US Counterterror Policy Brought to You by Our Sponsor, Israel

I’ve written several critical appraisals of Spies Against Armageddon, Yossi Melman’s trashy spy novel which passes for a sober account of the Mossad’s heroics. After reading Marcia Cohen’s review at Lobelog, I’ve discovered that there is at least one important segment worth examining. Melman recounts the story of the assassination of Abbas Musawi, at the time the leader of Hezbollah. Here is what he writes in the book (prefaced by Cohen’s comments; emphasis mine):

In 1992, a decision was made by Israel’s intelligence community to kidnap Abbas Musawi, Hezbollah’s newly designated secretary-general. When a Lebanese newspaper item disclosed that Musawi would be visiting a Shi’ite village in southern Lebanon, an Israeli air force drone “flying undetectably high above” monitored Musawi’s group before the order to “destroy the entire convoy” was carried out by an Israeli attack helicopter:

“[The Israeli pilot] was not told beforehand who the main target would be, and he said ‘professional behavior’ meant not asking questions. ‘We knew they weren’t sending us out for nothing,’ he said. The five-minute attack was like a shooting gallery. Four helicopters fired missile after missile to liquidate all the Hezbollah targets. The gruesome results, shattered and smoking remnants of expensive German- and British-made vehicles, formed a killing field.”

Women and children were not spared in what Israel would later legalize as “targeted prevention”:

“The death toll included Musawi, his wife, their son, and at least five security guards. This was the first assassination by Israeli attack helicopters, several years before the practice — officially aimed at blocking future terrorism — became legalized by an attorney general as ‘targeted prevention.’ America would come to call the method ‘targeted killing,’ when aimed against al-Qaeda years later.”

Though very few people, as far as I know, have written about this connection in great detail, it seems clear to me that the U.S. counterterror strategy adopted after 9/11 owes much to the Israeli model. After the World Trade Center bombing, many Israeli advocates in this country, and Bibi Netanyahu as well, practically cheered the killings because they believed it would mark a tipping point in eliciting sympathy for Israel’s own war on terror. Now, you finally understand what we have suffered. Now you know why we must kill these terrorist and won’t complain the next time you hear we have done so.

At the time, I laughed off such sentiment as unlikely. But something far worse has happened. Not only have U.S. counterterror specialists through two administrations “understood” what Israel faces, they’ve largely adopted Israel’s policy as our own. It may have started with Dick Cheney in the Bush administration, who had a natural hawkish pro-Israel affinity. His logic and rhetoric left their fingerprints all over the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There can be little doubt that if Cheney were president, Israel would’ve attacked Iran as early as 2008, when Olmert first asked for permission to do so.

Going to back to the 1970s, the Church Committee found that the CIA had participated in the toppling and/or murder of various foreign leaders in Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Legislation thereafter forbade the agency from such assassinations. But the Bush administration began the assault on the Carter-era reforms by permitting such killings, torture, and other abuses in the name of preventing terror. I suppose a key distinction Bush might have made was that the U.S. wasn’t killing foreign leaders as it did in 1953 in Iran and Guatemala, but rather avowed terrorists with American blood on their hands.

Targeted assassinations of Islamist militants, which have reached a fever pitch under the current president, are directly from the Israeli playbook. In truth, Israel has been murdering Palestinian militants going even further back than 1992, when it killed Musawi. But only since 1992 has it taken to doing so from the air. Prior to that it used the exhaustive, labor-intensive method of infiltrating enemy strongholds on the ground (think raid on Entebbe) to liquidate targets. Taking to the air has given the Israelis much greater ability to penetrate enemy territory with little or no risk to their own personnel. It has also given them the opportunity to choose the time and place of liquidation, creating even more latitude for the assassins.

In 1992, Israel used helicopters in its first aerial targeted assassination. It continues using them to this day. But nowadays, both it and the U.S. use drones as well. Israel is also in the forefront of drone research, which includes miniaturizing drones so they can penetrate remote locations undetected. In fact, one of Israel’s chief technology developers for this new generation of drones is one of the world’s leading butterfly specialists and uses his scientific research to inform his drone development.

