As in many cities around the country, Black Lives Matter held a demonstration in Dallas to protest the police shootings of two more black men, Alton Sterling of Louisiana and Philando Castile of Minnesota. During the demonstration, Micah Xavier Johnson, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, mounted his own personal, deadly protest by shooting police officers guarding the nonviolent rally. Five officers were killed and seven wounded.
After negotiating for some time with Johnson, who was holed up in a community college parking garage, police sent in a robot armed with explosives and killed him. Dallas police chief David Brown said, “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the subject was,” adding, “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
The legal question is whether the officers reasonably believed Johnson posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to them at the time they deployed the robot to kill him.
Johnson was apparently isolated in the garage, posing no immediate threat. If the officers could attach explosives to the robot, they could have affixed a tear gas canister to the robot instead, to force Johnson out of the garage. Indeed, police in Albuquerque used a robot in 2014 to “deploy chemical munitions,” which compelled the surrender of an armed suspect barricaded in a motel room.
But the Dallas police chose to execute Johnson with their killer robot. This was an unlawful use of force and a violation of due process.
The right to due process is a bedrock guarantee, not just in the U.S. Constitution, but also in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty we have ratified, making it part of our domestic law. Due process means arrest and fair trial. It is what separates democracies from dictatorships, in which the executive acts as judge, jury and executioner.
During the standoff, Johnson reportedly told police there were “bombs all over” downtown Dallas. The police didn’t know if that was true. In order to protect the public, they could have interrogated him about the location of the bombs after getting him out of the garage with tear gas.
Apprehension and interrogation are recommended in a 2013 study conducted by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force. The study was cited in “The Drone Papers,” leaked to The Intercept by an anonymous whistleblower who was a member of the intelligence community. It concluded, “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material” and recommended capture and interrogation rather than killing in aerial drone strikes.
The Obama administration currently uses unmanned armed drones to kill people in seven countries, effectively denying them due process.
There is a slippery slope from police use of armed robots to domestic use of armed drones. The Dallas police department’s robot was apparently manufactured by Northrup Grumman, the same company that makes the Global Hawk drones, used for surveillance in Obama’s drone program.
More than half the U.S.-Mexico border is patrolled with surveillance drones. Customs and Border Protection is considering arming them with “non-lethal” weapons. That could include rubber bullets, which can put out an eye.
The killing of Johnson is evidently the first time domestic law enforcement has utilized an armed robot to kill a suspect. It will not be the last. Police departments are becoming increasingly militarized, using assault weapons, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and ear-splitting sirens known as LRADs. Much of this equipment is purchased from the Pentagon at a significant discount.
But the answer to our national epidemic of racist police killings is not to further militarize law enforcement. We must completely rethink and restructure policing. That means requiring advanced degrees for police officers, intensive screening for racism, and rigorous training in how to handle cross-racial situations. It means moving toward community-based policing and citizens police-review boards with independent authority. And it means coming to grips with the pernicious racism that permeates our society.
Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She writes, speaks and does media about human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Her most recent book is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Follow her on Twitter.
Elizabeth Richard, 65, seems interested to operate in Lebanon, where she commenced her missions last week. And she, according to the video introducing her at the US embassy, is “interested to get introduced to Lebanon’s natural and cultural heritage (in the video’s background, there are scenes showing the cedars, the Bay Rock and women stuffing vine leaves, edited in a bad and unrefined manner.) The new American ambassador, who visited the “land of cedars” in 2007 under an American initiative to train Internal Security Forces and arm them, seems assertive in her first message to the Lebanese people: “As Lebanon works to save its security and build the strong government’s institutions (…) the American people will stay by your side.” It was a nice diplomatic speech that covers unplanned intentions of the new ambassador, especially regarding her concept of “saving security” and “the state’s strong institutions.” Richard was clearer in her attestation at the congress after she was nominated for the post months ago. Thereat, the specialized in law announced her actual agenda, classifying the “main” problems in Lebanon; all what the Lebanese are suffering from currently in economics, security and politics is because of one single thing: the resistance.
In economics, Richard uncovered a magic equation to deal with the crisis in Lebanon, saying: “our target is to dismantle Hezbollah’s international financial network and help the Lebanese institutions and the Lebanese people, which will contribute directly to activating the economic prosperity in Lebanon.” How would targeting the international funding for resistance lead to refreshing the country’s economy?! Richard didn’t explain this in her testimony; she was not asked to do so in her country, neither the Lebanese government, nor diplomats moved to hold accountable a diplomat who publicly announced that she is going to work from inside Lebanon to fight one of the Lebanese parties that is represented in the parliament and participating in the government! Nobody even dared to demand explanation of the ambassador’s words. Richard, as if she is holding everything in her hands, with the old American unashamed boldness, said she will work hard “not to let Hezbollah break through the Lebanese banking sector” because this is “the interest of Lebanon and the United States.” The new ambassador raised her wand in front of the Lebanese state before she arrived at the host country, yet none of the officials’ sovereignty was touched.
On the security level, Richard had her own philosophy as well. Of course, “Israel” was absent from her speech regarding the security threats Lebanon is subject to, yet ISIL and al-Nusra threats were present. However, the ambassador seems assured in threatening the two organizations that were brought by al-Qaeda. She is convinced that “partnership between the United States and the Lebanese Security Forces, through the generous Congress support, played a decisive role in saving Lebanon’s security facing such threats.” Therefore, there is no fear on the Lebanese people from ISIL and al-Nusra, so what is the first threat Lebanon is subject to according to Richard? The answer is: Hezbollah. “Hezbollah’s activities in Syria create serious security threats in Lebanon,” the ambassador said as she vowed to support the Lebanese army since it is “the only legitimate protector of Lebanon.”
The third “main problem” the Lebanese are suffering from, as Richard identified, is the political void and decrying Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty, which she will also work on solving, this time in cooperation with “the voices calling for moderation and progress.” Against whom? Against “Hezbollah that is still interfering in Syria without the Lebanese consent,” Richard explains. The new ambassador’s swaggering made her talk on behalf of the Lebanese people, without the need to use numeric evidences, even if fabricated, to verify her announcement on the Lebanese people’s accepting or rejecting Hezbollah’s interference in Syria. The conclusion, as Richard informed the congressmen: Hezbollah went to Syria despite the will of most of the Lebanese, which decries Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
Usually, western diplomats complain that they couldn’t understand the happenings in Lebanon, and complain about its complicated social structure, economic system and political scene. However, it seems that Elizabeth Richard doesn’t suffer from any of this. Her vision is clear, and so is her single goal: to target the Lebanese resistance through its party, people and money using every possible means.
In her latest post before being appointed to custodianship on the Lebanese people, Richard was the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. In her testimony at the congress in July 2015, she boasted the State Department’s achievements; counting the projects she supervised, such as: the initiative to qualify and develop industrial cities, creating job opportunities, activating exportation in Egypt, Jordan and “Israel”, the General Motors agreement to provide Egypt with huge amounts of electric energy, qualifying the railways in Algeria, buying tons of Iraqi rice, encouraging investments in the Gulf countries, supporting the youth initiatives and medical cooperation with “Israel” and the Arab Emirates… Most of the Middle Eastern and North African countries were present, yet Lebanon was absent from the achievements of Richard and her department last year, and now she comes to the weakest country in the region, having in her pocket a single (non-developmental) political project, promises of armament… and a raised wand!
Nothing exposes the fraud of so-called “peace candidate” Barack Obama more than his handling of the illegal government propaganda campaign and eventual war on Iraq. As the UK reads and debates the Chilcot report investigating the Blair government’s role in lying that country into the war, there is no notice in the US that Obama announced before taking office in late 2008 there would be no similar investigation in the US.
It was of course George Bush and his neocons from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) gang that seized on the September 11, 2001 attacks to manipulate events into an opportunity to wage offensive war on Iraq. And it was the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, led by Clinton, Kerry, Biden et. al., who provided the votes a year after 9/11 that green-lighted the war.
