However, out-going U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently referred to the hostage killings in Algeria as follows: “This is a war. It is the war on terrorism”. In doing so, he was joining a chorus of European leaders. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made the argument that hostage-taking amounted to “an act of war”. British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to a “global threat [which] will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months”. Invoking Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton declared that events in Mali pose “a very serious, ongoing threat because if you look at the size of northern Mali, if you look at the topography—it’s not only desert, it’s caves...Sounds reminiscent. We are in for a struggle. But it is a necessary struggle”.
The Government has signed an agreement with Niger to develop a base for drones out of that country, signalling its intention to dig in and expand its military presence in West Africa, an entrenchment which in other parts of the world has fuelled resentment against and attacks on the U.S. and its bases while exacerbating regional conflicts that are often basically local in their origins and ambitions, transforming them into the global conflicts the U.S. is ostensibly interested in resolving. The use of drones has been recognised to be so problematic that the United Nations is currently investigating the practise, which abroad is leading to the casualisation of war and at home to the aggrandisement of opaquely-invoked and impunibly-wielded executive power. The President himself reportedly pledged to “avenge” the deaths of Americans killed in the attack on the Benghazi mission in language horrifyingly reminiscent of the worst moments of the Bush years.
This all amounts to a belief that there is something which began during the Bush years but which cannot be stopped. The President recognised the danger of embracing messianic, Manichean, divisive, crusading language, and he appeared, in the initial stages of his administration, to try to disaggregate the conflict that Bush and the Republican neoconservatives had styled, with diabolical glee, as a global conflict for civilisation. The President then appeared willing to recognise, in a limited way, that we were reaping what we had sown, that our own actions were behind what we were (in some cases needlessly) combating, that we needed to re-think our approach to the world.
But now his action suggest that the President believes that this is a cycle which cannot be broken, and which must instead be managed (because he cannot be stupid enough to believe that the acerebral application of military force can end it) by meeting violence with violence. Perhaps the President doesn’t have the personal will or believe himself to harbour the political capital necessary to step away from the mindset of a colonial power, the weapons of a war-prone government, or the alliances made during decades of wallowing in the mud with distasteful regimes of all types. Or perhaps he was genuinely frightened by the apocalyptic vision undoubtedly laid out before him in the early days of his presidency by the paranoid spooks and bloodthirsty warriors who live in a narrow world, see only a cross-section of the world, and love nothing better than thinking from a cultural, moral, and bureaucratic corner. How terrible, in either case, to believe that war is always the best answer.
If the President is so obviously committed to digging in and embracing the character, language, and weaponry of the war on terror he deplored in his predecessor, how do we then explain his lie in the State of the Union...that our wars are drawing to a close?
On the one hand, it is conceivable that he has drunk deeply enough of his own legal kool-aid that he genuinely believes that asking soldiers to kill people by firing a missile from a drone is different from asking them to kill people by pulling a trigger. Perhaps he is credulous enough to believe that the people whose homes are destroyed or relatives murdered will understand the subtle distinction which will not change in the slightest the fact that wherever the missile is fired from, they remain surrounded by rubble and bodies.
On the other, our shameful President might be hoping that, true to form, the public will not be able to muster up much thought for the lives of people living in other countries. Timbuktu has been characteristically invoked in the west as a faraway, obscure sort of place. Perhaps the President recognises this and hopes that war in Mali, in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, and the wars to come in Niger, Chad and Algeria, will not register to a public which sometimes appears to pride itself on geographic ignorance and a concomitant indifference to the “collateral damage” we inflict on people in other parts of the world in pursuit of a version of security which has nothing to do with the public interest or with my or your safety.
We are faced with a President who for reasons which remain unclear is convinced that an easily-entered multi-fronted war with no conceivable end in sight is preferable to the hard work of breaking that cycle of violence-begetting violence. We have two political parties which support him: one because its leadership is enamoured of violence, convinced of our righteousness, committed to the use of brute force, and contemptuous of people living outside our borders. The other sees political capital to be mined from going quietly along. And we have to look ourselves in the eye, and ask how long we are prepared to tolerate this hazardous, inexcusable state of affairs.