Though Israel has inspired U.S. counterterror policy, we have taken a decidedly different tack in the defenses offered on behalf of targeted killings. In Israel, the practice hardly has to be justified, since for most Israelis it is a given that Arabs must be killed in order to protect the state and its citizens. Though there are NGOs protesting against this policy, their voices are drowned out by the certitude Israelis have that to protect Jewish lives eggs must sometimes be broken (as Lenin once said about the Revolution). In short, there is no moral dilemma for Israelis. A general or prime minister has only to say that he liquidated a terrorist who was a ticking bomb. The country will be satisfied that the army did the right thing and acted justly.

For the U.S., it’s a different story. We still maintain a veneer of faith in the Constitution and due process. It’s harder for many Americans to wrap their mind around, for example, murdering Americans, even Islamist Americans, without trial. This explains Obama’s masterful but ultimately morally bankrupt campaign arguing that drone murders are clean, efficient, and highly accurate. It explains speeches like John Brennan’s and articles like those in The New York Times that focus on how excruciatingly difficult it is to decide to kill a man, how laborious is the process of deciding who goes on a kill list, how careful the drone technicians are in avoiding killing of innocent civilians. To an innocent ear, it sounds good. It sounds like this president is one who even loses sleep at night over whom he may order killed the next day.

But for those of us who’ve watched the Israeli counterterror killing machine, though the rhetoric advanced by the Obama administration is smooth and persuasive, ultimately it behaves precisely as the Israelis have, with the same level of disregard for due process and the suffering of innocent victims. When Israel kills a civilian, it excuses it with a brief pro-forma apology. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the U.S. kills civilians, it goes one better. Sometimes it even offers compensation or a sincere-sounding apology. It may even make noises about reducing or limiting the use of the tactic. But ultimately, Israel and the U.S. are playing the same game.

Scott Shane just published a particularly disturbing justification for drone assaults in which military philosophers (which is something like the oxymoronic “military music”) argue that it’s not only permissible but even morally obligatory to use drones because of their allegedly superior accuracy. Shane notes reports that claim that while the rate of civilian deaths in U.S. drone strikes has been 20%, in Gaza the IDF has a civilian death rate of 41% in its targeted assassinations.

However, there are so many variables separating U.S. and Israeli attacks that this comparison is almost meaningless. What would be much more helpful is knowing what the IDF civilian death rate is specifically from drone attacks. Then you’d be comparing apples to apples. The problem is that Israel has maintained the highest level of secrecy around its drone program. While observers on the ground know that Israel uses drones regularly to murder Palestinian militants (and innocent bystanders), it has only admitted doing so once (and we know this thanks only to WikiLeaks). Thus, there is no way to know for certain how many Palestinians Israeli drones have killed.

It’s interesting to speculate on the reason for Israeli secrecy about this technology. One reason must be that it uses drones far outside Israeli territory. It has used them to attack Hamas weapons convoys in the Sudan dessert. It may even use them from Azeri bases to spy on Iran (as the U.S. has done, resulting in a runaway American drone being downed inside Iran). If it were widely known that Israel violates the territorial sovereignty of Arab countries at will, it would cause a firestorm of protest. Better to keep things quiet.

One of the best articles written about Obama’s drone policy is Tom Junod’s brilliant “The Lethal Presidency.” As a writer, reading work such as his makes me both envy the dexterity of his writing and admire his power to penetrate the thinking of those who forge the defense of nation-state terror. One of the most telling comments Junod elicited from a government official was that if our country could target the leaders of Islamist groups, then that certainly would make Obama “targetable” as well. Both Israel and the U.S. have likely factored this into their own thinking and dismissed the likelihood that terrorists could infiltrate their countries and inflict such damage. But my response is that once you’ve let the genie out of the bottle, you don’t know what it will do. It may work for you, but it may, like Frankenstein’s monster, turn against you.