We can know because of a rather small number of journalists including this writer the extent and depth of the massive propaganda campaign, coordinated with and exploiting a willing corporate news media, that greased the skids for the war. I co-authored books in 2003 and 2006 summarizing what was known at the time, and in 2008 David Barstow released his mind-blowing and Pulitzer winning investigation of the Pentagon Pundits program that turned the major TV networks, beginning in 2002, into third party advocates for Cheney and Rumsfeld, through puppetry using retired military analysts who were fed and regurgitated the Bush talking points.
But the overwhelming majority of Americans never received this information and are still awash in the continuing propaganda campaign. The last time I looked at a poll most Americans were so duped by the bipartisan and major media propaganda that a majority still believe the non-existant Weapons of Mass Destruction were found.
Obama of course won election to the White House in 2008 by beating Hillary Clinton over the head, and over and over and over, because she voted for war. Obama had the good fortune to still be stuck in state politics in Illinois, not even in the Congress, when Hillary voted for war in 2002. Who knows how he would have voted had he actually been there, but he was never put to that test.
I have written previously about how beginning in 2006 the Democrats progressive front group MoveOn, who had the money and PR to position themselves as the leading antiwar organization, worked with Nancy Pelosi to co-opt the movement into a campaign vehicle for the party, making sure the war was funded all the while Bush was in office, and using it like a gift to attack Republicans in 06 and 08.
In the pathetic giddiness that overtook progressives after Obama’s election, there was little notice given to his announcement that there would be no investigation of how America was led to and lied into war, that page would be turned and we would move forward. After all, the war was a bipartisan venture, and his soon to be cabinet members Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, and future Secretary of State Kerry were all pro-war culprits.
In late 2011, Obama pulled a George Bush type PR stunt, and declared the Iraq war had ended, welcoming home the troops. That news story now reads like the front page of The Onion.
So no Chilcot type investigation for America, the source of the war. Thirteen years after the launch of the illegal, first-strike offensive attack that created ISIS and has killed and displaced millions, some are asking why not. Blame Obama the peace poser and his pro-war Democrats. American Exceptionalism strikes again.
The leaders of America’s towns and cities issued a resolution warning the Obama administration and NATO that continued anti-Russian provocations place humanity at greater risk of nuclear annihilation.
The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), the official non-partisan organization for city leaders administering populations greater than 30,000, moved to condemn NATO’s Anaconda War Games on Russia’s border as increasing the threat of nuclear conflict.
“The largest NATO war games in decades, involving 14,000 US troops, and activation of US missile defenses in Eastern Europe are fueling growing tensions between nuclear-armed giants,” said the USCM warning in the lead up to the military alliance’s summit on July 8-9 in Warsaw, Poland.
The resolution adopted at the USCM’s 84th Annual Conference from June 24-27 in Indianapolis stated: “More than 15,000 nuclear weapons, most orders of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, 94% held by the United States and Russia, continue to pose an intolerable threat to cities and humanity.”
The US Conference of Mayors went on to criticize President Obama for capitulating to the defense establishment and “laying the groundwork for the United States to spend one trillion dollars over the next three decades” on the so-called nuclear modernization effort that will result in a net increase in America’s atomic stockpile in contravention to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
“The Obama administration has not only reduced the US nuclear stockpile less than any post-Cold War presidency, but also decided to spend on trillion dollars to maintain and modernize its nuclear bombs and warheads, production facilities, delivery systems, and command and control,” read the resolution.
America’s mayors called into the question the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons with yields in excess of 1 megaton, or 75 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb that killed nearly 150,000 people, at a time when “federal funds are desperately needed in our communities to build affordable housing, create jobs with livable wages, improve public transit, and develop sustainable energy sources.”
To underscore the resolution, the USCM acknowledged and apologized for America’s genocidal acts against Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of World War II stating that the “US atomic bombings indiscriminately incinerated tens of thousands of ordinary people, and by the end of 1945 more than 210,000 people – mainly civilians, were dead, and the surviving hibakusha, their children and grandchildren continue to suffer from physical, psychological and sociological effects.”
The country’s mayors continue to be a voice of peace and reason in the face of mounting influence by the foreign policy establishment and defense lobbyists having rendered similar resolutions calling for the United States to pursue a less threatening foreign policy for 11 consecutive years.
The Republican dominated House Select Committee on Benghazi has released its long awaited final report on the 2012 Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. And, surprise, the report reveals absolutely nothing of substance that wasn’t already known.
Naturally, Democrats running interference for Hillary Clinton have continually charged that the probe was simply an act of partisan politics designed more to hurt Clinton in the presidential campaign than to uncover the truth about what happened. No doubt there is truth to such an allegation.
But the most important fact about this whole manufactured drama, the one that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to touch, is the simple fact that what happened in Benghazi was perhaps the most complete encapsulation of everything wrong and criminal about the illegal US war against Libya. Moreover, it exposes the uncomfortable truth that the US harnesses terrorism, using it as one of the most potent weapons it has against nations that refuse to submit to the will of Washington and Wall Street. In effect, it was not merely terrorists that killed the four Americans in Benghazi, it was US policy.
The Benghazi Report: 800 Pages of Almost Nothing
Despite the triumphal pronouncements of Republican political opportunists, the new report reveals very little that is new. As the Wall Street Journal noted:
“Congressional Republicans’ most comprehensive report yet on the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, outlined few new criticisms of Hillary Clinton, highlighting more broadly what it called an array of failings by the Obama administration… The report largely confirmed the existing story line—that a group of anti-American Libyan militants stormed U.S. installations in a carefully planned assault, killing four Americans, including Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya…The latest document presented few notable facts not found in earlier investigations…”
As the Wall Street Journal correctly notes, the new report is mostly just a rehashing of prior conclusions reached from previous reports, while doing yeoman’s service for the political establishment by confirming and, consequently, concretizing a completely distorted narrative about what happened. Essentially, the final report amounts to a whitewash that is more about scoring political points than revealing the truth about what happened. Why? Well, put simply, the truth of what happened in Benghazi implicates both wings of the single corporate Republicrat party.
There is mention of the CIA facility near the ‘US diplomatic facility’ in Benghazi, but absolutely no context for what exactly the CIA was involved in there, and how it relates to a much larger set of policies executed by the Obama administration, of which Hillary Clinton was a key player. Indeed, the very fact that this critical piece of the puzzle is conspicuously missing from the Official NarrativeTM demonstrates that the House Select Committee on Benghazi report is more about concealing the truth than revealing it.
Take for instance the fact that the report totally ignores the connection between the CIA facility and mission in Benghazi and the smuggling of arms and fighters from Libya to Syria in an attempt to export to Syria the same sort of regime change that wrought death and destruction on Libya. As Judicial Watch noted in regard to the declassified material it obtained:
Judicial Watch… obtained more than 100 pages of previously classified “Secret” documents from the Department of Defense (DOD)and the Department of State revealing that DOD almost immediately reported that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was committed by the al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood-linked “Brigades of the Captive Omar Abdul Rahman” (BCOAR), and had been planned at least 10 days in advance… The new documents also provide the first official confirmation that shows the U.S. government was aware of arms shipments from Benghazi to Syria. The documents also include an August 2012 analysis warning of the rise of ISIS and the predicted failure of the Obama policy of regime change in Syria.
Just this one small excerpt from a set of publicly available documents sheds more light on the real story of Benghazi and the Obama administration’s disastrous and criminal wars in Libya and Syria than 800 pages of the House report. Were it really the mission of the House committee to expose the truth of what happened, perhaps they could have started with a Google search.
Indeed, the connection goes further. As a Department of Defense memo in 2012 indicated, “During the immediate aftermath of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the [Qaddafi] regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012… weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya, to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”
This revelation should be a bombshell; the US and its proxies inside Libya were actively shipping weapons to Syria for the purposes of fomenting war and effecting regime change. Further, it would be shockingly negligent to omit the fact that “early September 2012” is when the shipments stopped – the attack on the CIA annex in Benghazi, not coincidentally, took place on September 11, 2012 – and not connect it to the Benghazi incident. One could almost forgive such an omission if one were naïve enough to believe that it was simply an error, and not a deliberate obfuscation.
