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How Presidential War Came Out of the Shadows – and We Went Into Them
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War was commonly said to have partially plunged “into the shadows” as a secret, off-the-grid, spy-versus-spy conflict fought between the planet's two superpowers. No one caught this mood better than John le Carré in his famed Smiley novels which offered a riveting portrait of Soviet, British, and American spies locked in mortal combat, yet with more in common with each other than with either of their aboveground societies. So many decades later, with the Soviet Union long gone, it’s strange to discover that, in the case of the United States at least, those “shadows” have only lengthened. Increasingly, as the Iraq War fades into history (and out of memory) and the Afghan War winds down, the American way of war itself is being drawn into those shadows.
Admittedly, since World War II, control over war -- who to fight, when to wage it, and how to fight it -- has been on a migratory path into the White House and the national security bureaucracy, leaving Congress and the American people out in the cold. In the last decade, however, a high-tech, privatized, covert version of war has become presidential property, fought at the White House’s behest by robots, warrior corporations, and two presidentially controlled “private” forces (a paramilitarized CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command). With this transformation has gone a series of decisions that have plunged American-style war ever further into darkness. In the last few years, for instance, two presidents, enveloped in a penumbra of secrecy and without the knowledge of the American people or possibly much of Congress, deployed the latest in experimental weaponry -- weapons that could someday unravel our world -- in the first cyberwar in history. They wielded what someday will undoubtedly be reclassified as weapons of mass destruction against Iran, paving the way for future global cyberwars which could devastate this country.
In the same years, the same two presidents took control of another new form of conflict, drone warfare. Across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, they launched massive, high-tech campaigns of assassination (“targeted killings”) that may have no equivalent in history. These have involved hundreds of air strikes and thousands of casualties. Enfolded in secrecy, a complex, increasingly codified panoply of national security processes (including “terror Tuesday” meetings to decide just who to kill), the president has turned himself into our first assassin-in-chief.
As the Washington Post recently reported in a three-part series, he has also overseen a process by which ad hoc killing has morphed into a codified, bureaucratic, normalized killing machine deeply embedded in the White House, a “disposal matrix” or “kill list” that will be handed off to future presidents in a “war” (once known as the Global War on Terror) with at least “a decade” to go and possibly no end in sight. In a language that used to be left to Hollywood’s version of the Mafia, the White House, as judge, jury, and executioner, now regularly puts out hits around the world, while discussing “the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted.”
In one Post piece focused on Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti as the key base for presidential war in Africa, a detail caught my eye. It seemed to capture the ever-darkening nature of this war-making moment. Speaking of the hundreds of elite special operations forces there, Craig Whitlock wrote, “Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.” Put another way, this new form of warfare is far enough into the shadows that the names of a major part of the U.S. military, tens of thousands of elite troops whose command has just gotten its own “secret targeting center” in Washington 15 minutes from the White House, can’t even be known to other U.S. military personnel who work with them.
Imagine, then, what our world might be like once future techno-versions of presidential war now being developed come online. What will it mean when, in the third decade of this century, in pursuit of the same Global War on Terror, drone war has morphed into a “triple canopy space shield” and “robotic information system,” as described in “Beyond Bayonets and Battleships” in chilling detail by Alfred McCoy, author of the new book Endless Empire? Imagine when, from outer space to the spreading Camp Lemonniers of planet Earth, the White House can make secret war in a myriad of high-tech and robotic ways without even a nod to you and me. By then, in at least one possible future, our whole world may lie in those shadows.