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America's Indefensible "Core Priorities"

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As to the use of drones in attacking terrorists, strikes targeting our "kill list" should remind us of our own pain after foreign attacks. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 led to our own "radicalization"--to a hatred and discrimination against Americans who were similar in nationality, religion, or appearance to our enemies but wholly unassociated with their acts. The UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns expressed concern that drone attacks may constitute a war crime, even before his delivery of a more comprehensive report to the UN General Assembly this month. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week called the drone strikes "a continued violation of our territorial integrity" and wants them to stop.

Even worse, the kill list used as the basis for these attacks has veered from the course that Obama described at last week's meeting--which is to target those "who pose a continuing imminent threat to the United States, where capture is not feasible and there's a near certainty of no civilian casualties." The following case, however, deviates starkly from this principle: The kill list was less than 10 al Qaeda members in Pakistan when Predator strikes increasingly aimed at the al Haqqani network that had attacked U.S. targets on Afghan soil but likely posed little threat to the American homeland. As for casualties: a New York Times op-ed cites Pakistani sources who estimate 98 percent of those killed were civilians , rather than the "near certainty of no civilian casualties" required by Obama's theoretical guideline for drone attacks.

A fourth problem area in the war on terrorism is the use of violent ground actions like night raids. In 2011, Afghan residents were subject to more than 2000 such raids. Jeremy Scahill in "Dirty Wars" documents one night raid in Gardez, Afghanistan, where a party at the home of an Afghan police commander who had supported the Americans was mistaken for a Taliban training session. The Pentagon presented the ensuing massacre by Western military forces as a likely "honor killing" of women, and the media largely reported that version of events. Yet, Afghan investigators and intrepid Western journalists found that story to be a lie, disclosing that, in fact, American forces had dug bullets out of the women's bodies as part of a cover-up. JSOC head Vice-Admiral William McRaven visited the family, offering them a sheep in return for forgiveness. What happened during the thousands of night raids when the individuals attacked were not members of a prominent English-speaking family with tremendous social capital?

Finally, in terms of problematic anti-terrorism techniques, the scope of NSA spying grows larger and is consistent with assertions made by whistleblower Edward Snowden that were earlier denied by the U.S. government. It has prompted lawsuits here , an attempt to block spying using a South America-wide approach , and protests at home and abroad . This program is even more worrisome, given the resurrected neo-con doctrine asserting the right to use brute, extrajudicial force.  

4. "We will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction."

This fourth "core interest" outlined by the President is either a new development, or a fine parsing of language. America's strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, is not a signatory to either the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or the Chemical Weapons Convention. Yet, it is a regional player believed to hold both types of weapons. In fact, Iran proposed earlier a "nuclear free" Middle East, but America did not support it. Additionally, two American presidents used or assisted in the use of weapons of mass destruction in this region, including in the 2004 attacks on Fallujah that caused record genetic defects.

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A Brief Conclusion

In analyzing the four American core interests outlined by President Obama at the U.N., it seems evident to me that they are indefensible on two levels: they violate international law and core moral values, and they create a cycle of violence that is difficult to end.

An America that seeks to be exceptional in a positive sense must avoid running roughshod over international law. America must embrace a leadership in the world in which our actions comport with moral values. We must also be willing to reposition, apologize or explain. Given the complexity of geopolitical challenges, adaptability is a strength, not a weakness.

In general, our actions in the world should be largely consistent with United Nations institutions. Paradoxically, the path to exceptionalism will likely involve more measured steps and a lower profile than we are accustomed to taking. But such leadership could truly make both the Middle East--and the world--a safer and more peaceful place.

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.

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