America’s endless war

War without end

By Lawrence Davidson

There is an American tradition of frequent war. Indeed, over the course of the country’s history the United States been at war almost constantly.

Some of these have been relatively short conflicts like interventions in various Central American venues. Some have been much larger and longer affairs, like the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam.

The point to be drawn from this is that the people of the United States are (perhaps unconsciously) acclimated to always being in one sort of armed conflict or another.

In denial

Unfortunately, this history renders a recent public statement by the Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeb Johnson, into just a bit of fanciful idealism. He insisted “war must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs”. Certainly not for Americans. With their active assumption that the US represents the world’s best chance for the victory of “good” against “evil”, Americans seem willing to battle on as long as they are convinced they are winning and the casualties are low.

That may be why there was no popular protest when Michael Sheehan, Obama’s assistant secretary of defence for “special operations”, told a Senate hearing that the country’s “war on terror” might last “at least 10 or 20 years” longer (it has already been going on 12 years). In the mainstream media, there was not even a noticeable raising of an anchorperson’s eyebrows!

Of course there are religious fanatics at work on both sides of the “war on terror”, but those in the Middle East have grievances to focus on and US policies are seen as one source of those.

The reason given for Sheehan’s prognosis was that Al-Qaeda, and its franchise allies, keep recreating themselves as fast as their alleged leaders can be droned into oblivion. Missing from the congressional and media reaction was the obvious question of “how come” such groups keep recreating themselves? Many middle-echelon State Department analysts familiar with the Middle East know the answer has something to do with the fact that US policies in the region have not significantly changed since the 9/11 attacks. Most of the personnel above the middle echelon are political appointees who keep asserting that what motivates the Al-Qaeda types is religious fanaticism. Of course there are religious fanatics at work on both sides of the “war on terror”, but those in the Middle East have grievances to focus on and US policies are seen as one source of those.

The fact that the “war on terror” is largely a consequence of American policies cemented into place by powerful special interests calls into question President Obama’s recent assertion that “this is a just war, a war waged proportionally in last resort and in self-defence”. It also suggests that the struggle is likely to go on and on until its ruinous consequences become so obvious to the voting public that the politicians are forced to break with their special interest supporters. This is the real criterion for change, for, under the present circumstances, there will always be “terrorists” out there who, to reword an assertion of President Bush, “hate our policies”. And what is there not to hate about draconian sanctions, the arming of dictators and giving opened-ended support to the most racist state in the region?

Rules of engagement

In the meantime, President Obama has been trying to create “rules of engagement” for the use of the government’s primary weapon in this endless war: those remote-controlled bombs we call drones. These rules will, he says, provide “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” and satisfy partisan congressional grumblings, if not the more pertinent questions of human rights advocates.

What the Obama administration (and the Bush regime before it) has done is take up the illegal Israeli “targeted assassination” programme, which constitutes the behaviour of a rogue state.

To this end the White House has issued guidelines concerning procedures for counterterrorism operations such as drone attacks. The guidelines tell us “there must be a legal basis for using lethal force” and decisions to use such “force against individual terrorists outside the United States and areas of active hostilities are made at the most senior levels of the US government”. The document then lays out other specific preconditions for the use of lethal force, among which are:

1. “Near certainty” that the terrorist target is present.

2. “Near certainty” that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.

3. An assessment that “capture is not feasible at the time of the operation”.

4. An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in “the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to US persons”.

5. An assessment that “no other reasonable alternatives exist” to effectively address the threat to US persons.

Finally, “international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally – and on the way in which the United States can use force. The United States respects national sovereignty and international law.”

The problem with these guidelines, beyond a number of undefined terms such as “near certainty”, “reasonable” and “feasible”, is that their criteria misrepresent reality or are utterly unreliable. For instance, under international law there is no “legal” basis for this sort of use of “lethal force”. What the Obama administration (and the Bush regime before it) has done is take up the illegal Israeli “targeted assassination” programme, which constitutes the behaviour of a rogue state. Even from a domestic legal prospective, Obama’s criteria for targeted assassination will be carried out behind closed doors. There will be no due process. And there will be no accountability for “mistakes”. Finally, nothing in the guidelines is enacted into legislation and therefore, assuming an effort to actually follow their criteria, they are specific to the Obama presidency and have no authority over his successors. As Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, put it, “a mere promise that the US will work within established guidelines… provides little confidence that the US is complying with international law”.

Conclusion

Throughout the country’s history of one war following another, there has been a parallel history of cyclical deterioration and recovery of constitutional rights. However, with the government’s wholehearted embrace of targeted assassination, as well as modern surveillance technology and the precedent of offshore prisons for “enemy combatants”, one wonders if, from now on, the recovery of rights will ever be fully equal to their loss. Maybe now it really will be all downhill for freedom in the “land of the free”.

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