The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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April 27, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Banality and Accountability

If you were a prosecutor, would you have tried Robert Duvall but let Al Pacino go? In the growing recent debate about torture, heavily fueled by the Obama administration�s recent release of four legal memos, the only consensus position, at least on the side of those who want accountability, is that the consiglieres should be tried while the Mafia dons are let off.

It�s as if evil is to be punished more the more banal it is; neither the men and women actually brutalizing prisoners nor the men at the top who decided they wanted to torture prisoners are to be in the dock, just the lawyers who were told to come up with a legal justification of torture.

And, in fact, the memos are all about the banality of evil. You�ll all have your favorite parts; perhaps it is the idea of erecting cardboard walls and putting cervical collars on the prisoners to lessen the risk of permanent injury when their heads are slammed into said walls. Or the fact that waterboarding is to be done with saline solution, not pure water, to lessen the risk of hyponatremia if prisoners swallow too much.

Personally, if I had to pick, it would be in Steven Bradbury�s discussion of sleep deprivation (which he scrupulously notes is never done for more than 96 hours at a time). Prisoners subjected to sleep deprivation are also often put in adult diapers, but, as Bradbury says, �You have informed us that diapers are used solely for sanitary and health reasons and not in order to humiliate the detainee.�

After reading that, one feels like Seymour Hersh when he told audiences that he hoped the Bush administration was lying about WMD, because the alternative, that they were that far out of touch with reality, was scarier. I hope Bradbury and his colleagues were smirking, even sadistically, as they wrote that; the alternative is that they were utterly incapable of empathy with the prisoners.

While the argument of the anti-accountability forces that giving one�s honest legal opinion should not be criminalized is correct, this is not all that lawyers do. It is not exactly unknown for lawyers representing criminals � gangsters, corporations, states � to spend their effort strategizing on how to break the law and construct legal arguments to get away with it. Did Bradbury really think that, as he argued, signing the Convention against Torture placed no new obligations on U.S. conduct than those in the Constitution? In any case, legal culpability of the lawyers is for a court to decide.

Obviously, Bybee, Yoo, Bradbury, and others should be investigated; in the process, it shouldn�t be difficult to turn up evidence linking them to Rumsfeld, Cheney, and, dare I say it, Bush. In fact, I�d be happy to offer some of the consiglieres immunity if they squeal on their dons.

Barack Obama has, characteristically, tried to �put this all behind us� and forgive and forget, but he has also, even more characteristically, waffled. After first saying there would be no prosecutions, someone reminded him that traditionally these decisions are the Attorney General�s prerogative, at which point he backtracked.

Currently, what�s undubtedly on his mind is that any blanket refusal to investigate will invigorate international efforts at accountability. While the Spanish attempt to indict six Bush administration lawyers (including Douglas Feith, who was not actually involved) seems dead, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Torture Manfred Nowak recently made headlines when he said that the Convention against Torture requires that there be an investigation.

Although the United States is of course not a party to the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, it can be argued that these cases are within the ICC�s jurisdiction � and this jurisdiction applies precisely when a state�s legal system is found to be unwilling or unable to provide accountability.

While it is worth noting that one of the primary fears of Bush administration officials while they were committing their various crimes was that they might someday be brought to trial, the truth is that Obama is not going to allow international jurisdiction over American officials. But he has been selling himself, and has been sold, as the new internationalist, the anti-Bush, the man who has respect for international law and the international community. The last thing he wants is a bruising political fight in which he repeatedly asserts American sovereignty and legal exceptionalism. If there is too much noise about this, he may just cave and open an investigation himself.

There is a real political opening here for those who are looking for something to do.
Posted at 10:56 am.

April 20, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Tortured Moralizing about Torture

The Obama administration�s recent release of four Bush-era torture memos has unleashed a new flood of outraged commentary and denunciations of their inherent vileness in the media � primarily in the Democratic partisan media.

I feel torn between being glad that the crimes of the Bush administration are getting renewed attention, with even a few calls for accountability, and irritation at what our moral commentariat choose to focus on and why, but the irritation is winning out.

To start with, all these documents do is add a little detail to what has been known for years. The renewed calls to impeach Jay Bybee, who sits on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, are well and good, but the original Bybee torture memo has been out in the public for many years. The new documents add some gruesome details about the various practices authorized � such as the fact that waterboarding was used 266 times on Khalid Shaikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah, but it is still true that the practices authorized fall far short of what was actually done to detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the past three years or so, the two issues that have received by far the most attention of the condemnatory kind are waterboarding and shutting down Guantanamo. According to the CIA and to all documents actually released, waterboarding was done on three people, including KSM, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (whose waterboarded testimony anchored the 9/11 Commission report, which at the time occasioned hardly any comment). And treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, while atrocious, has been for many years much superior to treatment of detainees first at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in Iraq and all along at Bagram and other sites in Afghanistan.

