Friday, January 08, 2010

The wars go on

Peter Baker has written and important if largely stenographic piece on Obama's anti-terrorism policies, Inside Obama’s War on Terrorism New York Times Magazine 01/04/09 (01/17/09 issue).

Baker interviewed a number of former Cheney-Bush officials, some on the record, and some he let speak off the record in the typical journalistic faction of these days for no particularly good reason. He also lets Obama officials, not least among them torture supporter John Brennan, frame their approach at some length.

For the Democratic base, the administration's message is basically this:

Where Bush saw black and white, Obama sees gray. Where Bush favored swagger, Obama is searching for a more supple blend of force and intellect. Where Bush saw Islamic extremism as an existential threat equivalent to Nazism or Communism, Obama contends that that view warps the situation out of proportion and plays into terrorists’ hands by elevating their stature and allowing them — even without attacking again — to alter the nature of American society.
That message is that Obama is taking a more pragmatic approach, which is true enough as far as it goes.

But Baker opens that paragraph with the message that is presumably aimed at our journalistic priests of High Broderism: "Obama, then, found himself in a place where he seems most comfortable, splitting the difference on a tough issue and presenting it as the course of reasoned judgment rather than of dogmatic ideology."

The differences he had to split, as we see in Baker's article, were between the Cheneyites, on the one hand, and the dirty hippie liberals who worried about quaint issues like the Constitution and the rule of law. In the land of High Broderism, splitting the difference is always virtuous statesmanship. Even when the result still tramples the Constitution and continues many of the worst features and assumptions of its predecessor policies which have proven inadequate or worse.

The message to the pants-wetting celebrity press who love to wallow in fear of terrorism and to Republicans is that Obama is continuing the essentials of the Cheney-Bush anti-terrorism program. And while those of us concerned about reckless war policies and violations of national and international law get mostly rhetorical nods, the actual policies are consistent with the administration's claims of essential continuity.

In terms of partisan strategy, this is obviously a way of trying to defuse criticism from the Republicans. Since the Republicans are going to keep up a steady and at times hysterical stream of accusations that Obama is leaving us open for The Terrorists to kill us all in our beds, no matter what the facts, I'm not sure that partisan goal is likely to be achieved.

On the other side, though, the one piece of the Cheney system of government that his own administration couldn't deliver was to have a successor administration come to power and either explicitly validate those policies or implicitly validate them by refusing to prosecute known criminal acts. I'm sure they would have preferred a Republican administration to do that. But having a Democratic administration provide the validation is even more valuable in normalizing dubious and/or criminal practices. And it will have more value in arguing for the legality of similar actions in the future by providing years of "bipartisan" precedent.

The article is worth reading in full for people interested in the continuities between the Cheney-Bush policies and Obama's. But this article indicates to me that the administration wants us to think that a better tone is going to represent the main difference from the Cheney-Bush policies:

And so perhaps the biggest change Obama has made is what one former adviser calls the “mood music” — choice of language, outreach to Muslims, rhetorical fidelity to the rule of law and a shift in tone from the all-or-nothing days of the Bush administration. He is committed to taking aggressive actions to disrupt terrorist cells, aides said, but he also considers his speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in June central to his efforts to combat terrorism. “If you asked him what are the most important things he’s done to fight terrorism in his first year, he would put Cairo in the top three,” Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, told me.

The policies themselves, though, have not changed nearly as much as the political battles over closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay and trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York would suggest. “The administration came in determined to undo a lot of the policies of the prior administration,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the homeland-security committee, told me, “but in fact is finding that many of those policies were better-thought-out than they realized — or that doing away with them is a far more complex task.”
If Baker's stenography is a measure of the message the White House wants to send out, rolling back the number of people we're killing in wars in Islamic countries is not part of their anti-terrorism strategy.

And the message seems to be that after the pathetic, botched terrorism attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmatullab on the plane to Detroit, that there will be plenty more military strikes and expansion of the war in Yemen:

The Christmas Day plot touched off a new round of questions among Obama’s critics about whether the president is enough of a warrior for the fight against Islamic terrorism. But he has spent much of his time in office killing suspected extremists. With information processed at NCTC and elsewhere, Obama has authorized the C.I.A. to greatly expand a program inherited from Bush using unmanned Predator and Reaper drones to launch missiles at suspected Al Qaeda hideouts along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Critics complain that such “targeted assassinations” are morally suspect and strategically dangerous because of the reaction among Pakistanis when civilians are killed. Obama had a searching conversation with Brennan and Denis McDonough, Catholics who oppose the death penalty, about whether to keep the program. “He was wrestling with it,” says one adviser. But in the end, there was no serious disagreement with the decision to continue the program. At one of his first Situation Room meetings as president, according to a participant, Obama said pointedly, “The C.I.A. gets what it needs.”

