through that narrative. He was himself an Athenian and was present in Athens during the events examined below, giving credibility to the substance of the statements he records.

 
Athens emerged from the Persian Wars (490, 480-479) immensely powerful, particularly at sea, where her fleet was larger than all the other Greek navies combined. Liberating the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast and preventing a resurgence of Persian power required a permanent Aegean alliance, and in 478 Athens organized the Delian League, a voluntary association of most of the island and coastal cities. Recognizing Athens’ huge military contribution, the member states granted her a dominant role in the League, almost guaranteeing the emergence of Athenian supremacy. The evolution from league to empire began with Athens taking military action to prevent members from leaving the alliance, an understandable measure, and gradually the ship-contributing allies were transformed into tribute paying allies. Within a generation of the creation of the League there were besides Athens only three ship contributing allies left – the wealthy islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. The remaining allies all paid tribute and supplied troops, and of these a large number were subject and so more directly controlled. By the fifties Athens had suspended meetings of the League assembly, and in 454 the League treasury was moved from Delos to the Athenian acropolis, where Athena henceforth received a rake of one sixtieth.

 
The Athenian organization was a light touch compared to the average empire, at least until the pressures of the great war with Sparta. The tribute was reassessed every four years, and the allied state could appeal if it thought the amount was too high. In return for their money the allies got the Athenian fleet, which not only protected them from the Persians and from their own neighbors, but also suppressed the normally endemic piracy, probably the most appreciated benefit of the empire. The obligation to supply troops was a burden, but perhaps better the allied hoplites should be defending and expanding the empire than fighting one another, which is what they would otherwise be doing. Because of the strong feelings the Greeks had about the autonomy of the polis, however, the empire was probably generally resented and Athenian meddling in the internal affairs of the subject allies certainly was, but it could have been worse. After all, Athenian interference was primarily concerned with maintaining democratic governments, which by definition involved the majority of the locals ruling themselves. (At least by the Greek definition, which required direct participation; representative government readily allows the creation of sham democracies.) And in fact, it would be worse: when Sparta took over the empire after Athens’ defeat in 404, she ruled it through oppressive little ten man oligarchies.

 
Athens had her ups and downs with her allies, but it was the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 that really turned the empire sour. Initially there was little problem, since Pericles pursued a purely defensive strategy, which made very small demands upon the allies, especially in terms of troops. But old Squill Head died in 429, and Athenian policy became increasingly aggressive and expansionist, putting heavier and heavier demands on the allies. For example, in 425, the seventh year of the war, Athens more than doubled the tribute demanded of the allies. The empire became an increasing burden on the allies, wasting their resources and lives in dubious operations and providing no discernible benefits in return. In 412, prompted by Athenian losses in Sicily and Spartan promises of aid, almost all the allies revolted and went over to the enemy camp. In the next few years the energetic Athenians would reconquer most of their former dependents, but a few years after that they would lose the war and with it the empire. Then the allies would get a taste of empire Spartan style.

 
War brutalizes a society, and Athens’ decaying relationship with her allies in the course of the war fully demonstrates this moral decline, which is neatly reflected in her own changing view of the empire and foreign relations in general. In the famous Funeral Oration given at the end of the first year of the war Pericles alludes to the relatively benign imperialism practiced by Athens: “We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them…When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on free liberality.” (Thucydides 2.40.4-5) Well, the reality of the empire was of course far from this ideal, but Athenian imperialism was almost a gentle presence compared to the heavy-handed Spartan brand, which had virtually enslaved the southern part of the Peloponnesus. In any case, it is the ideal we are interested in, how Athens viewed herself and her relations with other states.

