In this 31-minute interview, host Jeff Schechtman asks guest Laurie Calhoun to explain what she sees to be the connection between mass killings in the homeland (such as occurred in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017) and US foreign policy. Both the audio and a full transcript are available here.
In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio International, host John Harrison, author Laurie Calhoun, and peace campaigner Russell Whiting discuss the recently proposed changes to the US drone program, including the request by the CIA to be given strike autonomy in Afghanistan, and modifications to the Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) in the forthcoming Trump administration’s Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP). What will the consequences of these changes be? Will people finally begin to consider the legal, moral, and strategic implications of the US government’s policy of targeted killing outside areas of active hostilities?
Made in France, a fictional film directed by Nicolas Boukhrie, attempts to illuminate a very real problem: the rise of jihadism in the West. The film was apparently finished in 2014, but its release was repeatedly postponed because of a series of terrorist attacks in France. First available from on-demand television, Made in France made a short and unprofitable appearance in the United States (according to IMDB.com). I saw it recently on Foxtel World Movies, in Australia. Whether or not you’ll ever have the opportunity to view this film, the issues it raises are important, as Western powers continue to slaughter people throughout the Middle East under the pretext of national self-defense in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
The film looks at a jihadist cell infiltrated by a journalist, Sam (played by Malik Zidi). Once he reveals to the authorities what he has done, he finds himself trapped between the Charybdis of possible death (as the cell has recently been “activated”) and the Scylla of imprisonment. He is told by French authorities that he must either continue on with the group until he is able to ascertain who the higher-order leaders are, or else he will be indicted along with the rest of them as a terrorist. This may sound like an insane situation, but it’s not so different from some of the modes of “persuasion” used by the FBI to recruit informants and infiltrators in the United States, at least according to a very disturbing book by Trevor Aaronson on the topic of homegrown terrorism, Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (2013). In the United States, prospective informants, some of whom have criminal records or lack legal immigrant status, may be threatened with prosecution, incarceration, or deportation if they refuse to cooperate with government authorities.
Carrots and sticks work best in concert, so dependable informants also receive a “bonus” when their work leads to the conviction of a target. This incentive structure has led to the emergence of a new vocation in the post-9/11 era: the professional informant, who quite naturally seeks out easy-to-convict prey. The primary focus of Aaronson’s book is the use of quasi-entrapment by informants to lure prospective recruits into participating in terrorist plots when, in fact, they would likely never have done so without the FBI’s elaborate schemes to draw them in. Most of the people in the United States convicted on terrorism charges in recent years turn out to have been disgruntled losers who, despite being angry, would never have had the capacity—whether mental or material—to carry out acts of terrorism, had they been left to their own devices.
Made in France poses two closely related questions: How are young men enticed to become members of jihadist cells, and why do they agree to carry out acts of terrorism? The case portrayed underscores how the foot soldiers have no contact with anyone but their local commander, who alone is said to receive orders from on high. The lower-level members are, as in the United States, young persons who have become disillusioned for one reason or another. Often their prospects for success in society are poor. They are united in being manifestly angry about the ongoing wars in the Middle East, perpetrated by Western powers, including France, a longstanding ally of the United States.
Some might consider the story to offer a merely hypothetical scenario, but it is based on documented changes in the structure of groups such as Al Qaeda since 2001. What once was a top-down, hierarchical structure was swiftly lateralized post-9/11, with individual groups forming independently of others for the simple tactical reason that it became too dangerous for the networks to communicate with one another. ISIS has now come to eclipse Al Qaeda as the bogey-man du jour, but the lateral structure of radical jihadist groups operating transnationally remains in place, which implies that there may be a general but vague culture of jihadism behind many individual acts of terrorism and potential plots without there ever having been an order handed down from any alleged #1 or #2 leader. The question, then, arises: who is giving the orders?
