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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(Enhanced) Interrogations ‘R’ Us

Extremely rare are the times when I applaud the action of the US Congress, but I do so now with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the abuses and crimes committed by the Central Intelligence Agency in the forever war on terror.  The five year investigation has revealed repeated acts of what any normal person would label torture and the deliberate misleading of Congress and even the White House about what the CIA was actually doing.  The charges are all based on documentation, and the Committee did not interview spooks because the Justice Department was carrying on its own investigation – and what would be the point anyway?

One should of course suspect the motives of any politician, but Senator Dianne Feinstein’s outrage seems genuine; she is after all a hawkish Democrat who supports the drone program.  And who could gainsay Senator John McCain?  He is a Republican, an extreme hawk and most important, the only member of Congress who has actually been tortured.  One might think his opinions on the subject of torture would carry some serious weight.

liberal patriot

liberal patriot

conservative patriot

conservative patriot

But no.  The Republican heavyweights are condemning the report as politically motivated and a danger to American lives, and inasmuch as it is difficult to deny the CIA actually did these things, they maintain that none of it was torture and that it was perfectly legal and necessary to gain information to protect America.  Former President Bush, during whose administration this crap went down, seems unaware that anything wrong was done, but it appears that he and Colin Powell were not even informed of the program for several years.  Of course Dick Cheney, the puppet master of the Bush administration, knew and has dismissed the Senate report as “hooey.”  Inasmuch as he is one of the few people in the universe who believes the invasion of Iraq was a good thing, I cannot understand why anyone would solicit his opinion.

As expected, the CIA has denied any wrongdoing, emphasizing that it was all sanctioned by Congress and the White House, including the Attorney General – “We were just following orders.”  Apart from the suspicion that Attorneys General always provide cover for their Presidents, it is clear that the President and Congress did not know the extent of the CIA’s actions.  And why would anyone assign any credibility to the CIA?  Not only are they an intelligence agency, engaged in deception and secrecy, but the CIA also has a long, long history of exceeding its mandate and lying to the government.   Feinstein claims the agency spent $40 million to prevent the release of this report; a former spokesman for the CIA (there is a veritable blitzkrieg of former spooks on the news) says the money was used for a “secure facility” to house the documents the Committee wanted.  Now, which of these explanations is more believable?

The Republicans, the CIA and the Pentagon are all saying this is the wrong time to release this report because it will endanger American lives around the world (implying that there is a good time and thus that what the report says is true), which is absolute nonsense.  American lives are already threatened everywhere.  Is there anyone hostile to the US who did not already believe we were torturing people?  Do ISIS and their friends need an excuse?  They claim this will improve ISIS recruitment.  Is there any potential jihadist who would refuse to believe we were doing this without being presented with proof?  They claim this is a bad time because we are at war around the planet.  When will we not be at war?  The Republicans claim the release of the report is politically motivated.  Then why was it not released before the last election?  Further, once the Republicans take control of the Intelligence Committee next year nothing like this report will ever see the light of day.   The Republican Party stakes a claim to being the defender of American values yet constantly demonstrates a willingness to violate those values.

traitor

traitor

traitor

traitor

Hardly able to deny what the CIA was actually doing, its defenders simply assert that it was not torture but only “enhanced interrogation” of “enemy combatants,” essentially arguing that if we call it something else, it is something else.  If what the report describes is not torture, it is hard to see what is.  The Gestapo hung shackled prisoners from the ceiling; was that “enhanced interrogation”?  Stalin’s NKVD employed sleep deprivation, assembly line interrogation, cramped cells and beatings; was that “enhanced interrogation”?  If this was not torture, then why did the agency go to such lengths to do it outside the US?

The CIA now asserts that whatever you call them, these interrogations produced valuable information in the war against terror (saving American lives again!).  Not only does the evidence not support that contention, but the whole history of torture argues otherwise.  The traditional non-coercive interrogation methods of the FBI and military have a proven record of results, while torture manifestly does not.  I have never been tortured, but it sure seems that the average individual will tell you whatever you want in order to stop the pain.  Stalin arrested millions of people, virtually all of them innocent of any crimes, yet the vast majority ended up signing confessions and in some cases performing in the show trials of the 1930s.  Torture does not produce information; it produces cooperation.

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

And suppose the torture did lead to any information.  Is that a valid reason for violating our basic values, of becoming like the Nazis or the Soviets or ISIS?  Once again, the people who trumpet the loudest about freedom not being free and how many men died for our way of life always seem to be the most willing to surrender those freedoms and values in the interest of security.  If we (rightly) celebrate those willing to give their lives in defense of our values, how can we justify violating them on the grounds that it might save lives.  If we are so concerned with saving Americans, why do we not negotiate with terrorists, as Europe and even Israel do?  If conservatives and others are so damned concerned about American lives, why do they not attend to gun control or drunk driving?  The hypocrisy is awe inspiring.

