So, we made a military strike into Syria. Since two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the occasional strike in Pakistan and Somalia aren't enough. At least not for the Cheney-Bush administration on the way out the door.
This New York Times article today, Officials Say U.S. Killed an Iraqi in Raid in Syria by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker 10/27/08, is a good example of so much that has been wrong with the current administration. It shows a reckless foreign policy pursued in disregard of the Congress and the Constitution, by an administration that rules by fear, deceit and secrecy, reported by an Establishment press that is only "independent" in a very qualified sense of the word. The first four paragraphs:
A raid into Syria on Sunday was carried out by American Special Operations forces who killed an Iraqi militant responsible for running weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border into Iraq, American officials said Monday.
The helicopter-borne attack into Syria was by far the boldest by American commandos in the five years since the United States invaded Iraq and began to condemn Syria’s role in stoking the Iraqi insurgency.
The timing was startling, not least because American officials praised Syria in recent months for its efforts to halt traffic across the border.
But in justifying the attack, American officials said the Bush administration was determined to operate under an expansive definition of self-defense that provided a rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without those countries’ consent.
First of all, why did Judith Miller's former paper the Times grant these sources anonymity?
The sources sure don't sound like whistleblowers, but rather "American officials" putting out an official story. Often in recent years, the story will at least included some excuse for the anonymity. More often than not, a transparently lame excuse. The latter being the case with Schmitt and Shanker, who say their sources "spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the raid".
Say what? Since we don't know what we don't know, because our press corps can't be bothered to tell us or value their precious "access" more than actually reporting news, we would have to admit the possibility of these being whistleblowers of some kind. Or maybe some faction of the bureaucracy that is trying to sabotage some other faction's policy. (Gee, don't they all put "country first"?) Personally, I think it reeks of a cover story. But that's just me. In any case, we shouldn't have to analyze news articles in "the paper of record" as though we were trying to guess how the plot of a mystery novel will unfold.
Every time we get a story about civilians blown up in a raid, the military's response follows a dully familiar pattern. Which includes some combination of the following: denial (they denied the Syrian raid, check); then claim the dead were "terrorists" or "Al Qa'ida" (check); claim that a "high-value target" was killed (check); and, if the evidence of civilian deaths becomes too hard to deny, claim they were regrettable "collateral damage" (not there yet on the Syrian raid).
The high-value-target claim in this case is that a particular individual was an Iraqi in Syria who was a "militant responsible for running weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border into Iraq". And, OMG, he was "Al Qa'ida"! What a surprise:
American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the raid said the mission had been mounted rapidly over the weekend on orders from the Central Intelligence Agency when the location of the man suspected of leading an insurgent cell, an Iraqi known as Abu Ghadiya, was confirmed. About two dozen American commandos in specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters swooped into the village of Sukkariyah, six miles from the Iraqi border, just before 5 p.m., and fought a brief gun battle with Abu Ghadiya and several members of his cell, the officials said.
It was unclear whether Abu Ghadiya died near his tent on the battlefield or after he was taken into American custody, one senior American official said.
One United States official described Abu Ghadiya as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s “most prominent” smuggler of foreign operatives crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, and in February the Treasury Department named him as one of four major figures in that group living in Syria. [my emphasis]
I'm sure one reason the Pentagon puts out these stories is to get people chasing down loose ends that are really dead alleys. But by this account, the target was not in flight from a military engagement in Iraq. His whereabouts were known. And it was known his whereabouts were in Syria, a country with which the United States is officially at peace.
And he was a member of an "Al Qa'ida" insurgent cell, so the story goes. Now, Syria's government is Alawi Muslim, Alawi often being described as a variety of Shi'a Islam, though not all Shi'a agree on that. The Syrian government has long take a violently hostile attitude toward Islamicists. Their bloody suppression of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is legendary. They've been cooperating with the United States on at least some aspect of anti-terrorism operations, notoriously being one of the prime sites to which subjects in "special rendition" are sent to be tortured. So why couldn't the Syrian government have dealt with this "Al Qa'ida" cell, if that's what it was?
This also means that this operation was what's known as a "targeted assassination". I don't know off the top of my head the legal status of such actions, though I'm sure it's pushing the envelope. But there's a reason that assassination was banned as a US policy even for covert operations for decades: it's inherently high-risk with a dubious return. Suppose the raid actually did kill someone who was smuggling jihadists into Iraq. Was his role so important that it was worth risking Syria shutting down its cooperation on anti-terrorism and/or relaxing its own internal border controls? Or what if Syria decided to expel a few hundred thousand of the Iraqi refugees that they are currently hosting?
And one reason "targeted assassinations" are legally dubious is that an operation like this is by definition and unprovoked attack on a country. Earlier this year, when Colombia attacked FARC guerrillas on Ecuadoran territory, all the countries of South America closed ranks with Ecuador against Colombia's incursion, several of them withdrawing their ambassadors. Within days, Colombia had backed down and apologized and promised not to do it again. And this is a case where the FARC narco-guerrillas have been in a guerrilla war with the Colombian government for years and do operate at times in Ecuadorian territory.
