“We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wanted to join,” crowed neocon Max Boot in the aftermath of 9/11. But now, after two long and disastrous wars, trillion of dollars in military spending, a network of more than 1,000 foreign military bases, torture and abuse of prisoners on several continents, assault on both international law and the U.S. Constitution, a near economic collapse, drone attacks killing alleged terrorists and civilians alike, disparities between rich and poor unheard of in an advanced industrial country, appallingly low test scores for students, government surveillance on an unprecedented scale, collapsing infrastructure, domestic uprisings on both the Left and the Right, and an international reputation left in tatters, the U.S. empire does not look at that attractive.
George W. Bush, who canceled his 2011 speaking engagement in Switzerland to avoid massive protests and the risk of being indicted as a war criminal, and his empire-friendly advisors bear a lot of responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. They saddled Barack Obama and the American people with an incredible mess. Obama confided to one of his closest aides: “I’m inheriting a world that could blow up any minute in a half dozen ways…”
The country Obama inherited was indeed in shambles, but Obama took a bad situation and, in certain ways, made it worse. Swept into office on a wave of popular euphoria, he mesmerized supporters throughout the campaign with his exhilarating rhetoric, surpassing intelligence, inspiring biography, commitment to defend civil liberties, rejection of unilateralism, and strong opposition to the Iraq War – qualities that made him seem the antithesis of Bush. The election of Barack Hussein Obama, the child of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, who was raised in Indonesia as well as Hawaii and went on to graduate from Columbia and become president of the Harvard Law Review, felt like a kind of expiation for the sins of a nation whose reputation had been sullied, as we have shown throughout this book, by racism, imperialism, militarism, nuclearism, environmental degradation, and unbridled avarice. The suffering caused by misguided U.S. policies had been immense. For many, Obama’s election offered redemption. It attested to the other side of America and its place in history, a side marked by idealism, egalitarianism, constitutionalism, republicanism, humanism, environmentalism, and the embrace of freedom and democracy as universal principle. Progressives hope Obama would become the heir to a tradition represented by Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace and by the post-Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy.
Yet rather than repudiating the policies of Bush and his predecessors, Obama perpetuated them. Rather than diminishing the influence of Wall Street and the major corporations in U.S. life, Obama has given them latitude to continue most of their predatory practices. Rather than restoring the civil liberties that Bush had eviscerated and limiting the executive powers that Bush usurped after 9/11, Obama, with few exceptions, has tightened the grip of the domestic security/surveillance apparatus, stifling civil liberties and the right to dissent.
In the brilliant 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, director Frank Capra spends the first eleven minutes exposing a nefarious web of power, intrigue, and clandestine deal making to reveal the hidden world that the naïve and idealistic Jefferson Smith will encounter when he tries to change the ways of Washington. Barack Obama would confront a similar nest of entrenched interests. But Obama was much more savvy and, apparently, more cynical than Smith. By knowingly surrounding himself with establishment insiders as domestic and foreign policy advisors, he preemptively closed the door on the kind of bold innovations and breaks with the past that his campaign had promised.
Having betrayed his earlier promises and become the first presidential candidate to turn down public campaign funding in the general election, Obama turned to Wall Street funders with deep pockets, like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Skadden Arps, and Morgan Stanley. Also high on the list of Obama contributors were General Electric and other defense contractors. And the pharmaceuticals industry – Big Pharma – reversed years of supporting Republicans, contributing more than three times as much to Obama as to McCain.
