Did Obama just carry out an experimental execution?

Reuters reports: U.S. President Barack Obama approved the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because the Taliban leader was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in Kabul, the Afghan capital, U.S. officials said on Monday. [Continue reading…]

Drone strikes are always carried out in the name of necessity. From the president on down, everyone wants to be able to claim that the decision to launch a deadly attack was driven by an imminent threat, there being no legal basis for indiscriminate killing or vengeance.

In the case of the assassination of the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistan over the weekend, Obama’s comments on the killing suggest that this actually had less to do with preventing an imminent attack, than it was a kind of experiment.

No one knows what the consequence of killing Mansour will be, but Obama apparently thought that the potential benefits outweighed the risks.

An otherwise risk-averse president always seems confident about the bets he places when they involve Hellfire missiles.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Mr. Obama, speaking Monday during a visit to Hanoi, said the drone strike against Mr. Mansour did not constitute a “shift” in the U.S. mission. “We are not re-entering the day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan forces,” he said.

He stressed Saturday’s airstrike was an opportunity for the Taliban to shift direction in favor of reconciliation talks, because Mr. Mansour for months has been against those talks.

Whether Mr. Mansour’s death changes things remains to be seen, according to those who track the group. Some believe his death could lead to a power struggle, accelerating the Taliban’s breakup. A main breakaway group already is being funded by the Afghan government as part of an effort to splinter the movement, The Wall Street Journal reported.

It was disclosed last year that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.

However, the infighting is unlikely to encourage the group to negotiate with the Afghan government, according to those familiar with its operations. Mr. Mansour’s death actually may make it difficult for moderates among the Taliban to negotiate. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump is about to start getting intelligence briefings — ‘it could be a disaster’

NPR reports: Harry Truman had been vice president for only 82 days when Franklin Roosevelt died, so there was quite a lot he needed to learn when he became president in 1945.

“He didn’t even know the atomic bomb existed,” historian David Priess said. “He didn’t know about the Manhattan Project.”

Priess, a former CIA officer and author of The President’s Book of Secrets, a history of the president’s daily brief, said that experience made Truman resolve that no future president should come into office unprepared.

So in 1952, as the world grew accustomed to nuclear peril and other threats in the unfolding Cold War, Truman offered classified briefings about the global security situation to each of the major-party nominees running to replace him. That tradition has held up ever since.

Traditionally, the White House waits until Republicans and Democrats have formally nominated their candidates at their party conventions, Priess said, but not always. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter had no experience with foreign intelligence, so he asked President Gerald Ford for his briefings before he was nominated — and got them.

“Ultimately, it’s the president’s call,” Priess said, about who is briefed and when.

Although presidents typically try to accommodate candidates, even ones in the opposite party, they do not share everything. So, as the White House prepares to arrange briefings by the intelligence community, officials will likely hold back sensitive details about covert operations, secret nuclear and other defense programs, and other such details.

In fact, intelligence briefers this year may need to be more careful than ever, said former CIA analyst Aki Peritz. The de facto Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is “a man famously with no filter,” Peritz said of Trump, who has built his campaign upon what he calls straight talk.

“He’s never held public office before,” Peritz said. “He’s a business developer and a reality TV star. So if the United States starts giving Donald Trump classified briefings” with certain kinds of sensitive information, “it could be a disaster.” [Continue reading…]

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Countering American anti-intellectualism involves more than challenging ignorance

The Washington Post reports on President Obama’s commencement address at Rutgers University on Sunday: The president throughout his speech decried a strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics that he said rejects science, reason and debate. “These are things you want in people making policy,” Obama said to laughter. “That might seem obvious.”

At one point, clearly referring to Trump and congressional Republicans who have decried efforts to combat global warming, Obama warned that “in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about,” he said. “That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you are talking about.”

Throughout the year, Obama has turned again and again in speeches to the obligations that come with citizenship and the need for a more reasoned and respectful political debate at a moment when the country’s politics have never seemed more vulgar and poisonous. [Continue reading…]

Given Obama’s youthful audience, it’s hardly surprising that he would appeal to their desire to be cool, but that itself strikes me as being part of the problem.

