Obama Puts Bombs Before Bread

by , July 26, 2011

The television warned that some images might be graphic. What ensued was footage of children and babies, some wailing, most eerily quiet in mothers’ arms, skin and bones and two breaths closer to death.

The children of Somalia are dying from starvation. In a region of the world that has been wracked by natural and man-made famine for almost three decades, the horrific images are hardly unfamiliar.

Somali children in a Kenyan refugee camp

Sadly, while his crudest Republican critics might ridicule and fear- monger over his Kenyan parentage and his formative years in Indonesia, Barack Obama has clearly put bombing people in the most impoverished, underdeveloped countries in the world ahead of feeding them for the thrust of his tenure in Washington.

Obama’s so-called empathy, which had won him extraordinary international support when he was first elected, is virtually absent from notice. He’s merely carried on with President Bush’s brute force War on Terror (GWOT), while failing to see that genuine compassion, when called for, would strengthen his hand in the world’s view, not weaken it.

Last week the United Nations officially declared famine in two southern regions of Somalia that have been experiencing the worst drought conditions in 50 years. This is also the area controlled by al-Shabab. The violent and radical Muslim organization rose to power after the Bush administration made it a GWOT mission to eliminate the previously emergent authority, the Islamic Courts Union, a network of Shariah-based courts that had begun to bring law and order and basic services back to a country wracked by warlordism. After the ICU was brought to heel with American assistance, al-Shabab, Bush’s worst nightmare, grew up out of the ashes to fill the power vacuum left behind.

Today, 3 million Somalis are at risk of starvation and according to UNICEF, a Somali child is dying every six minutes — 250 a day. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last Wednesday that the U.S. would provide $28 million in new aid for the people in Somalia, as well as Somalis in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. She said this would be in addition to the $431 million the U.S. has given in food and “nonfood assistance” to the beleaguered Horn of Africa, which also includes Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, this year.

Sounds like a lot until one considers that by mid-May, the U.S. spent some $665 million, or $2 million a day, helping NATO attack Moammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya, a price tag that at this rate is expected to reach $1 billion by the end of September as the fighting has not yet abated and a resolution is nowhere in sight.

That still dwarfs the $9 billion a month ($436 billion to date) the U.S. is spending on its ongoing war in Afghanistan. And keep in mind, the vast majority of that spending is for military operations, not for refugees or food aid or economic development.

The Department of Defense gets 94 percent of it (breakdown here), while the State Department/USAID only gets about 5 percent, or $67 billion since 2002, for its operations in Afghanistan, and that’s split between embassy operations and construction costs, Afghan reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. So even in places where we are directly breaking things and causing massive displacement, death and corruption, humanitarianism still takes a far-back burner.

Commenting on the seemingly lukewarm effort to get ahead of the looming refugee crisis coming out of Libya, Australian professor Jo Coghlan wrote recently:

It seems that the West is prepared to pay the cost of war but not the cost of humanitarian aid, especially given that the aid is required as a consequence of the West’s decision to take sides in the armed conflict and thus prolong and extend the violence and exacerbate conditions for civilians on the ground.

A simple but fitting epitaph for our so-called counterterrorism campaigns in East Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia —­ even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Obama administration had put even half the amount of resources and energy in making sure that people didn’t starve or wither away in refugee camps, or their livelihoods and homes or villages not reduced to rubble by U.S. forces, perhaps America would be seen as something other than a very powerful, extremely well-armed, schoolyard bully.

Instead, our campaigns against extremism and oppression have been overshadowed by our willingness to engage in torture and rendition, collective punishment, supporting dictators, and an eerily indifferent response to “collateral damage” on the now global battlefield. We’ve lost the high road and any hearts and minds we might have won along the way.

Not Just the Aid, but How We Give It

Pretty speeches certainly won’t buy respect or even faith in the U.S. mission. The Arab world is as suspicious of our motives as ever, with Obama’s approval rating in some cases as low as former President Bush’s abysmal marks. In Pakistan, to which the U.S. has given more than $20 billion in military and nonmilitary aid since 2002, 68 percent see the U.S. as more of an enemy than a partner (only 9 percent see us as a partner) and only 11 percent have an overall favorable opinion of America. That’s one point less than its opinion of al-Qaeda.

Only 8 percent want the U.S. and NATO to keep its troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

But what do we expect when more than two-thirds of that $20 billion in aid was military-related and is now largely unaccounted for? Only 4 percent was actually earmarked for humanitarian assistance, even as Pakistan suffered the worst humanitarian crisis in decades during the floods of August 2010. Making a huge deal out of our helping the more than 21 million Pakistanis affected by the flooding would have been a PR boon for the United States, but at the time, continuing the airstrikes and bullying the Pakistani government in the press over fighting our War on Terror during the crises and recovery seemed more of a priority. Thus, the initial contribution of millions of dollars and military-assisted aid went virtually unnoticed and the people there hate us more than ever.

Victims of Pakistan flood (AP)

No doubt that is what is happening to the American reputation in Africa. The U.S. may be funding Africa aid in record amounts — an estimated $7.6 billion in 2010 preceded by $8.2 billion in 2009. But let’s be frank, at least George W. Bush tripled Africa aid funding while carrying out unilateral airstrikes against terror suspects in Somalia. Plus, when spread over 27 countries and five regions, $7.6 billion is a much smaller investment than say, the $3 billion a year the U.S. gives to Israel. That’s a per person subsidy of some $405 each year — and they’re not starving.

