Monday, May 01, 2017

Still Bombing After All These Years

Last month we were bombarded (pun intended) with  news that the US had dropped the "mother of all bombs" on Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, "The bomb explodes a few feet above the ground, and is designed to send a devastating wave of fire and blast hundreds of yards to kill troops, flatten trees, knock over structures, collapse cave entrances and, in general, demoralize those far beyond the impact zone." For sheer awe and shock theatrics and destruction, only a nuke can surpass the MOAB. 

Because the MOAB was dropped on "ISIS caves," (caves probably financed and built with CIA assistance in the 1970s and 1980s) reaction from establishment Democrats was predictably muted. Rather than join former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in condemning as an "immense atrocity" the use of Afghanistan as a testing ground for the use of weapons of mass destruction to "send messages" to North Korea or other alleged enemies of the homeland, Democrats instead chastised Donald Trump for his lack of a coherent "strategy" in the region. So presumably if the Administration develops something resembling a coherent strategy, the use of weapons of mass destruction will become okay. Now there's a position that will attract rural voters in for the Dems in 2018 and beyond! (That sentence is meant to carry MUCH sarcasm.).

There was a time when even the threat of using such weapons would be met with some kind of organized, large scale outrage: marches, teach-ins, letter writing campaigns, etc. Not anymore. The logic and tactics of the "War on Terror" have apparently become so deeply internalized that even a moderate to left leaning source like can write about the MOAB strike, with no irony or sarcasm, "There’s no reason to assume this was something out of the ordinary, even though the bomb was bigger than ones typically used by the US military." 

So how did the logic and tactics of the "War on Terror" become normalized? How did nonstop bombings become "ordinary?" Are we really at the point where the US government has to drop a nuke in order to cross the line into "out of the ordinary" aggression?  

I think the simplest answer can be found in President George W. Bush's Address to a Joint Session of Congress on September 20, 2001. That speech came to be known as "Freedom and Fear are at War." As someone who has an academic background in the history of American political speeches, I can say with some degree of confidence that President Bush's 9/20/01 address is probably the most consequential presidential speech ever delivered. Every military action taken abroad--and every assault on civil liberties at home--during the Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations, makes complete sense when evaluated in accordance with the framing of the "War on Terror" found in Bush's speech.


In the speech, Bush argued that those responsible for 9/11 were the modern day equivalent of fascists, Nazis, and totalitarians; they were part of a global terror network operating in more than 60 countries. They hate us because of our freedoms and because we stand in the way of their desire to overthrow existing governments and drive Israel out of the Middle East. 

President Bush then warned us of the never ending war that was to come: 

Now this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat. Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

As much as Barack Obama and Donald Trump condemned and critiqued the ineptitude of the Bush Administration's conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and now Trump both left the essential features of the never ending war untouched. Bush and Obama at least pleaded with Americans to avoid scapegoating and demonizing Muslims, a plea of basic decency that is too difficult for the Tweeter in Chief, but it is just plain delusional to think that Trump is conducting the never ending war in a way that is significantly more violent than his predecessors. Trump's Pentagon is operating within a framework devised by Bush and reinforced by Obama.

Just consider the data from President Obama's last year in office. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2016 the United States dropped 26,172 bombs on 7 nations. Here's the breakdown by nation: 

*Syria:............. 12,192 bombs 
*Iraq:................12,092 bombs
*Afghanistan:.....1,337 bombs
*Libya:..................496 bombs
*Yemen:..................35 bombs
*Somalia:................14 bombs
*Pakistan:.................3 bombs 

NBC news reported that the 2016 bombings equate to an average of 72 bombs per day or 3 per hour. For those who appreciate Orwellian Newspeak and/or in-your-face evidence of the global domination of the military-industrial complex, the US military affectionately refers to the bombing campaigns as "Operation Inherent Resolve." They even have a cheerful website.  

