2013: Give Us Your Best Shot!

As they say: it’s a wrap!

In many ways, 2012 was a status quo year. At its end, Barack Obama is still president, and our global war continues to march in varied incarnations across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. At home, Americans toil and play in a constant state of denial, hardly blinking at the loss of personal privacy, growing government surveillance, the militarization of domestic law enforcement, the shrinking influence of people-powered change in the face of entrenched special interests.

And yet at the same time, so much is happening to challenge all of that. While 2012 seemed to roll tediously on its current depressing trajectory, there were things the media could not ignore, provocative insights into the corruption, events that exposed the weakness of the American conceit that we can control, contain and shape anything to our will. We’ve seen the limits to political and military hubris, narcissism and hate.

Here a few highlights — some that lay bare the rot behind the Potemkin Village of our national security state, others that indicate that change, thanks to a few brave individuals and collective dedication, may be afoot in 2013.

(Clark Stoekley/Flickr)
(Clark Stoekley/Flickr)

1.)Bradley Manning in a Cage: For the first time since Pvt. Bradley Manning was arrested and jailed for allegedly downloading some 750,000 government files and giving them to WikiLeaks, he took the stand in his own defense. The most recent string of hearings in December illuminated the period of time that Manning had spent confined and isolated at the Quantico detention facility shortly after his 2010 arrest. While Army physicians and counselors insisted Manning was no danger to himself or to others, various testimony bore out that he was routinely humiliated by the guards, forced to sleep naked in a “suicide smock,” and endured long periods alone with nothing but a mirror in his dark, cramped cell.

David Coombs, Manning’s civilian attorney, who has done an extraordinary job defending a man who the government has made out to be nothing less than a gender-confused traitor and monster — said in his first public comments outside the courtroom that these conditions were not only “stupid and counter-productive,” but “criminal.”

Positive indications for 2013: Manning’s impressive demeanor, and the obvious devotion of his lawyer (who is ex-military) only served to flesh out the portrait of a serious individual who did what he allegedly did because he thought it was the right thing to do, and that the military is overplaying its hand in trying to make him an example. Meanwhile, airing out the heinous conditions of his imprisonment, juxtaposed with the growing awareness that the now-infamous “dump” of secret diplomatic and military files did nothing but embarrass governments and expose the truth about our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, should only help to soften public opinion of Manning, not erode it, as he faces his court martial in February.

2.) Julian Assange Seeks Asylum — Assange generated a stream of headlines and a near global uproar when he sought and received asylum from Ecuador in August. The WikiLeaks founder had exhausted all appeals against British extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning on nebulous sex assault charges. While some critics call him a megalomaniac who is using political sanctuary to avoid facing the consequences of his alleged rakish if not criminal behavior, others question why he would seek the protection of a government beset by its own questionable record on free speech and human rights.

But the Brits’ insistence that Assange be arrested the moment he sets foot outside the protection of the Ecuadoran embassy in London should give us pause. Assange’s fears of extradition — that his passage would lead him right into U.S. captivity — aren’t fully unfounded. The Australian government has all but abandoned him, and we know there is a U.S. Justice Department investigation into WikiLeaks ongoing. The British government is ready to send him packing, and has done itself no great service in treating Assange like a cornered animal for the last six months.

What to look for: Whatever critics might say, WikiLeaks played no insignificant role in the political and social revolution now roiling across the globe. Assange could be made a martyr for all times if the U.K and U.S. governments proceed in persecuting him for it. If the DOJ presses charges, it will further polarize us, put at risk our own constitutional rights, and expose the authoritarian impulses we sensed were in our government, and among our neighbors, all along.

3.) The Drone Wars — Not only has been there been a continuing drone war —- thousands of kills in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia by the Obama Administration since 2009 — but this year a war over the drone war emerged in great earnest. More specifically, an effective opposition has risen against the heretofore unchecked forces in the media and the government who have been defending their use all along.

This couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has served as the spear point in this opposition, providing the cold facts and data often hidden from view, says the Obama Administration conducted its 300th drone strike against Pakistan this year. Overall, since 2002, there have been 400 strikes killing upwards of 1,117 civilians, according to the Bureau. The most recent attacks took place on Christmas Eve, killing seven alleged militants in Yemen. “It appears they waited until Christmas Eve on purpose to conduct a couple strikes as there had not been action in the covert drone war in Yemen for well over a month,” observed writer Kevin Gosztola.

This hardly invokes our idea of heroism, nor the humanity of the oft-told story of the Christmas truce in the trenches. Then again, this was the year we found out that the White House harbors a “kill list,” and that counterterrorism czar John Brennan has the authority to carry out foreign executions in secret, outside judicial scrutiny.

