If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that my country, which from 1979 to 1989 had fought a secret war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (of all places!), would for the next nearly 20 years fight a second full-scale war there, with up to 100,000 troops on the ground at times, I would have thought you mad. If, that day, you had told me that the U.S. would, in 2002, set up a prison in no kidding Cuba run by the U.S. military, where prisoners from a "global war on terror" could be brought for anything but a version of all-American justice, I would have thought you were joking. If you had also predicted that it would still be open 19 years later, I would have laughed in your face. If that day you had told me that, thanks to the development of something called a remotely piloted aircraft, or drone, an American president would functionally become an assassin-in-chief, I would have just shaken my head and walked away. If that very day you had assured me that, in March 2021, the White House would still be fighting such wars with congressional "authorizations" 18 or 19 years old that authorized nothing of the sort, I would have classified you as a genuine nut.
If, back then, you had predicted the world as it's become, perhaps the only thing I might have believed, given my own experience with the Vietnam War (and my childhood memories of the Korean War), was that the U.S. military could wage conflicts in distant lands for almost two decades without actually winning any of them. And yet, of course, all of the above did indeed happen and is, in fact, still ongoing. The question that TomDispatch regular and war-on-terror expert Karen Greenberg focuses on today is: What will the new administration, the fourth since that September day, do about any of it?
When it comes to foreign, unlike domestic, policy, the signs aren't wildly hopeful. After all, President Biden just opened future relations with one of this country's two "near-peer threats" (as the U.S. military likes to call them) by agreeing publicly that Vladimir Putin was a soul-less "killer." Meanwhile, his secretary of state and national security advisor had a distinctly rocky meeting in Alaska with their Chinese counterparts from that other near-peer threat, China. Add in this as well: the leader who has already said withdrawing the last American troops from Afghanistan by May 1st, as President Trump agreed to do, will be "tough," is evidently weighing putting off that date until at least November. Still, as Greenberg suggests, there are at least some modestly hopeful signs as well and, with so much in this world of ours up in the air (so to speak) and at least some of those drones grounded for the time being, we really should give the Biden administration a chance perhaps, in fact, a few months at least to see what our new president can (or can't or won't) do. Tom
Moving on from the War on Terror?
Checking in After Six Months
In the first two months of Joe Biden's presidency, you could feel the country holding its breath. Sheltered in place, hidden behind masks, unsure about whether to trust in a safe-from-pandemic future, we are nonetheless beginning to open our eyes collectively. As part of this reemergence, a wider array of issues those beyond Covid-19 are once again starting to enter public consciousness. Domestically, attempts to repress (or preserve) voting rights have been consuming activists and dominating headlines, along with this country's missing infrastructure and a need to raise the minimum wage. The foreign affairs agenda isn't far behind. From rising great-power rivalries, notably with China and Russia, to cyberattacks like the Solarwinds hack that affected agencies across the government, to the question of whether American troops will leave Afghanistan, a growing number of issues loom for the administration, Congress, and the public in the months to come.
On the domestic front, the response to the new administration (and especially its $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill) has been a collective sigh of relief as well as much praise, as well as fierce partisan Republican attacks when it comes to the reform agenda being put in place domestically. In the realm of foreign affairs, however, criticism has been swift and harsh, owing to several early administration actions.
On February 25, at the president's order, the U.S. launched an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in Syria, killing 22. On February 26, the administration released an intelligence report pointing the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, only to follow up with an announcement that, while there would be sanctions against individuals close to the prince, no retaliation against him would follow. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the absence of strong retribution against MBS akin to letting "the murderer walk," setting an example for other "thuggish dictators" in the years to come.
Meanwhile, there is still, at best, indecision about whether or not the U.S. will pull its last troops out of Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set during the Trump administration as part of a deal with the Taliban. President Biden recently termed meeting that date "tough." Others have called hesitancy about the May 1st deadline a step towards an escalation in violence and "even more deaths" in a nearly 20-year-old "unwinnable war." November has now been floated by the Biden administration as a more "reasonable" deadline.
While each of these acts (or the lack of them) should be scrutinized in light of the lessons of the past, a rush to condemn could prove too quick to be helpful. Yes, it would have been more satisfying if the administration had said, "We will respond in our own time and in our own way," when it came to the murder of Khashoggi. Yes, it would have been good to see a full-scale new drone policy in place prior to any future strikes. It will, however, take some time for the new administration to sort out the issues involved, to unearth what promises, deals, and threats were imposed by predecessors and to assess the meaningfulness of plans for a new agenda. My own suggestion: Why not set an agenda of expectations and goals a list of imperatives if you will and then check back in a relatively short time, perhaps six months from the January 20th inauguration of President Biden, to assess what's truly developed?
Given our chaotic and troubled world, the list of must-dos is already long indeed, but here's my own personal list of three, all tied to an issue I've followed closely for nearly the last two decades: the war on terror and how to end it.
Three Ways to Begin to End the War on Terror
The Biden administration has offered up its own list of priorities and challenges. Setting out its national security agenda, the president has committed his administration "to engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's." In a new strategy paper, "Renewing America's Advantages: Interim National Security Strategic Guidance," his administration has made its priorities reasonably clear: the development of a multidimensional strategy, led by diplomacy and multilateralism (though not averse to the "disciplined" use of force if necessary) with an overriding commitment to strengthening democracy at home and abroad.
Among the priorities set out in that strategy is one that should if carried out successfully be a relief to us all: moving beyond the global war on terror. "The United States should not, and will not, engage in 'forever wars' that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars," the paper states, pointing to ending "America's longest war in Afghanistan," as well as the war in Yemen, and helping to end Africa's "deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones."
These war-on-terror-related goals are not only upbeat but distinctly achievable, if kept at the forefront of the American foreign-policy agenda. To achieve them, however, the institutional remnants of the war on terror would have to be eradicated. And at the top of any list when it comes to that are the lingering war powers granted the president; the authority to commit "targeted killings" via drones in more and more places around the globe; and the existence of that symbol of injustice, the prison established by the Bush administration in 2002 at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba. Eliminating such foundational war-on-terror policies is essential, if we are to move into an era in which national security exists in tandem with the rule of law and adherence to constitutional norms.
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