A serious analysis of these events would reveal an international network of arms and fighters being smuggled from Libya to Syria, all under the auspices of the Obama administration and the agencies under its control. But of course, the report focuses instead on the utterly irrelevant negligence on the part of the Obama administration which really obscures the far greater crime of deliberate warmongering. But hey, political point scoring is really what the House committee was looking for.
The Larger Story Completely Ignored
As if it weren’t offensive enough that the House committee report has completely whitewashed the events in Benghazi, the congressional hearings and subsequent report do absolutely nothing to bring clarity to what exactly the US was doing with respect to the arming, financing, and backing of terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and other well-known terror groups.
There is no discussion of the fact that Washington was knowingly collaborating with some of the nastiest al-Qaeda elements in the region, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group led by Abdelhakim Belhadj. This terror group, which was in the vanguard of the US-backed effort to topple the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and Muammar Gaddafi, was a known quantity to all counterterrorism experts specializing in that part of the world. As the New York Times reported in July 2011, in the midst of the war against the Libyan Government:
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was formed in 1995 with the goal of ousting Colonel Qaddafi. Driven into the mountains or exile by Libyan security forces, the group’s members were among the first to join the fight against Qaddafi security forces… Officially the fighting group does not exist any longer, but the former members are fighting largely under the leadership of Abu Abdullah Sadik [aka Abdelhakim Belhadj].
Perhaps the enlightened truthseekers of the House committee would have thought it prudent to note that the Benghazi incident was the direct outgrowth of a criminal US policy of collaboration with terrorists, the leader of whom is now, according to some sources, connected to ISIS/Daesh in Libya. But, alas, such explosive information, publicly available to those who seek it out, would have been deeply embarrassing to the undisputed grandmasters of wrongheaded political posturing, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom gleefully posed for pictures with the hardened terrorist leader Belhadj. Oops.
It would also have been nice had the House committee bothered to look at the studies conducted on that part of Libya vis-à-vis terrorist recruitment, to get a sense of the scale of the issue with which they were allegedly dealing. They might have considered examining a 2007 study from the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point entitled “Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records” which explained quite clearly that:
“Almost 19 percent of the fighters in the Sinjar Records came from Libya alone. Furthermore, Libya contributed far more fighters per capita than any other nationality in the Sinjar Records, including Saudi Arabia… The apparent surge in Libyan recruits traveling to Iraq may be linked [to] the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s (LIFG) increasingly cooperative relationship with al-Qa’ida which culminated in the LIFG officially joining al-Qa’ida on November 3, 2007… The most common cities that the fighters called home were Darnah [Derna], Libya and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with 52 and 51 fighters respectively. Darnah [Derna] with a population just over 80,000 compared to Riyadh’s 4.3 million, has far and away the largest per capita number of fighters in the Sinjar records.”
It certainly might have been useful had the House committee taken even a cursory look at a map to see the Benghazi-Derna-Tobruk triangle (the stronghold of the anti-Gaddafi terrorist forces linked to al-Qaeda) and to understand the broader context of the events of September 11, 2012. The investigators – that term being used rather loosely, and somewhat ironically, in this case – should have been able to discern the larger significance of what they were examining. One could almost assume that, like the proverbial ostriches, House Republicans were busy hiding their heads in the sand, or perhaps in other, more uncomfortable places.
Ultimately, the House Select Committee on Benghazi report will achieve absolutely nothing. It will not even score the political points that the Republicans leading the effort have been after for three years now. Hillary Clinton will continue her presidential bid completely unaffected by the information and, if anything, will likely benefit from this charade as it will lend credence to her endless assertions of a “vast right wing conspiracy” against her. Never mind the fact that she is a right wing neoconservative herself. Never mind the fact that the blood of tens of thousands of Libyans is on her hands. Never mind the fact that, as President, she will undoubtedly unleash more death and destruction on the people of the Middle East and North Africa.
There is only one lasting achievement upon which the House committee can hang its hat: it has done an excellent job of cementing an utterly shallow and superficial narrative about the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, one which will be endlessly repeated by the mouthpieces of corporate media and mainstream historians.
Indeed, a false history will be written, with the US as a victim of incompetence and its own poor planning. Nothing will be said of the blatant criminality of the US effort in Libya. But, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying, “So it goes…”
The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.
This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.
While the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the US Government’s figure, the assessments of the minimum total number of people killed were strikingly similar. The White House put this figure at 2,436, whilst the Bureau has recorded 2,753.
Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror. Operating outside declared battlefields, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, this air war has been largely fought in Pakistan and Yemen.
The White House’s announcement today is long-awaited. It comes three years after the White House first said it planned to publish casualty figures, and four months after President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the data would be released.
The figures released do not include civilians killed in drones strikes that happened under George W Bush, who instigated the use of counter-terrorism strikes outside declared war zones and in 58 strikes killed 174 reported civilians.
Today’s announcement is intended to shed light on the US’s controversial targeted killing programme, in which it has used drones to run an arms-length war against al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The US Government also committed to continued transparency saying it will provide an annual summary of information about the number of strikes against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities as well as the range of combatants and non-combatants killed.
But the US has not released a year-by-year breakdown of strikes nor provided any detail on particularly controversial strikes which immediately sparked criticism from civil liberty groups.
Jamel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “While any disclosure of information about the government’s targeted-killing policies is welcome, the government should be releasing information about every strike—the date of the strike, the location, the numbers of casualties, and the civilian or combatant status of those casualties. Perhaps this kind of information should be released after a short delay, rather than immediately, but it should be released. The public has a right to know who the government is killing—and if the government doesn’t know who it’s killing, the public should know that.”
The gap between US figures and other estimates, including the Bureau’s data, also raised concerns.
Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve said: “For three years now, President Obama has been promising to shed light on the CIA’s covert drone programme. Today, he had a golden opportunity to do just that. Instead, he chose to do the opposite. He published numbers that are hundreds lower than even the lowest estimates by independent organisations. The only thing those numbers tell us is that this Administration simply doesn’t know who it has killed. Back in 2011, it claimed to have killed “only 60” civilians. Does it really expect us to believe that it has killed only 4 more civilians since then, despite taking hundreds more strikes?
“The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed. Today’s announcement tells us nothing about 14 year old Faheem Qureshi, who was severely injured in Obama’s first drone strike. Reports suggest Obama knew he had killed civilians that day.”
The US government said in a statement: “First, although there are inherent limitations on determining the precise number of combatant and non-combatant deaths, particularly when operating in non-permissive environments, the US Government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-government organsations.”
Bibi Mamana was a grandmother and midwife living in the the tribal region of North Waziristan on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
On October 24 2012, she was preparing for the Muslim festival of Eid. She used to say that the joy of Eid was the excitement it brought to children. Her eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela was reported to be in a field with her as she gathered vegetables when a drone killed Mamana.
“I saw the first two missiles coming through the air,” Nabeela later told The Times. “They were following each other with fire at the back. When they hit the ground, there was a loud noise. After that I don’t remember anything.” Nabeela was injured by flying shrapnel.
At the sound of the explosion, Mamana’s 18-year-old grandson Kaleem ran from the house to help. But a few minutes later the drones struck again, he told the BBC. He was knocked unconscious. His leg was badly broken and damaged by shrapnel, and needed surgery.
Atiq, one of Mamana’s sons, was in the mosque as Manama gathered vegetables. On hearing the blast and seeing the plume of smoke he rushed to the scene. When he arrived he could not see any sign of his mother.
“I started calling out for her but there was no reply,” Atiq told the Times. “Then I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and put a turban over her body.”
Atiq’s brother Rafiq told Al Jazeera English he received a letter after the strike from a Pakistani official that said the attack was a US drone strike and that Mamana was innocent. But nothing more came of it, he said. The following year Rafiq, a teacher, travelled to the US to speak to Congress about the strike.