Look on the bright side: 2012 for the first time brought the debate over drones into the mainstream. When CNN’s Peter Bergen dared to say there had been no civilian deaths by drone, an organized wave of opposition was there to refute him. While the pendulum — and the defense establishment — continues to swing in favor of these killer flying machines, the public’s unease (especially over the prospect of their domestic use) and foreign blowback, grows.

4.) The blight of Benghazi — The death of ambassador Christopher Stevens, a State Department information officer and two CIA contractors on Sept. 11 in Benghazi was a full-on gut check of U.S. policies in the Global War on Terror. First, the raw anger against America among our supposed allies in Egypt and Afghanistan and other places across the Muslim world over a crudely made anti-Islamic video could not be ignored. Then, the recognition that our intervention in the Libyan revolution was poorly planned and, as in the case of Iraq, not well thought-out in terms of what might come afterward. In Benghazi, America came face-to-face with the limits of the military solution, which has carried our foreign policy for the last ten years.

Now, it has become clear that we have, however inadvertently, enabled al Qaeda movements in North Africa and created more areas of vulnerability in the region.

The good, bad and the ugly: While the Benghazi disaster exposed the weakness of our interventionist policies, it is now being used to justify further military forays into Africa, with Mali being one in several possible new battlegrounds on the horizon. This could get much uglier before the full lesson of Benghazi is realized.

5.) The Green on Blue Red Line — After 11 years of fighting in Afghanistan the U.S. last year faced an enemy that could have very well turned out to be the final psychological straw: our own allies. Despite the fact the U.S. has spent $642 billion so far in Afghanistan, much of it to train 352,000 Afghan security forces to take our place come 2014, members of those security forces are killing U.S. and coalition forces with greater frequency than ever in so-called “green on blue” attacks. And there seems to be no ready solution, save picking up and getting out sooner.

What it means for 2014: While premature withdrawal is not likely to happen (2014 seems to be the hard date; the debate now is over how many troops will be left behind, if any), it is clear that some of the biggest die-hards for staying the course have been demoralized by the attacks on our soldiers. No longer do we hear the chest-thumping — everything now quietly revolves around how we get out, and the mess we leave behind. Sadly, none of the blaring messages of failure had gotten through before — the rising influence of the Taliban, the corruption, the lack of support from the people, the horrendous IED injuries sustained by our troops. Green on blue appears to be a red line, however, one that signals the real beginning to an actual end.

6.) The 2012 Election — If Benghazi exposed the weakness of our U.S. foreign policy abroad, the presidential election exposed the weakness of our foreign policy in Washington. In fact, all arguments that the Beltway is filled with pusillanimous brown-nosers, knuckle-dragging meatheads, salivating war profiteers, clucking chickenhawks — not to mention courtiers masquerading as journalists — were fully realized in 2012’s quadrennial spectacle.

With nary a word in favor of peace or restraint, the campaign wore on with every Republican candidate striving foolishly to out-hawk the proven hawkishness of the Obama Administration. Ladled with all of the flag-waving, tobacco spitting, God-fearing gusto they could muster, the Republican Party again took their cues from the neoconservative wing, and pursued their unabashed fealty to the American civil religion — war — to absurd lengths. Meanwhile, all Obama had to do was look nominally more informed and less bombastic than his ill-fated opponents. He did, and quite easily, won.

Under the radar: was Ron Paul’s impact on the foreign policy debate. While he was eventually forced from the stage, it was not before he could show the rest of the nation that not all conservatives get their credentials getting off on Gitmo and the smell of napalm in the morning. Far from being booed, Paul’s arguments against preemptive war, bombing Iran and isolating Cuba, got cheers from the largely GOP audiences. Furthermore, he made candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann look more foolish than usual, and so incited the righteous Rick Perry that the man seemed at risk of exploding all over the stage.

Upside? We like seeing conventional pro-war prigs upstaged. More importantly, more non-interventionist conservatives are joining the ranks now, and are not afraid to say so publicly.

7) Major Victory Against the War on Drugs: One of the most underreported stories of the election was the passage of referendums in both Colorado and Washington State that make possession and the use of marijuana legal for the first time. In fact, Colorado just made it official and will be the first state to tax the sale of pot on the open market.

Why do we care? Two major reasons — one, the states’ will be ignoring federal law, making this a major test of the 10th Amendment and the lengths to which the Obama Administration will go to enforce Washington’s will on the people. Despite his promises to the contrary, Obama has cracked down on more marijuana dealers and users than even the Bush Administration. Now he says he won’t go after “recreational users” in the states that legalize it, but sorry, we’ve heard that tune before.