Torture is not only wrong and ineffective, it is illegal, whatever sundry Attorneys General have said.  It is cruel and unusual punishment, and the prohibition applies to non-citizens and “enemy combatants,” who are actually POWs in a new kind of war.  Doing it in Cuba or Poland makes no difference – agents of the US government are still torturing people.  We are also bound, at least in theory, to international law, many of whose conventions we have authored and pledged to uphold, and every one of those instruments prohibits torture under any circumstances.  Unfortunately, America’s regard for international law now goes only so far as our national interests, undermining one of our strongest assets, our long tradition of being the good guys, or at least the better guys.  Another bit of American exceptionalism down the drain of Realpolitik and stupidity.

Ultimately Congress and the White House are to blame for this disgusting episode, allowing the CIA (and NSA and god knows who else) to do pretty much whatever it pleased, including spying on and lying to them.  The Republicans are now actually defending this, and the ever mysterious Obama backed off from any serious investigation and appointed as director of the agency a career CIA official, who is now defending the organization.  What goes on in the minds of these people?

Who is this guy?

Who is this guy?

Nothing will change, except possibly a few unimportant cosmetic touches (we no longer bug Chancellor Merkel’s private telephone).  It has all happened before.  We are already being told that no one will be charged with any crimes, which is hardly a surprise; we already know from the blatant lies of James Clapper, the current Director of National Intelligence, that contempt of Congress does not apply to some people.  One can only hope that the UN and various European countries will take legal action against these traitors and at least deprive them of free foreign travel, but of course America will go into bully mode to prevent this.  What the hell happened to my mother country?

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

 

 

 

 

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.

This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, unto Jacob, and unto Bibi

(Pre-blog note: We celebrate a fantastic achievement for mankind: landing a one-ton nuclear powered science vehicle on Mars, all without human direction.  Unfortunately, most writers for the general media feel compelled, perhaps inevitably, to add that it cost $2.4 billion, implying that this is perhaps too expensive.  Why then do articles about the war in Afghanistan never mention that this war costs $2 billion a week?  The $2.4 billion Curiosity will operate for at least 104 weeks and actually produce something of value to humanity, which seems like a much better deal.  Perhaps if Curiosity carried weapons no one would notice the price tag.  Three cheers for my fellow geeks at NASA and JPL!)

 

The mainstream American media typically reports news involving Israel only when the Israelis do something spectacular, like invading Lebanon, or when American politics are involved, such as Mitt Romney’s brown-nosing comments about Jerusalem and the Palestinians.   Hardly surprising then that most American newspapers and television stations made no mention of the Levy Report, despite its important implications for Palestine and American policy in the area.  To be fair, some major newspapers, such as the NY Times, carried the story, but clearly most Americans, even those who keep abreast of the news, are unaware of the report, being inundated with the apparently more interesting details of the lives of mass murderers.

Regarding their occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Israel has (when it bothered at all) traditionally excused its clear violation of accepted international law by pointing out that inasmuch as there is no Palestinian state the strictures of such international instruments as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the UN Charter do not apply.  This rationale of course places Israel in what should be uncomfortable company: Hitler in part justified his monstrous treatment of the Soviet Union by noting that they had never signed the Geneva Convention.

This has apparently changed.  Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a three member commission, headed by former High Court justice Edmund Levy, to investigate the legal status of the so-called “illegal” settlements, that is, those not authorized by the government.  The implication of course is that all the other settlements are legal, despite their obvious violation of basic international law.  But what the panel concluded goes way beyond the issue of the handful of “illegal” settlers, and it is breathtaking in its self-serving cynicism and implications.

Basically, they determined that that the “illegal” settlements – and thus all the settlements – are not illegal because they are not in fact in occupied territory.  This conclusion might seem a bit surprising since the Israeli army has been obviously occupying the West Bank for 45 years, and this is territory designated as part of the Palestinian state created by the same UN resolution that created Israel.  The commission, however, concluded that since Israel has been in the West Bank for such a long time that this is unique occurrence and thus not actually an occupation.  Bingo, all the settlements are perfectly legal in the light of international law.  As, I suppose, would be the German colonization of Poland if they had only hung on longer.