 
Only one year later the tone has already changed. In a speech given by Pericles at the end of the second year of the war the will to power is now clearly apparent:
“The whole world before our eyes can be divided into two parts, the land and the sea, each of which is valuable and useful to man. Of the whole of one of these parts you are in control – not only of the area at present in your power, but elsewhere too, if you want to go further. With your navy as it is today there is no power on earth –not the King of Persia nor any people under the sun – which can stop you from sailing where you wish…And do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery; there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred we have incurred while administering it…In fact you now hold your empire down by force: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.” (Thucydides 2.62.2, 63.1-2)
After only two years of war the friendly, mutual aid concept of empire expressed in the Funeral Oration has given way to a more realistic appraisal of the empire as a kind of tyranny. But the empire cannot be given up now, and justification of it can be found in the mere fact that it exists. Further, in his description of Athenian naval strength Pericles defines a power that has no limit and suggests that Athenian ambitions might not be contained within the confines of the present empire.

 
In 428 Mytilene, the chief city on the island of Lesbos, revolted from Athens and was crushed the following year. In a fit of emotion the Athenian assembly voted to put to death the entire male population and enslave the women and children, a rare and extreme form of punishment that was unfortunately becoming less rare as the war progressed. The harshness of the reaction is a vivid sign of the brutalizing effects of the war, but what happened next is also revealing of the changing Athenian attitude towards the empire. The day after the decision was made cooler heads prevailed, and an extraordinary second meeting of the assembly was called to debate the issue again. The demagogue and radical imperialist Cleon (d. 422) argued that the heavy punishment was necessary to set an example and that policy could not take a back seat to irrelevant humanitarian concerns. The opposition, led by the moderate Diodotus, countered with the argument that the slaughter would not serve as a deterrent, but rather would cause those who did revolt to fight to the death, since that would be all they could expect anyway. Moreover, Mytilene was an oligarchy and the people had been compelled to go along with the revolt, so punishing them would only disaffect the democratic factions in other states.

 
The penalty was repealed and the Mytilenians were saved at the last minute, but look at the arguments delivered in their defense. Nowhere does Diodotus say anything about justice or what is right or what Mytilene deserves. His arguments are based entirely on expediency, on what course of action would be best for imperial Athens, and he comes right out and says so: “But this is not a law court, where we have to consider what is fit and just; it is a political assembly, and the question is how Mytilene can be most useful to Athens.” (Thucydides 3.44.4) Whatever Diodotus may have felt about the inhumanity of the punishment and the plight of the Mytilenians, he understood that the Athenian people would only be moved by a cold appeal to their imperial self-interest. As the war dragged on, Athens’ concept of empire was clearly growing harsher. And Athens was not alone in the growing brutality. In 427 Plataea surrendered to the Spartans after a two year siege, and despite the city’s role in the Hellenic victory of 479, it was razed to the ground. Prompted by the Thebans, the Spartans acted in a particularly nasty fashion. Each defender was asked if had done anything of service to the Spartans and their allies in the war, and when each answered no (what else?), he was executed.

 
The moral rock bottom came in 416, when the Athenians attacked the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean. The Melians had not joined the original Delian League and had managed to escape the attention of the Athenians in the following years. At the outbreak of the war the island was neutral, although her sympathies were with Sparta, since she had been colonized from there. She resisted an Athenian invitation to join the empire and because of this uncooperative stance was in 426 the object of an unsuccessful Athenian attack. Now, ten years later the Athenians extended their invitation again, and once again the Melians refused. This time, however, the Athenians captured the city and killed all the males and enslaved the women and children. Actually, this was the second occasion that such drastic measures were taken; Athens had already inflicted this same terrible fate upon her ally Scione after an unsuccessful revolt in 421. But in the case of Scione the Athenians could at least claim, rightly or wrongly, just desserts for an ingrate ally, whereas Melos quite obviously involved nothing more than naked and brutal aggression.

 
And indeed the Athenians made no claim that there was anything more. In their dialogue with the Melians before investing the city they boldly state their reasons for pressuring the island: “If we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power…So that by conquering you we shall increase not only the size but the security of our empire. We rule the sea and you are islanders, and weaker islanders too than the others; it is therefore particularly important that you should not escape.” (Thucydides 5.95, 97) When the Melians protest that what is happening to them is hardly just, the Athenians reply with one of the most cynical statements of foreign policy principles in history:
“You know as well as we do that, when matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept…Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it a general and necessary law of nature (physis) to rule wherever one can. This is not a law we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.” (Thucydides 5.89, 105.2)
Such honesty in foreign affairs is certainly refreshing, but it cannot obscure the total moral bankruptcy of Athenian policy. It has come to this for the Athenians – might makes right. They have abandoned the normal standards of civilized behavior and justified their violation of accepted standards of international law (nomos or man made law) by appealing to a brutally defined “natural law” (or god’s law, law of the gods, conscience, higher law), as many a great power would do in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, precisely as Thucydides predicted.

