Only recently, more than 18 years after President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq and quickly declared victory ("Mission accomplished!"), Joe Biden once again ordered U.S. air strikes, three of them, against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias in that country's borderlands with Syria. In the process, he reportedly killed several militiamen, but also possibly a child. And within 24 hours, at least one of those militias had responded by launching rocket attacks on a U.S. base in" no kidding" Syria! And so it goes, and has gone, in American war-making in the twenty-first century.
Of course, no one in official Washington refers to such acts as "war" any longer as that might bring Congress, the part of our government with the constitutional power to declare such a state, into play. In fact, as Karen Greenberg wrote recently at the American Prospect, "The refusal to distinguish war from hostilities overall has been a landmark piece of the war on terrorism architecture. It's worth noting that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to counter those responsible for 9/11 does not use the word 'war' itself."
And keep in mind that, whatever U.S. troops may be doing in Syria, there are also 2,500 U.S. troops still in Iraq so many years later, though why (since the Iraqi parliament has demanded their departure) remains open to question. What generally doesn't remain open to question, at least in this country, is the power of an American president to order such strikes or similar drone assassination attacks launched as Donald Trump did against a key Iranian general at Baghdad International Airport in 2020 at any moment of his choosing. Biden and crew cited no particular authority for striking Syrian and Iraqi targets again, other than the right to self-defense under international law (in Iraq and Syria, no less!). They certainly didn't cite any congressional authorization. And the Iraqi government didn't authorize such attacks, instead protesting them vehemently.
But these days, in this country's somewhat dwindling but never-ending war on terror, one thing that never truly seems to be at stake is what Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular and author of the upcoming book Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, sadly highlights today: accountability. Instead, it appears that an accountability crisis of the first order is coming home big time. That was obviously true in the Trump years when the president was quite literally accountable for nothing he did, no matter how damaging. Now, sadly enough, it seems to be spilling over into the Biden years as well. But let Greenberg tell you this sorry tale of a system that seems to become less accountable by the moment. Tom
America's Accountability Problem
Is Anyone Responsible Anymore?
America has an accountability problem. In fact, if the Covid-19 disaster, the January 6th Capitol attack, and the Trump years are any indication, the American lexicon has essentially dispensed with the term "accountability."
This should come as no surprise. After all, there's nothing particularly new about this. In the Bush years, those who created a system of indefinite offshore detention at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba, those who implemented a CIA global torture program and the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance policy, not to mention those who purposely took us to war based on lies about nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, were neither dismissed, sanctioned, nor punished in any way for obvious violations of the law. Nor has Congress passed significant legislation of any kind to ensure that all-encompassing abuses like these will not happen again.
Now, early in the Biden era, any determination to hold American officials responsible for such past wrongdoing, even the president who helped launch an assault on the Capitol, seems little more than a fantasy. It may be something to discuss, rail against, or even make promises about, but not actually reckon with not if you're either a deeply divided Congress or a Department of Justice that has compromised itself repeatedly in recent years. Under other circumstances, of course, those would be the two primary institutions with the power to pursue genuine accountability in any meaningful way for extreme and potentially illegal government acts.
Today, if thought about at all, accountability whether in the form of punishment for misdeeds or meaningful reform has been reduced to a talking point. With that in mind, let's take a moment to consider the Biden administration's approach to accountability so far.
How We Got Here
Even before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, the country was already genuinely averse to accountability. When President Obama took office in January 2009, he faced the legacy of the George W. Bush administration's egregious disregard for laws and norms in its extralegal post-9/11 war on terror. From day one of his presidency, Obama made clear that he found his predecessor's policies unacceptable by both acknowledging and denouncing those crimes. But he insisted that they belonged to the past.
Fearing that the pursuit of punishment would involve potentially ugly encounters with former officials and would seem like political retribution in a country increasingly divided and on edge, he clearly decided that it wouldn't be worth the effort. Ultimately, as he said about "interrogations, detentions, and so forth," it was best for the nation to "look forward, as opposed to looking backward."
True to the president's word, the Obama administration refused to hold former officials responsible for violations of fundamental constitutional and legal issues. Among those who escaped retrospective accountability were Vice President Dick Cheney, who orchestrated the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq based on lies; the lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo, who, in his infamous "Torture Memos," justified the "enhanced interrogation" of war-on-terror prisoners; and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who created a Bermuda triangle of injustice at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba. In terms of reform, Obama did ensure a degree of meaningful change, including decreeing an official end to the CIA torture of prisoners of war. But too much of what had happened remained unaddressed and lay in wait for abuse at the hands of some irresponsible future president.
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