Can all of these bombings possibly be legal under US law? (Let's not even ask about if the bombings are legal under international law because we know the US government will only follow said law when it is convenient to do so.). In an intelligent piece for Slate, Joshua Keating argues persuasively that  "Questions of executive power in war are often more a question of political precedent than written law, and the way the previous administration conducted operations in countries including Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia helped normalize the notion that limited airstrikes are not 'real' war.'" That political precedent was framed and initiated by Bush, reinforced and made normal by Obama, and now, with Trump, giving us a more hostile and vile rhetoric to match the violence on the ground. I mean, when Trump says he wants to "Bomb the shit out of ISIS" he is merely providing a more blunt description of what the prior administrations did for the previous 15 years (contrary to the right wing Republican wingnut view that Barack Obama was somehow a pacifist on foreign policy.).

Serious questions: Does anyone seriously, sincerely think that these legally dubious bombings that probably kill more innocent civilians than we are told do anything to reduce the threat of terror? Is it not more likely that each bombing raid actually increases the chance of terror in all the nations supporting the US? 

Forget for a moment the propaganda-ish claims of war and bombings somehow reducing terror. What about the actual monetary costs of the war(s) started by President Bush and a compliant Congress (not to mention a lapdog media) on September 20, 2001 and continuing today? Political Science Professor Neta Crawford of Boston University has done some of the most thorough research on this topic. In her piece US Budgetary Costs of Wars Through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting,"  she provides a sobering reality check: 

As of August 2016, the US has already appropriated, spent, or taken on obligations to spend more than $3.6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and on Homeland Security (2001 through fiscal year  2016). To this total should be added the approximately $65 billion in dedicated war spending the Department of Defense and State Department have requested for the next fiscal year, 2017, along with an additional nearly $32 billion requested for the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, and estimated spending on veterans in future years.

And in the "insanity means doing more of the same but expecting a different result" category, the press is reporting that Trump and a bipartisan coalition of Congressional representatives will avert a government shutdown in part by giving the Pentagon a $12.5 billion increase for the fiscal year ending September 30. There's also "the possibility of an additional $2.5 billion contingent on Trump delivering a plan to Congress for defeating the Islamic State militant group." (Reuters). 

In short, in the last 16 years we've seen that the basic outlines of the "War on Terror" outlined in a general way by President Bush on 9/20/01 have remained solidly in place. The "Bush Doctrine" or preemptive strikes against those labeled as terrorists--or against those who "harbor" them, has been the dominant foreign policy strategy through three consecutive administrations, with wide bipartisan support in Congress.

What would be an alternative to the Bush Doctrine? When Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on the platform that he would seek to negotiate with Iran, many of us thought he was signaling an intention to reinvent American foreign policy in a way that would minimize the "good v. evil" structures in our political rhetoric that almost always lead to pointless war and bombing. But alas, it never happened. Save for the Iran nuclear deal, Obama for the most part left the Bush Doctrine intact.

In a 2014 op-ed, political science professor Christopher Hobson describes the kind of changed thinking that needs to happen in Washington if we are ever to have a chance at a future not plagued by an ill-defined, never ending war. He wrote:

When looking at Iraq and Syria it should be apparent that there are simply no good solutions immediately available. The horrific acts of Islamic State should be denounced and the international community must consider how it can limit the suffering of affected people. But acknowledging this messy and brutal reality also means coming to terms with Islamic State as a political actor, which is motivated by grievances and goals.

The longer we dismiss Islamic State as an “apocalyptic death cult” or medieval savages, the longer it will be before we can devise a more effective response to dealing with the terrifying challenge they represent.

Given the heightened emotions, confusion, and panic generated on September 11, 2001, President Bush can perhaps be forgiven for not immediately responding to the crisis by seeking to come to terms with America's adversaries as political actors motivated by grievances and goals. But we've now had a decade-and-a-half worth of nonstop war and bombing rooted in the vision set out by Bush on 9/20/01. At what point do we as a People start to demand a rethinking of the assumptions and language that put us in this position?

If you would like to keep track of the bombings, go to