PRI reports: President Barack Obama sees success against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and wants to use the same model to overcome ISIS in Iraq.
Middle East watcher Gregory Johnsen thinks that’s a bad idea; he’s not even sure what Obama is seeing in Yemen should be called success.
“It just seems that the US doesn’t have a very good grasp of what’s happening on the ground in Yemen or what’s happening on the ground in Iraq, or how to solve either of these problems,” he says.
Johnsen says the US military strategy used to hunt al-Qaeda members in Yemen has been ineffective, or even counterproductive.
“About four-and-a-half years ago, when the US started this program of drone strikes, special forces advisors on the ground, al-Qaeda in Yemen numbered about 200 to 300 people. Now today, there are several thousand people. So what the US is doing in Yemen isn’t working.” [Continue reading...]
Peter Beinart writes: Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.
The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”
When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust. [Continue reading...]
Peter Beinart writes: There are three kinds of critiques of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The first comes from the left, from commentators like Glenn Greenwald who claim Obama has embraced the architecture of George W. Bush’s war on terror: unlawful spying, unlawful detention, unlawful drone attacks, cozy relations with dictators. The second comes from the right, from hawks who believe Obama has appeased anti-American tyrants in Syria, Russia, and Iran, while retreating from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thus weakening American credibility. The third, and least discussed, comes from foreign-policy professionals, including those within Obama’s administration. Ideologically, it’s harder to classify. These professionals argue that in his zeal to focus on domestic policy, and to avoid risky foreign-policy fights, the president simply hasn’t invested the time and political will to effectively wield American power.
One purveyor of this third critique is Obama’s former envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. When Republicans attack the administration’s Syria policy, they mostly focus on Obama’s decision to declare Syrian chemical weapons a “red line,” and then fail to act militarily when Bashar al-Assad crossed it, allegedly making America look weak. Ford’s critique is different. This week — in a public break with his former boss — he argued that by not aiding Syria’s rebels when they initially took up arms, before jihadists became a dominant force in the armed opposition, Obama squandered an opportunity to pressure Assad into a diplomatic deal. Unlike Republican politicians, who want to paint Obama as a wimp for not launching missile strikes in the country, Ford’s critique is that the president — in his desire to avoid getting sucked into a messy and risky civil war—proved too passive not only militarily, but diplomatically as well.
Ford’s criticism echoes one leveled by another former Obama State Department official, Vali Nasr, in his book The Dispensable Nation. In recent days, Republicans have flayed the White House for “negotiating with terrorists” in order to secure the Taliban’s release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. But Nasr, who worked under special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, maintains that Obama’s failure was to not negotiate with the Taliban enough. Like Ford, he thinks Obama’s main problem was not his refusal to stand up to America’s enemies, but his refusal to engage them the right way. [Continue reading...]
Carne Ross writes: Even before President Obama spoke to the US military academy at West Point on Wednesday, the White House trumpeted his commencement address as offering a unifying vision of US foreign policy – one that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral“.
With an introduction like that, it came as a welcome surprise that the speech was merely intelligible. I liked the anti-thoughtless-intervention line – “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail” – but much of the nearly hour-long speech was a dull checklist of world problems (and the UN Law of the Sea Convention!), most addressed by the routine oversimplifications required on such occasions.
Obama’s “vision” was peppered with confusing vocabulary about “realists” and “interventionists”, both depicted as straw men, and too many predictable bromides about international cooperation, democracy and “human dignity”. And I say this as a former speechwriter who also used to lean on such filler.
There was no over-arching theme to this rhetoric, save Obama’s recommitment to American exceptionalism (“with every fiber of my being”) and his rejection of mindless invasions. Not much to disagree with there, but not much new either. One couldn’t avoid the impression that this speech marked the end of a war-laden chapter for the US – with little clear idea of what the next chapter should really mean, save the repetitious evocation of “American leadership”.
