Saturday, October 22, 2011

The New American Way of War

By: David Dayen Saturday October 22, 2011 9:22 am

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We don’t quite know how Moammar Gadhafi was killed. Photos and videos appear to show Gadhafi alive when he was found hiding in a drainage pipe by Libyan rebels, so the killing had to have taken place afterwards. He may have been shot shortly after capture, or he may have succumbed to previous wounds. The UN will investigate whether Gadhafi was executed, in violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions, after being taken into custody by Libyan forces. Eventually we’ll have a clear answer.

But what we do know is that Gadhafi was traveling in a convoy out of Sirte, shortly after the city had been captured by the rebels, when a NATO airstrike stopped the convoy cold. And we know that the NATO attack on the convoy included a US Predator drone. NATO has since tried to back off of this, because they know the implication, that they chased down and prevented the convoy from escaping, in yet another example of how the humanitarian intervention mission drifted into a hunt for Libya’s former leader. Multiple bombing runs on the Presidential palace already proved this, but even at the very end, it was NATO facilitating the execution of Gadhafi.

The involvement of the Predator drone means that drones played a role in all three of the recent foreign policy “successes” of the Obama Administration. A drone helped to stop the Gadhafi convoy in Libya; stealth drones were used in the raid on Osama bin Laden, as well as the surveillance of the Abbottabad compound; and of course, a drone strike killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. More recently, another drone killed Awlaki’s 16 year-old son. You can not talk about US foreign policy without noting the central reliance on deadly unmanned flying robots. Seventeen years ago the Predator drone flew its first mission; now it’s the key tool in the American arsenal.

It used to be that America measured foreign policy successes differently than merely with a body count. We could instead judge the foreign policy record of the Obama Administration on diplomatic successes. On that front, with the departure this week of the special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, every single envoy placed in diplomatic hotspots around the world has left, with their missions unfinished in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Sudan and North Korea. This change in personnel doesn’t necessarily mean that diplomacy has failed in all of these countries – in fact, there are meetings next week in Geneva with the North Koreans to try and restart negotiations on its nuclear program – but it means that there clearly haven’t been any breakthroughs.

We could measure foreign policy success by the end of military deployments abroad. And here, with the announcement of a withdrawal of military forces in Iraq, it is true that deployments will be cut in half from the beginning of the Obama Administration by the end of the year.

But that statistic needs some additional context. First, the Administration didn’t want a full withdrawal; they could not get the Iraqis to agree to an extended military presence with legal immunity for the soldiers that stayed. Josh Rogin avers that this was a bungled negotiation, though I would add that this is the second US President that the Iraqi leadership has outwitted and outlasted, getting them to agree to a resolution that they didn’t initially seek. I don’t know another country on Earth that has gotten the better of two consecutive US Presidents in this way. So maybe we should give some credit to the Iraqis for ending the war in Iraq.

In addition, there’s the massive State Department footprint that will be in Baghdad, Irbil and Basra for the foreseeable future, including up to 5,000 private military contractors providing security. That’s not so much a drawdown as a uniform change, and a potential international incident waiting to happen.

But it’s worth seeing this as a true end to something, and that’s the American way of war. In some sense, the Obama Administration has taken the Pentagon strategy of “transformation” put forth by Donald Rumsfeld to its logical conclusion. Rumsfeld sought a light footprint in warmaking, a small, agile force that could quickly move through regions with superior firepower. The innovation from Obama’s Administration has been to get rid of the footprint altogether. Instead of standing armies occupying foreign countries, the move is toward shadow wars, and unmanned flying robots, and special operations forces. That is the new American way of war. Here’s Charlie Pierce:

Beyond that, there is something very chilly and soi-disant about the way we’re waging wars these days. It is good that there were no American boots on the ground in Libya, but there were American airplanes and American ordinance. It is good that we’re a bit more modest about our role in NATO. (Whether there still needs to be a NATO is another question entirely.) But the president persisted in his short address today on drawing a distinction between the Libyan people, for whom our ordinance was protection, and the Libyan opposition forces, as though all our firepower was dedicated to the first (and more noble) task and had little or nothing to do with the second. The way we protected the civilians was by lining up our military might on one side of a civil war. It does us no good to pretend otherwise, or to make the absurd distinction between our humanitarian ends and the violence means with which we attained them. We had enough of “freedom bombs” with the last guy, thanks.

With two major and bloody exceptions, we fought our Cold War battles the way Rome did, through proxies at the edges of our “sphere of influence.” (One thing about the Cold War, it made for great turns of phrase. The Soviets had a “bloc.” We had a “sphere of influence.”) Now, we don’t even do that. Iraq and Afghanistan aside, we fight our wars by automation, hurling thunderbolts from beyond the horizon, like Jove. There’s something scarifying about that, especially when it’s aimed at an American citizen, and it kills his teenage son, and the people who threw the thunderbolts don’t even try to show us why these people had to die. For a long time, we had people who said that the reason we were sending the Army all over the world was because there wasn’t any draft. One of the most apt criticisms of the “war on terror” was that it was being conducted without engaging the entire country in the effort. Now, not only is the combat removed from the citizenry, it’s increasingly removed from soldiers. Some guy at a console in Kansas City is making war on Pakistan. That makes me nervous.

Maybe one of the reasons why Republicans are so petulant and reluctant to offer credit to this President is that he’s unlocked the magic box for how to continue the belligerence of American foreign policy without the downside of having to send someone’s son or daughter into hazardous combat. Instead of spending $3 trillion on the Bush wars, the military spent $1 billion in Libya. Instead of presiding over the deaths of 5,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, no American died in Libya (how many Libyan died I fear we’ll never know). Instead of having to do the tedious work of getting authorization from Congress to fight wars abroad, the Administration just barreled forward, relying on dubious legal theories about what constitutes “hostilities.” It was fitting that, the same week that the 8-month conflict in Libya was coming to an end, a federal judge quietly threw out a lawsuit from members of Congress challenging the intervention in Libya as unconstitutional.

This is the new American way of war. It is located in the executive branch, at the Pentagon, at the CIA, with new acronyms like JSOC and UAVs leading the way. Most Americans don’t know a whole lot about it. It’s a secretive shadow war fought in multiple areas all over the world. It’s fought with robot planes and covert operatives. It doesn’t have the burden of oversight or media spotlight or really anything, since it’s undeclared and excessively secretive.

I agree with Pierce and others that this should be troubling, even when, as in Libya, it’s wrapped up in a language of humanitarian responsibility to protect. Maybe this has always been an element of American warmaking. But now it seems like the primary policy, that we will respond to a perceived threat by either sending in a secret group of commandos to take out individuals, or raining bombs over them from the sky using a plane with no pilot.

It’s worth questioning how compatible this all is with democracy.
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Tags: Barack Obama, military, war machine, Libya, foreign policy, Moammar Gadhafi, diplomacy, Predator drones, CIA, covert operations