The C.I.A. has launched 53 such strikes in Obama’s first year in office, more than during Bush’s entire presidency, according to data compiled by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann at the New America Foundation. In part, that strategy owes to increasingly precise technology that has made it easier in the last couple of years to hit a desired target with fewer civilian casualties. And in part, it underscores the ability to redirect resources away from Iraq now that the war has subsided there; when the Obama administration came into office, it learned that dozens of drones were devoted to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but just five or six in the tribal areas of Pakistan where Al Qaeda’s leadership is mainly holed up, according to officials who declined to be identified discussing a classified program. Obama has authorized doubling the number of drones in the Pakistani border area, as well as increasing the presence over Yemen and Somalia, officials said. [my emphasis]
That's cute: Brennan is a Catholic who opposes the death penalty. (And, oh, by the way, supported criminal torture during the Cheney-Bush administration.)

The claims of fewer civilian casualties need to be taken with a high degree of skepticism. In the following excerpt, Bergen and Tiedemann claim that now only (!) 24% of the people killed in this supposedly surgically target assassinations are civilians, versus 40% earlier. The administration and the Pentagon and the CIA can then use that as an excuse to launch more and more of these strikes, which means more and more civilians killed. The whole concept of targeted assassinations like these is highly questionable. Baker writes:

Over the course of Obama’s first year in office, his drones have taken out a number of “high-value targets,” including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban; Saad bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden; and Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a close ally of Al Qaeda. At the same time, according to estimates by Bergen and Tiedemann, the civilian death rate of those killed by drone strikes has fallen to about 24 percent in 2009 from about 40 percent from 2006 to 2008. Government officials insist that the civilian casualty rate is even lower. “I don’t hear anyone inside the government, including people like me who came from outside, who thinks the Predator program is anything but essential,” says a senior Obama counterterrorism official. “There are a lot of negatives, but it is completely essential.” [So why did this official need to be anonymously quoted? - Bruce]

Obama has been willing to be muscular in other ways as well. When intelligence agencies concluded in September that they had found Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an Al Qaeda operative linked to the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan hotel, in southern Somalia, officials debated three options, including one to insert American special-operations forces in that lawless East African country, several officials told me. Obama’s advisers rejected that and presented him instead with a plan for an airstrike, which he approved. Weather on the day of the strike prompted a change in plans, and commanders instead authorized attack helicopters to sweep into Somalia. Nabhan was killed. American forces landed afterward to collect bodies and evidence.

Most salient at the moment is Obama’s focus on Yemen, the poor, unstable state south of Saudi Arabia where Osama bin Laden’s family hailed from. [my emphasis]
Brian O'Neill writes in a post about an article by Bruce Riedel, who he knows is a real expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, (On Saying Silly Things Waq al-Waq 01/04/10):

Riedel here has committed the cardinal sin of Yemen-writing: mentioning Osama bin Laden's familial ties as if they mean something (though he avoided the traditional cliche of "the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden"). If you are reading an article where the writer mentions this, immediately treat everything else as suspect. This is the best advice we can give you here.
The question of whether it's sensible or legal to be committing acts of war like these against Somalia and Yemen is not one that seems to concern Obama officials much, if Baker's stenography is faithful to their messaging.

And the main message of the administration via Baker's stenography is that they embrace the concept of the War on Terrorism, even if their "mood music" doesn't like to call it that all the time:

After all the lawyerly focus on Guantánamo and the rules of war, the latest threats put more focus on Obama in the role of commander in chief. It did not go unnoticed that when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize last month, he declared that “evil does exist in the world.” His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, went on the Sunday shows after the Christmas Day plot and, consciously or not, used the term “war on terror.”

The White House then dispatched Brennan for a blitz of four Sunday shows, the first such foray for the C.I.A. veteran. In his first radio and Internet address of the new year, Obama implicitly rebutted Cheney by noting that he used the word “war” is his inaugural address. "Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred," Obama said.

The war goes on, abroad and at home. [my emphasis]
And the killing of more and more civilians, as well as combatants in local political and tribal disputes that are no threat to the American "homeland", will continue along with it. And whether we call it the War on Terror, the Long War, or the We-Like-All-Muslims-Except-The-Ones-We're-Killing-War is not going to make a lot of difference to anybody except our celebrity pundits.

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