The leitmotif of Obama’s foreign policy – and the first item of his West Point talk – is withdrawal, as Tuesday’s announcement about drawdown in Afghanistan reconfirmed. So what about the rest of Obama’s foreign policy?
Facts, not rhetoric, paint a picture of this administration’s troubling and often counterproductive inconsistency abroad. There is some good, but there is plenty that’s really bad.
From drones and emissions, to the South China Sea to Somalia to the Crimea and back again, it’s not easy connect the many dots of America’s foreign policies. Because aside from tortured rhetoric, unified they are not. [Continue reading...]
An editorial in the New York Times says: The use of a sham vaccination program in the government’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has produced a lethal backlash in Pakistan where dozens of public health workers have been murdered and fearful parents are shunning polio vaccine for their children.
Leaders of a dozen American schools of public health raised an alarm with the Obama administration 16 months ago and finally got a response this month when the White House promised that the C.I.A. will no longer use phony immunization programs in its spying operations.
The fakery — one of an assortment of intelligence stratagems before the successful raid that killed bin Laden — should never have been used in a world where hardworking health care agencies depend on the trust of local communities.
The C.I.A.’s ruse involved phony door-to-door solicitations by a physician promising to deliver hepatitis B immunizations; his real purpose was to confirm bin Laden’s suspected hiding place. The ploy helped fuel a militant backlash against immunization workers, and as many as 60 health workers and police officers have since been killed.
Meanwhile, polio is on the rise, with Pakistan accounting for 66 of the 82 cases reported so far this year by the World Health Organization. Last year, there were 93 cases of polio in Pakistan, where the health organization warns that the disease is endemic, as it is in Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The C.I.A. can no longer seek to “obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material” gathered this way, according to a promise from the Obama administration. That is small comfort for those suffering the aftereffects of this ruse.
Convincing wary parents to accept polio vaccination — and finding health workers willing to risk violence — has been made more difficult than ever.
Andrea J Prasow writes: A lot can happen in a year. And a lot can’t.
Twelve months ago today, Barack Obama gave a landmark national security speech in which he frankly acknowledged that the United States had at least in some cases compromised its values in the years since 9/11 – and offered his vision of a US national security policy more directly in line with “the freedoms and ideals that we defend.” It was widely praised as “a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America“.
Addressing an audience at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, the president pledged greater transparency about targeted killings, rededicated himself to closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and urged Congress to refine and ultimately repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has been invoked to justify everything from military detention to drones strikes.
A year later, none of these promises have been met. Instead, drone strikes have continue (and likely killed and wounded civilians), 154 men remain detained at Guantanamo and the administration has taken no steps to roll back the AUMF. This is not the sort of change Obama promised. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.
In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”
But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.
Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others. [Continue reading...]
Glenn Greenwald writes: The just-retired long-time NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, recently traveled to Australia to give a remarkably long and wide-ranging interview with an extremely sycophantic “interviewer” with The Australian Financial Review. The resulting 17,000-word transcript and accompanying article form a model of uncritical stenography journalism, but Alexander clearly chose to do this because he is angry, resentful, and feeling unfairly treated, and the result is a pile of quotes that are worth examining, only a few of which are noted below:
AFR: What were the key differences for you as director of NSA serving under presidents Bush and Obama? Did you have a preferred commander in chief?
Gen. Alexander: Obviously they come from different parties, they view things differently, but when it comes to the security of the nation and making those decisions about how to protect our nation, what we need to do to defend it, they are, ironically, very close to the same point. You would get almost the same decision from both of them on key questions about how to defend our nation from terrorists and other threats.
The almost-complete continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama on such matters has been explained by far too many senior officials in both parties, and has been amply documented in far too many venues, to make it newsworthy when it happens again. Still, the fact that one of the nation’s most powerful generals in history, who has no incentive to say it unless it were true, just comes right out and states that Bush and The Candidate of Change are “very close to the same point” and “you would get almost the same decision from both of them on key questions” is a fine commentary on a number of things, including how adept the 2008 Obama team was at the art of branding. [Continue reading...]
