The year 2011 marked a critical confluence of militarism and revolution, not only in places like Libya and Egypt, but also here at home, where massive demonstrations in cities and towns throughout the country were met with a well-oiled law enforcement machine deployed in camouflage and Kevlar, lobbing tear gas grenades and packing rifles with rubber bullets.
Like tanks, bulldozers commandeered by police over the last weeks crushed several “Occupy” encampments in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Salt Lake City, and more. It could be the first time for such a strange juxtaposition in global images: the massive iron will of authority chewing away dissent here and in such far-flung places as Tahrir Square in Egypt.
As recent events in Egypt have demonstrated, revolution does not necessarily begin with resistance and end with an election. In the United States, Americans are facing decade two of a domestic war on terror that has expanded a vast security and surveillance apparatus that seems to be in perpetual confrontation with our Constitutional rights. The trouble is that every time the public cedes more control to the government, Washington just takes more (see the new military detention policies just passed by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act).
In other words, war and the struggle for control is constant. Last year at this time, the world was absorbing tens of thousands of WikiLeaks documents that offered clues to how our governments behave, plot, and prioritize behind closed doors. They offered us, too, grim and dreadful windows into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they have been credited in part for exposing corrupt government behavior and providing a catalyst for massive street demonstrations in places like Tunisia, which overthrew its dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in January.
Today, the leakers of those documents are on trial. One, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, is in the United States. The other, Julian Assange, faces extradition to Sweden on unrelated charges. Meanwhile, we watch to see if our influence — or lack thereof — in places like Syria and Bahrain will hamper genuine triumph over tyranny and whether the U.S., undeterred by the now apparent failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, will continue its covert operations and drone attacks in Pakistan and in less reported fronts in North Africa and the Middle East.
At home, presidential candidate Ron Paul, the lone bulwark against intervention abroad and creeping militarism at home, faces a series of Republican primaries and caucuses beginning next week. He is considered a potential spoiler or kingmaker, but the odds of Paul becoming president are long if not insurmountable. If he loses, the status quo in foreign policy is the inevitable winner. Any other Republican in the White House will maintain if not accelerate wars and counterproductive meddling abroad, including a hyper-aggressive posture toward Iran.
If President Obama is reelected in 2012, it’ll be more of the same, with the possible bonus of a more open struggle with Iran, which the hardliners press harder for every day. Some say the war has already begun. Meanwhile, Obama’s now inevitable acquiescence to the recent expansion of the so-called terrorist detention rules indicate that his mind is on gathering and maintaining his executive powers, not the protection of our constitutional ones.
Simply put, the coming year is swollen with potential — for justice and reform, here and on the world stage. It can easily go the other way: more war, less hope, as we hover — on the cusp of 2012 — for the next act.
Let’s make sure we’re watching…
The Trial of WikiLeaks
Manning, 24, appeared in court on Dec. 16 for the first time in his year-long detention on charges he obtained and released hundreds of thousands of classified documents from his government computer while on active duty in Iraq. The government brought what analysts called a “highly damaging” case against Manning, offering a clear line between the former intelligence analyst and WikiLeaks and charging him with knowingly aiding al-Qaeda.
His defense attorney, David Coombs, was only permitted two out of the 38 witnesses he had requested to call to the stand and only 30 minutes to make his case over the five-day period. From The Daily Beast on Wednesday:
When asked by the investigating officer if he had any further evidence to present, Coombs said no, noting the long list of witnesses he’d been denied at the outset. Large segments of the defense’s case — asserting negligence on the part of the Army, unjust conditions of confinement of Manning at Quantico Marine Base, and a lack of clear damage done by the leaks — were precluded along with Coombs’s witnesses.
As Andy Worthington predicted in a preview I wrote about the hearing, it would seem that Manning’s chances for vindication are slim to none. But what does this all mean?
It means that despite the fact that many consider Manning a whistle blower and hero who has exposed the institutional rot that continues to degrade our authority and influence abroad, the government will make sure the country remembers him as a traitor. He will stand as a warning to any other prospective dissenters within the ranks of government. Manning has been painted as a troubled homosexual who was bullied inside and out of the Army, but the chat logs, including the following one exhibited at the trial, stand as key signifiers that Manning’s motivations went beyond his own personal struggles.
“This is perhaps one of the most significant documents of our time,” he wrote to WikiLeaks, when he allegedly attached a trove of Defense and State Department documents regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare. Have a nice day.”
By the end of the hearing, which could lead to a court-martial for Manning, there were rumors that money might have been involved in the Manning-WikiLeaks exchange. Again, chat logs suggest that Manning was not interested in personal gain, because he said clearly to ex-hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned out to be a government informant, that he believed the documents should be “in the public domain” and information “should be free.” Thus, suggestions he had visions of grandeur like those of Robert Hanssen just don’t wash.
Assange, who is fighting extradition to Sweden on sex assault charges, is the other key here. Is the U.S. government setting Manning up to go after Assange next? Strong evidence suggests that is where the military’s case is going. If so, would the U.S. government be willing to put the mainstream press that published the Manning-leaked documents on trial, too?
WikiLeaks has been massively damaged by the shutdown of financial access to donors. The U.S. managed that well, pressuring major banks and credit card companies to cut the leakers off. But whether Manning’s prosecution will lead to a blackout and prosecution of WikiLeaks remains to be seen. What had begun as an information revolution last year has become a war of attrition, it would seem, with the rebels on the run. Manning may be a martyr for our times, but what will become of the rebellion?
Foreign Policy: Will the U.S. Get on the Right Side of History?