If the individual cells comprise only small numbers of foot soldiers along with their immediate superior, whose orders they are to obey without hesitation, then what prevents some random lunatic from creating a murderous cult à la Charles Manson and his family? That is precisely the scenario depicted in Made in France. The young men who have been persuaded to believe that they are doing Allah’s will in following the order of their leader, Hassan (played by Dimitri Storoge), have no idea that he is not taking orders from any other person, much less God. In reality, Hassan is just an angry, psychologically disturbed, violent punk who derives pleasure from calling the murderous shots.
Hassan has created a fantasy world in which he is the commander of this isolated group, and he lies to the others in rationalizing what he wants the group to do, saying that the spiritual leaders communicate only with him. One day he announces that the men must remain in France to destabilize Paris rather than travel to the Middle East to fight, as they had all believed that they were going to do. When a couple of the recruits express concern about what is to be an upcoming attack on the Champs-Elysées, Hassan perfunctorily intones that every war involves civilian casualties. The soldiers are acting on the will of Allah, whose decree makes even the deaths of women and children permissible when a larger objective is in sight. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to destabilize France!
What is fascinating about this logic is that it is essentially embodied in every call by any leader for young men (and now women as well) to go kill strangers on his behalf. Not only the leaders of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS invoke this kind of reasoning, but also Western leaders who order their troops to travel thousands of miles away to kill people who never threatened them personally with harm. Why do young people agree to kill at the behest of political leaders whose rise to power shows only that they know how to win election campaigns? The short answer is: cultural habit. The concept of “legitimate authority” in waging war derives from “Just war theory”, a paradigm dating from ancient and medieval times. (See War and Delusion: A Critical Examination)
Under the assumption that God Almighty appointed leaders, it would make sense to believe that those leaders’ orders should followed, for they would seem to be doing God’s will. Of course, we know today that presidents such as Donald Trump and Barack Obama and George Bush and Bill Clinton, et al., were not appointed by God but elected by citizens at the culmination of lengthy election campaigns. Nonetheless, such leaders have retained the power to wage war where and when they deem fit, even though by doing so they are sure to destroy innocent people. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to eradicate evil!
The most extreme case of blind submission to authority in the Western military apparatus to date is arguably that of remote-control killing. Drone operators who follow orders to kill people outside areas of active hostilities—where there are no troops on the ground—have succumbed to a form of trickery. They are told that “This is war” and that they must fire missiles on areas inhabited by civilians in order to thwart another mass attack such as that of September 11, 2001. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to eliminate the terrorists!
Drone operators are simply expected to believe that their victims, usually poor tribesmen located in remote areas, are akin to Osama bin Laden. And some apparently do, those who continue on in the profession, even as the jihadists spore from one country to the next, as though the sharp increase in the number of active terrorists all over the world since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were somehow unprovoked. Is it a sheer coincidence that the more missiles that rain down on regions inhabited by potential future terrorists, the more recruits emerge both in the Middle East and in the West?
Had the attacks of September 11, 2001, been treated as crimes rather than acts of war, then there would have been no pretext for bombing entire countries. No one supposes that bombing Paris, Nice and Marseille is the answer to the series of homegrown terrorist acts perpetrated in France. Nor has anyone in the United States called for the bombing of Oklahoma City, Orlando, San Bernardino or Las Vegas. Yet the bombing of people in the Middle East continues mindlessly on, even as new plots in the West are undertaken by lone wolf perpetrators who have been taught—not only by murderous thugs who wave the banner of radical jihadism, but also by Western governments—that homicide is an appropriate, even noble, response to conflict. Incineration by Hellfire missile or beheading by knife? It’s a difference without any moral distinction.
The answer to the question what to do about the problem of terrorism depends ultimately upon one’s view of humanity. The young men who take up the radical jihadist cause have in effect been proselytized into a cult. Should recent recruits, many of whom are mere teenagers or young adolescents, be erased from existence when it is obvious that they have been duped? Anyone who values human life must wonder whether the thousands of such persons being slaughtered in the so far nugatory effort to stanch terrorism could not be de-programmed instead. If the dramatic rise in terrorism is a direct effect of killing, maiming, imprisoning, torturing, traumatizing and destroying the homes and families of entirely innocent people, then the only lasting way to solve the problem will be to remove the cause.