 
America of course officially justifies her increasingly abominable behavior on the world stage with an appeal to national security rather than some law of nature, but so pervasive has the security argument become that it takes on the character of a natural law. And there are many conservative Christians who in fact do believe our actions are supported by natural law, in this case the Christian god, who had earlier justified our conquest of the North America. The “war” on terror touches ordinary Americans in only the most peripheral way, yet we are still being brutalized, accepting lower standards of international conduct as acceptable and even normal. Besides, as our leaders say regarding America’s pervasive snooping, everyone does it. No, only the powerful do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must – at least until they become the powerful.

International Law Matters (Except When It Doesn’t)

(It was my intention to post another lost poem of Rudyard Kipling, but the administration’s blathering and dithering over Syria requires a few words.)

Among the plethora of generally vague reasons offered by the administration as justification for some sort of attack on Syria far and away the most hypocritical is Assad’s violation of international law by deploying chemical weapons. The President, along with members of his administration, specifically cited this abuse of international covenants as a reason to go to war – or at least quasi-war. A spokesman for the President stated at a press conference that international laws are “important” and that it was “not appropriate to flout them with impunity.”

 
The hypocrisy is staggering. We constantly violate or fail to enforce traditional international behavior and covenants we have pledged to honor; in the case of Israel we refuse even to talk about blatant transgressions of international agreements we are legally bound to uphold. We have invaded the airspace and sovereignty of other countries with “impunity,” and we have engaged in torture, which is specifically outlawed by several major conventions. And now, thanks to the “traitor” Snowdon, we discover that we are violating agreements with and the domestic laws of close allies, whose concerns are dismissed with incredible arrogance.

 
We are of course right in condemning Assad’s use of poison gas, which not even Hitler was tempted to use. It is an indiscriminate killer, hard to control, and unlike artillery shelling, which also kills many innocents, it is virtually impossible to escape. That chemical weapons kill innocents as well as combatants is the major reason they are banned, and correctly so. But we are killing innocents on a regular basis with our drone strikes, and while the civilian casualties from each attack are limited, at least compared to what is happening in Syria, the numbers are steadily growing.

 
Humanitarian outrage is rarely the primary reason behind foreign policy decisions (Kosovo was an exception, but of course that happened in Europe), and more than two thirds of Americans oppose intervention, regardless of any outrage. Naturally, the administration pays little attention to public opinion unless it relates to elections, and consequently the President has brought out the heavy weapon of “national security,” since this trumps the opinion of the public. In addition to the usual list of security reasons – Middle East stability, security of Israel, terrorism – we were actually told these chemical weapons could be a threat to the United States – not United States interests but the United States itself. When questioned about this ludicrous assertion, the spokesman simply avoided answering.

 
But what about American credibility? Well, if losing face is a problem, then it is solely the fault of President Obama and his non-existent policy in the region. In any case, who cares? One would think a country with a $600 billion military and eleven carrier groups had plenty of credibility. It is the administration’s credibility that is at risk, not America’s, and for that reason we will lash out.

 
So once again America is about to commit an act of war against a country that has done absolutely nothing to injure us, an act that would result in massive retaliation were it done against us, which in fact is what happened in December 1941. (At this very moment on the TV behind me John Kerry is telling us that even though we are weary of war we cannot ignore our responsibilities. Responsibility for what exactly in this instance?) And we will be doing it without Congressional authorization and (with the likely exception of France) apparently alone; even faithful little Britain has opted out, since Parliament still decides on war and peace there. This is to say, we are once again about to violate international law, which is supposedly a major reason why we are about to go to war.