This is not such a hard concept. We don't grant Mexico or Canada the right to send in Blackhawk helicopters to US territory to assassinate somebody they think based on God-knows-what intelligence is doing something they dislike. Oh, and shoot up the neighborhood in the process. Eight, ten, twenty dead Americans? What's a little "collateral damage" among friends? No, we don't look at it that way at all.
This was also an odd statement: "It was unclear whether Abu Ghadiya died near his tent on the battlefield or after he was taken into American custody ..."
This seems to be the main point of the story, if not of the action itself, as well:
But in justifying the attack, American officials said the Bush administration was determined to operate under an expansive definition of self-defense that provided a rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without those countries’ consent. ...
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has attacked terrorism suspects in the ungoverned spaces of countries like Yemen and Somalia. But administration officials said Monday that the strikes in Pakistan and Syria were carried out on the basis of a legal argument that has been refined in recent months to justify strikes by troops and by rockets on militants in countries with which the United States is not at war.
The justification is different from the concept of pre-emption the administration articulated immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, and which was used as the rationale for the invasion of Iraq. While pre-emption was used to justify attacks against governments and their armies, the self-defense argument would justify attacks on insurgents operating on foreign soil that threatened the forces, allies or interests of the United States.
Administration officials pointed Monday to a passage in President Bush’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month as the clearest articulation of this position to date.
“As sovereign states, we have an obligation to govern responsibly, and solve problems before they spill across borders,” Mr. Bush said. “We have an obligation to prevent our territory from being used as a sanctuary for terrorism and proliferation and human trafficking and organized crime.” [my emphasis]
That "expansive definition of self-defense" is the Bush Doctrine of preventive war in action. Preventive war is a criminal act. So is planning one. If that article were journalism instead of stenography, Scmitt and Shanker would have pointed that out. Pretty much any specialist in international law could have given them an authoritative quote to that effect. But retyping Pentagon press releases is so much easier. But they did comment on legal issues; see the classic piece of stenography quoted at the end of this post.
Since we're doing a close reading here, are those anonymous "administration officials" the same "American officials" quote before? And why are they granted anonymity? Do you need to be anonymous to give a reporter a quote from one of the President's public speeches?
In any case, some of these anonymous administration flacks p[itched this thing to identified flacks Schmitt and Shanker as something like a codicil to the Bush Doctrine. Not only can we invade any country we choose and overthrow their governments. We can also just make military strikes on their territory whenever we feel the hell like it.
The following pretty much speaks for itself. Not unlike Old Man Bush starting an ill-advised mission to Somalia in the last months of his administration which turned into a mess for the Clinton administration, Cheney and Bush are trying to screw up conditions for the incoming President:
In seeking to carry out cross-border missions inside Pakistan and now in Syria, the United States government is expected to make the case that these operations will help protect the lives of American troops. It is not clear how far-reaching the White House may be in seeking to apply the rationale, but several senior American officials expressed hope that it would be embraced by the next president as well.
This one is pretty obvious, as well:
Together with a similar American commando raid into Pakistan more than seven weeks ago, the operation on Sunday appeared to reflect an intensifying effort by the Bush administration to find a way during its waning months to attack militants even beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States is at war.
Administration officials declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran that have been used to train Shiite “special groups” that have fought with the American military and Iraqi security forces. [my emphasis]
And the mysteries keep on blossoming. Did you notice in the quote above that the military action was supposedly taken "on orders from the Central Intelligence Agency"? Since when does the CIA give orders to Army Special Forces units? And do you really have to be a dirty freaking hippie blogger to notice that there's are screaming questions like that all around this story?
And the following passage makes this story a contender for the Judith Miller Stenography Pulitzer of 2007:
Over the years, a growing body of legal argument has made the case that this right of self-defense allows a nation to take military action on the territory of another sovereign nation that is unable or unwilling to take measures on its own to halt the threat.
This argument was emphasized when the Israeli military mounted a hostage-rescue mission at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, and similar arguments have been made to defend actions by the Colombian military against the FARC guerrillas seeking haven in neighboring countries, and Turkish troops pursuing Kurdish militants in their sanctuaries in northern Iraq.
Israel also made this argument when, in September last year, its warplanes attacked what Israel said was a nuclear reactor in Syria that was nearing operational capability. [my emphasis]
I already gave the DFH version of the Colombian incursion above. And blogged about it at the time, too. But, hey, Schmitt and Shanker are top reporters for the New York Times. They're paid to do stenography for Dick Cheney's legal mouthpieces.
Short version of further comments on that: Israeli citizens were involved and in immediate danger of their lives in the Entebbe raid. Turkey received the permission of the occupying power, the US, to bomb the Kurds in norther Iraq; the Kurds being the most pro-American segment of the Iraqi population - but this is Dark Lord Cheney running that show. Israel's bombing attack on Syria was also illegal. When they bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1983, St. Reagan's administration joined most of the world in condemning it at the United Nations as an illegal act. And, in any case, "Israel did it so it's okay for us to do" isn't a good justification. Apart from legal issues, Israel isn't exactly the most popular country in places where we have wars going and presumably should be seeking maximize any domestic support we might have in those countries.
And call me old-fashioned. But the President actually needs a Congressional delegation of war or the legal equivalent to attack a foreign country. Even if it were a good idea, which is the case of Syria it most definitely is not.