For more on the young people being killed in the Global War on Terror, see also:
Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.
I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:
Should generals be diplomats?
Retired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.
The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.
People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.
Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?
Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).
It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.
Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.
The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.
You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)
Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.
The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.
The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.
In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.
No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.
Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.
Senator Rand Paul is to be commended for forcing his colleagues to address the endless wars in the Middle East and proposing that they sunset the 2001 and 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force). This past week, Senator Paul incisively observed in multiple addresses before the Senate body that lawmakers have not debated the topic of war for fifteen years, despite the fact the US constitution vests the war powers of the United States of America not in the president but in the US Congress, the legislative, not the executive branch of government. The Congress may have granted the president permission to take the nation to war in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, but they never explicitly authorized five of the seven wars currently underway.
The 2002 AUMF, which passed in October 2002 and opened the way to a war waged on the false pretense of non-existent WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and an equally nonexistent connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, specifically granted the US president the liberty to take the United States to war in Iraq. Being country specific, the 2002 AUMF cannot be reasonably interpreted to provide authorization for the ongoing US military missions in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan. (Not to mention Nigeria or Cameroon, where US drones hover and Special Forces “advise” as well.)
One might with good reason wonder whether any AUMF should not be specific to the president to whom it was granted, but President Barack Obama repeatedly insisted that the 2001 AUMF provided him with all the authorization he needed to lob missiles where and when he pleased. It was in fact the primary basis for his expansion of the war on terror to include the use of lethal drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), to kill persons suspected of terrorism anywhere on the planet. Here is the text of the 2001 AUMF resolution:
The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
This Authorization of Military Force grants the executive the power to pursue anyone associated in any way with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It does not, however, authorize the killing of persons who were small children or, in some cases, not even born at that time. Nonetheless, given how they have been used, the two AUMFs have proven to be tantamount to the relinquishment by lawmakers of any responsibility or duty to decide when and whether the United States should take the extreme measure of warfare, perpetrating acts of state homicide against persons located abroad. Throughout the Obama presidency, from 2009 through 2016, the 2001 AUMF was repeatedly invoked by the administration in defense of its expansion of the war on terror to include the virtually nonstop bombing of several countries and the erection of drone bases in support of a full-fledged drone killing machine used to eliminate thousands of suspects throughout the Middle East and Africa.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were of course started by the Bush administration, but Obama, despite having campaigned on the promise to end the “stupid” war in Iraq, presumed the validity of the AUMF granted to his predecessor as he stepped up the killing of terrorist suspects in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and carried out mass bombing in both Libya and Syria. Obama’s use of military force in Libya in 2011—which he remarkably claimed was not an act of war and therefore did not require congressional approval—effected a regime change no less than had Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
It has been obvious for some time that Obama’s primary legacy would be his ill-fated decision to normalize assassination by drone—rebranding it as an act of war, even outside areas of active hostilities—and opting to kill nearly all terrorist suspects identified as such in the Middle East, rather than throw them into Guantánamo Bay prison, which he promised to close but never did. The practices at GITMO and other prisons (including Abu Ghraib and Bagram) involved atrocious violations of human rights against the mostly innocent suspects, who found themselves in a Kafkaesque, justice-less labyrinth, but surely summary execution by drone of innocent men such as Shaker Aamer would have been even worse. Forty-one of the early GITMO detainees remain locked up without charges today, despite having been cleared for release years ago in some cases. Declining to add further detainees to the tally, Barack Obama opted instead to execute thousands of suspects never indicted or tried with any crimes and identified as suspects using the very same tools used to round up the detainees under Bush: HUMINT, or human intelligence (provided by bribed informants), and SIGINT, or signals intelligence (video footage from drones and metadata derived from cellphone and SIM card analysis).