 
One does not need a military expert to understand that firing even hundreds of missiles at Syria will have little to no impact on the general situation. But it will make Obama feel better and save the credibility that most would suggest he no longer has.  Meanwhile, more Syrians will die, this time killed by our government, mostly in the service of domestic politics.  What has happened to us?

should be hanging from a lamp post

should be hanging from a lamp post

under alien mind control?

under alien mind control?

sarin gas

sarin gas

 

 

 

 

A Lost Poem by Lord Byron

(This may be an early draft of the famous “Destruction of Sennacherib.”  If it is, Byron was certainly prescient.)

 

 

The Destruction of Obama

 

 

The American came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were loaded with silver and gold;

And the sheen of their guns was like stars in the sky,

When the Hellfires roll nightly to kill on the fly.

 

 

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

That host with their weapons in Kabul were seen:

Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,

That host in a decade lay scattered and strown.

 

 

For the fighters of God spread their creed with a blast,

And shot at the face of the foe as he passed;

And the hopes of the soldiers waned deadly and chill,

As their friends tread the mines and forever grew still!

 

 

And there lay the Humvee, just blown on its side,

With the gas spilling out and the bodies inside;

And the blood of the wounded lay red on the ground,

And the dead and the dying made hardly a sound.

 

 

And there lay the soldier all mangled and torn,

With comrades and sweethearts now ready to mourn:

And the barracks were silent, the colors alone,

The rifles unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

 

 

And the women now widows are loud in their wail,

And policy lies broke in the Afghani pale;

And the force of the US, almighty before,

Hath melted like snow in the Taliban’s war.

King Obama

King Obama

King Sennacherib

King Sennacherib

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

War without End, Amen

Chancellor Obama

Chancellor Obama

On September 21, 2001 Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force act, the legislation that essentially allowed the President and military to wage war on “terrorism” anywhere, anytime and seemingly forever.  In an impressive imitation of the German parliament under Hitler Congress, after virtually no debate, approved the act with an almost unanimous vote; apart from a few abstentions there was only a single nay cast in both houses.  That no vote was cast by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Cal), who is now sponsoring a bill, HR 198, that would repeal the AUMF.

The Patriot Act, another demonstration of incredible political cowardice, is of course much more pernicious domestically, with its constitutionally dubious provisions for dramatically enhancing the powers of the country’s security apparatus while undermining civil liberties.  The Patriot Act (always be suspicious of legislation with the word “patriot” in the title) immediately reminded me of the Enabling Act of 1933, which essentially allowed Hitler to henceforth govern by decree: both were justified by “threats” to national security (9/11, the burning of the Reichstag) and both increased the power of the state and undermined the democratic constitution.  And since no government will voluntarily surrender power the life of the Patriot Act, like the Enabling Act, has been constantly extended, most recently by that defender of freedom, Barack Obama, whom we now know is collecting information on Americans on a scale unmatched by any dictatorship in history.

In some ways the AUMF is the foreign affairs counterpart to the Patriot Act.  It dramatically increases the power and scope of the executive, military and CIA in waging war overseas and obviously allows the transgression of international covenants we are pledged to defend, once again in the name of national security, the favorite excuse of every authoritarian state.  Even better than the Patriot Act, the AUMF has no sunset clause, presumably because the war against terror will last so long as there is even a single individual contemplating violence against the United State, which is to say, forever.

President Obama, who was apparently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize simply for replacing George Bush, is now using the AUMF to “wage war,” i.e., assassinate people, to an extent the Bush administration could only dream of.  Obama thus joins such notables as Henry Kissinger, Menachim Begin and Yasser Arafat in the contest to see which Nobel Peace laureate has the most blood on his hands.  And his administration has just made it clear, at least in White House language, that the war is likely to continue for another ten or twenty years.  We could be going for a record here.

Lee’s bill is doomed to failure, because the forces perpetuating the forever war are simply too strong for Congress to resist, not that it takes that much to cow our noble leaders.    Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is not economic pressures that play a major role, since drone warfare is relatively cheap, and for Haliburton, Blackwater Mercs, Amalgamated Latrine Diggers, et al. there is in this case little “money to be made, supplying the army with the tools of the trade.”  Instead, the forces behind the forever war are institutional: the Presidency, federal security and intelligence agencies and the military.

