America's Words of Peace and Acts of War

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Common Dreams

America's Words of Peace and Acts of War

Is America at War with Islam? The question began to be asked when the first evidence emerged of the transfer of hundreds of innocent Muslims to Guantanamo and the despotic new order that permitted indefinite detention of suspects. The investigations in Iraq led by David Kay and Charles Duelfer established that our war against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had actually torn apart a country empty of such weapons; and this was a second large piece of evidence to suggest that America was waging a war against Islam founded on prejudice and hostility. The racist treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere gave additional point to the suspicions. Nothing, in fact, that George W. Bush ever said could be construed to signal a religious war. But all wars are an infernal machine in which the persons most infected with hate inevitably flourish and are promoted.

The United States in the past decade has now killed, at a low estimate, 225,000 people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

President Obama, immediately on being elected, took the largest conceivable step to prove the U.S. was not at war with Islam. On January 22, 2009, he ordered the closure of Guantanamo. "Some individuals," ran the text of his official directive,

currently detained at Guantánamo have been there for more than 6 years, and most have been detained for at least 4 years. In view of the significant concerns raised by these detentions, both within the United States and internationally, prompt and appropriate disposition of the individuals currently detained at Guantánamo and closure of the facilities in which they are detained would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice.

So three paramount interests -- national security, foreign policy, and justice -- all would be served, according to the new president, by the closing of a prison whose name had become a by-word for torture and injustice and whose continued existence was a blot on the fame of the United States.

President Obama spoke in a similar key when he addressed the Arab world in Cairo, on June 4, 2009. He promised a new era of mutual understanding, a winding down of American wars in the region, and the application of all his political energy and influence toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

He reiterated the same message on August 21, 2009 in a special Ramadan Message to a Muslim audience both in Arab lands and in America:

We are also committed to keeping our responsibility to build a world that is more peaceful and secure. That is why we are responsibly ending the war in Iraq. That is why we are isolating violent extremists while empowering the people in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we are unyielding in our support for a two-state solution that recognizes the rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security. And that is why America will always stand for the universal rights of all people to speak their mind, practice their religion, contribute fully to society and have confidence in the rule of law.

All of these efforts are a part of America's commitment to engage Muslims and Muslim-majority nations on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.

Obama added, in the understated manner of a leader who knows the value of humility: "We have listened. We have heard you."

His intention to employ the methods of mutual understanding to America's foreign policy in southwest Asia was modified in the speech he delivered at West Point, on December 1, 2009, ordering an escalation of the war in Afghanistan by the addition of 30,000 more U.S. soldiers:

Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development. ... And going forward, the Pakistani people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.

President Obama in December 2009 was at pains to assure two countries, in which above 100,000 American troops were already on the ground, that "unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours." We were, in short, at war in Islamic lands but it was not a war against Islam.

As is now well-recognized, President Obama's chief reform in the wars in Arab lands has turned out to consist of removing some of the troops and substituting for them drones armed with missiles that assassinate terrorist suspects from the air. All men of military age killed by the missiles fired by American drones are automatically counted as enemy combatants. This means that neighbors of the suspects, if they are men of military age, are by their proximity to the intended victims posthumously convicted of terrorism. Drones, in President Obama's enthusiastic opinion, were a tremendous advance on the clumsy and brutal methods of his predecessor. They reduced deaths on both sides. But the main difference between Bush's sparing use of drones and Obama's thoroughgoing dependence on them is brought out by comparing the statistics (admittedly vague and unsatisfactory) available from both periods. It shows up in the proportion of numbers of children and civilian dead to the total numbers of the unclassified "other." The third category, which covers presumed militants, possible militants, and military-age men, in the Obama years has taken up a larger and larger share of the reported dead. The category is, to repeat, deliberately obscure. Nothing is known about the "other" except that they are not children, not women, and not old men. All of the reports are approximate, owing to the terror induced by the attacks -- which includes a terror of being interviewed -- and the difficulty of counting and identifying the exploded remains.

Pakistan is the most dangerous of the countries in which American military force abroad operates. It is dangerous because Pakistan is in possession of nuclear weapons and because the strain of fanaticism in that country is virulent. Has the proliferation of drone strikes under President Obama reconciled the Pakistanis, as at West Point he hoped it would, to the peaceful intentions of America? A Pew Poll in June 2012 suggested the opposite. According to its findings, in the wake of three and a half years of drone warfare commandeered by President Obama, 74 percent of Pakistanis then considered the United States an enemy. The varieties of "surgical" warfare that are enforced by the president had intensified anti-American feeling above any previous level. The Pew result of 2012 was confirmed by a Gallup Poll in February 2013, in which Pakistani respondents indicated that they distrust Obama now as much as Bush. Asked whether they thought (in keeping with the vows of the president's Ramadan Message) that contact with the West was a threat or a benefit, 55 percent rated it mostly a threat to themselves and their way of life, while 31 percent rated it as a benefit.