“My job is to educate,” he said in an emotional testimony. “But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand?”
Picture credit: BBC
Evaluating the numbers
The administration has called its drone programme a precise, effective form of warfare that targets terrorists and rarely hits civilians.
With the release of the figures today President Obama said, “All armed conflict invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
In June 2011 Obama’s then counter terrorism chief, now CIA director, John Brennan made a similar statement. He also declared drones strikes were “exceptionally precise and surgical” and had not killed a single civilian since August 2010. A Bureau investigation in July 2011 demonstrated this claim was untrue.
Most of the Bureau’s data sources are media reports by local and international news outlets, including Reuters, Associated Press and The New York Times.
The US Government suggests it has a much clearer view of post-strike situations than such reporting, suggesting this is the reason why there is such a gap between the numbers that have been recorded by the Bureau, and similar organisations, and those released today.
But the Bureau has also gathered essential information from its own field investigations.
The tribal areas have long been considered a difficult if not impossible area for journalists to access. However, occasionally reporters have been able to gain access to the site of the strikes to interview survivors, witnesses and relatives of people killed in drone strikes.
The Bureau conducted a field investigation through the end of 2011 into 2012, in partnership with The Sunday Times. Through extensive interviews with local villagers, the Bureau found 12 strikes killed 57 civilians.
The Associated Press also sent reporters into the Fata, reporting its findings in February 2012. It found 56 civilians and 138 militants were killed in 10 strikes.
Access to affected areas is a challenge in Yemen too. But in December 2009 a deputation of Yemeni parliamentarians sent to the scene of a strike discovered the burnt remnants of a camp, which had been set up by several families from one of Yemen’s poorest tribes.
A subsequent investigation by journalist Jeremy Scahill revealed a deception that hid US responsibility for the deaths of 41 civilians at the camp – half of them children, five of them pregnant women.
The reality on the ground flew in the face of the US government’s understanding of events. A leaked US diplomatic record of a meeting in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, between General David Petraeus and the Yemeni president revealed the US government was ignorant of the civilian death toll.
Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber
Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a 40-year-old father of seven, was exactly the kind of man the US needed in Yemen. A widely respected cleric in rural Yemen, he delivered sermons in his village mosque denouncing al-Qaida.
He gave just such a speech in August 2012 and earned the attention of the terrorist group. Three anonymous fighters arrived in his village two days later, after dark, calling for Jaber to come out and talk.
He went to meet them, taking his policeman cousin, Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, with him for protection. The five men stood arguing in the night air when Hellfire missiles tore into them.
A “huge explosion” rocked the village, a witness said. Jaber’s father, Ahmad bin Salim Salih bin Ali Jaber, 77, arrived on the scene to find people “wrapping up body parts of people from the ground, from here and there, putting them in grave clothes like lamb.”
All the dead were al Qaeda fighters, unnamed Yemeni officials claimed. However Jaber’s family refused to allow him to be smeared as a terrorist.
For three years they fought in courts in America and Germany for recognition that he was an innocent civilian. In November 2013 they visited Washington and even managed to arrange a meeting in the White House to plead their case. In 2014 the family said it was offered a bag containing $100,000 by a Yemen national security official. The official said it was a US strike and it had been a mistake.
By late 2015 the family offered to drop their lawsuits against the US government if the administration would apologise. The Department of Justice refused. In February 2016 the court dismissed the family’s suit but they have not stopped fighting: in April they announced they would appeal.
Picture credit: Private
Falling numbers of civilian casualties
The White House stressed that it was concerned to protect civilians and that best practices were in place to help reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties.
The Bureau’s data does show a significant decline in the reports of civilian casualties in recent years.
In Pakistan, where the largest number of strikes have occurred, there have been only three reported civilian casualties since the end of 2012. Two of these casualties – Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto – were Western hostages held by al Qaeda. The US, unaware they were targeting the American and Italian’s captors, flattened the house they were being held in.
The accidental killing of a US citizen spurred Obama to apologise for the strike – the first and only time he had publicly discussed a specific CIA drone strike in Pakistan. With the apology of a “condolence payment to both the families,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told the Bureau. However, they have yet to receive any compensation from the US government for their loss.
Families who have lost relatives in Pakistan have not reported being compensated for their loss. In Yemen, money has been given to families for their loss but it is not clear whether it actually comes from the US. The money is disbursed by Yemeni government intermediaries, nominally from the Yemeni government’s coffers.
Tariq Khan was a 16-year-old from North Waziristan who attended a high-profile anti-drone rally in Islamabad in October 2011. Only days later, he and his cousin were killed in a drone strike.Tariq was the youngest of seven children. He was described by relatives as a quiet teenager who was good with computers. His uncle Noor Kalam said: “He was just a normal boy who loved football.”
On 27 October, Tariq made the eight-hour drive to Islamabad for a meeting convened by Waziri elders to discuss how to end civilian deaths in drone strikes. The Pakistani politician Imran Khan, his former wife Jemima, members of the legal campaign group Reprieve and several western journalists also attended the meeting.
Neil Williams from Reprieve said Tariq seemed very introverted at the meeting. He asked the boy if he had ever seen a drone. Tariq replied he saw 10 or 15 every day. He said they prevented him from sleeping. “He looked absolutely terrified,” Williams said.
After a four-hour debate, the audience joined around 2,000 people at a protest rally outside the Pakistani parliament. After the rally, the tribesmen made the long journey home. The day after he got back, Tariq and his cousin Wahid went to pick up his newly married aunt, according a Bureau reporter who met Tariq at the Islamabad meeting. When they were 200 yards from the house two missiles slammed into their car. The blast killed Tariq and Wahid instantly.
Some reports suggested Wahid was 12 years old.
An anonymous US official acknowledged the CIA had launched the strike but denied they were children. The occupants of that car were militants, he said.
Picture credit: Neil Williams/Reprieve
Most of the dead from CIA strikes in Pakistan are unnamed Pakistanis and Afghans, according to Naming the Dead – a research project by the Bureau. Over three years the Bureau has painstakingly gathered names of the dead from US drone strikes in Pakistan. The project has recorded just 732 names of people killed since 2004 – 329 of which were civilians.
The fact that so many people are unnamed adds to the confusion about who has been killed.
A controversial US tactic, signature strikes, demonstrates how identities of the dead, and their status as a combatant or non-combatant, eludes the US. These strikes target people based on so-called pattern of life analysis, built from surveillance and intelligence but not the actual identity of a person.
And the CIA’s own records leaked to the news agency McClatchy show the US is sometimes not only ignorant of the identities of people it has killed, but also of the armed groups they belong to. They are merely listed as “other militants” and “foreign fighters” in the leaked records.
Former Deputy US Secretary of State, Richard Armitage outlined his unease with such internal reporting in an interview with Chris Woods for his book Sudden Justice. “Mr Obama was popping up with these drones left, right and down the middle, and I would read these accounts, ’12 insurgents killed.’ ’15!’ You don’t know that. You don’t know that. They could be insurgents, they could be cooks.”
“I am persuaded no constitution was never before as well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 27, 1809.
“We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time.” –Herman Melville, 1850.
“I chant the new empire.” –Walt Whitman, 1860.
“Our frontiers today are on every continent.” –John F. Kennedy, 1960.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” –Frederick Douglas.
If you haven’t been hiding under a partisan rock for the past several years, you’re aware that President Barack Obama has given himself the sort-of legalish right to murder anyone anywhere with missiles from drones.
He’s not the only one who wants that power.
Yes, President Obama has claimed to have put restrictions on whom he’ll murder, but in no known case has he followed any of his self-imposed non-legal restrictions. Nowhere has someone been arrested instead of killed, while in many known cases people have been killed who could have easily been arrested. In no known case has someone been killed who was an “imminent and continuing threat to the United States,” or for that matter just plain imminent or just plain continuing. It’s not even clear how someone could be both an imminent and a continuing threat until you study up on how the Obama administration has redefined imminent to mean theoretically imaginable someday. And, of course, in numerous cases civilians have been killed in large numbers and people have been targeted without identifying who they are. Lying dead from U.S. drone strikes are men, women, children, non-Americans, and Americans, not a single one of them charged with a crime or their extradition sought.