As of early 2005, the Associated Press had already found that at least 108 people had died in American custody; accountability for those deaths has remained virtually nonexistent, as has public curiosity about whether those numbers continue to mount. There seems also to be no curiosity about how many people have died because of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or how many of those were killed by
Americans. Some have tabulated the number of civilians killed in reported airstrikes in Afghanistan, but this gets hardly any attention.

Recently, the Times actually ran a short article speculating on the reason that the ongoing Predator drone attacks in Pakistan are gleefully accepted, while the torture memos have caused �years of recriminations, calls for prosecution and national soul-searching.�

Of course, the premise is nonsense; there is no indication that �the nation� is soul-searching; it�s merely a portion of the commentariat.

The answer the article attempts to pose, that torture is somehow more intimate and immediate and that it is easier to imagine it used on oneself is not terribly plausible. This is true in a general sense, and the anti-torture outcries of the early 1980�s were so intense in part for this reason � then, the tortured included intellectuals, writers, and journalists.

This time around, the top levels of our journalistic class are thoroughly insulated from the vicissitudes of life and quite unable to put themselves in the shoes of an Afghan taxi driver. Even the various bloggers who have taken up the cause do not seem to be acting out of any sort of personal identification/empathic response.

So what are the reasons behind it? First, there is the precondition that liberals have completely accepted their numerous arguments that torture is of no use, since it only elicits false confessions. This happens to be nonsense, as anyone who watches the Battle of Algiers could figure out, but they believe it nonetheless. Drone attacks and bombing of Afghan villages, on the other hand, might be advancing important goals in those countries � whatever the hell those goals are.

Given this precondition, torture became several years ago a convenient issue for partisan differentiation and alignment. It is true that a great deal of commentary had to come out before Democratic politicians found the grit to say anything meaningful about it, but partisan Bush-hating had already become intense.

Equally important is the fact that opposing torture is a cheap way to recapture one�s own sense of smug morality. Even more than the Iraq war, it has been externalized and associated with a handful of actors � not even, in general, the legions of soldiers who abused and tortured people in Iraq, or the torturers themselves, or the on-the-ground CIA operatives, but simply a few Bush administration operatives. It is easy to deal with, while our role in the destruction of one country and the ongoing chaos in another, is not.

Posted at 10:59 am.

April 13, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Roots of Somali Piracy

On the surface, the recent contretemps with Somali pirates is a nice little morality play. It showcases the bravery of Captain Richard Phillips, who seized the opportunity to escape, the legendary sharpshooting skills of Navy snipers, and the resolution of a new president who wants to engage the world but is no one�s patsy. Three pirates were killed, but, after all, this is the end you ought to expect if you go into the business. The fourth pirate, who surrendered, may actually not end up in Guantanamo or in the secret CIA prisons now reportedly closed.

There are already news articles hailing Obama�s first military victory and contrasting it with Bill Clinton�s initial failure at landing troops in Haiti. There�s even a noxious op-ed by Robert Kaplan calling for a global sea-based counterinsurgency to complement our wonderfully successful land-based efforts.

It�s easy enough to stick to that story if you know nothing about history or if you get the sort of historical background common in newspaper coverage � bad as Black Hawk Down was, sometimes even a Hollywood movie gives a more realistic sense of U.S. military engagements than the New York Times does.

So here�s a brief recap. Throughout the 1980�s, the United States backed the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, sending him $600 million worth of arms in return for obtaining the right to build military bases (and incidentally for oil concessions for Chevron and other American oil companies). After Siad Barre fell, and with the end of the Cold War, at least in the short-term calculus of the times, Somalia fell in importance to the United States and it was ignored while we pursued important business in Iraq.

Then in 1992, there was a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by the fact that clan violence was often keeping humanitarian aid from getting to the people who needed it most. George Bush decided to invade Somalia and we were treated to a spate of stories about how much we had helped the Somalis.

In truth, the motivations for the U.S. invasion are unclear. What can be established is that it occurred well after the height of the crisis, as conditions were improving. Part of the strategy to attempt to restore order in Somalia involved attempts to create and prop up a central state in a country where authority had completely fragmented; incidentally, such a state would have been needed to enforce existing agreements with the U.S. military and oil companies. No such state was created, but existing UN efforts to work with the clan-based system of authority to damp down the violence and allow for aid to get through were completely disrupted by the Americans� militaristic approach.

You�d never get a sense from the news coverage that the main activity of the troops in Somalia was killing Somalis. Black Hawk Down at least points out that over 1000 Somalis were killed in the Mogadishu firefight; according to a 1995 article in Foreign Policy, the CIA estimated that we killed 7-10,000 Somalis.