More importantly, the Colorado and Washington votes — along with a string of decriminalization measures over the years — are a critical blow to the broader War on Drugs. For years, Latin American leaders have called for a recalibration in dealing with the black market, citing legalization as one serious approach. This first step, backed heavily in these brave states by both politicians, cops and citizenry alike, could have a huge impact on the fate of this failing decades-old war going forward.

7) Thanks to the Whistleblowers — Without whistleblowers we may know even less than we already do about the nefarious things the government has been doing in our name, particularly after the 9/11 attacks raised up the artifice of “security” in order to spend gazillions of our tax dollars in pursuit of neo-empire abroad and an ever-expanding surveillance state at home.

Whistleblowers —ex-government officials who have risked everything to tell the tale, are still an endangered species. But they are brave, and getting stronger. Here at Antiwar.com, we’ve interviewed folks like Jesselyn Radack, Tom Drake, Diane Roark, Col. Morris Davis and Peter Van Buren, all who have lost their livelihoods and so much more for crossing the government, the most recent being John Kiriakou, who spoke out against CIA torture and just pleaded guilty to charges that he leaked a fellow agent’s name to a reporter. But thanks to social media and independent journalists and activists, they are bonding together and finding common cause and a vehicle though which to not only support each other, but to serve as a force for change: trying to get real protections passed, speaking more publicly in the mainstream, and keeping a glaring light on Washington’s dark side.

Where to find them: Twitter; the Government Accountability Project; Kevin Gosztola’s blog. Just recently, the Chaos Communication Project (29C3)

9.) Reality in Iraq — In a country where millions were killed or displaced in a matter of six years following a “shock and awe” invasion and subsequent occupation by western forces, nothing says “fail” like the continuing pain and suffering of the Iraqi people today. They began their new year in 2012 with bombings that killed upwards of 73 people. The horror continued throughout the year — daily bombings that were hardly acknowledged by their former occupiers, and ended this week with a string of more sectarian attacks.

Al Qaeda is back. Meanwhile, basic services like electricity still elude the people. The Kurds are in a current standoff with the central government, which is tight with the Iranians and accused of oppressing the Sunni population. All hopes for a regional headquarters that would do American bidding in the Middle East seem abandoned as we watched our diplomatic influence shrivel up in 2012 and Shia fighters — and Iraqi money — scrambled across the border with zealous fury to assist the pro-Assad forces in Syria.

What this means for 2013: More tumult as we see further disintegration of the security situation. There are so many lessons here that were ignored as the military took its fantastical COIN formula on to Afghanistan in 2009. Perhaps 2013 will be the year we finally face up to these massive failures as the first step in rewriting the fiction that was “Victory in Iraq.”

10.)Speaking of which, where’s King David? — This story is so instructive, so outrageous, so crackling with the karma of hubris and corruption, that it could have warranted its own column. Where to start? In November, we learned that former top general and CIA Director David Petraeus was at the center of an FBI investigation in which his alleged mistress, former biographer Paula Broadwell, had been writing nasty and potentially threatening emails to another military groupie, Jill Kelley, who turned out to be a big pen pal of Gen. John Allen, the commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Phew.

As the dust settled on the hair-rending lamentations by his die-hard devotees, it became clear that the man who had become a god was hurtling back to earth like Icarus with a bang — tough landings for a general who had worn a chest full of medals without serving in combat, who had been lauded as a conquering hero without really winning a war. Much has been said about his masterful ability to manipulate the media, to lead congress and defense elites around on a string, to create what will become known as the silliest, yet probably most effective “clique” inside a war zone, at least for a spell.

I have often compared Petraeus to the fictional character Don Draper from AMC’s Mad Men, but until now, didn’t quite know how far their resemblances went. Petraeus and Broadwell are both married and worse, he engaged her publicly as his biographer, apprentice and adviser. She approached him first while earning a PhD., she used his story as her academic dissertation. Privately, they were allegedly using the war and the heady Beltway defense world as a backdrop to a sexual affair. When her book “All In” was published earlier in the year, most of us scoffed at it as hagiography — we already knew her as another acolyte who tried to explain away the American razing of an Afghan village in 2010. News of the affair confirmed every rotten thing we already believed about the Cult of Petraeus.

From the Ashes: David Petraeus is a mortal man who had a great run as something else. Too bad a lot of time and lives were wasted when we should have been listening to more clear-headed people about war strategy and the future of military policy. The American people are as guilty as anyone for raising the military in such superhuman regard as to allow people like Petraeus to so skillfully wrest away civilian responsibility for the war, while using it clearly as a stepping stone for his own personal ambitions. To think he is the only one, however, would be our next mistake. We must not forget.


To all of our Antiwar.com readers, who have been so responsive and loyal, and to all newcomers, who may be coming in from the cold — Happy New Year!

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.