Intellectual development hinges less on knowing what you are talking about, than it requires the cultivation of curiosity.

It’s got more to do with asking the right questions, than knowing the right answers.

To be cool, on the other hand, suggests never being caught by surprise — as though to be surprised (which means to encounter the unexpected) must be a bad thing.

But no one can become so seasoned in life that they actually never encounter anything new. On the contrary, where the sense of surprise has been lost, nothing more is being learned. The process of digesting new information and new perceptions that modify ones understanding of the world, has atrophied. Thought, once malleable, has become fixed.

Those who claim they’ve seen it all before, have more likely just stopped looking.

The rancor in political debate which Obama criticizes, is itself not simply representative of a fractious political environment. It isn’t just that discourse is lacking in civility; it’s a reflection of the fears that inhibit creative political thinking.

When politics is strictly factionalized, orthodoxies rule. No one wants to challenge the conventional wisdom inside the camp to which they are aligned. Politics is then simply a power struggle between competing camps.

The intransigence we project onto our opponents is mirrored by the inflexibility on our side.

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Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess

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Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta write: Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.

The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said — that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.

Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it — in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined — comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul — was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.

Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul — which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra — was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.

The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases — such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq — they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities — Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance — have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.

The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians — men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite — against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did. [Continue reading…]

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Four ideas about the crisis of the Arab world that need to be repudiated

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An editorial in The Economist says: Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies — Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism — have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.

First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers — from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region — which Barack Obama seems to embrace — can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.

Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland — not to mention Israel. As our special report (see article) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.

The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. [Continue reading…]

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The fallacy that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero


Whenever questions are raised about the moral justification for destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in 1945, it’s generally assumed that President Truman’s decision to use these weapons was instrumental in ending World War II.

Given the staggering loss of life the war had already brought by that time, it’s hard to avoid imagining that almost any means possible — including the use of nuclear weapons — might have been justifiable if this would result in hastening the end of the war.

Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, 1945. Japan’s surrender was announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15. For this reason, many Americans think that apologizing for the destruction of these two Japanese cities would make no more sense than wishing that the war had dragged on for longer with even more lives lost.

But in Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons published in 2013, Ward Wilson argues that it was Stalin’s decision to invade Japan — not the use of the bomb — that led to the Japanese surrender.

Wilson points out that while the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are typically viewed as extraordinary in the level of destruction they caused, during the U.S. air campaign at that time there was less reason than we imagine to draw a sharp distinction between conventional and nuclear bombing.

In the summer of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force carried out one of the most intense campaigns of city destruction in the history of the world. Sixty-eight cities in Japan were attacked and all of them were either partially or completely destroyed. An estimated 1.7 million people were made homeless, 300,000 were killed, and 750,000 were wounded. Sixty-six of these raids were carried out with conventional bombs, two with atomic bombs. The destruction caused by conventional attacks was huge. Night after night, all summer long, cities would go up in smoke. In the midst of this cascade of destruction, it would not be surprising if this or that individual attack failed to make much of an impression — even if it was carried out with a remarkable new type of weapon.

Japan’s decision to surrender probably had less to do with the effect of nuclear weapons, than with Stalin’s decision to invade. Wilson writes:

The Japanese were in a relatively difficult strategic situation. They were nearing the end of a war they were losing. Conditions were bad. The Army, however, was still strong and well-supplied. Nearly 4 million men were under arms and 1.2 million of those were guarding Japan’s home islands.

Even the most hardline leaders in Japan’s government knew that the war could not go on. The question was not whether to continue, but how to bring the war to a close under the best terms possible. The Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and others — the Soviet Union, remember, was still neutral) were demanding “unconditional surrender.” Japan’s leaders hoped that they might be able to figure out a way to avoid war crimes trials, keep their form of government, and keep some of the territories they’d conquered: Korea, Vietnam, Burma, parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, a large portion of eastern China, and numerous islands in the Pacific.