How are we now, in 2017, to understand what has transmogrified into the perpetual motion US war machine, encompassing not only recognizable acts of war against armed combatants but also acts of assassination against persons outside areas of active hostilities who are not armed and therefore not threatening anyone with harm at the time of their incineration by missile in their own civil societies? Something did change since September 11, 2001, but something even more dramatic took place with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
For Obama was granted an unprecedented amount of interpretive charity by leftists, who wished for various reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, Obama managed to avoid criticism also from many on the right, perhaps because he surprised them with his willingness to kill rather than capture Osama bin Laden in 2011 and proved to be much friendlier toward the military industrial complex (MIC) than anyone might ever have imagined from the eloquent antiwar rhetoric of his 2008 election campaign.
It seems fair to say that Obama’s normalization of assassination by drone was a gift to everyone involved in the killing machine, including the firms privately contracted to produce the analysis used to construct kill lists, such as The Analysis Corporation, whose former president and CEO was none other than John Brennan himself, whom Obama promoted to be the director of the CIA in 2013. Of course the companies who produce the drones and the missiles launched from them against suspects have also been enriched enormously by Obama’s embracement of the drone as a primary counterterrorism tool.
But Obama’s war-friendly policies did not stop with the drone killing machine. Instead, the assassination industry proved to be his first step onto a rather slippery slope, leading ultimately to the mass bombing of seven different countries simultaneously, only two of which, Afghanistan and Iraq, were wars instigated by George W. Bush. Under Obama’s authority (again, he presumed with no effective protest from Congress the validity of the AUMF), more than 23K US bombs were dropped on the Middle East in 2015, and more than 26K in 2016.
In 2012, Obama exported record numbers of weapons to the government of Saudi Arabia, which proceeded to prosecute a horrific war in Yemen, still underway to this day, and has been further aided and abetted by the United States through refuelling and help with analysis. The tons of US weapons furnished to the Saudis have been used to devastate large swaths of Yemen, directly causing a humanitarian crisis including both mass starvation and a cholera epidemic. Interestingly enough, in early 2017, some leftists finally began to complain about US weapons exports when they saw that Trump was selling billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis. Yet the deals he oversaw had been in the works under Obama and likely would have received little criticism from Democrats, had they been completed during his presidency.
This brings us, at last, to a vexing question:
Why did 13 Democratic Senators just grant Donald J. Trump Monarchic War Powers?
Predictably enough, the Senators called to vote on the possibility of debate over the AUMFs rallied to keep the perpetual motion war machine up and running with no pause for reflection about such questions as:
- Is the war in Afghanistan winnable? What would victory look like?
- Why are US soldiers still being killed in Iraq? Isn’t it time to let Iraq determine its own destiny?
- Why is the US government aiding and abetting a vicious civil war in Yemen? What is our national interest in that conflict supposed to be?
- Should we not reflect upon and learn from the consequences of disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011? Does it make any sense to repeat the same mistake in Syria?
- Why are there more radical jihadist terrorists, including the ISIS franchise in both Syria and Iraq, than there were in 2001?
In fact, the list of debate questions could go on and on. But instead of addressing these pressing matters of national security, the Senate once again kicked the can down the road, evading responsibility for whatever the president may do by letting him do whatever he wants. I am puzzled, however, as should anyone who has been watching the news since November 2016. I still cannot help wondering what in the world could motivate a group of Democratic senators, who claim vehemently to oppose the Trump agenda, to grant him unlimited, essentially monarchic, war powers.
Perhaps the senators who voted to table Senator Rand’s resolution are on the take. Some Democratic senators, like many of their Republican colleagues, may receive hefty campaign funding from one or more of the many tentacles of the MIC, which in the 21st century has become the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. Many parties today stand to profit from US government-inflicted homicide abroad, so the answer to my question may be as simple as that. In states whose economic well-being derives from companies with military contracts and subcontracts, senators may also fear that they will be electorally ousted if they do not unequivocally support war at every turn.
