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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May 25, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Guantanamo and American Culture

At first glance, the debate over the fate of detainees if or when the prison at Guantanamo Bay is shut down, is simply a meaningless theatre of the absurd.

After all, one can see politicians on both sides of the aisle, opinion leaders, and cable news talking heads who have obviously watched too many summertime blockbuster movies and seem to believe that these men have superpowers which would enable them to magically escape from supermax prisons in the United States and wreak death and destruction across the country. They have ample grassroots support for this, coming from a combination of the most idiotically reflexive “not in my backyard” mentality and a perception from the right wing that there is potential for political gain here and that their shock troops should be thrown into the battle.

There are voices of sanity. When this whole issue first came up months ago, liberal bloggers were out in front, as they often are, explaining that closing the prison did not mean letting the detainees go, a misrepresentation the right wing has been very fond of, that domestic supermax prisons would be just as secure as Guantanamo, that they couldn’t corrupt their naïve, idealistic fellow inmates because they would be on 23-hour lockdown.

Eventually, some Democratic politicians screwed up the courage to repeat the obvious. While conservatives like Max Baucus and Ben Nelson have been happy to repeat the nonsense of Republicans, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin have all bucked the NIMBY trend; king of the influence-peddlers John Murtha happily followed, salivating at the thought of federal funding to build a supermax in his district.

Even so, the fact that this has become an issue would be shocking, if we were not all so inured to this kind of nonsense by now. After all, this controversy has nothing on the “War on Christmas.”

On more reflection however, I think that the controversy is important, because it illuminates some of the most detestable things about American culture.

One, of course, is the extreme stupidity of so many of our political debates. This is most noticeable on the Republican side, where there is a self-sustaining complex of utterly cynical self-serving ideologues, profoundly ignorant politicians, and a large public constituency that loves the idea of going through life without a new thought ever violating their minds. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad here that conservative intellectuals – those few that have any principles – are deserting in droves.

But the right has no monopoly on stupidity. Witness the main argument the liberals give for closing Guantanamo – that it makes us less safe because it creates more terrorists. Of course, it is true that every one of the loud, flashy crimes that we committed early in the “war on terror” contributed to the atmosphere of resentment and anger that is key to jihadist recruiting. Among them, let’s not forget the invasion of Iraq or the first assault on Fallujah. In Iraq itself, that last had more of an effect on the population than the Abu Ghraib torture photos.

On the other hand, Americans seem to be completely unaware of the level and nature of coverage of these crimes in the Arab world. People see pictures of civilians killed by drone strikes, testimony from former detainees, stories about treatment of prisoners in Bagram, all the things that are so easily forgettable here. Closing the prison at Guantanamo may make some small statement, but potential jihadis know what a minuscule piece of the whole picture it is; oddly enough, their opinions are not formed by the highly constrained debates so popular in the United States.

Even more fundamentally, though, the debate epitomizes the deeply American value of reflexive certainty that we should never even risk paying a price for any of the crimes we commit. The real issue over detainees is not the fate of those who are convicted of terrorist acts, but that of those who cannot be convicted.

Instead of patting ourselves on the back for being willing to entomb them in living death on the U.S. mainland, we need to address our actual obligations. Generally, we release prisoners who we think are guilty but whom we cannot convict. Apparently, that is unthinkable in this case, even though undoubtedly many of them are innocent and others “guilty” only of attacking foreign troops occupying their country.

Barack Obama wants to institutionalize the war on terror as a permanent part of our politics by articulating a policy of preventive detention; the alternative is to let go of our reflexive desire to smash anyone who might conceivably pose a threat and attempt to offer amends. It might even make us safer in the long run.

Posted at 11:!5 am.

May 18, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Obama's War

This is now Barack Obama's war. The juxtaposition last week of four key decisions by the Obama administration marked the passing of the torch in the "war on terror" more fundamentally than Election Day or Inauguration Day.

One of those, as I wrote about in my last commentary, was the Pakistani offensive in Swat, a product of a major increase in U.S. pressure to implement a full-on militaristic solution to their insurgent problem. As was Cambodia with the Vietnam War, this is a "sideshow" in which havoc is wreaked in one country merely to disrupt its use as an external haven for an insurgency in another.

A second was the firing of Afghanistan commander David McKiernan and his replacement with Gen. Stanley McChrystal from Special Operations. The reason given for this move, so drastic for the rarefied and unaccountable world of the military high command, is that McKiernan just doesn't get counterinsurgency, and remains fixed in a conventional war mindset. I'm not quite sure what this means in the context of Afghanistan, where very few tank battles are being fought and where a major component of what they're calling "counterinsurgency" is rather conventional-seeming air-strikes, but it is clear that Special Ops has always had much more of an emphasis on on-the-ground throat-slitting than other military branches. McChrystal is the guy on whose watch the lies about Pat Tillman were promulgated and has also been associated with serious detainee abuse.