Under Clinton, the strategy morphed first into a manhunt for Mohammed Farah Aidid, the next in a long line of Middle Eastern and North African Hitlers, followed by a precipitous withdrawal.

We ignored Somalia again until after 9/11, but operations in North Africa have been a significant part of the �global war on terror.� These include aerial bombings of �high-value targets� and numerous shadowy operations involving Special Forces. In 2006, a radical fundamentalist group called the Islamic Courts Union captured Mogadishu; no doubt they were helped in their quest to win support by the fact that the United States made it very clear that they considered the ICU to be our enemies.

In late 2006, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia, with the full backing of the United States, and forces from this 2/3 Christian nation occupied the almost entirely Muslim country. Oddly enough, an anti-occupation insurgency grew up and was repressed. Well over 10,000 civilians were killed before Ethiopia finally withdrew two years later. Don�t worry, though; this kind of thing won�t happen again, because we have renamed the global war on terror.

Somali pirates are always good for a joke on the Daily Show, but across the board there is virtually no acknowledgment of the U.S. role in fostering the anarchy and violence in Somalia, let alone of any responsibility we might have to the country. This is, of course, hardly surprising; just as with Vietnam or Iraq, we are the victims. Somehow, we always manage to be victimized in somebody else�s country.

Posted at 10:35 am.

April 6, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- American Exceptionalism, Obama-Style

Remember back when Barack Obama�s ascension was supposed to revolutionize America�s relations with the rest of the world?

I was never exactly clear on either the reasoning behind this claim or the implicit conception of American relations with the world that it embodied. There was something about him being black, being cosmopolitan, not being a stumbling, bumbling idiot, not employing people who derived pleasure from being pointlessly abrasive, and maybe even being able to admit that America was wrong now and then.

What this was supposed to lead to, I really can�t recall. The people who desperately believed in this idea seemingly mostly wanted a model where the United States gets its traditional allies to help it in achieve its predetermined aims and talks to its traditional enemies to get them to acquiesce to its predetermined conditions.

This is very much like what have always been the official conceptions of American �diplomacy.� It�s true that the Bush administration had a few aberrations. In 2001, it actually rejected the aid of NATO in the Afghanistan war, and, throughout its first term, its policy toward North Korea was to talk very tough and do nothing. But Bush�s second term, though still marred by silly refusals to communicate directly with the Iranian government, was actually mostly a return to business as usual.

What are we seeing early in Obama�s term? There has been no thaw with Iran and minimal change in policy. The Bush administration, after all, spent years pursuing U.N. sanctions on Iran. Obama has recently called for U.N. sanctions on North Korea, a measure likely to have no discernible effect on North Korea�s isolated, insular, and dysfunctional government.

What about changes in the all-important �tone� of official U.S. pronouncements? Certainly, there have been some; Obama, after all, is an adult.

But the tenor of things to come was shown early when he chose to hector the Europeans for insufficient support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, a note the Bush administration had already been sounding for several years.

In his remarks last week at a Town Hall in Strasbourg, speaking about the financial crisis, he did make a lukewarm admission of blame, saying the United States �shares blame for what has happened.� While making sure to point out that there is �plenty of blame to go around,� he quickly went on to add, �every nation bears responsibility for what lies ahead.�

If there is anything other than the war on Iraq for which the United States should bear undisputed blame, it�s the financial crisis. It�s the United States which developed the anything-goes financial culture that constantly creates instruments designed keep investment banks one step ahead of regulations as they maximize extremely short-term profit and it is the United States that has single-mindedly pushed financialization on the rest of the world in the past 20 years through every persuasive and semi-coercive means it has in its arsenal.

And yet the world�s takeaway is supposed to be that �America is changing, but it cannot be America alone that changes� � i.e., we are still the leader we always were, now somehow deserving credit for being the first to address the problem we created.

On Saturday, a reporter asked Obama whether he believed in American exceptionalism, and his answer was, �I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.� He then went on to a paean to our great democratic values and our �unmatched military� and asserting our �continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity.�

A much cleverer answer than Bush could have given. We�re supposed to ignore the fact that Greek exceptionalism has to do with what it accomplished 2500 years ago, that British exceptionalism is now a mere epiphenomenon of the American brand, and that, in general, high levels of nationalist feeling in most countries rarely translate into a feeling of an extraordinary mission to tell other countries what to do and concentrate on the fact that Obama recognizes the feeling is subjective and not a truth revealed by God when he caused his son to be born American.

After the United States has totally wrecked one country, is making things go from bad to worse in another, and has helped usher in a global recession through mindlessly short-sighted games, this is the best we can get? America has apparently become invulnerable to moral learning; though almost nobody sees this here, it is not lost on the rest of the world.

Posted at 10:51 am.
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