There is another possibility. Perhaps by acknowledging that the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 do not provide the needed authorization for five of the seven wars currently underway, the Democratic senators fear that they would be admitting, too, that Barack Obama prosecuted illegal wars and assassinated suspects in violation, not only of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, but also the US Constitution. Perhaps the decision to side with most Republicans against Senator Paul and in favor of the assumption of monarchic war powers on the part of the president was their latest unfortunate effort to give Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. For to deny that Trump has the right and authority to bomb Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Somalia, would be to assert that Obama also lacked that right and authority. Would such an admission not immediately open Obama to charges of having committed war crimes?
Whether any of these ideas surfaced to consciousness as the thirteen Democratic senators cast their vote, it cannot be denied that Barack Obama has ended up bestowing upon President Trump the gift that keeps on giving: unlimited, endless, monarchic war powers. Bravo.
Maybe I am overthinking all of this. Perhaps the thirteen Democratic senators who voted not to sunset the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in six months so that Congress could properly debate the seven wars underway—plus whatever wars the Trump administration may decide to add to the list—North Korea, Iran, Venezuela,… the sky is the limit!—did so for the simple reason that they do not believe the anti-Trump media. They do not believe that Trump is Hitler, as antifas have been screaming since the election. They do not believe that Trump is a Russian agent, a theory which Rachel Maddow of MSNBC appears to continue to embrace. They do not believe that Trump is unhinged and ultimately unfit to be the president of the United States. In fact, if actions betray beliefs, then these Democratic senators truly believe that, far from needing to be impeached, Trump should be King!
Whatever their contorted and possibly incoherent rationalizations may have been, the Democratic senators who voted to table Senator Paul’s resolution are simple cowards who doubtless believe that they will escape blame in the event of foreign policy catastrophes authorized not by them but by the president. That certainly seems like a sound explanation for Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s abstention. But if these senators’ vote (or refusal to vote) was a simple matter of shirking responsibility, I am afraid that those who abstained, and the thirteen Democrats who sided with Republicans to defeat Senator Paul’s resolution, are all dead wrong. Refusing to debate war, a Congressional responsibility written into the US Constitution, is the same as tacit assent. The senators who effectively agreed to leave the AUMFs in place will now be directly responsible for every dead US soldier henceforth, and for every terrorist attack instigated in retaliation to US war crimes abroad.
YEAs —61: These senators voted to table Senator Paul’s amendment, in other words, not to debate the AUMFs during a six-month period before they would expire without positive Congressional action
Cortez Masto (D-NV)
NAYs —36: These senators voted with Senator Paul not to table his amendment
Van Hollen (D-MD)
Not Voting – 3
At this time in history, people are understandably more worried about the spectre of nuclear war than about drone assassination. Palgrave Macmillan is having a sale, so the ebook of War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, can be purchased through August 30, 2017, for 40% off. (use promo code PB2S17).
In War and Delusion, first published in 2013 and reissued as a paperback in 2016, I consider questions such as whether wars abroad can be construed as acts of self-defense and what we can infer from the treatment of veterans in the United States. The primary thesis of the book is that, in the modern world, just war theory has served primarily as a tool of pro-war propaganda.
Eye in the Sky (2015) is the first feature-length film about drone warfare to have received a decent amount of mainstream attention. This no doubt has something to do with the high-caliber cast, including lead roles by Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Big names imply big budgets. But there’s another reason why this movie, directed by Gavin Hood, has been discussed more than National Bird (2016), Good Kill (2015), Drone (2014), Drones (2013), Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), or Dirty Wars (2013).
None of these films is entertaining. Eye in the Sky, like some of the others in this growing genre, presents itself as a work of historical fiction, grounded in what is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of the contemporary practice of drone warfare against persons suspected of association with radical jihadist groups. But rather than condemning the remote-control killers, as the other films unequivocally do, Eye in the Sky portrays the protagonists wrestling with the complexities of morality before launching missiles and then congratulating one another on their success.