Who else would like to be able to do this?
One answer is most nations on earth. We now read news stories from Syria of people dying from a drone strike, with the reporter unable to determine if the missile came from a U.S., U.K., Russian, or Iranian drone. Just wait. The skies will be filled if the trend is not reversed.
Another answer is Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, but not Jill Stein. Yes, those first three candidates have said they want this power.
Another answer, however, should be just as disturbing as those already mentioned. Military commanders around the world want the authority to murder people with drones without bothering to get approval from civilian officials back home. Here’s a fun quiz:
How many zones has the United States divided the globe into for purposes of complete military domination, and what are their names?
Answer: Six. They are Northcom, Southcom, Eucom, Pacom, Centcom, and Africom. (Jack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack were already taken.) In normal English they are: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Western Asia, and Africa.
Now here comes the hard question. Which of those zones has a new would-be commander who was just encouraged by a prominent Senator in an open Congressional hearing to acquire the authority to murder people in his zone without getting approval from the U.S. president?
Clue #1. It’s a zone with the empire’s headquarters not even located in the zone, so that this new commander speaks of killing people there as playing “an away game.”
Clue #2. It’s a poor zone that does not manufacture weapons but is saturated with weapons made in the United States plus France, Germany, the U.K., Russia, and China.
Clue #3. Many of the people in this zone have skin resembling people who are disproportionately targets of U.S. police department killings.
Did you get it right? That’s correct: Africom is being encouraged by Senator Lindsay Graham, who a short time back wanted to be president, to blow people up with missiles from flying robots without presidential approval.
Now here’s where the morality of war can wreak havoc with humanitarian imperialism. If a drone killing is not part of a war, then it looks like murder. And handing out licenses to murder to additional people looks like a worsening of the state of affairs in which just one person claims to hold such a license. But if drone killing is part of a war, and Captain Africom claims to be at war with Somalia, or with a group in Somalia, for example, well then, he wouldn’t need special permission to blow up a bunch of people with manned aircraft; so why should he need it when using robotic unmanned bombers?
The trouble is that saying the word “war” doesn’t have the moral or legal powers often imagined. No current U.S. war is legal under either the U.N. Charter or the Kellogg-Briand Pact. And the intuition that murdering people with a drone is wrong can’t be a useful one if murdering people with a piloted plane is right, and vice versa. We actually have to choose. We actually have to set aside the scale of the killing, the type of technology, the role of robots, and all other extraneous factors, and choose whether it’s acceptable, moral, legal, smart, or strategic to murder people or not.
If that seems too much of a mental strain, here’s an easier guide. Just imagine what your response would be if the ruler of Europe Command asked for the authority to murder at will people of his choosing along with anybody too close to them at the time.
The US decision to send Patriot anti-ballistic missile interceptor batteries to Turkey has no military justification and may be a preparation for a manufactured incident to provoke a new crisis in the region, historian and retired US Army Maj. Todd Pierce told Sputnik.
“Do you pick up the preparation for yet another ‘Gulf of Tonkin Moment’ here?” Pierce said on Thursday.
Pierce was referring to the alleged clash between a US warship, the destroyer Maddox and two North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 that was used to win congressional endorsement for what became the US involvement in the Vietnam War.
NATO is deploying missile defense systems in Turkey under the pretext of a non-existent threat of missile attacks from Syria, Russian Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko told Sputnik earlier on Thursday.
Pierce said the Obama administration remained committed to finding whatever justification it needed to expand its military forces in the region with the goal of toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“That is what the Syrian war and proposed takedown of Assad is really about: rolling up any potential Russian allies,” he explained.
Pierce pointed out that deploying the Patriot systems was an unnecessary move as Turkey faced no direct threats of missile attacks.
“Does deploying these Patriots systems in Turkey make any sense at all for Turkey’s national security? Absolutely not: Who is going to attack them? Bulgaria?” he asked.
The Patriots deployment appeared to be part of NATO’s policies to encircle Russia with increased military deployments, Pierce stated.
“It is definitely not about protecting the Turkish people… It is directed at Russia in some way because there is no other potential opponent in the area,” he continued.
Pierce said the Patriot systems’ deployment was part of a US strategy, also employing NATO that had been operating for at least 18 years since the NATO bombing of Serbia to force it to leave its Kosovo province in 1999.
“Since the Kosovo War with the takedown Milosevic, we have been working to subvert or overthrow any ally or potential ally of Russia with a tactical aim of weakening them, and with Russia as the ultimate target. The Wolfowitz doctrine stated that. Now we are getting closer,” he noted.
Pierce noted that long-term US strategy toward Russia was similar to the policy that the United States feared it was experiencing from the Soviet Union through the decades of the Cold War.
“Remember when the Soviet Union seemed to be encircling us with Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada? And how that angered us? We saw it there as their military aggressiveness… We took it as a threat which needed to be countered,” he said.
Current US policies of deploying increasingly large military forces and weapons systems around the periphery of Russia from the Baltics to Turkey was bound to generate those kinds of fears in Moscow, Pierce warned.
Reprieve | June 30, 2016
Ahead of an announcement from the White House on civilian casualties from drone strikes, expected as early as Friday July 1st, international human rights organization Reprieve has released a report demonstrating how the Administration’s previous statements on the issue have proved to be false.
From CIA Director John Brennan’s June 2011 assertion that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” to President Obama’s claim that strikes only take place when there is “near certainty” that civilians won’t be killed, the Administration’s statements, both on record and off, have been undermined by Government leaks and independent assessments.
The CIA itself had recorded a civilian casualty from a Pakistan drone strike just two months before Mr Brennan’s claim that there hadn’t been any “for nearly a year.” Meanwhile, independent investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and others identified 45 civilian casualties from a strike on a meeting of local elders in March 2011.
The President’s claims on “near certainty” were themselves contradicted by internal CIA documents which, according to McClatchy, “show[ed] that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees.”
In addition, his 2013 policy on the ‘Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations’ has since been undermined by revelations that ‘signature strikes,’ which target people based on patterns of behavior without knowing their identities, have secretly been allowed to continue in Pakistan and possibly Yemen.
According to the report, which is available on Reprieve’s website,
What little the Obama Administration has previously said on the record about the drone program has been shown by the facts on the ground, and even the US Government’s own internal documents, to be false. Any claim of low numbers of civilian casualties will therefore have to be read against the more rigorous work of organizations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which estimates a low of 492 civilian casualties across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and a high of potentially 1138.
But more importantly, it has to be asked what bare numbers will mean if they omit even basic details such as the names of those killed and the areas, even the countries, they live in. Equally, the numbers without the definitions to back up how the Administration is defining its targets is useless, especially given reports the Obama Administration has shifted the goalposts on what counts as a ‘civilian’ to such an extent that any estimate may be far removed from reality. In US drone operations, reports suggest all “military aged males” and potentially even women and children are considered “enemies killed in action” unless they can “posthumously” and “conclusively” prove their innocence.
The prospect of Hillary Clinton being President of the United States of America is one to fill our minds with dread concerning the likely posture of Washington in foreign affairs should she ever attain the Oval Office. There is no doubt she would continue or even increase the intensity of Washington’s military confrontations with China and Russia — and enjoy smacking the wrists of smaller countries whose actions might displease her. Indeed her castigation might go further, even to the extent of rejoicing in the murder of national leaders such as President Gaddafi of Libya, about whom she laughed “We came. We saw. He died.”
Who might be next, with Hillary at the helm?
Under her reign the US military presence around the world would be maintained or expanded — but no matter who is in the White House, the hundreds of military bases surrounding China and Russia will continue operations and the US nuclear-armed fleets that roam the seas and oceans will maintain their aggressive posture.
