Last week, shortly after being inaugurated, President Barack Obama ended the “global war on terror” (GWOT). Or so The Washington Post reported. The new president countermanded the Bush administration’s extralegal approaches by mandating the closure of Guantánamo within a year, outlawing the use of torture in interrogations, and putting the CIA out of the secret prisons business. Obama announced that he wanted to “send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be as just as our cause.”
Sounds good. But the Post‘s declaration might be just as premature as President George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Lincoln that signaled the “end” of the Iraq War.
On the civil liberties front, for instance, the administration retains the right to use renditions, by which the CIA secretly abducted suspects and transferred them to third countries without trial. “I think it’s a glaring hole,” Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights said last week on Democracy Now! “I think that one way that the Obama administration could have dealt a more decisive blow to the illegal Bush policies and even the rendition policy, which originated under Bill Clinton, is to specifically reference this and to say that we are going to disavow this.”
Also, the inmates at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, which holds more prisoners than Gitmo, and the thousands held in Iraq won’t get the case-by-case review accorded to their counterparts in Cuba. Non-military agencies like the CIA, after a six-month review, might get “additional or different guidance” on interrogations – and who knows what that means. And, as Politico points out, the guy in charge of the 30-day review of Gitmo is the same fellow who was in charge for the last two years – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. That’s not exactly a recipe for reform.
But even if Obama holds to his word on torture, closes Guantánamo within the year, applies the same yardstick to detainees at Bagram and in Iraq, and eliminates the Clinton-era policy on extraordinary rendition, the death of the “global war on terror,” as Mark Twain once said of his own prematurely published obituary, is greatly exaggerated. Indeed, on the day after it published GWOT’s obituary, The Washington Post reported on two U.S. unilateral air strikes in Pakistan that killed 20 suspected terrorists. Although it observed an uncharacteristic silence over these strikes, the Pakistani government has previously expressed outrage at these violations of its sovereignty.
Then there’s Afghanistan, which will be the new epicenter of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the official White House statement on foreign policy: “Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security – the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan’s economic development.”
Why does Obama believe that he can escape the same outcome in Afghanistan that Bush faced in Iraq? As former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern argued in a recent appeal for a five-year “time-out” on war, “In 2003, the Bush administration ordered an invasion of Iraq, supposedly to reduce terrorism. But six years later, there is more terrorism and civil strife in Iraq, not less. The same outcome may occur in Afghanistan if we make it the next American military conflict.”
So, is this a kinder, gentler GWOT? Certainly the new Obama administration is more concerned about observing international law. It’s more prudent in its willingness to use diplomacy over force. But so far at least, the new president still treats terrorism as a war to be won rather than an endemic problem to be dealt with, patiently and largely by law enforcement agencies. We’re still at war in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and for the time being in Iraq. We’re still selling arms to Indonesia, Israel, and Colombia as part of an overall counterterrorism approach. The Pentagon’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM) still looks at counterterrorism through a military lens.
Sounds to me like we haven’t seen the last of GWOT quite yet.
Roll Back…the Carter Administration!
Some progressives – I’m not naming names, though the Center for American Progress does come to mind – tend to treat the recent Bush administration like an eight-year bacterial infection of U.S. foreign policy that a good dose of Obama-biotics can cure. Alas, the problems with U.S. foreign policy stretch back further into the past and share a Democratic lineage – from Clinton (extraordinary rendition) to Truman (the national security state) and even back to Wilson (double standards on self-determination).
As Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Michael Klare argues, Jimmy Carter is on the list as well for his doctrine of using military force to secure U.S. access to Middle Eastern oil. “President Obama has promised to make a substantial investment in oil alternatives,” Klare writes in Repudiate the Carter Doctrine. “Such efforts are expected to be a major component of his economic stimulus package and deserve strong public backing. But this is only half of the problem. To overcome what he calls the ‘tyranny of oil,’ he must also repudiate the Carter Doctrine and reject the use of military force to ensure access to Middle Eastern petroleum. Only in this way can we be certain that the Iraq War will be the last time U.S. soldiers shed their blood for oil.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy is a positive sign, given Mitchell’s more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes points out, “balance” will not be enough to restart the peace process.
“The problem in being ‘balanced’ in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it fails to recognize the unbalanced nature of a conflict between an occupied people and their occupiers,” Zunes writes in Is Mitchell Up to the Task? “While balance in the sense of recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have the fundamental right to live in peace and security is indeed critical, it should be remembered that Palestinian land is being occupied, confiscated, and colonized, not Israeli land; that Israeli military and economic power is dramatically greater than that of the Palestinians; that Palestinian civilians have been killed in far greater numbers than Israeli civilians; and that it’s the Palestinians and not the Israelis who have been denied their fundamental right of statehood.”
War and Art
I recently interviewed Mladen Miljanovic, who won the prestigious Bell Award in 2007 as the best young visual artist in Bosnia Herzegovina. In my Postcard from…Banja Luka, I look at one of the intriguing works in his recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the capital of Republika Srpska.
“The art is shaped by his experience of war, of serving in the military, of living in a society still scarred by violence,” I write. “The title of the show, ‘Occupational Therapy,’ suggests a working out of trauma through concrete work. In the installation titled ‘Re-production,’ a needle passes over a turntable made of spent cartridges. From a set of speakers, clustered around the turntable like soldiers taking orders, issues forth a horrible screech. Is this the music of war? Or the sound of a traumatized society struggling to reproduce something useful from the remains of conflict?”
The new movie Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary about an Israeli soldier’s memories of involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, is collecting awards here and abroad. It’s also being published as a graphic novel. Check out TomDispatch for an eye-opening excerpt.
Also on the topic of war and memory: if you’re in the DC area, check out our event on Wednesday, January 29 at the Peace Mural in Georgetown. “War, Memory and Representation in Art: Burma, Korea, Laos, & Vietnam” will feature panelists Kyi May Kaung, Annabel Park, Channapha Khamvongsa, and Anna Huong addressing the challenge of picturing war. FPIF co-director Emira Woods will moderate. This will be a great chance to see Huong’s epic mural, which Kyi May Kaung described in this FPIF article. It’s a mural, but don’t worry: the art and the event will both be inside.
FPIF, January 28, 2009