The “evil enemy” here, in Nairobi, Kenya, is Al Shabaab, and the fate of one of their cells is the subject of lengthy and sophistic “just war” debate among the drone warriors. A contingent of US and British military and civilian officials communicate with one another from different parts of the world over Skype-like video feed, and after arguing over the course of the workday, they ultimately decide to execute the suspects, who appear to be preparing to carry out a suicide attack in the proximate future or, as the drone warriors would say, “imminently”.
One of the suspects is a US citizen, recently recruited from Minnesota, and two are British nationals. The white woman, Susan Danford—nom de guerre Ayesha Al Hady—has been tracked by Colonel Powell for a remarkable six years. Powell is keen to kill Danford, even after having summarized her life’s story as that of a person who came from a troubled household, married a terrorist, and was converted to the jihadist cause as a result of her vulnerability.
The mission is supposed to culminate in capture, not killing, but when the group of suspects convenes at a house where a suicide vest is being assembled and a video message filmed, the military officials immediately call for a missile strike, to the initial protests of the civilian political officials in attendance, who insist that they are there to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.
The rest of the film is essentially an extended consideration of a version of what professional analytic philosophers call “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment wherein people are persuaded that they must kill some people in order to save others. Such hypothetical scenarios—like the proverbial ticking bomb, which is said by some to illustrate the necessity of torture under certain circumstances—involve an eerie desire on the part of some thinkers to persuade others to condone what, left to their own devices, they would never have agreed to do. As David Swanson has correctly observed, there is no known case in reality of drone warriors who kill a person and his entourage as they strap a suicide vest onto the martyr’s chest. That is why singling out this wildly implausible and entirely hypothetical scenario as representative of drone warfare in general is a consummate expression of pro-military propaganda.
Eye in the Sky attempts to portray the dilemmas involved in drone warfare but ultimately serves to promote the drone warriors’ all-too-sophistic modes of reasoning. Rather than ask deep and important questions such as how Al-Shabaab became such a powerful force in, first, Somalia and, later, places such as Kenya, the film allows the viewer steeped in New York Times headlines touting “Six Suspected Militants Slain” to float along blissfully in his or her state of ignorance regarding what precisely the US and British governments have been doing in the Middle East for the past sixteen years.
No indication is made of the fact—and frankly I’d be surprised if Director Hood himself were aware—that the US-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led directly to a massive increase in local support for Al-Shabaab. It’s all-too-easy and comforting to swallow the official line that the members of local militias being targeted by drone strikes are “bad guys” who need to be extirpated from the face of the earth, even when it is likely that many of the people intentionally destroyed have been dissidents (or their “associates”) seeking to challenge the central government authority. (See Yemen for another example.)
It is abundantly clear from the very fact that new recruits from the United States and Britain—indeed, the very targets of the mission in this story—have been primarily either troubled youths or persons outraged at the Western devastation of the Middle East, and now Africa. Yet the film blithely allows the viewer to persist in puzzlement over the perennial question: Why do they hate us?
Colonel Powell wants to kill people, as is obvious by her calling for a missile strike even before explosives are seen at the meeting place. (Do the director and screenwriter win points from feminists for making the most ruthless military killer and her radical jihadist quarry both women? Or from progressives for making them white?)
Both Colonel Powell and General Benson consider Susan Danford’s allegiance with Al-Shabaab to be, essentially, a capital offense. They don’t bother with niceties such as the fact that capital punishment has been outlawed in the United Kingdom. Instead, the military personnel seek refuge in and parrot the simpleminded terms of just war theory which they learned in first-year ethics class at the military academy.