Obama’s grassroots supporters largely overlooked these disturbing facts. Progressives projected onto him their own hopes and expectations, conservatives their worst fears. Both were mistaken. He ran a centrist campaign, advancing safely pragmatic policy initiatives. He consistently championed the middle class. The working class and the poor – black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and white – seemed an afterthought as Obama battled Hillary Clinton and then John McCain. Instead of seizing the opportunity to explain how the decline of manufacturing and other structural factors at the heart of a dysfunctional corporate- and Wall Street-dominated system had exacerbated the problems for all poor people and especially African Americans, he hectored poor blacks for not taking more “personal responsibility.” He positioned himself to the left of Clinton by trumpeting his opposition to the Iraq War, which she had voted to support, but to the right of George Bush on Afghanistan, a position his supporters conveniently ignored. And his Senate vote for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which gave legal immunity to telecommunications companies complicit in Bush’s wiretapping, should have signaled that he might be unwilling to relinquish some of the powers that Bush and Cheney had appropriated.
The biggest winner under Obama was Wall Street. After wrecking the economy with speculative innovations, including credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, bankers came begging for bailouts. Not surprisingly, Obama’s economic advisors – almost all disciples of Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary Robert Rubin – were more than happy to assist with a $700 billion financial bailout program. Rubin, who had been systematically cultivating Obama since 2005, had co-chaired Goldman Sachs prior to his stint at Treasury, where he had masterminded two of the policies that helped precipitate the financial crisis his protégés would now handle: the deregulation of the derivatives market and the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated investment banking from commercial banking. Have done Wall Street’s dirty work at Treasury, he was rewarded with a top job at Citigroup, where he received $126 million over the next eight years. The New York Times reported in late 2008, “as Barack Obama fills out his economic team, a virtual Rubin constellation is taking place.” Rubin’s Treasury chief of staff and fellow Citigroup exec Michael Froman was in charge of putting this team together. The two top positions went to Rubin protégés Timothy Geithner, the New York Fed chief, whom Obama named as Treasury Secretary, and Lawrence Summers, whom he named senior White House economic advisor. Geithner had worked under Rubin at Treasury and Summers had been Treasury Secretary at the time Glass-Steagall was repealed. Like Rubin, Summers, an avowed deregulator, had also cashed in on his service to Wall Street, earing $5.2 million working one day a week for the D.E. Shaw hedge fund in 2008, while raking in another $2.7 million in speaking fees, much coming from Wall Street firms. Goldman Sachs paid him $135,000 for one speech alone, which investigative journalist aptly called an “advanced bribe.” In light of how much Wall Street was going to profit from the Geithner-Summers stewardship of the economy, Goldman Sachs and the other “banksters” got off cheap. Obama tapped Rubin protégé Peter Orszag as budget director. According to the Times, “Geithner, Summers and Orszag have all been followers of the economic formula that came to called Rubinomics: balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation.” The lower echelons of economic decision making were also populated by Rubin allies. The glaring exceptions were Christine Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Jared Bernstein, Biden’s chief economic policy advisor. The two of them fought unsuccessfully, during their brief tenures, against some of the Rubinites’ neoliberal initiatives.
Former Democratic strategist David Sirota aptly identified the ways Rubin’s people would mold Obama’s economic strategy: “Bob Rubin, these guys, they’re classic limousine liberals. These are basically people who have made shitloads of money in the speculative economy, but they want to call themselves good Democrats because they’re willing to give a little more to the poor. That’s the model for this Democratic Party: Let the rich do their thing, but give a fraction more to everyone else.”
On November 23, 2008, the Bush administration announced a potential $306 billion bailout of Citigroup, which was facing collapse. Citigroup had recently received $25 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, which provided a massive bailout to the financial sector. The Times made clear that Geithner player a “crucial role” in the negotiations and that Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, had worked very closely with Obama’s transition team. Wall Street was so exuberant over the deal that the Dow posted its biggest two-day jump in over twenty years and Citigroup’s stock, which had tumbled in price from $30 to $3.77 in the past year, shot up 66 percent in one day. “If you had any doubts about the primacy of Wall Street over Main Street,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich exclaimed, “your doubts should be laid to rest.” Abundant proof would be forthcoming. The Washington Post reported in early April 2009 that the Treasury Department was bending the law and defying the will of Congress to avoid limiting executive pay: “The Obama administration is engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay, according to government officials.”