Drone assassinations will also continue and more innocent people like that poor taxi driver in Pakistan will be killed by US Hellfire missiles guided by gleeful techno-cretins who move control sticks and prod buttons while playing barbaric video games from their comfortable killing couches in drone-control bases.
That taxi driver?
To remind you: on May 21 a taxi driver called Mohammad Azam was earning his tiny daily wage by picking up passengers who crossed the Iranian border into Pakistan. Sometimes he would take them only to nearby villages, but that day he picked up a client who wanted to go to the city of Quetta, eight hours drive away. He drove off in his Toyota Corolla, and a few hours later, when he stopped for a rest, Obama’s Hellfires struck and blasted the car to twisted shards of metal — and reduced Azam and his customer to smoking corpses.
Another case of “We came. We saw. He died.”
Azam’s passenger was the evil Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, travelling under a false name. His sought-for anonymity didn’t do him much good, because he had been traced and tracked, and while he was in Iran or when he was going through border crossing examination on the Pakistan side it’s likely that a US-paid agent planted a chip on him or in his baggage that signaled his whereabouts to the drone-controlling video-gamers.
Azam the taxi-driver didn’t know Mullah Mansour and was not associated with the Taliban or any such organization. He was an entirely innocent man trying to earn enough money to feed his family — his wife, four small children and a crippled brother who stayed with them.
But Azam was killed by the same US Hellfire missiles that killed Mullah Mansoor.
The Pentagon stated that “Mansur has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict.” So they killed him. And without the slightest hesitation they also killed the taxi driver Mohammad Azam.
If a person in a foreign country that can’t retaliate to drone strikes is considered an enemy of the United States there is no question of arrest, charge and trial. When it can be done they are killed by drone missile strikes, personally authorized by President Obama who stressed that there must be “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed,” and that “the United States respects national sovereignty and international law.”
But the US president ordered the assassination of two people in a country whose prime minister said that the US drone attack was a gross violation of national sovereignty. And although the White House and the Pentagon might — just might — be able to convince a War Crimes Tribunal that their killing of Mullah Mansur was in some fashion reasonable, how could they possibly claim that their murder of the taxi driver Azam was justified? When did it become “respectful of international law” to deliberately slaughter a taxi driver?
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared that Mansoor’s obliteration “sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners as they work to build a more stable, united, secure and prosperous Afghanistan.” Which was no doubt solace to Azam’s widow and her two little boys and two little girls when his hideously charred fragmented corpse arrived next day.
People like Obama and Kerry and Clinton and countless millions of others simply don’t care about the smashing, flashing, hideously agonizing death of the innocent taxi driver Azam.
The US President’s professional video-gamers had killed yet another totally innocent non-combatant, but no doubt they all slept soundly on the night that Azam’s children began to realize their terrible loss.
Three weeks after the drone murder of taxi driver Azam there was a massacre of 49 people in the US city of Orlando. It was horrible. Much of the world was aghast, and there was emotion displayed in Europe and North America, with candle-lit vigils, solemn silences of respect in parliaments and other demonstrations of sympathy and solidarity. And when a British female Member of Parliament was killed by a lunatic on June 16 there was an amazing outpouring of grief in the country. Her husband said after her murder that “the two things that I’ve been very focused on is how do we support and protect the children.”
Quite right. And understandable and most admirable.
But who is going to support and protect the children of the US drone-killed taxi driver Azam?
The slaughter of innocent human beings is an everyday occurrence in Iraq and Libya and Afghanistan, where countless thousands have died — without a single western candle being lit in sorrowful commemoration of any Iraqis, Libyans or Afghans who have died in the savage chaos caused by the catastrophic military fandangos in their countries by US-led western powers.
Western countries are highly selective in displaying disapproval and grief following killings, be they mass or individual, and it could hardly be expected that the US assassination of a Pakistani taxi driver would attract the slightest sympathy or censure.
The murder-by drone of taxi driver Azam by the Pentagon’s video-gamers could be summed up by Hillary Clinton’s happy rejoicing about the murder of President Gaddafi during the US-NATO blitz on Libya, when she laughingly declared that “We came. We saw. He died.”
And thinking about the future . . . Would you be surprised if in twenty years or so one of the children of taxi driver Azam were to take up a gun and kill Americans?
Or can they? More bombs and less talk on Syria
It is ironic that fifty-one U.S. State Department employees, perhaps overly-generously dignified in the media with the title of “diplomats,” have come out in favor of removing a foreign head of state by force. Detailing their opposition to the status quo, the signatories submitted a dissent memo through established Foreign Service channels. The document itself is classified, even though the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal clearly have obtained copies, presumably leaked to them by some of the dissident officers.
The signatories have reportedly demanded “targeted air strikes” and the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons which would under-gird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process” to bring down the al-Assad government. They justify their dissent by arguing that “The moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable. The status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges.”
The memo describes the Syrian government’s alleged barrel bomb attacks on civilians “the root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region. Crucially, Syria’s Sunni population continues to view the Assad regime as the primary enemy in the conflict. Failure to stem Assad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as (IS), even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield.”
Based on the media leaks though without having seen the actual document, one might nevertheless reasonably conclude that the authors of the memo clearly see Bashar al-Assad as the fons et origo of all the evils currently prevailing in Syria. The intention is to use military force to compel al-Assad to negotiate seriously to dismantle his own government, himself included, a blunt approach that has not necessarily worked very well elsewhere in recent memory. In fact, it has not worked at all. And the assertion that al-Assad is the major problem is, of course, questionable, ignoring as it does ISIS. The memo conveniently leaves out of the reckoning the U.S. role in destabilizing the entire region by invading Iraq and also pushing for regime change in Syria as early as 2003 since that would presumably implicate the signers in counterproductive policies. The Syria Accountability Acts of 2004 and also of 2010, like similar legislation directed against Iran, have resulted in little accountability and have instead actually stifled diplomacy. Congress sought to punish Syria with sanctions for supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and for its links to Tehran, making any possible improvement in relations problematical. The 2010 Act even called for steps to bring about regime change in Damascus.
Nor is there any consideration of what most Americans might well want to see come out of a new military intervention in the Middle East. Specifically, as Syria in no way threatens the U.S. what is the actual United States national interest in toppling the government in Damascus, apart from some fantastical messianic desire to bring about a peaceable kingdom in the heart of the Arab world through the deployment of American military power. The U.S. would be launching cruise missiles against targets in a country with which Washington is not at war. And being able to bomb Syria does not necessarily mean that Washington will be able to dictate what happens next. Does no one at the State Department remember what happened in Iraq?
The memo also apparently does not address what might happen to the majority Syrian population loyal to the government if and when the regime were to fall to the “rebels.” Attacking and weakening the Syrian military, the presumed target of air attacks, would only make easier a post-al-Assad transition into something even more toxic. Many observers believe that the most radical elements would quickly overpower the alleged moderates that the United States perhaps erroneously believes that it is supporting, leading to even more atrocities directed against religious non-conformists and minority groups. This would include the country’s dwindling number of Christians, who overwhelmingly support the al-Assad regime.
Now consider for a moment who might have been involved in writing this memo. The authors are described by the newspapers that obtained copies of the memo as “mid-level.” That means they are products of the non-diplomacy diplomacy of the George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama presidencies, when the recurrent negotiating tactic in dealing with other countries has almost invariably started with threatening the use of force followed almost immediately by the dispatch of several carrier groups. They probably believe as Madeleine Albright once put it, that we Americans are the indispensable nation, we “see far.” Some of the signatories are undoubtedly Bush era believers in American exceptionalism and global leadership exercised at gunpoint who believe intervention is a national imperative while the Obamaites no doubt see their role as humanitarian, helping oppressed and endangered people of the world who are striving to be free. Both views are delusional from every point of view and do not consider what the people in the countries most affected by American “benevolence” might actually want.