The missile strike is said to be a military necessity, proportional, and a last resort. It has furthermore been authorized by the legitimate authority, aka the US president, to whom the British continue to defer, even after the scathing Chilcot report in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was taken to task for embroiling Britain in the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq. As though none of that ever happened, when President Barack Obama normalized the targeted assassination of anyone in any place on the planet where radical jihadist terrorists are said by some anonymous analyst to reside, Prime Minister David Cameron, too, followed suit. In August 2015, he authorized missile strikes from drones against British nationals in Syria, despite the Parliament’s having voted down his call for war in 2013.
Perhaps Cameron was impressed by Barack Obama and drone killing czar John Brennan’s oft-flaunted fluency in just war rhetoric. Unfortunately, in Eye in the Sky, the sophomoric facility of the assassins with the terms of just war theory may, too, be taken as evidence to ignorant viewers that these people in uniform know what they are talking about and should be trusted with the delicate decision of where, when, and why to summarily execute human beings who have not been charged with crimes, much less permitted to stand trial.
The question how a missile strike in a country not at war can be conceived of as a military necessity is altogether ignored in this film, as though it were already a settled matter. Someone in the US government (President Obama under the advisement of John Brennan, former president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the business of which is terrorist targeting analysis) decreed that the entire world was a battlefield, and this opened up every place and other governments to the delusive casuistry of just war theorists, including their most strident advocates for war, the self-styled “humanitarian hawks”.
No matter that in this case there are no military soldiers from either the United States or Britain on the ground to be harmed. No matter that their collaborators are local spies who do in fact commit acts of treachery against their compatriots and are indeed brutally executed when this is discovered. Despite the complete absence of any of the aspects of a war which might warrant a missile strike as a military necessity—above all, that soldiers on the ground will otherwise die—the itchy trigger drone warriors point to their version of the dreaded Trolley Problem and a false and misleading application of utilitarianism to convince the naysayers that they must approve the launch of a missile in order to avert an even worse tragedy.
The military personnel are more persuasive than the sole civilian dissenter, and no one seems to be bothered in the least by questions of strategy. The word ‘blowback’ is never even mentioned in this film. But judging by the growth of ISIS and Al-Shabaab over the past decade, and the testimony of suicide bombers such as Humam Al-Balawi (the Jordanian doctor who blew up a group of CIA personnel at Camp Chapman in 2009—in direct retaliation to US missile strikes on Pakistan), the tactic of drone assassination can reasonably be expected to cause the ranks of jihadists to continue to swell. No one denies that during the occupation of Iraq, an effective recruiting tactic of factional groups was to point to the civilians harmed by the Western infidels as confirmation that they were indeed the evil enemy. Knowing all of this, it does not seem unfair to ask: Is “military necessity” now conceived by the remote-control killers as whatever will ensure the continuation of a war?
In Eye in the Sky, the drone warriors are more than willing to risk the life of a little girl who has set up a table where she is selling loaves of bread because, they say, if they do not act immediately then perhaps eighty little children just like her will be killed instead. No mention is made of the psychological trauma suffered by the people who do not die in drone strikes, but witness what has transpired. (When was the last time one of your neighbors’ houses was cratered by a Hellfire missile?) Instead, the collateral damage estimate (CDE) so conscientiously calculated by a hapless soldier pressured by Colonel Powell to produce an estimated likelihood of the girl’s death at less than 50% altogether ignores the 100% probability that she and everyone in the neighborhood will be terrorized.
But even focusing solely on the likely lethality of the strike, the drone warriors in Eye in the Sky display what is in reality a lethal lack of imagination, an utter failure to conceive of counter measures such as warning the people in nearby markets and public places of the impending danger. That is because, in the minds of the drone warriors, if one terrorist attack is thwarted, then another will surely be carried out later on down the line. By this mode of reasoning, they have arrived at the depressing and nihilistic conclusion that they must kill all of the suspects. What would be the point of doing anything else?
