Watching Senator John McCain foam at the mouth with his calls for war against Syria reminds one that President Barack Obama has done well to resist strident demands from congress and the media to use the U.S. armed forces in a direct role to remove President Bashar al-Assad. Which is not intended to suggest that nothing is going on. Washington has long been fighting a secret war seeking to bring about regime change in Syria in the mistaken belief that the fall of Damascus will inevitably produce a similar result in Iran. The White House humanitarian interventionists and friends of Israel have only been stalled in their effort to bring down al-Assad by stealth due to legitimate and belated concerns that empowering the rebels might produce far worse results than a continuation of Baathist rule. One would have thought that a lesson had been learned from the disastrous intervention in Libya, but apparently Washington operates on a principle of never looking back. That coupled with an attention span that appears to encompass something like 48 hours means that the White House will be continuously refighting the last war with predictable results.
However one judges the Obama foreign policy, and even conceding faint praise due to the president’s clear reluctance to enter into another major war, there has been a fundamental shift in how the United States conducts what it regards as counter-terrorism operations, the new form of hot war for the twenty-first century. The U.S. war on al-Qaeda is theoretically based on several legal principles. First, it assumes that an organization called al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11th 2001. As al-Qaeda is not a foreign nation, the United States congress passed a resolution (the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force) that declared war on it as a transnational entity, meaning that it could be attacked by U.S. forces wherever it might be found if the local government were incapable of acting against it, a principle also endorsed by the United Nations position on what constitutes legitimate self-defense. That attacking al-Qaeda anywhere would likely mean taking military action against sovereign nations where al-Qaeda might be physically located against the will of the locals complicated the issue, but the principle was that the so-called global war on terror was actually a defense against an attacker.
If Washington had focused exclusively on al-Qaeda and exercised some restraint, it might have even gotten away with its crusade against terrorism as there are few governments anywhere that would tolerate the presence of terrorists lest they turn on their hosts. But that was not to be. Dick Cheney declared the 1% doctrine whereby a threat that was only 1% credible would have to be responded to with force while his boss George W. Bush promulgated his own eponymous doctrine asserting that the United States has a right to intervene preemptively anywhere in the world. “You’re either with us or against us.”
The invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and expel al-Qaeda was supported by many in the international community, but it was soon subject to mission creep. Transforming a primitive tribal society into a functioning democracy proved to be chimerical, particularly when the military resources that Washington thought it needed to “maintain security” while doing the job were shifted to the pointless invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan has not surprisingly become a barely functioning kleptocracy combined with a money pit for the American taxpayer. And both Americans and Afghans are continuing to die as part of the process with no end in sight.
Iraq, correctly described as the the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, forced a brief rethink and brought to the fore Senator Barack Obama, who obtained his margin of victory after incorrectly being seen as a peace candidate. Obama really only objected to the “wrong kind” of war, referring to Iraq, though he considered Afghanistan to be somehow better and fully embraced humanitarian interventionism. And he also completed the job begun by George W. Bush through institutionalizing an America at war everywhere and all the time. He did that by winding down from wars requiring invasion and regime change that produced body bags coming home with America’s sons and daughters. He instead opted for low intensity often clandestine engagement using intelligence and special ops resources that that could be employed with minimal oversight, no transparency, and no accountability. When challenged in the courts over its covert wars, the White House invariably claims the state secrets privilege, effectively cutting off any judicial review. One has to think that Dick Cheney would be delighted with what President Obama has accomplished.
Which brings one to the means used to fight the new style warfare: drones and assassination lists. As is frequently the case, technology produces innovations that completely change the nature of what is doable. The FBI and NSA would not be able to read your emails and listen to your phone calls in real time if computer speed and storage capacity had not increased to such an extent so as to make it possible. Recent media coverage confirms what many readers of antiwar.com already know. The United States has the technical ability to monitor phone calls and computer generated messages all over the world and uses the information to create individual files supplemented with biometrics. It has satellites that can see in the dark and pick up images of people moving on the ground. It can then target individuals or groups without any due process and kill them with a missile fired from twelve thousand miles away.
What does the new warfare mean? It means that the United States no longer needs any normal mechanism to declare war unilaterally or get a resolution from the United Nations to attack someone. Israel has long claimed a similar right vis-à-vis its neighbors but the fact that Washington has now adopted the Israeli model means that other countries will do the same following the U.S. lead. Because attacks from drones are intelligence operations carried out clandestinely it also means that the U.S. can claim no knowledge of what is occurring so it is as if the war is not actually taking place. In intelligence circles this is referred to as “plausible denial.”
And it also undermines the somewhat tenuous legal basis for the U.S. response to terrorism because, it has now been revealed, the targets of the drones are not limited to known or suspected al-Qaeda linked terrorists. Attorney General Eric Holder is lying through his teeth when he claims that Washington only targets “specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda or an associated forces.” CIA drones have reportedly killed between 3,000 and 4,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen in what amounts to a systematic program of extrajudicial killing. Of 482 people in Pakistan from September 2010 until 2011 only six were identified senior al-Qaeda. Many of the attacks were signature strikes, which means that the target fit a profile of a military age male who might well only be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The CIA frequently has no idea who it is killing, describing them only as militants even when there is no evidence to suggest such affiliation. Some of the attacks were “side payment strikes” taking out targets at the behest of the Pakistani government, which fully approved of the drone missions and even provided a secret base inside Pakistan to carry them out.
The ease and relative bloodlessness (for Americans) of killing by drone has also bred a certain laziness, a clear disinclination to make the effort to take someone prisoner revealed most clearly by the paucity of terrorists who wind up in American hands. And this laziness has brought about a shift in self-perception at CIA, turning the Agency into a killing machine rather than an intelligence collection and analysis resource, a transformation that will be difficult or even impossible to reverse as a whole generation of officers has now learned only the new culture of death.
It is admittedly easier to start a war if you can keep it hidden. Likewise, it is far easier to kill someone rather than trying to capture him, interrogate him, and eventually try him in a federal court. The preference for the kill option also reveals the emptiness of the terrorist threat: if hordes of terrorists were truly kicking down the door and planning attacks against the United States it would make more sense to try to capture them and question them. Assassinating them eliminates any intelligence value they might have and suggests that someone in Washington has made the judgment that a live terrorist is worth less than a dead one. That someone is likely to have been President Obama, who admitted in September 2012 that “…it’s very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means. That’s not who we are as a country.” As usual, it is empty rhetoric from our president. Two-thirds of American approve of killing by drone, which means we have become precisely the kind of country that he and his predecessor George W. Bush have either deliberately or inadvertently created.