They had two plans for getting better surrender terms; they had, in other words, two strategic options. The first was diplomatic. Japan had signed a five-year neutrality pact with the Soviets in April of 1941, which would expire in 1946. A group consisting mostly of civilian leaders and led by Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori hoped that Stalin might be convinced to mediate a settlement between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Japan on the other. Even though this plan was a long shot, it reflected sound strategic thinking. After all, it would be in the Soviet Union’s interest to make sure that the terms of the settlement were not too favorable to the United States: any increase in U.S. influence and power in Asia would mean a decrease in Russian power and influence.

The second plan was military, and most of its proponents, led by the Army Minister Anami Korechika, were military men. They hoped to use Imperial Army ground troops to inflict high casualties on U.S. forces when they invaded. If they succeeded, they felt, they might be able to get the United States to offer better terms. This strategy was also a long shot. The United States seemed deeply committed to unconditional surrender. But since there was, in fact, concern in U.S. military circles that the casualties in an invasion would be prohibitive, the Japanese high command’s strategy was not entirely off the mark.

One way to gauge whether it was the bombing of Hiroshima or the invasion and declaration of war by the Soviet Union that caused Japan’s surrender is to compare the way in which these two events affected the strategic situation. After Hiroshima was bombed on August 8, both options were still alive. It would still have been possible to ask Stalin to mediate (and Takagi’s diary entries from August 8 show that at least some of Japan’s leaders were still thinking about the effort to get Stalin involved). It would also still have been possible to try to fight one last decisive battle and inflict heavy casualties. The destruction of Hiroshima had done nothing to reduce the preparedness of the troops dug in on the beaches of Japan’s home islands. There was now one fewer city behind them, but they were still dug in, they still had ammunition, and their military strength had not been diminished in any important way. Bombing Hiroshima did not foreclose either of Japan’s strategic options.

The impact of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island was quite different, however. Once the Soviet Union had declared war, Stalin could no longer act as a mediator — he was now a belligerent. So the diplomatic option was wiped out by the Soviet move. The effect on the military situation was equally dramatic. Most of Japan’s best troops had been shifted to the southern part of the home islands. Japan’s military had correctly guessed that the likely first target of an American invasion would be the southernmost island of Kyushu. The once proud Kwangtung army in Manchuria, for example, was a shell of its former self because its best units had been shifted away to defend Japan itself. When the Russians invaded Manchuria, they sliced through what had once been an elite army and many Russian units only stopped when they ran out of gas. The Soviet 16th Army — 100,000 strong — launched an invasion of the southern half of Sakhalin Island. Their orders were to mop up Japanese resistance there, and then — within 10 to 14 days — be prepared to invade Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s home islands. The Japanese force tasked with defending Hokkaido, the 5th Area Army, was under strength at two divisions and two brigades, and was in fortified positions on the east side of the island. The Soviet plan of attack called for an invasion of Hokkaido from the west.

It didn’t take a military genius to see that, while it might be possible to fight a decisive battle against one great power invading from one direction, it would not be possible to fight off two great powers attacking from two different directions. The Soviet invasion invalidated the military’s decisive battle strategy, just as it invalidated the diplomatic strategy. At a single stroke, all of Japan’s options evaporated. The Soviet invasion was strategically decisive — it foreclosed both of Japan’s options — while the bombing of Hiroshima (which foreclosed neither) was not.

In this case, even if the nuclear attacks hastened the end of the war, it may have only been by a matter of a few days or weeks. The assumption that some greater good had been served is much harder to sustain.

At the same time, having already chosen to use these weapons twice and chosen to use them to wipe out civilian populations, the United States was thereafter in a much harder position to assert moral authority in saying that nuclear weapons must never be used again.

When Barack Obama visits Hiroshima later this month, he will make no apology for the destruction of this city. He will again call for global nuclear disarmament, but his appeal won’t carry much weight, given his decision to spend $348 billion on upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade.

To many observers, Obama’s nuclear aspirations do more than highlight his nuclear hypocrisy:

That declaration rings hollow to critics who believe Obama’s plan to overhaul and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is sparking a dangerous new arms race with China and Russia. The modernization program, including purchases of new bombers and ballistic missile submarines, could cost as much as $1 trillion over the next 30 years, said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

“The plan to rebuild and refurbish every weapon that we have basically sort of throws the gauntlet down, and Russia and China feel like they have to match it,” Gronlund said in an interview. “He has said really great things but his actions have not really been consistent with his words.”

