Drones and Death in the 8th Republican Presidential Debate, February 6, 2016

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Lethal drones have come to symbolize “smart power” to Democrats. In the first Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to characterize the “no boots on the ground” 2011 intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best”. Judging by their campaign trail rhetoric, Republican candidates tend to believe the opposite: drones are not a symbol of smartness and savvy, but of weakness. Usually drones are not mentioned at all, but at last night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, they were positively “dissed”.

TedCruzSenator Ted Cruz has enthusiastically proclaimed that he will “carpet bomb” ISIS strongholds and make the sand “glow”, suggesting his readiness even to use nuclear weapons against the latest bearers of the Al Qaeda torch. When asked whether he knows that ISIS is embedded among civilian populations, Cruz did not back down from his hawkish plans, essentially replying to the question that it doesn’t matter where the members of ISIS live. He will crush them, wherever they may be, and whomever they may be with. Cruz’s answer had a familiar ring because whenever Republican candidates are asked about rules of engagement (ROE), they afford themselves of the opportunity to complain that President Barack Obama has diminished the military, not only through budget cuts, but also by “tying their hands”. The explanation for the chaos in the Middle East, according to Republicans, is that Obama has not permitted the US military to do what needs to be done.

The general Republican disdain for military “half-measures” came out explicitly in last night’s exchange among the seven remaining contenders of what once was a slate of seventeen. The word ‘drone’ was uttered during a discussion about the prospect of bringing back waterboarding, which moderator Martha Raddatz creepily enough seemed to be promoting, goading the candidates on to proclaim that they, like George W. Bush, would “do what needs to be done”. None of the waterboarding advocates appears to have any recollection of the case of Ibn al Shiekh al-Libbi, who confessed under torture that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, thus providing a pretext for the war on Iraq.

JebBushFormer Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and brother of W, “The Decider” who embroiled the United States in what has become never-ending war in the Middle East) criticized drones as not being sufficient to win the war against ISIS, and in fact not a “smart” strategy at all. Jeb suggested that suspects should be captured and made to give up information. Other candidates then chimed in, including Senator Marco Rubio, who recited his familiar refrain that he would not only keep Guantánamo Bay open, but send more terrorists there! Granted, the fact that 86% of the men detained at the prison were cleared of any terrorist connections whatsoever is not the greatest talking point for wooing voters. Marco Rubio, however, appears to believe, like W, that all terrorist suspects are by definition terrorists.

MarcoRubioIt is abundantly clear that if one of the more bellicose candidates is elected, he or she will not hesitate to unleash massive air power on the Middle East, the effect of which will be to make Barack Obama look like the Peace President many voters in 2008 were hoping for. This would be highly ironic, for Obama’s secret drone campaigns and JSOC assassination missions, his removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power, and his provision of hundreds of tons of weapons to the rebels in Syria, all undeniably contributed to the massive increase in the strength and reach of ISIS. Obama’s “smart warrior” façade, his refusal to put “boots on the ground” while running non-stop covert ops, has served only to provoke more murder and mayhem in the Middle East and to galvanize support for violent radical Islamist groups.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who campaigns on a socialist platform of domestic political and economic revolution, has repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would follow Obama’s foreign policy example by continuing drone assassination as the primary means of military intervention abroad. Unbeknownst to Sanders, the revolution that is really needed is a commitment to halt US military intervention and greatly reduce military spending, beginning with a full line-item audit of the profligate Pentagon. If only Bernie understood that all of his big-ticket items—universal health care, free college, rebuilt infrastructure, and energy independence leading to massive job production—could be paid for with a tiny fraction of the military budget. What needs to be done to save what remains of the US republic is drastically to slash the bloated military budget, rein in executive power, and resolve never again to serve as the world’s biggest bully. Sanders opposes capital punishment, but his focus on an ambitious domestic program has clouded his judgment about Obama’s use of deadly force abroad.

What is most striking about the way in which the 2016 candidates for the presidency all talk about foreign policy is that they ignore the true causes of the mess in the Middle East: US intervention. It’s as though the candidates have all conspired in a secret pact to pretend that the facts are not the facts. The 9/11 attacks were retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. To his credit, Bernie Sanders opposed the First Gulf War, but even he does not see fit to connect the dots for prospective voters. Instead, he politely acquiesces to the mainstream media’s preposterous insistence on painting Hillary Clinton as an accomplished foreign policymaker with the experience needed to serve as commander in chief.