So in short, the ideologically driven signatories probably don’t know a whole lot about traditional diplomacy and would be well advised to read up on Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations before they open their mouths because overthrowing established governments has consequences, an issue largely avoided by the drafters of the memo as they make no suggestions about what might happen or what must be done after al-Assad and his government disappear.
And then there is the rather embarrassing issue of who the enemy actually is. The suggestion that ISIS is empowered by al-Assad’s survival is a bit of a stretch as the Syrian government and its allies Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are bearing the brunt of the fighting against it and also against al-Qaeda proxy al-Nusrah. And if there is an actual American interest in the conflict it would be to work with those who are enemies of ISIS instead of so-called friends like Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are actually enabling the group.
Of course, willful ignorance about reality is not very important when one has a career to nurture. Can it be that the fifty-one signatories have carefully read the Washington Post and figured out that Hillary Clinton will be our next president? She has promised just what the letter writers are suggesting, a U.S. controlled no-fly zone and aggressive steps that will lead to the removal of al-Assad. As apparent adherents to the Victoria Nuland school of Foreign Policy where one overthrows a government, arranges for new leaders and then threatens concerned neighbors with reprisals, the signatories should fit in quite well with the Clinton regime’s vision of peace through military dominance.
Or if Nuland is not to one’s taste there is also former Obama Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times, perhaps characteristically, interviews two “experts” on Syria, ex-Ambassador Robert Ford and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (WINEP). While Ambassador to Syria Ford deliberately sought to provoke the government by meeting with opposition leaders and making public demands for greater democracy. Though his role as ambassador was actually to support American interests, he instead interfered in Syrian politics, speaking openly in support of anti-regime protesters while serving in Damascus in 2010. On one occasion he was pelted with tomatoes and was eventually removed over safety concerns before resigning in 2014 over his demands for a “tougher policy” in Syria. Now he is selling the same kool-aid, regularly appearing on television to urge military action against al-Assad. Tabler, who speaks about frustration over the current Syrian policy, is a standard issue neoconservative. WINEP is a spin-off from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
And then there is the small matter of Russia, which is increasingly promoted as the enemy of choice to sustain the threat narrative that excuses American interventions worldwide. The memo indicates that the signatories are not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia” even though that is precisely what they are promoting. What would happen when sophisticated Russian air defenses in place in Syria shoot down an attacking U.S. warplane? Russia has indicated that it is willing to consider supporting the replacement of al-Assad as part of an eventual peace settlement but it has also insisted that there has to be stability by way of a transition that permits a recognized government to stay in place to avoid the type of anarchy that would guarantee an ISIS takeover. Apparently the 51 “diplomats” who have been unable to practice much diplomacy in the real world somehow believe that bombing the Syrian government can be accomplished with Moscow sitting idly by, too terrified by Washington’s show of force to respond. It would be a mistake to think that.
It is interesting to note, per the New York Times article, that a reluctant Pentagon has been engaged in push-back against the advocates of deeper involvement in Syria. As ever, it is the Foggy Bottom’s non-combatants with no skin in the game who are the fiercest chair-borne warriors. What the signatories to the memo appear to sidestep is the inevitable conclusion that their recommendations are a reversion to George W. Bush foreign policy at its most pig-shit ignorant. But perhaps it is all old wine in new bottles, particularly if one accepts that the memo might actually be an application letter to join the hawkish Hillary Clinton foreign policy team. Bomb al-Assad to make him agree to our terms. Ignore Russian interests. Don’t worry, it will all work out.
Over the past several decades, the U.S. State Department has deteriorated from a reasonably professional home for diplomacy and realism into a den of armchair warriors possessed of imperial delusions, a dangerous phenomenon underscored by the recent mass “dissent” in favor of blowing up more people in Syria.
Some 51 State Department “diplomats” signed a memo distributed through the official “dissent channel,” seeking military strikes against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad whose forces have been leading the pushback against Islamist extremists who are seeking control of this important Mideast nation.
The fact that such a large contingent of State Department officials would openly advocate for an expanded aggressive war in line with the neoconservative agenda, which put Syria on a hit list some two decades ago, reveals how crazy the State Department has become.
The State Department now seems to be a combination of true-believing neocons along with their liberal-interventionist followers and some careerists who realize that the smart play is to behave toward the world as global proconsuls dictating solutions or seeking “regime change” rather than as diplomats engaging foreigners respectfully and seeking genuine compromise.
Even some State Department officials, whom I personally know and who are not neocons/liberal-hawks per se, act as if they have fully swallowed the Kool-Aid. They talk tough and behave arrogantly toward inhabitants of countries under their supervision. Foreigners are treated as mindless objects to be coerced or bribed.
So, it’s not entirely surprising that several dozen U.S. “diplomats” would attack President Barack Obama’s more temperate position on Syria while positioning themselves favorably in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton administration, which is expected to authorize an illegal invasion of Syria — under the guise of establishing “no-fly zones” and “safe zones” — which will mean the slaughter of young Syrian soldiers. The “diplomats” urge the use of “stand-off and air weapons.”
These hawks are so eager for more war that they don’t mind risking a direct conflict with Russia, breezily dismissing the possibility of a clash with the nuclear power by saying they are not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia.” That’s reassuring to hear.
Risking a Jihadist Victory
There’s also the danger that a direct U.S. military intervention could collapse the Syrian army and clear the way for victory by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front or the Islamic State. The memo did not make clear how the delicate calibration of doing just enough damage to Syria’s military while avoiding an outright jihadist victory and averting a clash with Russia would be accomplished.
Presumably, whatever messes are created, the U.S. military would be left to clean up, assuming that shooting down some Russian warplanes and killing Russian military personnel wouldn’t escalate into a full-scale thermonuclear conflagration.
In short, it appears that the State Department has become a collective insane asylum where the inmates are in control. But this madness isn’t some short-term aberration that can be easily reversed. It has been a long time coming and would require a root-to-branch ripping out of today’s “diplomatic” corps to restore the State Department to its traditional role of avoiding wars rather than demanding them.
Though there have always been crazies in the State Department – usually found in the senior political ranks – the phenomenon of an institutional insanity has only evolved over the past several decades. And I have seen the change.
I have covered U.S. foreign policy since the late 1970s when there was appreciably more sanity in the diplomatic corps. There were people like Robert White and Patricia Derian (both now deceased) who stood up for justice and human rights, representing the best of America.
But the descent of the U.S. State Department into little more than well-dressed, well-spoken but thuggish enforcers of U.S. hegemony began with the Reagan administration. President Ronald Reagan and his team possessed a pathological hatred of Central American social movements seeking freedom from oppressive oligarchies and their brutal security forces.
During the 1980s, American diplomats with integrity were systematically marginalized, hounded or removed. (Human rights coordinator Derian left at the end of the Carter administration and was replaced by neocon Elliott Abrams; White was fired as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, explaining: “I refused a demand by the secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr., that I use official channels to cover up the Salvadoran military’s responsibility for the murders of four American churchwomen.”)
The Neocons Rise
As the old-guard professionals left, a new breed of aggressive neoconservatives was brought in, the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Robert McFarlane, Robert Kagan and Abrams. After eight years of Reagan and four years of George H.W. Bush, the State Department was reshaped into a home for neocons, but some pockets of professionalism survived the onslaughts.
While one might have expected the Democrats of the Clinton administration to reverse those trends, they didn’t. Instead, Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” applied to U.S. foreign policy as much as to domestic programs. He was always searching for that politically safe “middle.”
As the 1990s wore on, the decimation of foreign policy experts in the mold of White and Derian left few on the Democratic side who had the courage or skills to challenge the deeply entrenched neocons. Many Clinton-era Democrats accommodated to the neocon dominance by reinventing themselves as “liberal interventionists,” sharing the neocons’ love for military force but justifying the killing on “humanitarian” grounds.