As the Daily Beast reports, the “post-Cold War nuclear holiday is over” — a new nuclear arms race has already begun.

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How the New York Times Magazine botched its Iran story

Joe Cirincione writes: A devious president and his top aides trick the nation into a dangerous foreign entanglement with the help of a gullible press corps and complicit experts. George W. Bush and war with Iraq? No, Barack Obama and diplomacy with Iran. At least according to David Samuels’ telling in an instantly controversial article for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about White House adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes, whom I know, is very talented, but he is no modern-day Rasputin casting a spell over Obama, the press and public. The truth is that Samuels used his access to Rhodes to attack a deal he never liked and publicly campaigned against.

In his article, Samuels claims Obama was “actively misleading” the public about Iran. He says the president made up a story of how the 2013 election of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani created a new opening with Iran. This, so Obama could win “broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime.” This, in turn, claims Samuels, allowed Obama to avoid a “divisive but clarifying debate of the actual policy choices” and eliminate the “fuss about Iran’s nuclear program” so that Obama could pursue his real agenda: “a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

Every element of this thesis falls apart under scrutiny.

Obama did not mislead the public about negotiations with Iran. Most of the talks the United States held with Iran under the previous, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were widely reported. Even the secret talks that opened up the engagement with the more pragmatic Rouhani government were disclosed by the dogged reporting of Laura Rozen and others well before the congressional vote last year. And the imagined plot to sell out our Middle East allies to Iran is a common talking point of the far right, without any supporting evidence.

But one of Samuels’ biggest fallacies is his claim that the world’s leading nuclear policy and national security experts were duped by Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser whom Samuels portrays as a digital Machiavelli spinning gullible reporters and compliant experts into accepting a bad deal.

Samuels says this is the only way to explain “the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal.” He claims that in the spring of 2015, “legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters.”

This is utter nonsense.

In London, Paris, Berlin and Washington the deal was evaluated on its merits, not on spin. Nor did we wait for the White House to fire the starting gun. Ploughshares Fund, the group I head, began our campaign to shut down Iran’s paths to a bomb six years ago. We helped fund a network of experts, advocates, faith leaders, military leaders and diplomats who trade views and coordinate efforts.

Samuels takes a swipe at our work directly, quoting Rhodes as saying, “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. … We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else.” [Continue reading…]

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A soldier’s challenge to the president

In an editorial, the New York Times says: Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, who is 28, is helping wage war on the Islamic State as an Army intelligence officer deployed in Kuwait. He is no conscientious objector. Yet he sued President Obama last week, making a persuasive case that the military campaign is illegal unless Congress explicitly authorizes it.

“When President Obama ordered airstrikes in Iraq in August 2014 and in Syria in September 2014, I was ready for action,” he wrote in a statement attached to the lawsuit. “In my opinion, the operation is justified both militarily and morally.” But as his suit makes clear, that does not make it legal.

Constitutional experts and some members of Congress have also challenged the Obama administration’s thin legal rationale for using military force in Iraq and Syria. The Federal District Court for the District of Columbia should allow the suit to move forward to force the White House and Congress to confront an important question both have irresponsibly skirted.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires that the president obtain “specific statutory authorization” soon after sending troops to war. Mr. Obama’s war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was billed as a short-term humanitarian intervention when it began in August 2014. The president and senior administration officials repeatedly asserted that the United States would not be dragged back into a Middle East quagmire. The mission, they vowed, would not involve “troops on the ground.” Yet the Pentagon now has more than 4,000 troops in Iraq and 300 in Syria. Last week’s combat death of a member of the Navy SEALs, Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV, underscored that the conflict has escalated, drawing American troops to the front lines.

“We keep saying it’s supposed to be advising that we’re doing, and yet we’re losing one kid at a time,” Phyllis Holmes, Petty Officer Keating’s grandmother, told The Times.