Is the First African-American President Detached From African Crisis?

But again, the money isn’t everything. It’s perception. America under Bush and now Obama has pledged to fight injustice and has even launched expensive military operations in Libya supposedly to thwart a civilian massacre there, yet it has not shown similar resolve or even much passion on the part of the Sudanese people in Darfur who have suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths, rapes and maimings and the displacement of millions at the hands of President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir and his thugs.

Sudanese child in South Sudan, 2010

The fresh fighting between al-Bashir and the rebel groups this month has exacerbated an ongoing humanitarian crisis, despite a new peace agreement and South Sudan’s declaration of independence from al-Bashir (the troubled Darfur region is not part of this secession). Strangely, however, Obama’s administration has seemed emotionally disconnected from the issue from day one.

“Among the many incoherencies of Obama’s foreign policy, none is more glaring and appalling than his stance toward one of the worst mass murderers of our time, Omar Al Bashir, the dictator of Sudan,” wrote Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, for The New Republic in June.

Darfur advocate and Massachusetts professor Eric Reeves has even gone so far as to say Darfurians now “despise” Obama, mostly for the perceived abandonment of their cause, which he had enthusiastically pledged to take up during the 2008 presidential campaign. Among the many briefs against Obama today is that he first appointed Scott Gratian, a former Air Force major general, as special envoy to Sudan in 2009, even though the man had no background in Sudan, no specific linguistic skills and no diplomatic experience. It went all downhill from there.

The story isn’t new, however, or restricted to Sudan. With much incredulity, the African advocacy community here cannot fathom why it’s taken three years for the president to appoint the USAID assistant administrator for Africa, the lead for U.S. development efforts on the continent. “The signal the vacancy sends to the outside world about priorities are patently clear — and interpreted as such in Africa,” wrote Todd Moss, at the Center for Global Development blog, earlier this month.

“But at this late stage, I can’t help but wonder if there is really any point. Might it be better to just write off the whole term and just wait for 2013? Seems like we are going to find out.”

Meanwhile, despite Clinton’s announcement that the U.S. will be sending more money to assist starving Somalis, the big story this month is that the CIA is reportedly leading a secret rendition program in which individuals suspected of working with al-Shabab are being snatched off the streets in sovereign African nations and interrogated for months by American agents and others in dank, bug-infested cells below the Somali capital of Mogadishu, far from the scrutiny of the law or anyone else.

According to Jeremy Scahill, who investigated and wrote “The CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia” for The Nation, the U.S. has been funding, training and interrogating detainees alongside members of the African Union’s military (AMISOM), which is also waging a land offensive against al Shabab on behalf of the barely functioning Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.

Scahill reports AMISOM’s daily mortar attacks have only been ineffective at killing and displacing civilians, and driving the militants underground, leaving entire villages and neighborhoods abandoned and thousands heading for the famine-wracked refugee camps we see today on the news. “Houses lie in ruins and animals wander aimlessly, chewing trash. In some areas, bodies have been hastily buried in trenches with dirt barely masking the remains,” he wrote.

And with no declaration of war save the all-purpose Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) sustaining the GWOT, U.S. Special Forces continue to launch their own airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia this month. The Pentagon has also pledged another $45 million for drones, communication and surveillance equipment to the AMISOM nations.

That’s more than double the food aid just pledged by Hillary Clinton last week.

Yemen: U.S. Bombs While People Scrounge for Water

Meanwhile, in nearby Yemen, people are not only fighting for their freedom but praying to God for drinking water (no rain in more than two months, and only the wealthy can afford to buy it) and what is the U.S. doing? Increasing airstrikes and logistical support on behalf of the very government that has oppressed the people and is accelerating the water and gas crisis by subsidizing diesel used to pump wasteful wells, allowing corruption in the provision of water, and cutting off water to political enemies.

Man forages for water with child (AFP)

Petrol, in addition, is no longer available at gas stations, and can be found only on the black market. Yemen has already been listed by the United Nations as one of the poorest in the Middle East, and the unrest has made it incredibly worse, according to nongovernmental organizations assessing the situation.

The U.S. military says it is killing al-Qaeda and other “militants” in the ongoing global terror war, but in the meantime it sounds like it is emboldening dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh against his enemies in the restive tribes. “The Yemeni government has a strong partnership with the U.S. government, especially in the field of counterterrorism,” a Yemeni government official told reporters in June when the CIA-directed airstrikes resumed.

Ironically, the USAID website says that aside for assistance in economic development, education and heath, it has engaged in “a new three-year Responsive Governance Project” in Yemen that “aims to strengthen government institutions, support reforms including decentralization, and improve the delivery of public services while encouraging more citizen participation in the political process.” It seems the Yemeni people would like that all very much, but dropping bombs on behalf of the ruling family that is keeping them from fulfilling those goals is clearly counterproductive. As always, the GWOT comes first.

USAID says it has contributed some $46 million in humanitarian funds primarily through the World Food Program, UNICEF, Save the Children and the Institute of Medicine. One wonders with the gas shortage and the security situation, how much of this aid is getting to where it’s got to go.

Money is not always the answer, for sure. Much of the aid given to Pakistan and Afghanistan has not only disappeared down a rabbit hole, but in the case of Kabul has corrupted the entire system. Merely throwing money at a problem never solves anything.

That said, the rest of the world is always watching, and what they see is an American administration that has clearly put its focus on bombs over bread, politics over people.

Nowhere else is that more symbolic than in the tear-stained faces and withered bodies of the starving children of Africa.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos