Sunday, November 11, 2012

David Petraeus and Obama's War of Terror

On Tuesday, Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States.  On Wednesday, the President ordered the bombing of a site near Sana’a in Yemen.  On Thursday, I visited the Berkeley Art Museum and Boalt Hall with my students to discuss Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib series.  And on Friday, David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, later of the ISAF armies in Afghanistan, and until-now head of the C.I.A., resigned after admitting to an affair (which the FBI was investigating lest it prove to be a security breach). 

Petraeus was the closest thing to a “war hero” that our sorry and largely forgotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and the attendant bombings in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, have produced.  But he is also the man who like General Stanley McChrystal usurped his constitutional position, upending the premise of civilian command and control of the armed services, when he took the airwaves repeatedly to undermine the integrity of President Obama’s Afghanistan review.  Unlike McChrystal, he paid no price for going on manoeuvres in the media, for his backstabbing, or for his open, dangerous, and destructive politicking in national security matters. 

Petraeus is a man who elicits an almost nauseatingly-unaccountable amount of fawning from the media and politicians.  “Did a Great Man Have to Fall?” agonised one commentator.  California’s senior (and neoconservative) senator, Dianne Feinstein, one of Petraeus’ key congressional allies as he lobbied to dig in deeper in Afghanistan, prolonging an increasingly pointless and self-propelling conflict, described how the news was like a “lightning bolt”, a “heartbreak”.  John McCain provided more of the same.

  The BBC’s John Simpson wrote, bafflingly, that “the US has lost one of its most admired public servants—the man who came up with the plan which successfully got his country out of one unpopular war, and will get it out of another by 2014”.  That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but those of us less removed from reality might characterise things differently.  Petraeus embodied the Pentagon’s ego-driven, pig-headed desire to win at all costs, and his “surges” actually drew us deeper into one immoral and unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq.

World Affairs Editor Simpson recalls Petraeus saying in 2007, “Of course it’s possible to win this war, and I intend to do it”.  And in Iraq, like in Afghanistan, Petraeus’ “leadership” drew the United States deeper and deeper into a conflict which was misplaced at the outset, bloody, and ever more undefined.  It is a war which is increasingly abstracted from our national consciousness, which has forced us to rely on more and more constitutionally- and morally-offensive means (unchecked drone strikes, laws like the NDAA which allow for the indefinite detention of American citizens), and which we are now learning, as we prepare to withdraw having achieved precisely nothing, was fought largely for political purposes rather than for its relation to the public interest. 

Petraeus’ doctrine of counterinsurgency gave new life and legitimacy to our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, without bothering to question the underlying premises of these wars, the relationship between wars of aggression and the manifold threats to our national security, or whether it is possible to transform a war of aggression into a nation-building enterprise.

Petraeus’ doctrine differed, moreover, from that of the President, who delimited the purpose behind our occupations of Afghanistan and bombings of Pakistan in increasingly stark terms, devoid of either moral imperative or developmental ambition.  Security, rather than social ambition, drives the President’s foreign policy.  And as we have learned under the Bush and Obama administrations, security can justify anything.  It justified the brutal torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib.  It justifies the retention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in defiance of law.  It justifies NDAA.  It justifies drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen (and those with their eye on western Africa know that there is undoubtedly prospect for their use in places like Chad, Mali and elsewhere). 

These wars, which the President has the audacity to claim are not wars because no U.S. troops stand in harm’s way (thereby avoiding Congressional oversight), still contain all the attributes of traditional war.  Our military might is brought to bear on an enemy, our weapons systems are used to attack that enemy, and, most importantly, people die.  People die increasingly indiscriminately in the course of Obama’s Wars of Terror, drones not being the precise, surgical implements his national security team would have us believe them to be.  And to say that this is not war because those who are dying are not American soldiers is disgusting and wrong.

Because of the destruction and death which these wars wreak, waged far beyond our boundaries for the amorphous ambition of serving our “national security”, they amount to wars of aggression, which the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (the tribunal which prosecuted Hitler’s generals for waging aggressive war) described as “essentially an evil thing”.  These wars do not serve the public interest.  Their violence, however coated in perverse legalese, is blanket and arbitrary, earning our military apparatus and, more importantly, our public, the righteous ire of people around the world.  Obama’s War of Terror might be decimating the ranks of Al Qaeda (itself driven by specific political questions which grew out of the international malpractice of earlier U.S. administrations), but the War of Terror is simultaneously obliterating human life and livelihoods, ensuring the perpetuation of a vicious cycle of violence.  We will continue to reap the whirlwind, via what the military calls “blowback”, what some might call “revenge”, and what some savants might call the laws of cause and effect.

Senator Feinstein bemoaned Petraeus’ leaving, suggesting that he could have been “a super transitional figure for the CIA”.  But he already has been, having provided concrete evidence of the militarisation of our intelligence sphere, transforming it from an agency which works to understand world events, anticipate troubles, and provide information to its civilian masters who decide how the U.S. should interact with the world, into an uncritical appendage of our war machine, providing comfort to fevered neoconservative theorists, waging war at the behest of a cynical President, giving comfort and aid to our enemies through its embrace of violence, and inciting fear and mistrust and unease in the very public its actions imperil.

As an idiot from Texas once tried to say, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice...”

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