Greenwald says Alexander “has no incentive to say it unless it were true” — but actually he does have an incentive as does every other former and current member of the national security establishment.
Whenever intelligence agencies are accused of lack of accountability, evading Congressional oversight, or any other abuse of power, their comeback is always the same: we are the humble and loyal servants of the president doing exactly what we are asked to do.
So, they very much do have an interest in portraying the continuity of their own operations as perfectly mirroring the continuity in the approaches of their commander in chief.
The irony in the continuity between Bush and Obama has been frequently noted. What seems more worthy of being underlined is the way in which Obama has turned out to be worse than Bush.
The excesses of the last administration have come to be portrayed as a product of 9/11, but the ways in which Obama has institutionalized pervasive secrecy are much more insidious and much less likely to be undone by future presidents.
And if anyone thought that the legacy of the Snowden/Greenwald revelations might be a move towards more open government, the opposite is turning out to look more likely.
David Cole writes: On Monday, The New York Times reported that “the Senate has quietly stripped a provision from an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to make public each year the number of people killed or injured in targeted killing operations in Pakistan and other countries where the United States uses lethal force.” National security officials in the Obama administration objected strongly to having to notify the public of the results and scope of their dirty work, and the Senate acceded. So much for what President Obama has called “the most transparent administration in history.”
The Senate’s decision is particularly troubling in view of how reticent the administration itself continues to be about the drone program. To date, Obama has publicly admitted to the deaths of only four people in targeted killing operations. That came in May 2013, when, in conjunction with a speech at the National Defense University, and, in his words, “to facilitate transparency and debate on the issue,” President Obama acknowledged for the first time that the United States had killed four Americans in drone strikes. But according to credible accounts, Obama has overseen the killing of several thousand people in drone strikes since taking office. Why only admit to the four Americans’ deaths? Is the issue of targeted killings only appropriate for debate when we kill our own citizens? Don’t all human beings have a right to life?
In the NDU speech, President Obama also announced new limits on the use of drones “beyond the Afghan theater.” He proclaimed that drone strikes would be authorized away from the battlefield only when necessary to respond to “continuing and imminent threats” posed by people who cannot be captured or otherwise countermanded. Most important, he said, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Yet in December, a US drone strike in Yemen reportedly struck a wedding party. The New York Times reported that while some of the victims may have been linked to al-Qaeda, the strike killed “at least a half dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses.” [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: At the behest of the director of national intelligence, US senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.
The bill authorizing intelligence operations in fiscal 2014 passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, and it originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year. It did not require the White House to disclose the total number of strikes worldwide.
But the Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes. [Continue reading...]
Whenever President Obama orders summary executions through drone strikes, the easiest way of knowing that the CIA doesn’t actually know who was killed is that the dead all carry the same name: militants.
In the latest wave of attacks, 55 “militants” are said to have been killed.
It would probably be much more accurate to report that approximately 55 people were killed, few if any of their names are known and they are suspected to have been members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Rather than calling these targeted killings, they should probably be seen as speculative murders — the act of terminating someone’s life when the U.S. government has the suspicion that person might pose an unspecified threat in the future.
McClatchy reports: A series of U.S. government drone strikes in Yemen over recent days has brought into sharp relief divisions among the country’s rulers over how to rein in a program that they’ve long supported.
Only last week, a top Yemeni military official told McClatchy the government had placed the drone program “under review” in hopes of persuading the United States to limit strikes.
The most recent strikes — one Saturday morning in the central province of al Bayda that hit a vehicle carrying more than a dozen suspected militants from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, another roughly 24 hours later in the reputed AQAP stronghold of al Mahfad in the southern province of Abyan and a third Monday that killed three in Shabwah province — show that such a review has yet to limit the attacks.
Yemen’s government has long assented to the strikes — privately, in the case of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but openly under the country’s current leader, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power in February 2012.
But a rising number of civilian casualties, particularly the December bombing of a wedding party that left 15 dead, has unnerved some Yemeni officials.