Israeli politicians either hailed this as a triumph of jurisprudence or remained silent, and I am unaware of an official response from the US government, which is in the midst of an election, when even the faintest criticism of Israel is viewed as political poison.  As a signatory of all the international conventions Israel is currently violating, it would be awkward for the US to officially accept the colonization of the West Bank, and our official position is that the settlements are unacceptable.  But no American president has dared take any action on the issue, and so far as I know, no administration has even publically referred to them as violations of international law.  Instead they are “obstacles to peace” or some such euphemism, despite the fact that as a High Contracting Party America is legally bound to “ensure respect” for the Fourth Geneva Convention, which the settlements blatantly violate.

The self-serving and perfectly silly arguments of the Levy Report are designed to satisfy the all-important settler block in the present extremist Likud coalition, but what are the wider implications if this position becomes the official policy of the Israeli state?  This would essentially amount to an annexation of the West Bank, and while the US has pretty much turned a blind eye to the annexation of the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem, this would be very different and disastrous for Israel and perhaps the US.

Annexing the West Bank, even if the word “annex” is avoided, would certainly create a crisis for Israel, which would be faced with only two options.  Israel could enfranchise the 2.3 million Palestinians who live there, but that would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state and is inconceivable.  The alternative is to create (or formalize what is already the case) an apartheid system, which would be the end of Israel as a democratic state.  The second solution would appeal to many religious fanatics, but it would mean the end of US support and the complete isolation of Israel unless it chooses to ally with blatantly undemocratic states like Russia and China.

Well, it would probably mean the end of American support.  American politicians of both parties have a very well established tradition of prostrating themselves before Israel for reasons that are actually becoming less compelling as relentlessly liberal American Jews reconsider their unqualified support of an increasingly illiberal and sometimes outright intolerant Israel.  Israel has become so imbedded in our political arena and its excesses so constantly ignored that it is not a certainty that American politicians, especially evangelically inclined conservatives, would actually abandon it.

We have been quite willing to call Israel a model democracy in the Middle East despite the clear evidence that Palestinian citizens are not just treated as second class but are actually legally disabled.  And in the eyes of many Americans every Arab is suspicious anyway, and the Palestinians have always been terrorists, right?  That Palestinians would be treated as American Blacks were before the civil rights legislation or as South African Blacks were under the apartheid government would clearly be no problem for many conservative Americans.  Yes, we finally severed relations with South Africa, but this is different.  Israel is vital to American security (at least that is what we have been told for a half century) and in any case this is the land the Bible says is special, the land where Jesus walked and where the end of days will take place.  Would Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann be bothered by any of this?

Many conservatives in Israel are not bothered.  Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha party, has just argued in the NY Times that because Arabs have called for the destruction of Israel and because the West Bank was the heart of ancient Israel, it is not just reasonable but actually moral for Israel to acquire this territory.  Think of it as Judea and Samaria rather than Palestine and you will see the moral imperative to annex.  American evangelicals, who seem to have an incredible capacity for ignoring the truth, especially when religion is involved, would surely endorse this idea, particularly since it involves not just their religion but also national security, which for some has become a quasi-religious concept.

To be sure, because of its unqualified support for Israel and Arab dictators and monarchs, its massive military presence in the Middle East and its expanding program of assassination by drone, America already has little credibility in the Arab world.  But accepting an apartheid Israel would surely end our credibility as leader of the democratic world and spoil our relationship with Europe, whose politicians (even in Germany) are not pathetically subservient to the interests of Israel.

For an historian this is of course all fascinating stuff, but for an American, especially one already concerned about the road we are taking, this is scarey stuff.

President Obama and His Stone Cold Killers

Barack Obama’s fall from grace has been startling.  The laurel of the Nobel Peace Prize rests uneasy on the brow of a man who possesses and uses the power to kill anyone virtually anywhere on the planet, seemingly free from any oversight whatsoever.  Apart from a better command of the English language it is becoming difficult to discern any difference between Obama and his predecessor, as he carries on the post-9/11 crusade of increased domestic surveillance, violation of international law and the endless war against terrorism that supposedly justifies this behavior.

Of all his promises to dismantle the immoral, legally questionable and frequently counterproductive practices of the Bush security apparatus he has kept only one: to ban the use of torture in interrogations (and one wonders how thoroughly this is observed in the back rooms and undisclosed locations of our countless intelligence agencies).  Otherwise, Guantanamo remains open, detainees will receive military trials, more troops were sent to Afghanistan, none of the provisions of the Patriot Act have been rescinded, Israel continues to determine our policy in the Middle East, the “too-big-to-fail” banks are now even bigger and the military budget continues to grow.

