What Hath Obama Wrought? Drone Warfare in the Trump Era.

drones

President Barack Obama was going to be different.

“Eight years ago, Mr. Obama suggested a messenger from a dreamy, multicultural future,” said Adam Shatz, a Fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities. “America would be steered back on track, working with other countries to meet the challenges of what he often called an ‘interdependent’ world…”

“But it hasn’t worked out that way,” Shatz said. “Despite the best of intentions, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of of this dangerous and angry new world , where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism.”

One area where the dreamy optimism eroded was with the drone strikes carried out from operations centers around the world that President George Bush initiated and Obama escalated.

Pressed by public interest groups, in July 2016 the Obama Administration released its estimates of the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, all countries where the United States is not officially at war. The three-page report, titled “Total Number of Strikes Against Terrorist Targets Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”, said 473 U.S. drone strikes in those three countries during Obama’s two terms killed 64-116 civilians. The report also said 2,372-2,581 combatants were killed in U.S. airstrikes from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015.

The government acknowledged that its figures differed substantially from estimates by non-governmental organizations. The Long War Journal, for example, estimated 207 civilian deaths just in Pakistan and Yemen, New America estimated at least 216 civilian deaths in the two countries   and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that 380-801 civilians died during Obama’s presidency.

The U.S. defended its conclusions, however, asserting that:

  • U.S. government post-strike methodologies for determining combatant and non-combatant deaths were superior
  • The government relied on a more extensive collection and analysis of multiple sources of intelligence before, during, and after a strike, and
  • Some figures released by others have been tainted by the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations.

President Bush’s embrace of drone killings (he authorized about 50 non-battlefield drone strikes) stirred angry protests by liberals, but the massive escalation of drone strikes under Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama, including strikes on American citizens, hasn’t stirred up much public turmoil.

Until now.

Now, with President-elect Donald Trump about to take office, public debate and concern about the drone program is resurfacing in liberal circles.

“That any president has this kind of power is concerning on its own, but it’s even more alarming now that Donald Trump, who has praised repressive dictators like Vladimir Putin and shown little respect for things like international law and the Geneva Conventions, is going to be in the White House,” reported Vox on Jan. 10.

If Trump does go even more hog-wild with drones, a supine Congress, deferring to the Bush and Obama administrations, set him up for it by tolerating aggressive presidential behavior and being willing to watch passively as executive power was stretched beyond its constitutional bounds.

“…the truth is that both major parties under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have worked to remove the restraints on the presidency and drastically exaggerate its authority,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote recently in The Week. “If Donald Trump wants to wield nearly unlimited power, he’s seeking an office that provides it.”

Truth is the 1st casualty

Governments lie.

Even more so when the issue is war.

Obamadebate

“We will crush al-Qaeda,” Barack Obama insisted during the second presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2008. “That has to be our biggest national security priority.”

At various times, Obama has declared al-Qaeda to be “on the run,” “decimated” and “on their heels”. In Jan. 2014, he was quoted in a New Yorker article likening al-Qaeda to an ineffectual junior varsity team.

But just one week after ISIS carried out the Paris terrorist attacks, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda killed 20 people in Mali.

Then, in early December, al-Qaeda fighters seized two major cities in Yemen as part of its effort to expand its influence in the country.

So much for the collapse of al-Qaeda.

On multiple occasions Obama has also asserted that the last American troops in Afghanistan would return home by the end of his presidency, concluding the longest war in U.S. history. But fighting with the Taliban still rages.

On Dec. 21, a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorcycle slaughtered six American troops and injured two more near Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. And American troops will still be there when Obama leaves office.

“With control of — or a significant presence in — roughly 30 percent of districts across the nation, according to Western and Afghan officials, the Taliban now holds more territory than in any year since 2001, when the puritanical Islamists were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks,” the Washington Post reported today.

As Afghan security forces deal with over 7,000 dead and 12,000 injured in 2015,  U.S. Special Operations troops are increasingly being deployed into harm’s way to assist their Afghan counterparts, according to the Post.

But Obama still insists American troops aren’t at war in Afghanistan any more, just “training and advising”.

Of course, the Soviet government wasn’t exactly honest with its people when it sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979 either, or during its next 10 years of war there.

The Soviet Union sent over 100,000 soldiers to fight in Afghanistan, withdrawing only after at least 15,000 of its soldiers (and more than a million Afghans) had been killed.

SovietsAfghanistan

Soviet BMP-1 mechanized infantry combat vehicles and soldiers move through Afghanistan, 1988

Oral testimony from the Soviet soldiers reveals that during much of the war the Soviet government told its people little more than that their children were building hospitals and schools, helping the Afghans build a socialist state and “…bravely protecting the frontiers of the fatherland…in the execution of (their) international duty.”