Probably not. The direct U.S. involvement in the Libyan revolution and the killing of Moammar Gadhafi by NATO-backed rebels in October was a boon for foreign military intervention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already waded into the Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, pledging support to the network of opposition groups there. While thousands have reportedly perished at the hands of Assad’s military since the unrest began, it is wise to consider that some of the loudest voices behind an intervention are coming now from the same neoconservatives who promised that an Iraqi National Congress would be waiting in Iraq to take over the reins once the U.S. topped Saddam Hussein. That never happened. We should monitor the political motivations behind — and potential fallout from — what could be another U.S.-driven intervention in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been silent on the violent crackdown in Bahrain, having taken sides, apparently, with the Saudi patrons backing the Sunni ruling elite there. How long can the U.S. government ignore the torture and intimidation that has reportedly broken the will of the protesters there?
Better yet, how long will the U.S. government stand with other dictators in the region in order to thwart our “enemy” in Tehran?
Much of this seems to be coming to a head in 2012, with or without our eager participation. As for Iran, the official rhetoric about its alleged nuclear weapons program is escalating, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wildly charging in December that Tehran could have a nuclear bomb within the year.
Driving the tension are Republican presidential candidates who’ve spent the better part of the fall calling for de facto war against the regime. They might just get what they ask for.
The Drone Wars
Meanwhile, as the Republican cardboard cutouts accuse Obama of being weak on defense, the president has continued to pursue a drone war unequaled by any U.S. president or world leader in the history of mankind. His license: declared executive powers under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by Congress in 2002.
But in recent months, drones have drawn more media scrutiny, beginning with the September killing of American citizen and Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki then his 16-year-old son in a subsequent drone strike. More recently, the Pakistanis have blocked access to supply routes after a deadly drone attack against the Pakistani military on Nov. 26. The Washington Post finally raised some critical questions last week over the secrecy of the administration’s drone program, while pointing out that more than 2,250 people have been killed in the last three years by drones in Pakistan alone (a conservative estimate).
Any public awakening over the ugly truth regarding the impact of these drone wars (see this video for just a taste) will no doubt run up against the powerful interests of the military and the CIA, now run by David Petraeus, arguably the most influential — and political — man in the military since he left for the spy agency in September.
Drones fit nicely into the fresh talk by reformed COINdinistas about “fourth-generation warfare.” These weapons are a “cleaner” and more precise way to project American force and pursue narrow counterterrorism goals — or so say the apologists.
As headlines spread about the increased use of drones on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as unarmed (so far) drones being used by domestic law enforcement, Americans are starting to see the drone creep as, well, creepy. Meanwhile, smart military experts continue to question the long-term strategic benefits of picking off people from the sky. A broader debate is imminent but long past due. We’ll see how far this goes in 2012.
The 2012 Elections
If Ron Paul loses the primary and decides not to run as a third-party candidate, the issue of foreign policy will likely take its normal course, meaning that the Republicans will attempt to cast Obama as weak, lacking “leadership,” and prone to “appeasement” as he “fails” to protect America’s allies in the Middle East, mainly Israel. For this, the election will elicit more of the same kabuki drama as the 2004 and 2008 elections and will not be worth much of the ink that is written about it. The next several weeks will be taken up by horse-race predictions and results stemming from the clot of primary and caucus events this winter.
Watch for whether the Gingrich bubble finally pops and how much Paul is hurt by the resurfacing controversy over the content of his 1990s newsletters. As of Dec. 23, the latest poll for the Iowa state caucus had Paul with 28 percent of the vote, followed by Gingrich with 25 percent and Gov. Mitt Romney at 25 percent. The Iowa caucus is the first in the nation on Jan. 3, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10 and the South Carolina vote on Jan. 21 (full primary/caucus schedule here).
Of course, there will be a host of “important” Senate and House races in 2012, but I think as the past 10 years have demonstrated, with power shifting from Republicans to Democrats to Republicans again, there isn’t much light between the two. The system is broken, but it is also stacked against reform. So we brace for the empty hoopla, which will include two enormously expensive political bacchanals called the national conventions, before the inevitable relief of Nov. 7, 2012.
Supreme Court Decides … Your Privacy
2011 was certainly not a good year for personal privacy. Aside from continuing revelations about how Facebook, Google, and your so-called smart-phone providers are snatching information from your online browsing habits and selling it to the highest bidders, the government (and that includes law enforcement) is constantly finding new ways to monitor you using the very technology we tout as invaluable touchstones in the advancement of human civilization.
Take global positioning systems, or GPS. Word is, many of us can’t live without a GPS unit attached to our car dashboards. Turns out the police love them as much. By affixing them under the carriage of your car, Johnny Law will know where you’re going, too.
In what could be a seminal decision in privacy rights and curbs on post-9/11 police powers related to the Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether police have the right to install GPS trackers on a suspect’s car without a warrant. There is some hope for the power of the Constitution here: in November, justices invoked George Orwell’s 1984 in raising questions about the warrantless GPS tactics, a sign that the court is actually paying attention to the enormous implications of allowing the police to track U.S. citizens everywhere, without warrant or notice.
This won’t stop police from finding other ways to find you. As milblogger Michael Yon points out, Facebook allows people to track any one of their “contacts” via their iPhone. Coming full circle back to the creeping militarization of America: we know that the military is already using cellphones to pinpoint and target suspects in Afghanistan; just how long will it take for police (and potentially, thanks to the NDAA, military intelligence) to use similar tactics here? Are they doing it already?
Still, the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the police and GPS will be an important one, if only to throw up one more roadblock against this careening car of hyper-criminalization and intrusion.
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On a lighter note, I would like to extend a Happy New Year to all Antiwar.com staff and readers and thank you for your insightful comments and generous encouragements throughout the year. You help to inspire this column, and it is all the better for it. I will endeavor to keep up the pace on these and other issues of interest in the coming year!
Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.