In contrast to that of Bush his was to be the most transparent administration in history, when in fact it may be even more opaque.  At this very moment he is using the ever popular “executive privilege” to withhold information potentially damaging to his Attorney General, Eric Holder.  But much more telling are his efforts to plug leaks to the media.  In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which, as the name suggests, was designed to provide the government with the tools to prosecute those supplying American secrets to a foreign power, i.e., spies.  In the 95 years since then the Act has been used on nine occasions to prosecute Americans responsible for leaking classified information not to a potential enemy state but rather to the American media, and thus the American public.  The legality of this use of the law has been questioned and the issue is still not settled, but this is of course a quibble for any government interested in employing this very useful political weapon.  Of those nine instances of the Espionage Act being misused six fall under the Obama administration.

On the foreign front Obama is as oblivious to traditional international standards of behavior as was Bush.  Regard for national sovereignty (except our own) continues to erode, as we carry on drone strikes in Pakistan against their wishes and violate the air space of Iran and other countries.  Despite the objections of the Afghan government our military continues launching the night raids universally hated by the Afghanis.  We are threatening a sovereign nation, Iran, with military action because they might be enriching uranium which might be used for a bomb which might be used against Israel, if the Iranian government could possibly be that stupid and suicidal.  We have implemented economic and financial sanctions against them that would be considered tantamount to an act of war if done to us.  We have fully adopted the Israeli notion that if you think a state might be a threat at some time in the future, you are justified in attacking them, an understanding of international relations that Hitler would have delighted in.  And our chief legal authority, Attorney General Holder, has assured us that all this is completely in accordance with international law.

Then there is the drone, in the use of which Obama has made Bush seem a piker.  Of course, it is cheap, it is an effective killer and it puts no Americans in harm’s way.  More than 2300 individuals, including three American citizens, have been executed by drone launched missiles, requiring us to believe that over two thousand people were so threatening to our security that we had to kill them all.  Well, not all of them were that threatening, since the figure includes hundreds of men, women and children who just happened to be too near someone the US decided was a top terrorist.  How many dead innocents?  Who knows?  The government is reluctant to release that sort of information, and in any case we have only their word that the actual target was himself worth killing.

Now we know the President keeps a “to kill” list, but exactly how one manages to get on this list is of course classified.  Given the great job the military did in rounding up innocent Afghan farmers for a stay at Club Gitmo, one might justifiably wonder about some of these deaths by Hellfire.  Naturally, the Attorney General assures us that these “enemy combatants” must be “senior operational leaders,” who are planning an attack, cannot be captured easily and live in a country that has given us permission to assassinate its people.  This apparently does not apply to operations in Pakistan, which constantly objects to our strikes.  Or in Yemen, where lack of intelligence has lead the military/CIA to conclude from “patterns of behavior” – routines, places visited, associates, etc. – whether an individual is a terrorist who deserves to be exploded.  Could this be getting out of hand?

It is wonderful to think of murdering barbarian scum being vaporized by American technology, but the problem is that many, if not most of those having their body parts scattered across the countryside are not in fact murdering scum but rather the inevitable innocent bystanders, or “splats” as the military more honestly calls them in private.  This is hardly endearing us to the populations we ostensibly want to help and only contributes to the creation of martyrs.  Another problem, more disturbing, is that in three instances the murdering scum were American citizens, meaning that the President, in consultation with his generals and spooks, has acted as judge and executioner in the deaths of Americans.  The slopes do not get more slippery than this.

I fear for the Republic.  Domestic surveillance, both legal and questionable, has increased dramatically in the wake of the destruction of the Reichstag..I mean, Twin Towers.  American citizens can now be detained without charge for some indefinite period, and the constant cries of “secret” and “national security” make all terrorism trials problematic with regard to evidence.  Somehow the CIA, an intelligence agency once prohibited from assassinating people, has now acquired heavy weaponry and the authority to blow up individuals around the world.  The President, on very dubious grounds, seemingly now has the right to send American military forces virtually anywhere, never mind Congressional authorization.  Like the dictators we frequently work with he may now order the execution of anyone he, the military and the intelligence agencies decide upon.  And like the Japanese seventy years ago and the Israelis more recently we have adopted the concept of the “protective reaction strike,” which allows us to attack anyone we deem potentially threatening.  This used to be called a “war of aggression” and we prosecuted Germans for it not so long ago.

The Obama administration is demonstrating something more cynical historians have long believed: the prime directive of any government, be it a democracy, military dictatorship, absolute monarchy or whatever, is to defend and increase its power.  No government, even one momentarily controlled by a liberal speaking President, will ever willingly surrender power.  And unfortunately the American people are demonstrating no inclination to change this situation, if it is even possible, given the utter stranglehold the Democratic and Republican parties hold over our system.