The third is the decision to resurrect Bush's military commissions and resume trials of "war on terror" detainees. They will be "kinder and gentler," with innovations like a ban on information obtained through what they call "coercive interrogation" and what everybody with sense calls "torture." This is a great step for civilization, although it must be noted that even the Inquisition would not use evidence obtained through torture at trial. If a prisoner confessed guilt under torture, he had to repeat that confession in the courtroom.

The fourth is the decision to dispense with the American public's and the world's right to know about torture already committed. Specifically, to shut down the court-ordered release of more photographs from Abu Ghraib. It is silly to say that everything always comes out; in five years, these photographs and, more important, the videos, have not. The administration's argument for this decision, accepted by most liberal critics of the "war on terror," is that exposing U.S. crimes will cause problems in its ongoing military campaigns. This is precisely the reasoning used by every repressive regime in such a situation.

Overall, this still doesn't look much like Bush's first term, with its over-the-top rhetorical excess and panicked post-9/11 lashing out, but it looks awfully similar to the second term. All in all, a very unpleasant picture especially for the man who was going to reinvent America's role in the world.

How did we get to this point from the intoxicating hopemongering of a year ago? The entire story is too long and complicated to get into, but it's been clear since about last June that the chance of the Obama administration being anything but a very conventional American administration on foreign policy was almost nil.

Much of what happens is familiar and obvious. New presidential contenders who, like Obama and like Bill Clinton before him, know nothing about foreign policy, need to "learn" about it, and the only people to "teach" them are the very same blinkered small-minded and reflexive people who have made previous policies and been made by them.

This process seems to have impacted Obama particularly strongly, in part because he feels so beholden to the military high command. Like them, he betrays not the slightest breath of originality or dissidence in his analysis of the "war on terror." There is still a great deal of dissent even within national security circles on what is sensible to do; Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, a key adviser of Petraeus, even wrote an op-ed in the Times criticizing the almost universally-praised drone strikes in Pakistan. But, just like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the economic crisis, even people like this are not being listened to by the new administration.

The Obama administration is characterized by a relentless self-lobotomization, mostly invisible because it pales in contrast to the self-lobotimization of the Republican Party. At this juncture, the stimulation of thought is an inherently revolutionary act.

Posted at 11:30 am.

May 11, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi

Barack Obama has just had his first foreign policy triumph. And, as always, 500,000 poor people, victimized by all sides in what Sasha Baron-Cohen correctly called our “war of terror,” will pay the price.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, even before the major Pakistani offensive against the Taliban in Swat, previous battles had left 555,000 people displaced (this is the number registered by the UNHCR; the total number is likely larger). Add to that at least 360,000 already because of this latest assault, and perhaps 500,000 by the time it’s done.

Make no mistake, this is a result of substantial U.S. pressure, a higher level than any brought to bear on Pakistan since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Obama has fully completed the transition from offering a new vision of America’s role in the world to the traditional mode of hard-nosed back-room arm-twisting in pursuit of questionable goals that are not linked to any coherent strategy.

Of course, there are other reasons why the Pakistani government might want to engage in this attack and why decent people might even support it. The neo-Taliban considerably overstepped the bounds of their face-saving agreement with the government regarding the Swat Valley and they apparently shocked the conscience of the country by engaging in the sorts of acts they and their predecessors have been famous for ever since the initial takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990’s.

Seemingly, many of the refugees blame the Taliban more than any other force for what has happened to them, and this is not surprising. The problem, of course, is that they were put in this position in the first place.

And that problem owes entirely to the dynamics unleashed by the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad of the 1980's and more recently to everything that has come in the wake of the 2001 war. Contrary to the popular image among American liberals, that Pakistan has just sat on its hands while the neo-Taliban emerged, in fact, under pressure from the United States, the Pakistani military has engaged in numerous major offensives, until recently primarily in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – unfortunately.

Thousands were killed on both sides, hundreds of thousands displaced, and through the whole process, various Islamic extremist groups gained greater and greater control of various localities. This is the dynamic of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Although violence may eventually beat an insurgency -- there is no iron-clad rule that says it is always "counterproductive" -- in the initial phase it almost always makes things worse, unless the insurgency was extremely weak and had very poor ties to the population.

Oddly, the same bien pensants who claim to have become so aware that violence can cause more problems than it solves with regard to Iraq continue to view Afghanistan to some extent and Pakistan almost completely as special magical areas in which military violence will solve the problem of insurgency unproblematically.

Watching the commentary emerge over the past week or so would have been comical if it were not so tragic. And if it weren't such stale material.