This approach was a way for “liberals” to protect themselves against right-wing charges that they were “weak,” a charge that had scarred Democrats deeply during the Reagan/Bush-41 years, but this Democratic “tough-guy/gal-ism” further sidelined serious diplomats favoring traditional give-and-take with foreign leaders and their people.
So, you had Democrats like then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (and later Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright justifying Bill Clinton’s brutal sanctions policies toward Iraq, which the U.N. blamed for killing 500,000 Iraqi children, as “a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
Bill Clinton’s eight years of “triangulation,” which included the brutal air war against Serbia, was followed by eight years of George W. Bush, which further ensconced the neocons as the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
By then, what was left of the old Republican “realists,” the likes of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, was aging out or had been so thoroughly compromised that the neocons faced no significant opposition within Republican circles. And, Official Washington’s foreign-policy Democrats had become almost indistinguishable from the neocons, except for their use of “humanitarian” arguments to justify aggressive wars.
Before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, much of the “liberal” media establishment – from The New York Times to The New Yorker – fell in line behind the war, asking few tough questions and presenting almost no obstacles. Favoring war had become the “safe” career play.
But a nascent anti-war movement among rank-and-file Democrats did emerge, propelling Barack Obama, an anti-Iraq War Democrat, to the 2008 presidential nomination over Iraq War supporter Hillary Clinton. But those peaceful sentiments among the Democratic “base” did not reach very deeply into the ranks of Democratic foreign policy mavens.
So, when Obama entered the White House, he faced a difficult challenge. The State Department needed a thorough purging of the neocons and the liberal hawks, but there were few Democratic foreign policy experts who hadn’t sold out to the neocons. An entire generation of Democratic policy-makers had been raised in the world of neocon-dominated conferences, meetings, op-eds and think tanks, where tough talk made you sound good while talk of traditional diplomacy made you sound soft.
By contrast, more of the U.S. military and even the CIA favored less belligerent approaches to the world, in part, because they had actually fought Bush’s hopeless “global war on terror.” But Bush’s hand-picked, neocon-oriented high command – the likes of General David Petraeus – remained in place and favored expanded wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama then made one of the most fateful decisions of his presidency. Instead of cleaning house at State and at the Pentagon, he listened to some advisers who came up with the clever P.R. theme “Team of Rivals” – a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s first Civil War cabinet – and Obama kept in place Bush’s military leadership, including Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and reached out to hawkish Sen. Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State.
In other words, Obama not only didn’t take control of the foreign-policy apparatus, he strengthened the power of the neocons and liberal hawks. He then let this powerful bloc of Clinton-Gates-Petraeus steer him into a foolhardy counterinsurgency “surge” in Afghanistan that did little more than get 1,000 more U.S. soldiers killed along with many more Afghans.
Obama also let Clinton sabotage his attempted outreach to Iran in 2010 seeking constraints on its nuclear program and he succumbed to her pressure in 2011 to invade Libya under the false pretense of establishing a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians, what became a “regime change” disaster that Obama has ranked as his biggest foreign policy mistake.
The Syrian Conflict
Obama did resist Secretary Clinton’s calls for another military intervention in Syria although he authorized some limited military support to the allegedly “moderate” rebels and allowed Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to do much more in supporting jihadists connected to Al Qaeda and even the Islamic State.
Under Secretary Clinton, the neocon/liberal-hawk bloc consolidated its control of the State Department diplomatic corps. Under neocon domination, the State Department moved from one “group think” to the next. Having learned nothing from the Iraq War, the conformity continued to apply toward Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, China, Venezuela, etc.
Everywhere the goal was same: to impose U.S. hegemony, to force the locals to bow to American dictates, to steer them into neo-liberal “free market” solutions which were often equated with “democracy” even if most of the people of the affected countries disagreed.
Double-talk and double-think replaced reality-driven policies. “Strategic communications,” i.e., the aggressive use of propaganda to advance U.S. interests, was one watchword. “Smart power,” i.e., the application of financial sanctions, threats of arrests, limited military strikes and other forms of intimidation, was another.
Every propaganda opportunity, such as the Syrian sarin attack in 2013 or the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shoot-down over eastern Ukraine, was exploited to the hilt to throw adversaries on the defensive even if U.S. intelligence analysts doubted that evidence supported the accusations.
Lying at the highest levels of the U.S. government – but especially among the State Department’s senior officials – became epidemic. Perhaps even worse, U.S. “diplomats” seemed to believe their own propaganda.
Meanwhile, the mainstream U.S. news media experienced a similar drift into the gravity pull of neocon dominance and professional careerism, eliminating major news outlets as any kind of check on official falsehoods.
The new State Department star – expected to receive a high-level appointment from President Clinton-45 – is neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who orchestrated the 2014 putsch in Ukraine, toppling an elected, Russia-friendly president and replacing him with a hard-line Ukrainian nationalist regime that then launched violent military attacks against ethnic Russians in the east who resisted the coup leadership.
When Russia came to the assistance of these embattled Ukrainian citizens, including agreeing to Crimea’s request to rejoin Russia, the State Department and U.S. mass media spoke as one in decrying a “Russian invasion” and supporting NATO military maneuvers on Russia’s borders to deter “Russian aggression.”
Anyone who dares question this latest “group think” – as it plunges the world into a dangerous new Cold War – is dismissed as a “Kremlin apologist” or “Moscow stooge” just as skeptics about the Iraq War were derided as “Saddam apologists.” Virtually everyone important in Official Washington marches in lock step toward war and more war. (Victoria Nuland is married to Robert Kagan, making them one of Washington’s supreme power couples.)
So, that is the context of the latest State Department rebellion against Obama’s more tempered policies on Syria. Looking forward to a likely Hillary Clinton administration, these 51 “diplomats” have signed their name to a “dissent” that advocates bombing the Syrian military to protect Syria’s “moderate” rebels who – to the degree they even exist – fight mostly under the umbrella of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and its close ally, Ahrar al Sham.
The muddled thinking in this “dissent” is that by bombing the Syrian military, the U.S. government can enhance the power of the rebels and supposedly force Assad to negotiate his own removal. But there is no reason to think that this plan would work.
In early 2014, when the rebels held a relatively strong position, U.S.-arranged peace talks amounted to a rebel-dominated conference that made Assad’s departure a pre-condition and excluded Syria’s Iranian allies from attending. Not surprisingly, Assad’s representative went home and the talks collapsed.
Now, with Assad holding a relatively strong hand, backed by Russian air power and Iranian ground forces, the “dissenting” U.S. diplomats say peace is impossible because the rebels are in no position to compel Assad’s departure. Thus, the “dissenters” recommend that the U.S. expand its role in the war to again lift the rebels, but that would only mean more maximalist demands from the rebels.
This proposed wider war, however, would carry some very serious risks, including the possibility that the Syrian army could collapse, opening the gates of Damascus to Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front (and its allies) or the Islamic State – a scenario that, as The New York Times noted, the “memo doesn’t address.”
Currently, the Islamic State and – to a lesser degree – the Nusra Front are in retreat, chased by the Syrian army with Russian air support and by some Kurdish forces with U.S. backing. But those gains could easily be reversed. There is also the risk of sparking a wider war with Iran and/or Russia.
But such cavalier waving aside of grave dangers is nothing new for the neocons and liberal hawks. They have consistently dreamt up schemes that may sound good at a think-tank conference or read well in an op-ed article, but fail in the face of ground truth where usually U.S. soldiers are expected to fix the mess.
We have seen this wishful thinking go awry in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and even Syria, where Obama’s acquiescence to provide arms and training for the so-called “unicorns” – the hard-to-detect “moderate” rebels – saw those combatants and their weapons absorbed into Al Qaeda’s or Islamic State’s ranks.
Yet, the neocons and liberal hawks who control the State Department – and are eagerly looking forward to a Hillary Clinton presidency – will never stop coming up with these crazy notions until a concerted effort is made to assess accountability for all the failures that that they have inflicted on U.S. foreign policy.
As long as there is no accountability – as long as the U.S. president won’t rein in these warmongers – the madness will continue and only grow more dangerous.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).