Recruits from Western societies, young people such as Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, are assumed to be beyond the reach of reason, despite the glaring fact that their recent conversion to the jihadist cause itself reveals that they have changed their view before and could, in principle, change it again. Nonetheless, the drone warriors persist in their worship of death as the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. They are literally trapped in the lethality box, because they cannot conceive of any other way of dealing with factional terrorism than by killing people. When obviously innocent persons are destroyed, maimed, terrorized and left bereft by Western missiles, these acts of so-called military necessity end by galvanizing support for the Anti-Western jihadist cause, both near the strike site and in lands far away.
Realistically, what self-respecting father would not wish to avenge the death of his young child at the hands of the murderous drone warriors who are so despicable as to kill without risking any danger to themselves? Instead of thinking through the likely implications of what they are doing, the drone warriors persist in invoking delusive just war rhetoric to promote what they want to do: kill the evil enemy. But the use of lethal drones in what has been successfully marketed to taxpayers as “smart war”, eliminates soldierly risk only by transferring it to civilians on the ground. No matter that new recruits continue to flock to the jihadist cause, seems to be the thinking of our great military minds, missiles are in ample supply.
It is a depressing view of humanity indeed which sees homicide as the solution to conflict when in fact it is its primary cause. But the delusion of the drone assassins is even worse than the corruption of criminal contract killers because they emetically congratulate each other, as in this film, for pushing buttons to eliminate their fellow human beings from the face of the earth, as though this were some kind of accomplishment, rather than the worst of all possible crimes.
New recruits such as Susan Danford will never stop arising from the ashes of drone strike sites until the drone strikes have come to a halt. Indulging in a false and Manichean division of people into black and white categories of good and evil, the killers corrupt more and more young people to collaborate with them, both informants and drone operators. Those who perform well in their jobs rise in the ranks to become the commanders of future killers, until at last the entire society is filled with people who upon watching a film such as Eye in the Sky end by sympathizing not with the victims but with those who destroyed them.
Focused as they will be upon this simpleminded “Trolley Problem” portrayal of drone warfare, Western viewers will likely miss altogether the obscene hegemonic presumptions of the killers who use beetle- and bird-sized drones to penetrate the private homes of people in order to stop them from wreaking havoc in countries where there are no US or British soldiers on the ground to harm. To pretend that all of this killing is for the benefit of the locals is delusional to the point of insanity.
If serial Western military interventions had not destroyed country after country across the Middle East, beginning with Iraq in 1991, then there would be no “evil enemy” to confront in the first place. To continue to ignore the words of jihadists themselves when they rail against the savage butchery of millions of Muslim people by the US military and its poodles is but the most flagrant expression of this smug hegemony. No, I am afraid, they do not hate us for our freedom.
In Eye in the Sky, anyone who opposes the use of military weapons against people living in their own civil society thousands of miles away is painted as a coward and a fool, as though there were some sort of moral obligation to launch missiles to save a hypothetical group of eighty people. The very same killers do not feel any obligation whatsoever to provide food, shelter, and potable water to the people living in such societies, even when the $70K cost of a single missile could be repurposed to save many more than eighty lives, in addition to winning over “hearts and minds”.
Here is the ugly truth shining through the willingness to kill but not to save lives in nonhomicidal ways: Peace does not pay. The drone killing machine is the latest and most lucrative instantiation of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. That Westerners continue to be taken in by this hoax is tragic for the people of Africa and the Middle East mercilessly terrorized (when they are not maimed or incinerated) while the killers gloat over what they take to be their moral courage.
Near the end of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Benson sanctimoniously admonishes the sole remaining dissenter among the witnesses to the mission, which she has denounced as “disgraceful”. He smugly retorts to her suggestion that he is a coward: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” But the cost of the remote-control elimination of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism is not merely the tragic loss of human life. It is the destruction of such killers’ souls and the concomitant creation of even more killers who feel the need to retaliate in turn. It is the fact that they have rolled back all of the moral progress in procedural justice made by human societies since the 1215 Magna Carta. It is the fact that their dogged insistence on perpetuating and spreading this practice to the darkest and least democratic corners of the planet represents a categorical denial of human rights.