As sad as it may be to admit, Obama’s foreign policy appears always to have been focused on securing his legacy. Despite the fact that his ghastly “kill don’t capture” policy has normalized assassination all over the globe, Obama will end up looking pacific next to anyone who comes after him, including Hillary Clinton, who remarkably vaunts endorsements from Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. Most, if not all, of the Republican candidates have gone on record to say that they will immediately shred the negotiated deal with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear capacity.

What will remain of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, once he has left the White House? Renewed and emboldened intervention in the Middle East, along with the image of the 44th president as a peace maker etched into history. Surely he will look better than his successor in body count tallies, and few people will view Obama as the proximate cause of what he in fact wrought.

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War on Terror? War on Truth.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush proclaimed that “We are at war,” and we have been at war ever since. The world’s most powerful military was not apt to the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice, as evidenced by the fact that it took nearly a decade to apprehend the man believed to be behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of persons were slaughtered, most of whom were innocent. Thousands of others were detained without charges and mistreated in a variety of appalling ways. Millions were driven to leave their native lands, and the refugees of war-torn countries continue to flow out in a steady stream, as peace-loving people quite rationally attempt to defend themselves from the arbitrary termination of their lives by warriors of all stripes.

How could all of this murder and mayhem have been avoided? It’s sad to say, but if the US war makers had only listened to Osama bin Laden when he complained about the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of whom were children, then they would have recognized that the worst possible response to 9/11 was to attack Iraq all over again. Stating the facts decried by Osama bin Laden is in no way to condone his response to them. It is to acknowledge the source of his “shock and awe” retaliation campaign, perpetrated by jihadists outraged by US military policies abroad.

Undeterred by the dictates of rationality, George W. Bush waged an outright war of aggression on the already suffering people of Iraq. The Iraqis had been living under a dictator empowered by the US government during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but their conditions were rendered considerably more miserable by the bombing of water treatment facilities by the US military in 1991.

The subsequently imposed international sanctions prevented access to materials needed to purify the drinking water, and also medications needed to address the diseases caused by the lack of clean water. Remarkably, when Barack Obama became president, he awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor to George H.W. Bush, whose 1991 Gulf War led directly to the blowback attack of 9/11.

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During the occupation of Iraq, the poor policies of US government officials, including the dismissal of the Iraqi army and the blacklisting of Ba’ath party members, produced thousands of angry insurgents, who vowed to expel the invaders. Rather than admit that the strategies were not working, the occupiers doubled down with surges, more JSOC raids, more missile strikes, and more privately contracted “security forces”, some of whom behaved quite scandalously.

Another grievance aired by Bin Laden was the establishment of military bases in Muslim lands such as Saudi Arabia. Obama has dramatically increased the number of drone stations from which deadly sorties are launched, and continues to deliver Hellfire missiles to an ever-lengthening list of countries in a zealous effort to eliminate an ever-lengthening list of targets in his “war without borders”.

Under President Obama, who had campaigned on an anti-preemptive war platform, drone killing in lands where war was never formally waged came to be viewed as a standard operating procedure for dealing with suspected terrorists, wherever they may be said by a bribed informant to hide.

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US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, once a moderate Islamist cleric, was radicalized in the years after 9/11, coming to advocate jihad in response to what he regarded as war crimes committed against his brethren. Again, Al-Awlaki was right that the US government slaughtered many Muslims who never threatened any US national in the least. Al-Awlaki was himself harassed by the US government, and he was thrown into jail for more than a year in Yemen, without charges, at the request of the US government. After that, he was released, hunted down and summarily executed.

In addition to slaughtering Muslims, “We tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it. Unfortunately, the ever-charitable Obama opted not to prosecute the torturers, seemingly on the grounds that their misguided tactics were intended to keep the US homeland safe. They meant to do the right thing! They were just confused about the best way of going about doing that.

In fact, the means used by the warriors post-9/11 had exactly the opposite of the intended effect, causing a massive mobilization of jihadists in response—including the creation of new groups such as ISIS and AQAP, and a renewal and expansion of interest in radical Islam in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, where its presence had been minor—before US intervention.

The torturers and invaders and orchestrators of covert ops of many kinds undeniably endangered the citizens who funded the many initiatives, as should have been obvious from the global response to the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison. As a matter of fact, the Pentagon has taken great pains to withhold thousands of the ghastly photos taken of abused prisoners, on the grounds that they may endanger American lives. QED.

These gross mistakes have obviously made Westerners vulnerable to retaliation and revenge attacks, yet the failures were not viewed as grounds for dismissing those responsible, many of whom were retained by Obama in his not-so-new administration. Most notably, John Brennan, who condoned torture during the Bush administration, became Obama’s closest counterterrorism advisor.