This is no abstract argument: look at who replaced the murdered Musawi — Hassan Nasrallah, who is arguably even more wily, capable, and ideologically extreme than Musawi. If the latter had lived, would he have launched cross-border raids that started the 2006 Lebanon war? Though we can’t know for sure, could Musawi have been worse for Israel than Nasrallah has been? Further, the murder of Musawi naturally turned Hezbollah even more militantly anti-Israel than it had been. If the Lebanese group is proven to have been involved in the two terror attacks in Argentina, those almost certainly would have been payback for Israel’s assassination of Musawi.

Similarly, in 2004 Israel assassinated Hamas’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an invalid in a wheelchair, as he left morning prayers. As with Musawi, Israel once again used a helicopter gunship to deal death against its Islamist enemies. But doing so did not weaken Hamas. In fact, it later won a democratic election to run the PA and subsequently took over Gaza, which it controls to this day. Even a 2009 war against it did not bring the group down.

Returning to Washington’s considerations, what do you gain from a national policy toward the Arab world that is almost solely anchored in counterterror? I think we’re producing the Nasrallahs and Yassins of the next generation with every militant and innocent civilian we kill.

To the extent that our own national security policy begins to resemble Israel’s, we come to resemble everything Israel has become. We become exemplars of the moral shortcuts and the sophistries used to justify the indefensible. We start down the slippery slope that has led Israel to 45 years of occupation and to a deadening corruption of values. Israel is not something we want to become.

Remember the romance the media had, after the near attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with Israel’s supposedly ironclad passenger-screening methods. With hardly a word of dissent, the pundits began clamoring for the Transportation Security Administration to adopt Israel’s draconian system of targeting dark-skinned travelers with Arab-sounding names. Gradually, the huzzahs died down, but not before some of us pointed out that penalizing people for “flying while Arab” wasn’t a particularly edifying or even efficient means of protecting American skies from terror.

My biggest beef with the thinking portrayed in Shane’s article is that it slices the issue down to a size so small that it neglects far larger issues that are ultimately more important. Arguing over which method of murdering our enemies is the cleanest and most precise only goes so far. A more important question is: what are we gaining from these murders? Are we actually benefiting as a nation in any substantial way? Are we providing any benefit to the societies in which our murders take place?

I would argue that we aren’t. Though defenders of this counter terror approach claim that it’s substantially weakened al-Qaeda and Islamist insurgencies in the region, it ignores the impact that this policy has on the rest of society in which the killings take place. There are tens of millions of Pakistanis, Yemenis, and Somalis who are not al-Qaeda or al-Shabab. We won’t be targeting them for our attacks (though some may be killed as collateral damage). But that doesn’t mean we haven’t earned their undying hatred for what we’ve done to their countries. These countries may lack the constitutional safeguards that we enjoy (though these don’t seem to have stopped these extrajudicial killings) or the appreciation for human rights, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand that we’re riding roughshod over their sovereignty. This isn’t something they will soon forget. These chickens will eventually come home to roost.

Think back to all those mujahedeen whom Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson funded and armed in the jihad against Russian intervention in Afghanistan. Remember whom we’re now fighting there? Same names. They’ve just changed their enemy. Now it’s us. In the same way, those whose countries we now invade from the air and whose citizens we murder with impunity will make us pay a price down the line.

Finally, the bankruptcy of this counterterror policy is seen by the fact that we have no other policy of engagement with these nations. What hope are we offering them? What options? Nothing. We send them drones by air and gift them the dead they must bury as a result.

The cynicism of this all-drones-all-the-time approach to Islamist militancy is that it wins votes. No one ever lost a vote in a U.S. election by being too hard on Islamists. Obama has so little domestic record to run on that he’s decided he can puncture the image of Republicans owning the national security issue. He can eat into the Republican hawk camp by being tougher on terror than George Bush or Dick Cheney.

Obama’s counterterror policy is not a foreign policy or even a national security policy so much as a political strategy for winning the 2012 election. The greater tragedy is that Obama likely believes in what he is doing. Gone are the civil liberties credentials that he boasted as a candidate in 2008. Gone is the aversion to torture. Gone is the dream for change, real change. What he’s offered us instead is the “lethal presidency.” That’s quite a bargain.

Author: Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, which examines issues concerning Israeli national security, human rights, and threats to Israeli democracy.