It was the grisliest of stories: a decade and a half ago a former KGB man, Alexander Litvinenko, defected to England and turned on the powers-that-be in his own country, accusing its leader of both acts of assassination and, among other things, pedophilia. Litvinenko died in 2006 thanks to a highly toxic radioactive isotope, Polonium 120, evidently slipped into his tea at a meeting with two Russian agents in a ritzy London bar. That Polonium left a "trail" traced by British investigators from airplane seats to hotel rooms to that bar and finally pinned on the two Russians, one of whom was later elected to parliament and awarded a medal by the very man suspected of ordering the hit: Russian President Vladimir Putin. So says a long-awaited British official inquiry into the death by a respected retired judge.
In other words, it's quite a tale of state-sponsored horror, the kind of morally dark act you'd expect from an autocrat with Putin's reputation and, when the report came out recently, it was significant news here. The New York Times editorial page concluded: "Mr. Putin has built a sordid record on justice and human rights, which naturally reinforces suspicions that he could easily have been involved in the murder. At the very least, the London inquiry, however much it is denied at the Kremlin, should serve as a caution to the Russian leader to repair his reputation for notorious intrigues abroad."
If Putin actually did such a thing, and it remains only a supposition, those comments are on the mark indeed. A state-sponsored, extrajudicial act of assassination should appall us all and it's the sort of subject that you can expect to be discussed in future election 2016 debates here -- as long as the president in question is Russian. (When, last December, Donald Trump suggested in passing some possible equivalency between Putin's reputed killings and Obama administration ones, he was roundly taken to task.) Let me guarantee you one thing, no mainstream columnist, pundit, or reporter questioning presidential candidates will ever put Putin's putative act in the same context as the extrajudicial, state-sponsored assassinations regularly ordered by another well-known president. I'm speaking, of course, of the White House campaign of drone killings of "terror suspects," including American citizens, across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that began in 2002 and has never ended. This despite the fact that, whatever doubt there may be about Putin's order, there is none when it comes to those presidentially approved drone killings.
In fact, President Obama took on the role of assassin-in-chief with evident enthusiasm years ago (as will whoever enters the Oval Office in 2017). He has overseen a years-long drone assassination spree based on a White House "kill list" of candidates chosen in what are called "terror Tuesday" meetings. Keep in mind that that government-planned assassinations were officially banned in 1976. Keep in mind as well that Putin's order, if true, was directed at a single figure and only he died (though the Russian president is sometimes accused of being behind the deaths of Russian journalists and opposition figures, too). Notoriously enough, however, the American assassination program regularly knocks off not only its intended targets but also a range of "collateral" figures, including in one case much of a wedding party in Yemen.
The likelihood that the role of the president in the drone campaigns will be seriously discussed in any future debate in campaign 2016 is essential nil. And that's just one of a myriad of subjects that, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the much-anticipated book, America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (due this April), points out today, are out of bounds for media questioners and candidates alike in an election in which so many words are being spoken and so little is truly being spoken about. Tom
Out of Bounds, Off-Limits, or Just Plain Ignored
Six National Security Questions Hillary, Donald, Ted, Marco, et al., Don't Want to Answer and Won't Even Be Asked
By Andrew J. Bacevich
To judge by the early returns, the presidential race of 2016 is shaping up as the most disheartening in recent memory. Other than as a form of low entertainment, the speeches, debates, campaign events, and slick TV ads already inundating the public sphere offer little of value. Rather than exhibiting the vitality of American democracy, they testify to its hollowness.
Present-day Iranian politics may actually possess considerably more substance than our own. There, the parties involved, whether favoring change or opposing it, understand that the issues at stake have momentous implications. Here, what passes for national politics is a form of exhibitionism about as genuine as pro wrestling.
A presidential election campaign ought to involve more than competing coalitions of interest groups or bevies of investment banks and billionaires vying to install their preferred candidate in the White House. It should engage and educate citizens, illuminating issues and subjecting alternative solutions to careful scrutiny.
That this one won't even come close we can ascribe as much to the media as to those running for office, something the recent set of "debates" and the accompanying commentary have made painfully clear. With certain honorable exceptions such as NBC's estimable Lester Holt, representatives of the press are less interested in fulfilling their civic duty than promoting themselves as active participants in the spectacle. They bait, tease, and strut. Then they subject the candidates' statements and misstatements to minute deconstruction. The effect is to inflate their own importance while trivializing the proceedings they are purportedly covering.
Above all in the realm of national security, election 2016 promises to be not just a missed opportunity but a complete bust. Recent efforts to exercise what people in Washington like to call "global leadership" have met with many more failures and disappointments than clearcut successes. So you might imagine that reviewing the scorecard would give the current raft of candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, plenty to talk about.
But if you thought that, you'd be mistaken. Instead of considered discussion of first-order security concerns, the candidates have regularly opted for bluff and bluster, their chief aim being to remove all doubts regarding their hawkish bona fides.
In that regard, nothing tops rhetorically beating up on the so-called Islamic State. So, for example, Hillary Clinton promises to "smash the would-be caliphate," Jeb Bush to "defeat ISIS for good," Ted Cruz to "carpet bomb them into oblivion," and Donald Trump to "bomb the sh*t out of them." For his part, having recently acquired a gun as the "last line of defense between ISIS and my family," Marco Rubio insists that when he becomes president, "The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where [ISIS militants] are; the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them; and if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay."
These carefully scripted lines perform their intended twofold function. First, they elicit applause and certify the candidate as plenty tough. Second, they spare the candidate from having to address matters far more deserving of presidential attention than managing the fight against the Islamic State.
In the hierarchy of challenges facing the United States today, ISIS ranks about on a par with Sicily back in 1943. While liberating that island was a necessary prelude to liberating Europe more generally, the German occupation of Sicily did not pose a direct threat to the Allied cause. So with far weightier matters to attend to -- handling Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example -- President Franklin Roosevelt wisely left the problem of Sicily to subordinates. FDR thereby demonstrated an aptitude for distinguishing between the genuinely essential and the merely important.