The Hammer and the Scalpel

A recent New York Times report details the secret war now being waged by the Obama administration across the globe, from Africa to Central Asia – and no doubt places we don’t yet know about. This is nothing new: the Bush regime started this reign of lawlessness, but, according to the Times, the Obama-ites are doing the Bush White House one better:

“While the stealth war began in the Bush administration, it has expanded under President Obama, who rose to prominence in part for his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq.”

The vaunted “antiwar” candidate – whose victory was hailed by United for Peace and Justice and lefties as far left as Socialist Action – is turning into Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon rolled into one, with the belligerent instincts of the former and the sneakiness and need for secrecy that eventually destroyed the latter.

Nor are the Obama-ites shy about proclaiming the manipulative and crassly political nature of their efforts:

“Obama administration officials point to the benefits of bringing the fight against Al Qaeda and other militants into the shadows. Afghanistan and Iraq, they said, have sobered American politicians and voters about the staggering costs of big wars that topple governments, require years of occupation and can be a catalyst for further radicalization throughout the Muslim world.”

Make no mistake: the worldwide US military campaign is being pulled into the shadows not because a more open campaign would “be a catalyst for further radicalization” of those we are trying to “liberate,” but precisely because the American people – who are paying the bill for this staggeringly expensive effort – are sick unto death of endless war. What Washington is deathly afraid of is radicalizing Americans, and with good reason. The Obama administration, which began its reelection campaign the day after Obama took office, is faced with the daunting prospect of a disastrously wounding election in November, and they are doing everything they can to stanch the bleeding, and keep from losing their white liberal base.

Naturally, the Obama-ites are trying to put a “strategic” gloss on what is a calculated political move, as the Times reports:

“Instead of ‘the hammer,’ in the words of John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, America will rely on the ‘scalpel.’ In a speech in May, Mr. Brennan, an architect of the White House strategy, used this analogy while pledging a “multigenerational” campaign against Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates. Yet such wars come with many risks.”

You can say that again: the Times reports one such risk taken, which has redounded into a big al-Qaeda propaganda victory in Yemen. According to the Times, we recently hit a “compound” in Yemen which supposedly housed a gaggle of al-Qaeda’s top leaders. The hit was successful – the only problem was that we also managed to take out a top pro-US Yemeni tribal leader and provincial official, Jabir al-Shabwani, who was killed along with some forty women and family members in the area.

As it turns out, the supposedly high-ranking al-Qaeda types were just low level recruits – and the whole affair has literally exploded in our faces, with both the Yemeni government and the population severely alienated. The contempt we have for our “allies” in the region comes through loud and clear: the Times quotes one anonymous government official as saying well, [Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh] didn’t throw us out of the country, as if to minimize the damage done.

Of course, it wouldn’t matter if President Saleh objected to us using his country for target practice: as the Times reports, “White House officials are debating whether the C.I.A. should take over the Yemen campaign as a ‘covert action,’ which would allow the United States to carry out operations even without the approval of Yemen’s government.” When things get really hot, they can always declare the operation a "special access program," and turn it over to our special forces and hired killers. This would also skirt the supposed obligation to report such activities to Congress, and that’s really the key in understanding the reason for the shadow war.

Killing in the dark is so much more convenient for our rulers, since they can mask their true nature as natural born killers and also outsource the killing to all sorts of dubious “professionals,” who are being recruited for the worldwide murder spree. Our brand spanking new “counterinsurgency” doctrine is not only a strategy, it is a thriving industry, one that is growing by leaps and bounds – one of the few sectors of the economy doing well at this point. As the Times points out, the creeps of another era – the Vietnam war – are resurfacing, with such notables in the world of assassins as Duane Clarridge and Michael Vickers taking a leading role.

The politico-military rationale for this extraordinary campaign of murder and mayhem was given voice by Rep. Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington, from his lofty perch on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee:

“Where we want to get is to much more small scale, preferably locally driven operations. For the first time in our history, an entity has declared a covert war against us. And we are using similar elements of American power to respond to that covert war.”