“We’ve told the Americans that they’ve been going about things the wrong way,” the high-ranking Yemeni military official said last week, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “When it comes to the current drone policy, there have been too many mistakes.” [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: A U.S. national security source said on Monday that the U.S. government believed that AQAP is currently plotting attacks against American targets, including the U.S. embassy on Sanaa.
But analysts say drone strikes do only limited harm to AQAP.
They say the group will remain a serious menace unless the government can address challenges such as poverty and inadequate security forces, and curb the occasional civilian casualties inflicted by drone attacks that inflame anti-U.S. sentiment.
“The U.S. can’t simply kill its way out of the terrorism threat,” said Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on terrorism and counter-terrorism.
“The U.S. and other concerned nations should address all the drivers of terrorism including poverty, illiteracy, political marginalisation and lack of opportunity for young people.”
Vivian Salama writes: The people of Yemen can hear destruction before it arrives. In cities, towns and villages across this country, which hangs off the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the air buzzes with the sound of American drones flying overhead. The sound is a constant and terrible reminder: a robot plane, acting on secret intelligence, may calculate that the man across from you at the coffee shop, or the acquaintance with whom you’ve shared a passing word on the street, is an Al Qaeda operative. This intelligence may be accurate or it may not, but it doesn’t matter. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the chaotic buzzing above sharpens into the death-herald of an incoming missile.
Such quite literal existential uncertainty is coming at a deep psychological cost for the Yemeni people. For Americans, this military campaign is an abstraction. The drone strikes don’t require U.S. troops on the ground, and thus are easy to keep out of sight and out of mind. Over half of Yemen’s 24.8 million citizens – militants and civilians alike – are impacted every day. A war is happening, and one of the unforeseen casualties is the Yemeni mind.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and anxiety are becoming rampant in the different corners of the country where drones are active. “Drones hover over an area for hours, sometimes days and weeks,” said Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni-American anti-drone activist and cofounder of Support Yemen, a media collective raising awareness about issues afflicting the country. Yemenis widely describe suffering from constant sleeplessness, anxiety, short-tempers, an inability to concentrate and, unsurprisingly, paranoia.
Alwazir recalled a Yemeni villager telling her that the drones “are looking inside our homes and even at our women.’” She says that, “this feeling of infringement of privacy, combined with civilian casualties and constant fear and anxiety has a profound long time psychological effect on those living under drones.” [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: For the first time, a former U.S. president has come out against the Keystone XL pipeline.
The ex-president in question is Jimmy Carter.
The 39th president joined a group of Nobel laureates to sign a letter urging the current commander-in-chief to reject the pipeline from Canada.
The letter tells Barack Obama that he stands on the brink of making a choice that will define his legacy on one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced — climate change.
“History will reflect on this moment and it will be clear to our children and grandchildren if you made the right choice…. We urge you to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline,” the letter reads.
It says his decision will either signal a “dangerous commitment” to the status quo, or “bold leadership” that will inspire millions counting on him to do the right thing for the climate. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: For all the talk about the movement that elected Mr. Obama, the more notable movement of Obama supporters has been away from politics. It appears that few of the young people who voted for him, and even fewer Obama campaign and administration operatives, have decided to run for office. Far more have joined the high-paid consultant ranks.
Unlike John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who inspired virtual legislatures of politicians and became generational touchstones, Mr. Obama has so far had little such influence. That is all the more remarkable considering he came to office tapping into spirit of volunteerism and community service that pollsters say is widespread and intense among young people. Mr. Obama has come to represent that spirit, but he has failed, pollsters say, to transform it into meaningful engagement in the political process.
“If you were to call it an Obama generation, there was a window,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “That opportunity has been lost.” He said the youth who came of voting age around the time of the 2008 election have since lost interest in electoral politics, and pointed to a survey he conducted last year among 18- to 29-year-olds. Although 70 percent said they considered community service an honorable endeavor, only 35 percent said the same about running for office.
