It’s standard for powerful states to justify the most egregious of crimes by cloaking it in obscure terminology. Torture becomes “enhanced interrogation”, kidnapping is “extraordinary rendition”, and civilian casualties are “collateral damage.” While moderate criminals limit themselves to mere terms, more ambitious crooks embrace entire schools of thought to legitimize their behavior. Take for example what’s called in international affairs scholarship realpolitik. Realpolitik proposes that “foreign policy ought not to be driven by the demands for justice,” and that “a society’s principles, no matter how deep-rooted or heartfelt, [have] to be compromised in the name of international stability.” These are the words of Princeton University political scientist Gary J. Bass in his description of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger employed this concept in his backing of the Pakistani genocide in East Bengal, one of his lesser known contributions to global “stability.”
Perhaps no other doctrine has been applied with as much consistency and rigor and this one. President Obama’s policies in the Middle East offer a textbook example. While providing support to “rebel factions” in Syria, he has authorized airstrikes against the closely associated Islamic State in Iraq. The consequences of these policies have been gruesome. One effect was graphically portrayed in the murder of Global Post journalist James Foley. Captured in Syria in 2012, Foley was beheaded by a member of the Islamic State. According to the killer, the murder was carried out in retaliation against the Obama administration’s decision to bomb Iraq after news surfaced that Iraqi Yazidis, driven from their homes by IS terror, were under siege atop Sinjar mountain.
“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or every single day,” intoned Obama after receiving news of Foley’s murder. Without a doubt, IS has amply demonstrated their capacity for cruelty and indifference but this is obvious. Less obvious is how they arrived at this point and, furthermore, if Washington shares any responsibility in their rise. This deeply disturbing connection between US policy in the Middle East and the proliferation of sub-state terror has a long history. In symbolic terms, this connection could be discerned in Foley’s attire at the time of his execution. As the New York Times acknowledged in a recent report, “the video shows the journalist kneeling in a desert landscape, clad in an orange jumpsuit — an apparent reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners at the American military detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”
Aside from its transparent illegality, the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has long been recognized as a “recruitment tool” for terrorism. So unavoidable is this reality that even conservative outlets like the Council on Foreign Relations concede this. In a 2010 “expert roundup” report there was unanimous agreement on this fact. William Yeomans of the Washington College of Law described the prison as “a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists,” adding that a decision not to close the prison “would be calamitous.” Four years have passed since the publication of this report and 149 prisoners (more than half of them cleared for release) remain caged in this penal colony far outside the bounds of international law. And this isn’t the only case of the Obama administration consciously pursuing policies which escalate the threat of terrorism. For years, the Obama administration has ignored statements, even by those within his administration, that his drone assassination program—a campaign of international terrorism unparalleled in global affairs—is heightening the threat of terrorism.
In his penetrating study Obama and the Middle East: the End of America’s Moment? London School of Economics International Relations professor Fawaz Gerges states that “the Obama administration has so far been unwilling to acknowledge the link between escalation of hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the rising incidence of homegrown radicalization.” When the so-called Times Square bomber cited the Obama administration’s drone campaign as the reason for his attempt to set off a bomb in New York CIA chief John Brennan (then White House counterterrorism adviser) “dismissed the notion,” and “argued that the suspect was ‘captured by the murderous rhetoric of Al Qaeda and TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] that looks at the United States as an enemy.'” Meanwhile, “in private deliberations, according to Bob Woodward, Obama’s national security team [appeared] to be aware that their policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan [helped] fuel radicalization and terrorism.” Even Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, in one of her more overlooked statements, addressed this dangerous linkage when she visited Obama in the White House. Incidentally, these crimes, unlike those of IS, received the blessing of Washington’s deity , presumably because the author of these atrocities internalized the “just war” doctrines of St. Augustine prior to engaging in acts of terror that that have left approximately 3,800 dead in Pakistan alone.
