Assassination has not exactly been a foreign concept to American presidents. After all, there were those CIA-backed plots during the presidency of John F. Kennedy (who was himself assassinated) aimed at killing foreign leaders ranging from the Congo's Patrice Lumumba to Cuba's Fidel Castro. In Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's years in the White House, there was the CIA's massive Phoenix Program of assassination in Vietnam. In all such cases, however, presidents could at least invoke plausible deniability on the subject.
That's changed since the U.S. developed a unique assassination weapon, the Hellfire missile-armed, remotely piloted drone, first used in America's Global War on Terror during George W. Bush's presidency and brought to a kind of grim perfection in the Obama years. In 2012, the New York Times revealed that President Obama and his team kept a secret "kill list" at the White House and were conducting "terror Tuesday" weekly meetings during which they chose drone assassination targets, one by one.
I pointed out then that, whether Americans realized it or not, in any future national election we would be casting our votes not just for a commander-in-chief but an assassin-in-chief. And that has proven sadly true. Admittedly, Donald Trump skipped the terror Tuesday meetings and simply agreed to ramp up this country's global drone assassination program, while loosening the rules on who could be targeted (and so increasing civilian deaths from such strikes), allowing both the CIA and the military to kill more freely. Now, our fourth assassin-in-chief has entered the Oval Office and, according to Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, his administration has just "quietly imposed temporary limits" on such strikes by insisting on "White House permission" for them, while undertaking "a broad review of whether to tighten Trump-era rules for such operations."
All of this may sound like a reasonable reining in of this country's position on such killings, but as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the upcoming book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, makes clear today don't be fooled. The president and his foreign-policy team are, in essence, trapped in the oldest, most familiar twenty-first-century form of inside-the-Beltway thinking about the world out there. Yes, they may be ready to rein in Trump-era drone strikes, but they aren't for a moment, not faintly, ready to reject the idea of an ongoing, never-ending global assassination program run by an assassin-in-chief according to his own desires. Programmatic presidential assassination at a global level banished from foreign policy? Don't imagine it, not for a second. In this sense, as Bacevich makes clear, the Biden administration is stuck in a past that, looked at bluntly, could be ever more disastrously at odds with the actual world we live in. Tom
On Shedding an Obsolete Past
Biden Defers to the Blob
You may have noticed: the Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party. So, if you're looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you'll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you're looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.
The boss shows them how it's done.
Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to "diplomacy rooted in America's most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity."
His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it's convenient to do so, but without exception.
Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values. The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by the Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.
Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, as a "pariah state" that possessed "no redeeming value." Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington "check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons."
Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional U.S.-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the "friendship" between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil. In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship's tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.
While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.
Threading the Needle
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