Governments are the ultimate beneficiaries of wars, assuming they win them.  Threats to national security, particularly those that are seen as internal to the country, have always been a grand justification for the state, especially the executive, to accumulate more power, and the security threat is most obvious and useful when the country is actually at war, whether or not the enemy is seriously a threat.  The beauty of the forever war, of course, is that is in fact forever.  Crises need not be invented, because inasmuch as the country is always in a state of war, it is also always in the midst of a politically useful crisis.  Further, not only can we not lose the war on terror but it also does not need to be won, so long as terrorists (or reasonable facsimiles) are being blown up.  Even a failure, such as a successful serious terror attack in the country, provides a platform for seeking more authority and more leeway in the exercise of that authority.  It’s a politician’s dream come true.

The Executive branch clearly benefits, certainly in its relationship to the Congress.  The President of the United States now has more power, both in domestic and foreign affairs, than he has ever had, even, I would suggest, during the Second World War.  Governments do not willingly surrender power.  Much of the power accumulated during the war against Germany and Japan was retained by the Presidency, and more was added by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a fine example of war – or shadow war – playing into the hands of the executive and military.  Some of that authority was rescinded by the War Powers Act, but not all, and the measure in fact enshrines the idea that the President can commit the country to war without getting anyone’s approval by granting an exception: in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Presidential authority and the mechanisms for exercising that authority clearly skyrocketed after 9/11, leading to two costly wars that really did not involve the American public.  Barack Obama has now dramatically underscored the point that all governments crave power; the putative liberal and one time critic of the Bush administration’s abuses has preserved all those emergency powers, which are now being used on a whole new scale.  The obsession with secrecy and leaks, which has resulted in an administration even more opaque than the previous one, obviously has a lot to do with preventing the public from realizing just how extensive and questionable the government’s activities are.

New digs for CIA spooks

New digs for CIA spooks

The forever war is a bonanza for the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and whatever other security and intelligence groups that are mucking about the country.  Since the war against terrorism has a domestic component our secret police, the FBI, has an unending excuse for enhanced activities, even those of constitutional questionable nature, and a basis for demanding more money.  Nobody, probably not even members of Congress, really knows exactly what the mandate and powers of the NSA are since this set of spooks makes the CIA look positively transparent, but clearly it is involved in domestic affairs, whether legally or illegally, who knows?  Intelligence agencies always do well in times of war, and we can expect the NSA to see increases in its funding, though we will not see them, since the agency’s budget is also secret.

The big winner in the forever war is the CIA (probably; who knows what the NSA is doing?), inasmuch as it is directly involved in foreign affairs and external threats to the US.  Such agencies inevitably grow larger in times of war, and in this regard the forever war is perfect, since it is against shadowy individuals scattered around the planet.  Consequently, the CIA becomes more important and plays a bigger role than the military, and the organization that was formally prohibited from assassination in 1975 now does so openly and with heavy weapons.  Why drone warfare and serious weaponry was put in the hands of an intelligence agency, particularly one with a history of incompetence and law-breaking, rather than the military is not at all clear.  Perhaps because they were considered better at secrecy and deception than the military.

While the forever war is essentially in the hands of its competitors, the military still benefits, since a war is a war, even one in which traditional armed forces have only a limited role.  Any war means budget increases for the Pentagon and provides them squealing points should any traitorous politician suggest their budget be cut.  Besides, the forever war is everywhere, which means more military personnel planted around the world.  And those aircraft carriers will be real handy for launching drones.

NSA.  Try to get in there.

NSA. Try to get in there.

None of these people have any serious reason to see the war on terror end; it is simply too good for business.  And it will not end, since it is unlikely there will ever come a moment when nobody is interested in killing Americans, especially since every drone strike, every violation of others’ national sovereignty is creating more jihadists.  So, the war on terror can even be good for terrorists.

The only real losers are the American people and their Constitution.