Drones constitute a violent innovation in a violent foreign policy. They encroach on the sovereignty of foreign countries, some of them initially friendly or even allied, and they are used to assassinate citizens of those countries. The consequence if other nations made use of these weapons as America now does, would be international anarchy. As President Obama put it in his Nobel Prize Lecture on December 10, 2009, "America -- in fact, no nation -- can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions." Seven days after Barack Obama spoke those words, his administration executed the first drone attack on Yemen of which we have a distinct record. The December 17 missile strike against the Yemeni village of al-Majalah killed 46 persons. At least 21 of them were children, and many of the remaining were women. Jeremy Scahill in a recent interview on Democracy Now went further into the facts of the destruction:

The weapons used? They used a Tomahawk cruise missile, and they used cluster bombs. And the cluster bombs are like flying land mines. And they drop in these parachutes, and they explode, and they can shred people.

As Scahill goes on to explain, the first Yemeni journalist to report on this attack, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, "was arrested after he exposed the Majalah bombing, and he remains in prison to this day." President Obama wanted him in prison. It is not a good thing to have the effects of American violence exposed in detail; and, if protection for American arms requires the jailing of a writer who is doing his job, that is a bump on the road to mutual forgiveness. Scahill is explicit here: "President Obama called Ali Abdullah Saleh and said, 'We don't want him released.'"

Five months later, at the 2010 White House Correspondents' Dinner, President Obama made his first joke about the lethal effectiveness of drone attacks:

Jonas Brothers are here tonight. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don't get any ideas. Two words: predator drones. You will never see it coming.

This was an expressive moment, and it had been rehearsed with care. President Obama was showing that just as he inherited Bush's wars, he had also inherited Bush's sense of humor. The video clip of the joke, which the White House press corps seem to have enjoyed, had a more ambiguous reception among Muslims in Arab lands who encountered it on-line. Many of these viewers may have heard Obama's Ramadan Message at the end of the preceding summer. Was it wrong of them to interpret the sincerity of the message by the heartlessness of the joke?

The moral disaster of the Guantanamo hunger strike has now alarmed the president into second thougts. In his April 30 press conference, Obama seemed to wish that he could return to the mood of the Ramadan Message of August 2009. The maintenance of an offshore prison that violates the onshore U.S. Constitution, he said, "is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

But Obama, as is his wont, declined to take much responsibility for the enormities that are still committed at Guantanamo four years after he ordered it closed. The hunger strike and force-feeding were the fault of the majority in Congress, who "determined that they would not let us close it and despite the fact that there are a number of the folks who are currently in Guantanamo who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country." Still, he said, he would try to do the little a president can do:

I'm going to go back at this. I've asked my team to review everything that's currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively.... I mean, the notion that we're going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no man's land in perpetuity, even at a time when we've wound down the war in Iraq, we're winding down the war in Afghanistan, we're having success defeating al Qaida core, we've kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we've transferred detention authority in Afghanistan -- the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried -- that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.

Obama did not mention that even as he wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has heated up new wars in Yemen and Somalia and, by his intervention in Libya, has helped to precipitate the chaos in Mali. But he continued his answer in a tenor of impotent good will. Of the inhuman abuse of force-feeding, he said, with an emphasis hard to decipher: "I don't want these individuals to die." He added almost plaintively:

But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this? I mean, we've got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country. Nothing's happened to them. Justice has been served. It's been done in a way that's consistent with our Constitution, consistent with due process, consistent with rule of law, consistent with our traditions.... And I understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with the traumas that had taken place, why, for a lot of Americans, the notion was somehow that we had to create a special facility like Guantanamo, and we couldn't handle this in -- in a normal, conventional fashion. I understand that reaction. But we're now over a decade out. We should be wiser.... And this is a lingering, you know, problem that is not going to get better. It's going to get worse. It's going to fester. And so I'm going to -- as I've said before, we're -- examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue. But ultimately, we're also going to need some help from Congress. And I'm going to ask some -- some folks over there who, you know, care about fighting terrorism but also care about who we are as a people to -- to step up and -- and help me on it.

The extraordinarily vague reference asking "my team" to look into it, and asking "some folks over there" who know about terrorism to "help me on it," might suggest, to close observers of this president, an underlying weakness of specific resolve.

The grammar of complaint ("We should be wiser," "We should reflect") and the grammar of wish ("It needs to stop") in this revealing monologue never crosses paths with the grammar of responsibility. "Why are we doing this?" is the locution of someone who denies a particular and personal responsibility. A strangely impersonal stepping back has become a characteristic mark of this president's frequent invocations of high moral purpose. When one hears a phrase like "It needs to be closed," one cannot help recalling the imperative but evasive construction of sentences such as "Mubarak must go" and "Gaddafi must go" and "Assad must go." The president talks as if he were a being who has considerable powers of action which he has chosen not to use, but which he trusts others, on "reflection," to take up somehow in order to embody his intuitions in deeds.

