Under the long shadow of 9/11, foreign policy takes the spotlight as the primaries sizzle to New York. The choice between candidates on the left is rather stark. Hillary, a well known hawk, has called for a “no-fly” zone in Syria, dramatically escalating our presence in the Syrian Civil War. Bernie on the other hand has historically been against militaristic intervention. The decision of direction is not without context. We’ve had a hawkish democrat in office for the past 7 years. And frankly, let’s call it what it is. Obama’s right wing approach to managing ‘terrorism’ has been an abject disaster. It’s time for a rethink.
September 2014, ISIL released a video showing the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff. Responding to pressure to act, the President confidently said his “objective was clear
“… to degrade and destroy Isis so it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq, but also to the region and to the United States.”
The alliteration allows for a clever soundbite, but substantively, the insinuation that ISIL is a threat to the United States is disingenuous at best. Obama’s statement is also in conflict with the policies instituted to achieve his stated aims; let alone the results of those policies after years of implementation.
In the 15 months since the bombing campaign started against ISIL, the U.S. Air Force has fired 20,000 missiles against ISIL targets. We’ve ran so many airstrikes, the U.S. Air Force has issued a warning that it’s running out of bombs. When the bombing campaign began, ISIL was estimated to have an overall force of 20,000 fighters. The Defense Department is estimating that they’ve killed 20,000 fighters. Yet the current estimate of ISIL’s overall strength remains 20,000!
What gives? It’s a experiential indictment of failure. Digging into how the Obama administration and Pentagon is prosecuting this air war, the numbers make sense. It’s fair to say the military campaign has been killing ISIL fighters. The flaw that undermines their efforts is the killing of innocent civilians. In 2013, Obama announced that a lethal strike against a “terrorist” will not take place “without near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Confronted with reports of rising civilian deaths, Obama loosen those restrictions, saying the bombing in Iraq and Syria are not held to the ‘near-certainty’ standard. In effect, killing innocent Iraqis and Syrians does not factor into our calculations. They don’t matter. Had this came from the Bush administration , Democrats across the United States would’ve set themselves on fire in protest. But it’s Obama. We trust him.
Despite loosening standards, the Obama administration claims very few civilians have been killed. This is a shamefully disingenuous political answer befitting the self proclaimed ‘most transparent administration ever’. Intentional subjectivity strips the words of any practical meaning. For example, the term ‘few civilians’ . The administration considers all teenage boys in the zone of attack to be “militants” and as such fair game. Independent sources place innocent deaths in the hundreds if you limit the campaign to ISIS. The number spikes to thousands if you include the entirety of the Middle East. To put the problem in perspective. Attempts to execute 41 specific people on Obama’s kill list resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1147.
The administration’s policies are more onerous than the flat data suggest. In prosecuting undeclared war across the Middle East (Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq) Obama employs various drone kill strategies.
- Double Taps. A drone attacks a target. When responders reach the blast site, another missile is launched to kill medical and rescue personnel.
- Signature Strikes. Drone strikes that target behavior at a site, not a specific person.
- Death by Metadata. This strategy targets metadata from from cell phones.
The flaw in each is substantively related to why Obama’s strategy in the Middle East is marked by failure. The people in the blast radius – mothers, fathers, and children – of Obama’s supra-constitutional killing, are largely unknown, and all to often innocent. In Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill asked the most pertinent of questions. Why is Obama’s kill list getting longer? The answer is self evident. Our disregard for lives across the Middle East fosters deep and more importantly fair resentment in the populations.
War is not without its politics. It’s uncomfortable to broach, but Obama’s policies, essentially a better managed expansion of the Bush policies, is turning terrorists into the population’s freedom fighters. It does not matter that it’s not substantively true, politics often has no attachment to substance. It’s still effective. A civilian on the ground in Raqqa (Syria) stated,
‘Not everyone who lives in Raqqa approves of ISIL. I am a citizen of Raqqa and I refused to leave my hometown just like many others did … What the world needs to know is that we live under ISIL control on the ground, and constant airstrikes from the sky. We are trapped.”,
ISIL has been clear about it’s wanting American soldiers on the ground. The villain making a media worthy commotion to lure the hero into a trap. To Obama’s credit, he has so far refused.
“That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield,” he argued. “ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq, but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”
Obama rhetorically acknowledges ISIL wants to use American troops as an irritant to swell their numbers. Yet he partially acquiesces. employing strategy in the region that hinges on the subtle argument that incineration by America is preferable to beheading by the sword. The discrepancy between rhetoric and policy is littered with two problematic ironies. In trying to appear strong on defense, Obama weakly capitulated to neo-conservative framing that force is the only answer to terrorism. And in fighting terror with force, we engage in state sponsored terrorism abroad that drives the local population to the very people we’re fighting. Motivated not necessarily by religiosity, but resistance.
There is a real and significant socio-economic underpinning to terrorism that our muscular approach has not only ignored, but exasperated. To be fair to the President, alternatives such as a Marshall Plan for the Middle East or a green energy revolution in the states to delineate our interest in the region has little to no support. That said, the current solution is in some degree perpetuating the problem. How much money needs to be spent and bombs dropped for a country of 400 million people to “feel safe” from 20 thousand poorly armed men half a world away? It sounds far grander than the following understatement implies, but we’re literally building an army against us with every bomb we drop, and person we kill. It’s time for a change.