The big problem with this clever strategy is that it surely is a bit too clever by half, for “small scale” operations are prone to becoming large scale. Mission creep and the myth of the “clandestine” in the age of the internet militate against any such scaling down of US military operations abroad. Yet that is the impression the Obama-ites wish to create. The Times notes:

“In pursuing this strategy, the White House is benefiting from a unique political landscape. Republican lawmakers have been unwilling to take Mr. Obama to task for aggressively hunting terrorists, and many Democrats seem eager to embrace any move away from the long, costly wars begun by the Bush administration.”

The shadow war is surely no mystery to those nations where it is being fought: reports of US attacks, and the subsequent “collateral damage,” are duly noted in the local media, where such exists, but our pro-administration Fourth Estate buries it if it even deigns to notice at all. The real motive for drawing the curtain on the activities of our hired assassins is to keep it from the American people, and their elected representatives – and, most of all, to keep it away from Obama’s base, which is already getting unruly (albeit not yet to the point of open rebellion).

This underscores the underlying principle of libertarian foreign policy analysis, which is that all foreign policy decisions undertaken by our rulers in Washington are, first and foremost, about domestic politics: that is, they are motivated by domestic considerations. It’s all about seizing and keeping power – and expanding it at every opportunity. Are we taking an unusual interest in what happens in far-off Where-the-Heckistan? Well, then, you can bet the farm there’s some domestic political angle: perhaps some big contributor is a major investor, or perhaps Goldman Sachs has a lot to lose if the cash-poor but oil rich Heckstani government goes into default.

Which is not to say objective circumstances play no role in determining US policy. However, because we’re such a far-flung and overwhelmingly dominant hegemon – an empire in all but name – there is always some powerful interest which stands to benefit from our intervention, and that person or group is strongly motivated to advance their own interests.

They’re called lobbyists, and they’re highly paid – the good ones are – for a reason: because the potential returns are extraordinarily lucrative. In a “democratic” empire such as ours, foreign policy is inevitably shaped by special interests who stand to benefit from interventionist policies.

A global murder spree such as the one we’re now on is far more dangerous than anything the Bush administration tried to pull. True, Team Bush started the shadow war, but, as the Times points out, the Obama crew has greatly expanded it. At least Bush was relatively open and honest: he and his administration were quite upfront about what they intended to do, and they did it in near-full sunlight, in Afghanistan and then Iraq.

With typical hypocrisy, pro-war Democrats of Rep. Smith’s ilk are trying to play this cloak-and-dagger campaign as a more sensitive and less interventionist alternative to the Bushian policy of crush-and-occupy. What they don’t acknowledge, however, is that these “locally driven” operations are centrally directed from Washington, part of a spreading effort to expand our sphere of influence until it reaches into the farthest darkest corners of the globe.

This criminal campaign doesn’t protect us, and isn’t a prophylactic against wider wars: indeed, such a crazy policy virtually guarantees that we’ll be involved practically everywhere at once, with the potential for an “accident,” such as the one that occurred in Yemen, to spark a fresh conflagration.

When the scalpel fails, down comes the hammer. Having created the problem in the first place, our wise rulers then must explain to us why it’s “necessary” to send in the troops to “solve” it. That’s how government intervention always works, overseas as well as on the home front.

The shadow war represents a quantum leap in the US military presence around the world, and the great danger is it’s being implemented in secret. This is precisely why we need such institutions as Wikileaks, and also – because some of the most morally reprehensible people in the history of our republic are literally getting away with murder.

Don’t let them keep you in the dark. exists to shine a bright light on US skullduggery around the world – but we can’t do it without your help. Unless our summer fundraising campaign begins to kick in with a lot more “kick,” we’ll be kicked off the internet sooner than you can say “rest in peace.” C’mon, all you readers and supporters: I love getting your letters of support, but I’d also appreciate it if you’d enclose some cash with that, too. After all, if there is no web site, no staff, no technical budget, nothing to pay our writers and stringers, then you wouldn’t be writing me, now would you? Our demise would certainly make the War Party happy: I can just see them seizing on it as confirmation of the “death” of the antiwar movement in the age of Obama, where everyone is getting with the program.

It’s a lie, of course: Americans are seething with anger about many things, and not all of their concerns are purely economic. That we’re going broke in wartime has a lot of folks connecting the dots.

We need to help them connect those dots, but we can’t do it without your help. So please – don’t delay, give as much as you can today.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].