In fact, there’s a long history of deception in American wars, too.

In 1898, President McKinley said the USS Maine had been sunk in Havana Harbor by a Spanish mine, killing 266 officers and enlisted men and justifying the Spanish-American War. It turned out burning coal in a bunker triggered an explosion in an adjacent space that contained ammunition.

USSMaine

The destruction of the USS Maine

Then there’s the U.S. war in Vietnam.

In 1964, President Johnson ordered retaliatory attacks against gunboats and supporting facilities in North Vietnam after attacks against U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Spurred on by Johnson, the U.S. Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Only two Senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, voted “no”.

But reports of the attacks were a lie, as were so many reports on the progress of the war in subsequent years and incursions into Laos and Cambodia.

And so began the tragedy known as the Vietnam War.

VietnamUStroops

Wounded U.S. soldiers await a medevac helicopter during a war that in time claimed 58,000 American lives..

David Halberstam wrote an often-cited book “The Best and the Brightest” about the overconfident, foolish people who pursued the war.

“The basic question behind the book,” he said later, “was why men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government this century had been the architects of what struck me as likely to be the worst tragedy since the Civil War.” (The term “Best and the brightest “ has often been twisted since then to mean the top, smart people, the opposite of Halberstam’s original meaning)

Years later, Daniel Ellsberg, who made the explosive Pentagon Papers public, said, “The Pentagon Papers…proved that the government had long lied to the country. Indeed, the papers revealed a policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman administration onward.”

And then, of course, there were the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

“We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. “…should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons at a time and a place and in a manner of his choosing, at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond? The United States will not and cannot run that risk for the American people.”

powell

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations

And so the war began.

As columnist Sydney Schanberg wrote, “We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disillusionment and despair: the Trump turmoil

Donald Trump isn’t a candidate.

Donald-Trump-Caricature

He’s a stand-in for the alienation and disillusionment so many Americans feel as both the Republican and Democratic parties have failed us.

How could it be otherwise when so much seems so wrong and fakery, misdirection, and outright lies by both parties have been so pervasive?

Consider:

  • The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality in the United States since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years.
  • The 2009 $830 billion stimulus package, with a claimed focus on shovel-ready projects, was supposed to fix things after the Great Recession. The legacy instead – a slow growth economy. The first 23 quarters of the recovery, which officially began in June of 2009, had an annual rate of growth of just 2.1 percent.
  • The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal than that of income. The wealthiest 5 percent of American households held 54 percent of all wealth reported in 1989, rose to 61 percent in 2010 and reached 63 percent in 2013.
  • 71 percent of Americans say life has gotten worse for middle-class Americans over the past 10 years.
  • Today’s fifty-somethings may be part of the first generation in American history to experience a lifetime of downward mobility, in which at every stage of adult life, they have had less income and less net wealth than did people who were their age ten years before.
  • There is now less economic mobility in the United States than in Canada or much of Europe. A child born in the bottom one-fifth of incomes in the United States has only a 4 percent chance of rising to the top one-fifth.
  • Young Americans (ages 18-34) are earning less (adjusted for inflation) than their peers in 1980 ; the college graduating class this year left with an average student debt of $35,051.
  • In 1986, President Reagan signed legislation that was supposed to fix the illegal immigration issue once and for all. Three million applied for legal status and about 2.7 million received it. Today, about 11.7 million immigrants are living in the United States illegally. So much for the fix.
  • Despite all the “mission accomplished” and “victory is at hand” assurances, America has been at war in the Middle East for the past 15 years, with little to show for it, billions of dollars down a rathole, thousands of American soldiers dead and wounded, and continuing chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
  • Despite the billions the government has spent on poverty-related programs, half of children age three and younger live in poverty.
  • The White House wants to “press the reset button” on one of Washington’s biggest challenges: its increasingly troublesome relationship with Russia,” Vice President Biden, 2/7/2009; “We’re going to hit the reset button and start fresh (with Russia),” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 3/6/2009
  • “If you like the plan you have, you can keep it.  If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too.” President Obama, 6/6/2009.
  • “I ended the war in Iraq, as I promised. We are transitioning out of Afghanistan. We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda.” President Obama, 9/14/2012
  • Despite assurances from some politicians that all’s well, the Medicare program has $28.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities over the next 75 years. Together with Social Security’s $13.3 trillion shortfall, the government has accumulated entitlement spending commitments that far exceed our capacity to pay for them.
  • In the 2012 election cycle, a tiny elite of the U.S. population, just 0.40 %, made a political contribution of more than $200, providing 63.5% of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs and Parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign to date, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.

As H.L. Mencken said, “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.”