Given this sordid history of terror-generating policies, it’s not the least bit surprising that the New York Times published a story on August 10 headlined US Actions in Iraq Fueled the Rise of a Rebel. Writing on the ascendancy of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Times observed “most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.” This is but one of many reports highlighting the troubling intersection between US military aggression and the growth of subnational terror. While Global Post journalist Lauren Dean stated IS “was born out of a security vacuum left by the 2003 American invasion”, UK investigative journalist Robert Fisk described the brutality of IS as “the epic violence which our invasion unleashed.” Anyone serious about reversing the influence of IS would not dismiss these reports.
For example, no serious person would look at the US-instigated terror drowning the entire region in blood and urge “sudden”, “swift”, and “surgical” strikes against IS, but this is precisely what retired General John Allen called for in a recent piece published in Defense One. Portraying IS as a grave threat to America and Europe, General Allen implored the Obama administration to act “NOW” (he actually used all capital letters. A tell-tale sign of intellectual sobriety). Moreover, this military action would not limit itself to Iraq. It also would extend to Syria, “a failed state neither capable of acting as a sovereign entity nor deserving the respect of one.” Contrarily, the United States—the “greatest threat to world peace” according to a recent WIN/Gallup poll—is not a “failed state,” but “remains the only nation on the planet capable of exerting the kind of strategic leadership, influence and strike capacity,” to eradicate the IS “scourge.” Consequently, the UN initiative to provide technical support to the Iraqi government to aid imperiled Yazidis atop Sinjar Mountain is, as Gen. Allen describes the border between Syria and Iraq, “irrelevant.” Equally irrelevant is the analysis of distinguished scholars like Flynt Leverett. Appearing on Background Briefing with Ian Masters he remarked that “nothing will rehabilitate [ISIS] like being bombed by the United States.”
This clear record of the US instigating rather than diffusing terror is rarely, if ever, highlighted in the pages of the “free press.” Instead the public is treated with alarmist descriptions of a “the most despicable band of barbarians to plague the world since the Khmer Rouge.” Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey used these terms to describe IS, a group that has inflicted such extreme levels of violence that “a comparison to the Nazis” would not be “an exaggeration.” Conversely, he describes the US invasion of Iraq—the “supreme crime” of military aggression under the standard of the Nuremberg Tribunal—as a “misguided and frustrating occupation” and a “past mistake.” Notice the problem with the occupation was not that it killed over half a million Iraqis while turning hundreds of thousands of others into refugees. Rather, it was the “frustration” of the occupiers unable to subdue a population by force, a standard view within the American intellectual class.
Quite apart from a “misguided” war, the assault on Iraq was a carefully guided and deliberate war crime. The horrors unfolding in Iraq cannot be properly understood unless this elementary reality is first acknowledged. It’s worth recalling that Obama hailed the invasion of Iraq as a war that left the country “to its own people.” Omitted from this statement was the long record of state-terror the US has inflicted on Iraq from bombings under the First Gulf War, to the genocidal sanctions of the 1990s, to the 2003 invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq’s central government. With the commencement of this aerial bombing campaign, Obama has opened another chapter in Washington’s multi-decade torture session of Iraqis. It shouldn’t require stating, but aerial bombing will only exacerbate the nightmare that has enveloped the region. The actions of the Obama administration are not only illegal—he authorized air strikes in violation of the War Powers Act and the UN Charter—but they evade viable, peaceful alternatives that would significantly lower the risk of more violence.
Perhaps this is just another iteration of presidential “realism.” As Harvard University scholar Stephen Walt stated in a recent article which appeared in Foreign Policy magazine “[Obama’s] style as president resembles Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in many ways. They don’t make many threats, they never bluster, and they rarely raise their voices. But when the time comes, they dispatch opponents with remorseless indifference and pay little attention to who might get hurt in the process. ‘It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.'” Likewise, IS murdered James Foley with “remorseless indifference.” Moreover, they paid “little attention to who might get hurt in the process.” Did not the “cancer” of IS merely emulate, in a less sophisticated form, the “realpolitik” of their despised foe albeit in a more “personal” fashion? Why then are we rightfully appalled by their heinous crimes, but coldly silent about our own? Perhaps these questions will be contemplated by the more honest among us who remain unconvinced by the harsh moral judgments of President Corleone’s “just God.”
Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? by Fawaz Gerges
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass