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Engelhardt: The Washington Straitjacket

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I understand why the idea of Mitt Romney as assassin-in-chief made you nervous and why you wanted to put him in a straitjacket of drone codification. But it's hard not to ask -- and I'm not the first to do so -- what about you? It's human nature to trust ourselves over the other guy, but has it occurred to you that some of us might have the same reaction to you at the helm of a globalizing robot war as you had to Mitt?

In any case, haven't you already managed to do to yourself what you planned to do to him -- without cutting down the killing appreciably, including the deaths of civilians, children, at least four American citizens, and a Yemeni deputy provincial governor who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda? If press reports are to be believed, you've already been fully involved in regularizing, bureaucratizing, legalizing, and codifying your drone wars. In other words, you've put yourself deep inside a developing system in which you no longer have a hope in hell of imagining the world any other way.

Here's a little history of the process (not that you of all people don't already know it): You inherited an ad hoc Bush administration program of CIA drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal borderlands that started in 2004 and was originally aimed at top al-Qaeda types. But as will happen, those "targeted killings" became ever less targeted, spreading to lower level al-Qaeda types, Taliban leaders, Taliban "foot soldiers," and finally what came to be called "signature strikes" against "patterns of behavior." (A group of military-age males with weapons, say, in an area believed to be controlled by Islamic extremists.)

We know that President Bush took you aside at the changeover moment and urged you to continue the drone wars in Pakistan (along with his cyberwar program against Iran). And though it must have been very new to you, you did so, expanding them in Pakistan and extending them in a major way to Yemen, while ever more drone bases were built in key areas of the world and ever more drones ordered up.

As this happened, those wars became ever less ad hoc, ever more organized and bureaucratic. A regular process for deciding on individual "targets" came into being. You had your "baseball cards" (PowerPoint slides on potential individuals to target) that you discussed in your regular "Terror Tuesday" meetings.  Where once George W. Bush kept in his desk drawer a "personal scorecard," a list of bad guys to cross out whenever one of them was killed, you now have an official "kill list." Where once these strikes were just launched, you got the Office of Legal Counsel to produce a 50-page legalistic justification for using drones to kill a U.S. citizen. It and other legal memos on drone use have never been released to the public or even to congressional leaders. Still, your top officials feel free to use them to their advantage in public defense of U.S. counterterror policies. (Note that the Bush administration did the same thing with its torture policies, producing Justice Department "torture memos" that "legalized" acts which, in almost any other context, or if committed by any enemy nation, would have been denounced as nightmarish acts of international illegality and that, in the past, the U.S. had prosecuted as crimes of war.)

Now, Shane reports, you've had the urge to codify it all and so institutionalize a presidential right to conduct assassination campaigns without regard to Congress, the American people, national sovereignty, the world, or previous standards of legality. And that is an accomplishment of the first order. I mean -- Voil-! -- you've officially created the box that no one can think outside of.

You are -- so the story goes -- the most powerful man on Earth. From the Oval Office, you should have the widest of wide-angle views. But sometimes don't you feel that you're trapped like a rat inside a maze in part (but only in part) of your own creation?

Dreaming Before It's Too Late

Of course, I've never gotten nearer to the Oval Office than Pennsylvania Avenue, so what do I know about how it's like there? Still, I'm older than you and I do know how repetitive acts rigidify, how one possible way morphs into the only way, how one limited system of living comes to seem like the only option on Earth. It happens with age. It also happens in Washington.

The other day, I noted this little passage in a New York Times report on the discovery of huge quantities of ice on Mercury: "Sean C. Solomon, the principal investigator for [the spacecraft] Messenger, said there was enough ice there to encase Washington, D.C., in a frozen block two and a half miles deep." I couldn't help smiling. After all, the Washington I read about already seems enclosed in a block of ice, which is why, when it comes to the world, it so seldom thinks a new thought or acts in a new way.

If only you could reverse time and take a step back into the world of the community organizer.  After all, what does such an organizer do, if not try to free people from the rigidities of their lives, the boxes they can't think outside of, the blocks of ice they're encased in, the acts that have come to dominate them and regularly wipe out any sense of alternative possibilities?  What's the point of community organizing if not to allow people to begin to imagine other ways of being and becoming?

Maybe you don't even realize how you've been boxed into, and boxed yourself into, the codifications from hell, almost all based on our militarizing way of life. Outside that box where the bureaucratized killing takes place, where the "wars" are fought, and the battle plans are endlessly recalibrated in ways too familiar to matter, outside the airless world of the National Security Complex where one destructive set of ways has become the only way, there surely are other possibilities that could result in other kinds of worlds. After all, just because you're trapped in a box doesn't mean that the world is. Look at the Middle East. For better or worse, it visibly isn't.

Back in 2009 when you first took office, I wrote a speech for you. In it, "you" told the American people that you were "ending, not expanding, two wars." I knew that you would never give such a speech (no less read mine), but I did believe that, despite the "wisdom" of Washington, you could indeed have put both of Bush's wars -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- behind you.  We'll never know, of course.  You chose another path, a "surge" of 30,000 troops, CIA operatives, special forces operators, private contractors, and State Department types that led to yet more disastrous years in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the ghostly what-ifs of history count for nothing. Still, haven't you ever wondered whether something else wasn't possible? Whether, for instance, sending bombs and missiles into poverty-stricken, essentially energy-less, essentially foodless Yemen was really and truly the way to world peace?

My apologies! I let sarcasm get the better of me. How about: really and truly the way to enhance U.S. national security? Honestly, Yemen? Most Americans couldn't find it on the map to win the lottery, and according to reports, American drone and air strikes have actually increased membership in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And yet you won't stop. You probably can't.

Similarly, don't you ever wonder whether a "pivot" to Asia, mainly involving military power and guaranteed to exacerbate regional relations in the Pacific is the best way to deal with the rising power of China? After all, what would it mean to go to war with the country which now holds well more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt? Wouldn't it be like shooting ourselves in the foot, if not the head?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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