May 21, 2009
How long does it take a mild-mannered, anti-war, black professor of constitutional law, trained as a community organiser on the South Side of Chicago, to become an enthusiastic sponsor of targeted assassinations, 'decapitation' strategies and remote-control bombing of mud houses at the far end of the globe?
There's nothing surprising here. As far back as President Woodrow Wilson, in the early 20th century, American liberalism has been swift to flex its imperial muscle and whistle up the Marines. High-explosive has always been in the hormone shot.
The nearest parallel to Obama in eager deference to the bloodthirsty counsels of his counter-insurgency advisors is John F. Kennedy. It is not surprising that bright young presidents relish quick-fix, 'outside the box' scenarios for victory.
Obama’s course is set and his presidency is already stained the familiar blood-red
Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan the counsel of regular Army generals tends to be drear and unappetising: vast, costly deployments of troops by the hundreds of thousands, mounting casualties, uncertain prospects for any long-term success all adding up to dismaying political costs on the home front.
Amid Camelot's dawn in 1961, Kennedy swiftly bent an ear to the advice of men like Ed Lansdale, a special ops man who wore rakishly the halo of victory over the Communist guerillas in the Philippines and who promised results in Vietnam.
By the time he himself had become the victim of Lee Harvey Oswald's 'decapitation' strategy, brought to successful conclusion in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy had set in motion the secret counter-insurgency operations, complete with programs of assassination and torture, that turned South-East Asia and Latin America into charnel houses for the next 20 years.
Another Democrat who strode into the White House with the word 'peace' springing from his lips was Jimmy Carter. It was he who first decreed that 'freedom' and the war on terror required a $3.5bn investment in a secret CIA-led war in Afghanistan, plus the deployment of Argentinian torturers to advise US military teams in counter-insurgency ops in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Obama campaigned on a pledge to 'decapitate' al-Qaeda, meaning the assassination of its leaders. It was his short-hand way of advertising that he had the right stuff. Now, like Kennedy, he's summoned the exponents of unconventional, short-cut paths to success in that mission.
Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal now replaces General David McKiernan as Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal's expertise is precisely in assassination and 'decapitation'. As commander of the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for nearly five years starting in 2003, McChrystal was in charge of death squad ops, his best advertised success being the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The phrase 'sophisticated networks' tends to crop up in assessments of McChrystal's Iraq years. Actually there's nothing fresh or sophisticated in what he did. Programmes of targeted assassination aren't new in counter-insurgency. The most infamous and best known was the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, designed to identify and eliminate cadres of Vietnam's National Liberation Front, informally known as the Viet Cong, of whom, on some estimates, at least 40,000 were duly assassinated.
In such enterprises two outcomes are inevitable. Identification of the human targets requires either voluntary informants or captives. In the latter instance torture is certain, whatever rhetorical pledges are proclaimed back home. There may be intelligence officers who rely on patient, non-violent interrogation, as the US officer who elicited the whereabouts of al-Zarqawi claims he did.
But there will be others who will reach for the garden hose and the face towel. (McChrystal, not uncoincidentally, was involved in the prisoner abuse scandal at Baghdad's Camp Nama. He also played a sordid role in the cover-up of the friendly-fire death of ex-NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman.)
Whatever the technique, a second certainty is the killing of large numbers of civilians in the final 'targeted assassination'. At one point in the first war on Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s, a huge component of US air sorties was devoted each day to bombing places where US intelligence had concluded Saddam might be hiding. Time after time, after the mangled bodies of men, women and children had been scrutinised, came the crestfallen tidings that Saddam was not among them.
Already in Afghanistan public opinion has been inflamed by the weekly bulletins of deadly bombardments either by drones or manned bombers. Still in the headlines is the US bombardment of Bala Boluk in Farah province, which yielded 140 dead villagers torn apart by high explosives, including 93 children. Only 22 were male and over 18.
Perhaps 'sophisticated intelligence' had identified one of these as an al-Qaeda man, or a Taliban captain, or maybe someone an Afghan informant to the US military just didn't care for. Maybe electronic eavesdropping simply screwed up the coordinates. If we ever know, it won't be for a very long time. Obama has managed a terse apology, even as he installs McChrystal, thus ensuring more of the same.
Obama is bidding to be as sure-footed as Bush in trampling on constitutional rights
The logic of targeted assassinations was on display in Gaza even as Obama worked on the uplifting phrases of his inaugural address in January. The Israelis claimed they were targeting only Hamas even as the body counts of women and children methodically refuted these claims and finally extorted from Obama a terse phrase of regret.
He may soon weary of uttering them. His course is set and his presidency already permanently stained the ever-familiar blood-red tint. There's no short-cut in counter-insurgency. A targeted bombing yields up Bala Boluk, and the incandescent enmity of most Afghans. The war on al-Qaeda mutates into the war on the Taliban, and 850,000 refugees in the Swat Valley in Pakistan.
The mild-mannered professor is bidding to be as sure-footed as Bush and Cheney in trampling on constitutional rights. He's planning to restore Bush's kangaroo courts for prisoners at Guantanamo who've never even been formally charged with a crime! He's threatening to hold some prisoners indefinitely in the US without trial.
He's even been awarded a hearty editorial clap on the back from the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Obama deserves credit for accepting that civilians courts are largely unsuited for the realities of the war on terror. He has now decided to preserve a tribunal process that will be identical in every material way to the one favoured by Dick Cheney."
It didn't take long. But it's what we've got for the rest of Obama-time