Asked on Thursday about the lawsuit, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said it raised “legitimate questions for every American to be asking.” The administration has repeatedly urged Congress to pass a war authorization for the war against the Islamic State. It currently relies on the authorization for the use of military force passed in 2001 for the explicit purpose of targeting the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, which paved the way for the invasion of Afghanistan.

“One thing is abundantly clear: Our men and women in uniform and our coalition partners are on the front lines of our war against ISIL, while Congress has remained on the sidelines,” the White House spokesman Ned Price said in an email.

Yet, the White House has enabled Congress to shirk its responsibility by arguing that a new war authorization would be ideal but not necessary. Administration officials could have forced Congress to act by declaring that it could not rely indefinitely on the Afghanistan war authorization and giving lawmakers a deadline to pass a new law.

By failing to pass a new one, Congress and the administration are setting a dangerous precedent that the next president may be tempted to abuse. That is particularly worrisome given the bellicose temperament of Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee.

It is not too late to act before the presidential election in November. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have shown little interest in passing an authorization. They should feel compelled to heed the call of a young deployed soldier who is asking them to do their job.

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While Obama portrays their combat role as over, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight

The New York Times reports: The Taliban attacked the Afghan police compound at first light, coming from all sides at the American Green Berets holed up inside. The insurgents fired assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They came in what a soldier called “human waves.”

Not even strafing runs by American F-16 fighters stopped the assault. The elite American soldiers — whose mission was only to train and advise Afghan troops — had never seen a firefight as intense.

Holding the compound, another soldier said, took an “Alamo defense.”

On the morning of Oct. 1, about 30 soldiers were in close-quarters combat against Taliban fighters — even though White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly insisted that American troops no longer play that role.

The Americans were not ambushed while advising local forces behind the front lines or struck by rocket fire while manning a fortified base. Nine months after President Obama declared an end to the American combat mission in Afghanistan, these Green Berets were at the leading edge of an offensive to retake Kunduz, where Afghan forces had melted away as insurgents attacked, leaving an entire city in the Taliban’s grip for the first time since 2001.

The fight for the police compound proved crucial in rallying Afghan forces to retake the city.

It also offered the starkest example to date of a blurry line in Afghanistan and Iraq between the missions that American forces are supposed to be fulfilling — military training and advising — and combat. Mr. Obama has portrayed that combat role as over. But as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have threatened the delicate stability he hoped to leave behind, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight. [Continue reading…]

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There are no conflicts in the Middle East that date back millennia

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: In February 1994, during the Siege of Sarajevo, a Bosnian Serb mortar landed in a market, killing 68 and wounding 144. US President Bill Clinton, who had made his “never again” campaign promise to prevent genocide, was up in arms.

“Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen,” he said.

Two decades later, confronted with indiscriminate bombings in Aleppo and a starvation siege in Madaya, Barack Obama waxed similarly fatalistic. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation,” he said, because it was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”.

There are no conflicts in the Middle East that date back millennia. The conflict in Syria is just over five years old. Nothing about it is fixed. In its scope and its intensity, in its balance of forces and its cast of characters, the conflict has been constantly evolving. The only element that has remained static, however, is the international response.

In speaking of the horrors unfolding in Syria, it is hard to avoid a certain sense of déjà vu. Everything that can be said about Aleppo has already been said about Homs, Houla, Daraya and Douma. But with each new horror comes a growing sense that, for all the obtrusive violence, for all our pleas, we are plunging into the deep, smothered by apathy, abandoned by hope. [Continue reading…]

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The pendulum of American power

Having been exercised with the imperial hubris of the neoconservatives, American power thereby overextended was inevitably going to swing in the opposite direction. What was not inevitable was that an administration when forced to deal with current events would cling so persistently to the past.

Through the frequent use of a number of catch phrases — “we need to look forward,” his promise “to end the mindset that got us into war,” and so forth — Barack Obama presented his administration as one that would unshackle the U.S. from the misadventures of his predecessor.

Nevertheless, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s closest adviser helping him craft this message, has a mindset in 2016 that shows no signs of having evolved in any significant way since he was on the 2008 campaign trail. As one of the lead authors of the 2006 Iraq Study Group report, Rhodes became and remains fixated on his notion of Iraq.