The preternaturally banal Fareed Zakaria goes on the Daily Show to relate the conventional wisdom, which is his main role in life. We gave $10 billion in military aid to Pakistan, but we were such naive, virtuous innocents, we accepted their assurances that the money would be spent on counterinsurgency, not on high-tech weapons systems; no mention of the fact that, until Robert Gates started making waves a few months back, we'd been doing exactly the same with our military spending.

We need to pressure Pakistan to start fighting the insurgents like we're doing in Afghanistan; no mention of the fact that our counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been a colossal failure.

David Gregory has Zardari and Karzai on Meet the Press to hector them in the grand old tradition of American media and third world heads of state; no acknowledgment that we're the ones who have consistently screwed up not just our foreign policy but their countries.

Barack Obama adds the piece de resistance; in grand Bushian style, he holds a press availability, with the two men as background props; near the end, he praises them by saying that they "fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face." Really? Somehow, by living there and seeing their countries in disarray they are able to appreciate the threat almost as well as people living in a bubble in Washington DC?

The unthinking arrogance, the casual playing with other people's lives, the reflexive resort to violence to solve our problems; it's all back. The king is dead; long live the king.

Posted at 11:48 am.

May 5, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

While our attention is relentlessly focused elsewhere, Iraq has temporarily regained its position as the suicide bombing capital of the world. Apparently, it is not quite the bastion of peace, freedom, and light we might have thought; in April, over 300 people, almost all Shi'a, were killed in sensational mass-casualty suicide bombings, including over 160 in one two-day stretch that was reminiscent of 2005 or 2006.

Hillary Clinton's immediate statement that these bombings didn't mean anything, that they were a sign that al Qaeda in Iraq is weak and on the run, is a textbook example of the stopped watch that sometimes tells the correct time. Identical to every Bush administration statement every time anything happened in Iraq, statements like hers carry no information content whatsoever.

I think, however, in this case she is right. These do not signal a significant resurgence of Sunni militant activity in Iraq or a full-scale shattering of the tenuous calm that has gripped the country. In part, they may be a response to the Iraqi government's recent announcement that they captured AQI's supposed chief of operations, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

They are also enabled in part by the fact that the Iraqi government has been going after some of their natural predators. The Mahdi Army has been essentially disbanded, except supposedly for a hard core of fighters around Sadr.

More interesting, the Sahwa, the formerly 100,000-strong force of tribal Sunnis and ex-insurgents assembled by the United States to destroy the insurgency, is in trouble. In Anbar, they won the January elections and have formed the provincial government, but in general they have not fared well.

They have been essentially abandoned by their American sponsors to the tender mercies of the Shi'a-dominated government. Promises to integrate a significant portion of them into the Iraqi army have gone largely unimplemented. In an important article about them, Nir Rosen concludes that the Sunnis have lost the civil war and that the Sahwa has no chance of rekindling it; he also hints that from the beginning the Americans intended to let their allies be imprisoned once the job at hand -- the destruction of the insurgency -- was done.

This is not surprising in a certain sense; the United States has a very poor record of standing by the various tools that it uses, not least in Iraq.

In another sense, it ought to be. For years, I have noted with surprise the almost total lack of any coherent planning by the United States in Iraq to serve any interests at all, beyond the narrow one of defeating whichever enemies happen to be shooting at its forces -- and with considerably less surprise the inability of much of the left to alter its consistent analysis of overarching American plans for geopolitical domination.

An elementary lesson in the calculus of power: the Sahwa was more than a way to destroy the insurgency, it was a significant political foothold for the United States. Given the overwhelming political weakness of the U.S. position in Iraq, the logical thing to do would have been to hang on to it, keep it a coherent force, continue to pay its monthly salaries from U.S. coffers. Instead, for over a year now the United States has been lowballing them, trying to get the Iraqi government to pay for them, trying to get some integrated into the Iraqi army, and rather explicitly talking about turning most of them into garbage collectors.

If political domination of or at least strong political influence over Iraq was one of the key goals of the invasion, why would you throw away such a valuable asset, as the United States has done?

In truth, for some years now U.S. policymakers have been unable to articulate coherent interests in Iraq, beyond the obvious and reflexive one of not being beaten and leaving the field completely open to forces that are not well-disposed to us.

This fact is also in part why there is no talk about altering the withdrawal schedule despite the violence; the other reason, of course, is Afghanistan, which, says the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, "has been an 'economy-of-force' operation for far too long."

It is precisely when conceptions of interests are in such flux that new ways of thinking can most easily be introduced. So far, the only "new" way of thinking on foreign policy that has gotten a wide hearing has been to go back to pre-Bush business as usual -- but there is still an opening for other ideas.

Posted at 10:26 am.
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