Democracy Now, which has become the conscience of the country in these matters, on May 1 broadcast an interview with a human rights lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei, who gave reasons for encouraging the president's renewal of humanitarian purpose, and reasons for doubting his profession of helplessness. Senator Feinstein, said Kebriaei:

made an important statement last week calling for review of the cases of the 86 people. Of the 166 who remain, 86 have been approved for transfer by the administration. She called for the review of those cases and efforts to move those people out of Guantánamo. So, there is support within Congress. There are representatives who have said they would not only stand with President Obama, they would be cheering him. But ultimately, the authority rests with the president. He doesn't need Congress. There is authority within the NDAA for his secretary of defense to certify transfers. What's needed is political courage and action at this point.

There is a courage of the deed and a prelude to courage by words. It has often been said that this president excels at the second; but there are also plain truths he has never dared to utter.

Violence abroad and violence at home are connected. Nobody ever proved that connection as vividly as Martin Luther King in his April 1967 Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War. What, then, of the violence at home and abroad in 2013? The murders committed by fanatics in Boston and earlier at Fort Hood were incited in part, as we now know, by the horror of U.S. drone strikes in the Arab world. It is not unlikely that the injustice and violence of Guantanamo made an impression too on those heated and susceptible minds. And what such images and facts have done to some Muslims, they may do to more.

Eight days after the Boston explosions, President Obama exploded another missile on a Yemeni village. Farea Al-Muslimi, a former inhabitant of that village, has lately testified both in Congress and in news interviews about the difficulty of explaining America's intentions to people who have suffered what his village has suffered:

My mind was racing and my heart was torn. I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants.

Those are the feelings of a Muslim who has experienced to the full, and by living in America, the kindness and generosity this country has to offer. Al-Muslimi finds it impossible to reconcile what the country at its best looks like from inside, to one of the lucky, and what it looks like from outside to one of the thousands of the innocent who have seen their families and neighbors killed or maimed by American weapons. All this is done in the cause of the War on Terror which President Obama, with his love of euphemism, prefers not even to mention by name. But you must name it if you want to get your countrymen to realize that this policy has subverted the Constitution and soiled the reputation of the United States.

We have now had two successive presidents who dealt in a most anomalous way with personal intentions and evil actions. Bush did intend the evil he performed (as when he asked of the supposed high-value detainee Abu Zubaydah, "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?"), but one had the impression that he also did not know the meaning of what he did. This came out in his choice to delegate the major powers of action during the first six years of his presidency to the office of the vice president. By contrast, Obama gives the impression that he does not intend the evil he performs, but powerful others want it so much he cannot say no. He recognizes what this means, from the point of view of right and wrong, but he thinks that his having not intended it, a preference sometimes telegraphed by a public demur, absolves him of responsibility. It is a perversion and a defection of the will. And it fits with his being a winner -- someone who likes very much to win, far beyond knowing why he wants it so much -- and also being a quitter. In many ways, Obama is as odd and disturbing a personality as Richard Nixon: another clever, arrogant, and isolated man who came to place tremendous value on secrecy and for whom, as with Obama, secrecy had its natural climax in secret wars.

In Obama's case, too, as in Nixon's, the exorbitant love of secrecy springs from a desire not to be judged. It has its source in an almost antinomian assurance that there is no one in the world who knows enough to judge him. There is, however, a respect in which Obama has become a stranger president than Nixon. What after all are we to make of the bizarre alternation of the commands to kill and the journeys to comfort the killed? As this president has lengthened the shadow of American power in Arab lands and made it hard for someone like Farea Al-Muslimi to persuade his countrymen that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, he has made serial visits to comfort Americans mourning the dead in the mass murders in Tucson, in Aurora, in Newtown, and in Boston. None of these speeches has carried a hint of the perception that there could be a link between American violence at home and abroad. The role of this president -- a president of safety and protection rather than a president of liberty and the rule of law -- is dismaying in itself. But there is something actively morbid in the dramatic assumption of grief counseling as his major role in public, even as he continues in secret his wars against people about whom he will not speak to Americans except in platitude.

The United States in the past decade has now killed, at a low estimate, 225,000 people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. How, in the face of those figures, could one argue against a Muslim who once admired the United States but has been convinced, by the actions of the country under Bush and Obama, that we are bent on his destruction? One would be driven to request an act of faith: "We are good. Please believe that we are good." That is what Bush said, and it is what Obama says. But it will take more than occasional words to shift the direction of the policy of perpetual war; and words that are given the lie by actions are worse than no words. "You ought not, in reason," said Edmund Burke in 1775, "to trifle with so large a mass of the interests and feelings of the human race. You could at no time do it without guilt; and be assured that you will not be able to do it long with impunity." He was speaking of the attitude of Britain toward the American colonists. He thought the continued prosecution of a policy bent on war would alienate America from Britain and cause the closest of ties to be severed. He was not wrong, and the laws of human nature have not changed in the intervening years.

David Bromwich

David Bromwich is editor of a selection of Edmund Burke’s speeches, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.; He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Huffington Post.

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