“We’re seeing the younger cohort is even less connected with him generally, with his policies, as well as politics generally,” Mr. Della Volpe added, referring to Mr. Obama. Sergio Bendixen, who worked as a pollster for Mr. Obama, blamed a social media-addled generation accustomed to instant gratification for the drop-off. After getting swept up by the Obama movement of 2008, he said, “They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer. I just don’t see the generation as all that ideological or invested in causes for the long run.” [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Stepping into a heated debate within the nation’s intelligence agencies, President Obama has decided that when the National Security Agency discovers major flaws in Internet security, it should — in most circumstances — reveal them to assure that they will be fixed, rather than keep mum so that the flaws can be used in espionage or cyberattacks, senior administration officials said Saturday.
But Mr. Obama carved a broad exception for “a clear national security or law enforcement need,” the officials said, a loophole that is likely to allow the N.S.A. to continue to exploit security flaws both to crack encryption on the Internet and to design cyberweapons.
The White House has never publicly detailed Mr. Obama’s decision, which he made in January as he began a three-month review of recommendations by a presidential advisory committee on what to do in response to recent disclosures about the National Security Agency.
But elements of the decision became evident on Friday, when the White House denied that it had any prior knowledge of the Heartbleed bug, a newly known hole in Internet security that sent Americans scrambling last week to change their online passwords. The White House statement said that when such flaws are discovered, there is now a “bias” in the government to share that knowledge with computer and software manufacturers so a remedy can be created and distributed to industry and consumers. [Continue reading...]
Alejandra Marchevsky and Beth Baker report: On March 13, President Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to review its deportation practices, acknowledging the toll that record-high deportation rates are taking on local communities. A White House statement issued later that day read, “The president emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”
The President’s pledge came in response to growing pressure from immigrant rights advocates and progressive Democrats outraged by the Obama administration’s five-year deportation spree. Since taking the oath of office, Obama has deported immigrants at a faster rate than any other president in US history, nearly a record 2 million people. On a typical day, there are over 30,000 immigrants imprisoned in the world’s largest immigration detention system. Most deportees never see an attorney or have a hearing before a judge before they are expelled from the country. Deportation carries a high price for families and communities across America: one-quarter of all deportees are separated from their US citizen children and countless others from spouses and other family members.
Obama’s claim to sympathize with immigrant families’ “pain” obscures a troubling fact: while the review he ordered may lead to more “humane” treatment of some undocumented immigrants — a welcome if still-modest outcome — it will do nothing for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who get snared each year in the nation’s thickening national security and criminal enforcement webs. And these immigrants represent the majority of persons deported during the Obama era.
For the last twenty-five years, and particularly since the start of the “War on Terror,” immigration has become increasingly tangled with criminal enforcement and national security. George W. Bush cemented the relationship in 2003 when he folded the Immigration and Naturalization Service into a mammoth new agency, the Department of Homeland Security, which was charged with overseeing both counterterrorism and immigration enforcement. The message was obvious: immigration was a threat to the country, and thus, immigration authorities had become an arm of the national security apparatus. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reached out to President Obama on Friday to discuss ideas about how to peacefully resolve the international standoff over Ukraine, a surprise move by Moscow to pull back from the brink of an escalated confrontation that has put Europe and much of the world on edge.
After weeks of provocative moves punctuated by a menacing buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border, Mr. Putin’s unexpected telephone call to Mr. Obama offered a hint of a possible settlement. The two leaders agreed to have their top diplomats meet to discuss concrete proposals for defusing the crisis that has generated the most serious clash between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
But it remained uncertain whether Mr. Putin was seriously interested in a resolution that would go far enough to satisfy the United States, Ukraine and Europe, or instead was seeking a diplomatic advantage at a time when he has been isolated internationally. While the White House account of the call emphasized the possible diplomatic movement, the Kremlin’s version stressed Mr. Putin’s complaints about “extremists” in Ukraine and introduced into the mix of issues on the table the fate of Transnistria, another pro-Russian breakaway province outside his borders. [Continue reading...]