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In 2013, Brennan was amazingly promoted to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One wonders what Mr. Brennan would have to do to get fired by Obama. No matter how many times Brennan changes his stories, Obama continues to trust him as one of his closest confidantes. When concern was expressed that the CIA had violated US law by penetrating the computers of US Senators in the period preceding the release of the torture report, Brennan indignantly reproached his accusers:

“Nothing could be further from the truth… that’s just beyond the scope of reason… some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”

Two months later, Brennan was issuing a public apology for the CIA’s having done precisely what it had been accused of doing. So which is it: is Brennan a pathological liar, or is he flagrantly incompetent?

According to Gregory Johnsen, the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (2013), it was none other than John Brennan’s “theory” that Anwar Al-Awlaki was the operational leader of AQAP. We have never been provided with any of the alleged evidence of his guilt in actually perpetrating violent acts—as opposed to inspiring or inciting them.

It was recently made public that the very administration which redacted the evidence in its response to a court order to release the memos leading up to Al-Awlaki’s summary execution without trial is calling for all of the cleric’s sermons—whatever they may contain—to be taken down from the internet. Here is the opening line of the New York Times “report” on the call for the blanket censorship of everything ever said by Al-Awlaki, including his early sermons:

“In case after terrorism case, from the Fort Hood, Tex., shootings to the Boston Marathon bombing and now to the slaughter in San Bernardino, Calif., the inflammatory videos and bomb-making instructions of Anwar al-Awlaki, easily accessible on the Internet, have turned up as a powerful influence.”

Talk about specious reasoning. Indeed, precisely the sort one would expect to issue from the mouths of torture advocates and graduates of the fact-challenged George W. Bush School of Strategy. The New York Times serves here, as so often, as a megaphone for officials of the US government. This call for censorship is a frightening development, and surprising even for a government which redefined terms in truly Orwellian ways in order to legalize “targeted killing” against “imminent threats” which are said not to imply immediacy.

The undeniable truth is that some of what Anwar Al-Awlaki said was true. Let’s consider a couple of examples. In an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001, he said:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki clarified his criticism of the US government and reiterated his opposition (at that time) to violent retaliation:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

How would preventing people from knowing what Al-Awlaki said protect the people of the United States? Obviously it would not. Censorship serves the purpose, instead, of shielding people from the truth, in this case, that there may indeed be a substantive answer, grounded in historical fact, to the question Why do they hate us?

If words spoken by people about crimes inspired young people to undertake jihad, then would that not imply that Shaker Aamer, who has been talking openly about the abuse which he endured while imprisoned for years without charges at Guantánamo Bay, should be silenced as well?  Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars (2013), has also chronicled US war crimes and examines the case of Anwar al-Awlaki quite closely. Should Scahill be censored?

What about the brave drone operators who have stepped forward to denounce what they were persuaded to do and now deeply regret? Will such persons, who dare to share the grisly news about what the US government has been up to, be next in line for censorship? As a matter of fact, former drone sensor Brandon Bryant has revealed in social media that some of his interviews have already been removed from the internet.

There are plenty of recipes around for making bombs, and no one needs the words of Anwar Al-Awlaki to be incited to jihad. What radicalizes young men and women are not calls for homicide in the name of justice—for that they have the clear and ever-present example of the US government’s various killing campaigns. If both Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki were radicalized by US war crimes, then the only way to prevent the radicalization of other people just like them will be for the offending actions to stop.

Without halting the bombing which drives young people to seek retaliation, the tide of angry jihadists will never come to end. The persons being slaughtered are becoming younger and younger, as “high value” targets are destroyed and replaced in some cases by persons who have known nothing but war for most or all of their lives. The perverse insistence upon annihilating brown-skinned persons for their future potential to commit future possible crimes is no more and no less than a recipe for genocide. Regardless of whether Americans remain in a blithe state of ignorance about what is being done in their name, the people at the receiving end of missiles know very well what is being done, and some of them, like the perpetrators of the crimes of 9/11, vow to seek revenge.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Muslims in lands far away, beginning with Iraq, have been treated as though they had no rights whatsoever. They have been systematically slaughtered at the caprice of US warmakers. Under Obama, suspects are denied even the opportunity to surrender. Nothing should be more obvious than that we cannot continue to do the same things over and over again, and then expect men such as Osama bin Laden not to emerge from the ashes left behind by US missiles and bombs.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do