In a New York Times magazine profile of Rhodes, David Samuels writes:

What has interested me most about watching him and his cohort in the White House over the past seven years, I tell him, is the evolution of their ability to get comfortable with tragedy. I am thinking specifically about Syria, I add, where more than 450,000 people have been slaughtered.

“Yeah, I admit very much to that reality,” he says. “There’s a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this,” he continues. “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there — nearly a decade in Iraq.”

Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism. I was against the Iraq war from the beginning, I tell Rhodes, so I understand why he perpetually returns to it. I also understand why Obama pulled the plug on America’s engagement with the Middle East, I say, but it was also true as a result that more people are dying there on his watch than died during the Bush presidency, even if very few of them are Americans. What I don’t understand is why, if America is getting out of the Middle East, we are apparently spending so much time and energy trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families, or why it is so important for Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah. He mutters something about John Kerry, and then goes off the record, to suggest, in effect, that the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed. The buck stops with the establishment, not with Obama, who was left to clean up their mess.

In this regard — “their ability to get comfortable with tragedy” — Rhodes and Obama mirror mainstream America which views the mess in the Middle East as being beyond America’s power to repair.

The fact that the U.S. bears a major portion of the blame in precipitating the region’s unraveling, is perversely presented as the reason the U.S. should now limit its involvement.

What, it’s reasonable to ask, does Iraq actually represent from this vantage point?

Wasted American lives? Wasted U.S. dollars? The destructive effect of American imperial power?

Is Iraq just a prism through which Americans look at America?

Is Iraq merely America’s shadow, or is there room for Iraqis anywhere in this picture?

What Samuel’s describes as this administration’s willingness to accept tragedy can also be seen as the required measure of indifference that makes it possible to look the other way.

The desire to make things better in Syria and Iraq is not contingent solely on an assessment of U.S. capabilities; it is more importantly a reflection of the degree to which Syrian and Iraqi lives matter to Americans.

The evidentiary record clearly shows that the scale of this tragedy all too accurately reflects the breadth of American indifference.

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How Ben Rhodes turned from fiction to foreign policy

David Samuels writes: Unnoticed by the reporters, Ben Rhodes walks through the room, a half-beat behind a woman in leopard-print heels. He is holding a phone to his ear, repeating his mantra: “I’m not important. You’re important.”

The Boy Wonder of the Obama White House is now 38. He heads downstairs to his windowless basement office, which is divided into two parts. In the front office, his assistant, Rumana Ahmed, and his deputy, Ned Price, are squeezed behind desks, which face a large television screen, from which CNN blares nonstop. Large pictures of Obama adorn the walls. Here is the president adjusting Rhodes’s tie; presenting his darling baby daughter, Ella, with a flower; and smiling wide while playing with Ella on a giant rug that says “E Pluribus Unum.”

For much of the past five weeks, Rhodes has been channeling the president’s consciousness into what was imagined as an optimistic, forward-looking final State of the Union. Now, from the flat screens, a challenge to that narrative arises: Iran has seized two small boats containing 10 American sailors. Rhodes found out about the Iranian action earlier that morning but was trying to keep it out of the news until after the president’s speech. “They can’t keep a secret for two hours,” Rhodes says, with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline.

As the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes writes the president’s speeches, plans his trips abroad and runs communications strategy across the White House, tasks that, taken individually, give little sense of the importance of his role. He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself. The president and Rhodes communicate “regularly, several times a day,” according to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who is known for captaining a tight ship. “I see it throughout the day in person,” he says, adding that he is sure that in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. Rhodes strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign, helped negotiate the opening of American relations with Cuba after a hiatus of more than 50 years and has been a co-writer of all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches. “Every day he does 12 jobs, and he does them better than the other people who have those jobs,” Terry Szuplat, the longest-tenured member of the National Security Council speechwriting corps, told me. On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.

Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.

Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s drone war is a shameful part of his legacy

James Downie writes: Father Daniel Berrigan died Saturday at 94. The longtime peace activist gained national attention in 1968 when he and eight others, including his brother Philip (also a priest), burned draft records taken from a Selective Service office in Maryland. Decades later, he remains a powerful example of a man who never wavered in his beliefs, standing up time and again for the poor and oppressed. In his last years, Berrigan no longer had the energy to protest as frequently. But if he had been a few generations younger, can there be any doubt that he would have been at forefront of those protesting the expansion of the drone war under President Obama?

There have long been policy, constitutional and moral questions about the drone program — all made more difficult to answer by the Obama administration’s refusal to even acknowledge the program until 2013. As Obama’s presidency comes to an end, we have stunning new details about how the program works — first released in October on the Intercept website, now updated and collected in the book “The Assassination Complex” by Jeremy Scahill and Intercept staffers. “The Assassination Complex” is in large part built around the revelations of an anonymous whistleblower who leaked documents about U.S. use of drones in Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. What he or she reveals further confirms the practical, legal and moral failings of Obama’s expanded drone war.

For starters, although drones may be quite good at killing people (even if not always the intended targets), it’s not clear that they are an effective tool in the war on terrorism. Obama’s embrace of drones has led to a preference for killing rather than capturing terrorists. The documents include a study from the Defense Department’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Task Force, which concluded that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material.” And as retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said last year, “When you drop a bomb from a drone . . . you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” including more radicalized terrorists. [Continue reading…]

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Racism by any other name

Vann R. Newkirk II writes: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Barack Obama’s election as the first black president was supposed to usher in a golden “post-racial” age but instead was met with racial conflict, a battle Obama failed, in his role as conciliator-in-chief, to either predict or control. The conflict has blossomed into a war, producing Donald Trump’s racial-angst-fueled campaign and the anger of Black Lives Matter protesters. At the heart of this racial conflict is Obama’s divisive presidency.

If that storyline sounds familiar, it’s the tack that many analyses have taken as they try to tease apart the interconnected issues of race and politics. It’s an exercise––an important one––that writers attempt every few months. Two years ago, commentators chronicled “unrest over race” in Obama’s legacy, and even before that speculated at racial tensions or unrest that might ensue should he ever lose an election. One recent column by Peniel Joseph in the Washington Post chronicles Obama’s failure to stop the “open warfare” of racial conflict during his term in office.

One reason these attempts to grapple with race and Obama’s presidency recur so often is that they usually can’t quite pull together a unified theory. Perhaps the moving pieces are just too complicated to analyze while they are still moving; perhaps they appear deceptively simple. But maybe some of the difficulty in talking about race today is attributable to the unhelpful euphemisms of “racial conflict,” “racial tension,” and other phrases that suggest an equal amount of instigation across racial groups, if not a perfectly balanced battle. But not all “racial conflicts” or “racially fraught” sentiments are the same. Equating them even via casual euphemism dilutes the potency of a truth that has undergirded every aspect of American society for as long as American society has existed.

It is tempting to try to conceptualize American culture as a theater of war, with battles fought between well-equipped factions over the future of the dominant identity. This conceptualization of political conflict animates arguments about everything from political correctness on college campuses to the tensions at the heart of Bernie Sanders’s political revolution. And at some level, especially when discussing differing factions of white men, it works. But the idea of political conflict as a pitched battle proves inadequate when it fails to take into account the power gradients that have been woven into the fabric of the country. That is especially true of race. [Continue reading…]

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An army captain takes Obama to court over war on ISIS

The New York Times reports: A 28-year-old Army officer on Wednesday sued President Obama over the legality of the war against the Islamic State, setting up a test of Mr. Obama’s disputed claim that he needs no new legal authority from Congress to order the military to wage that deepening mission.

The plaintiff, Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, an intelligence officer stationed in Kuwait, voiced strong support for fighting the Islamic State but, citing his “conscience” and his vow to uphold the Constitution, he said he believed that the mission lacked proper authorization from Congress.

“To honor my oath, I am asking the court to tell the president that he must get proper authority from Congress, under the War Powers Resolution, to wage the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” he wrote.

The legal challenge comes after the death of the third American service member fighting the Islamic State and as Mr. Obama has decided to significantly expand the number of Special Operations ground troops he has deployed to Syria aid rebels there. [Continue reading…]

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