University of Texas economist James Galbraith lambasted Obama for meekly submitting to the bankers’ demands as there were no other way to solve the crisis:
…one cannot defend the actions of Team Obama on taking office. Law, policy, and politics all pointed in one direction: turn the systematically dangerous banks over to Sheila Blair and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Insure the depositors, replace the management, fire the lobbyists, audit the books, prosecute the frauds, and restructure and downsize the institutions. The financial system would have been cleaned up. And the big bankers would have been beaten as a political force. Team Obama did none of these things. Instead they announced “stress tests,” plainly designed so as to obscure the banks’ true condition. They pressured the Federal Accounting Standards Board to permit the banks to ignore the market value of their toxic assets. Management stayed in place. They prosecuted no one. The Fed cut the cost of funds to zero. The President justified all this by repeating, many times, that the goal of the policy was “to get credit flowing again.” The banks threw a party. Reported profits soared, as did bonuses. With free funds, the banks could make money with no risk, by lending back to the Treasury. They could boom the stock market. They could make a mint on proprietary trading. Their losses on mortgages were concealed…
Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker advised Obama to take strong action. “Right now,” he said, “when you have your chance, and their breasts are bared, you need to put a spear through the heart of these guys on Wall Street that for years have been mostly debt merchants.” But rather than stand up to Wall Street, Obama prostrated himself before the CEOs of the thirteen largest banks in March 2009, telling them, “I want to help. I’m not going out there to go after you. I’m protecting you. But if I’m going to shield you from public and congressional anger, you have to give me something to work with on these issues of compensation.” The bankers paid lip service to voluntary restraint and then proceeded with record bonuses. Thus, unlike the Europeans who limited bankers’ compensation, the Obama administration did not even limit compensation to those whose companies were saved by government bailouts. Obscene profits ensued. The Wall Street Journal reported that total compensation and benefits at Wall Street banks, investment banks, hedge funds, money-management firms, and securities exchanges reached record levels of $128 billion in 2009 and $135 billion in 2010. The greatest beneficiaries were the twenty-five top hedge fund managers, whose average earnings jumped from a paltry $570 million in 2006 to a more respectable $1 billion in 2009. In 2010, one New York hedge fund manager, John Paulson, pulled in $4.9 billion.
Journalist Ron Suskind later reported that a more complicated internal negotiation had actually occurred behind the scenes in which Obama agreed with Romer and others that a fundamental restructuring of the banks was necessary, beginning with Citigroup. It was Geithner and Rahm Emanuel who sabotaged this effort. Geithner, Suskind contended, simply refused to come up with the plan that Obama had asked for and eventually convinced the president to along with his own Wall Street-friendly approach. Emanuel, who had earned over $18 million in two and a half year working for the investment banking firm Wasserstein Perella after leaving the Clinton White House in 1999, insisted they go along with Geithner. Obama rolled over without a fight.
The financial crisis that began in 2008 did nothing to staunch the corporate bleeding of the middle and working classes. Average total compensation for CEOs of Standard and Poor’s 500 Index of companies rose 23 percent in 2010, to $11.4 million. CEO pay, which equaled 343 times that of the median worker in 2010, had risen more than eightfold since 1980, when it stood at a mere 43 times as much. By comparison, CEOs in other industrial counties earned far less. British and Canadian CEOs earned 22 times as much as the average British and Canadian worker, and Japanese only 11. Discovery Communications’ CEO David Zaslav was among those who cashed in. His pay jumped from $7.9 million in 2008 to $11.7 million in 2009 to $42.6 million in 2010.
The rest of the workforce was left largely to fend for itself. Obama’s economic stimulus program was only about half the $1.2 trillion advocated by Christine Romer, whose recommendation was left off the options submitted by Summers. The economic recovery of the early Obama years was not only weak in terms of generating new jobs, it benefits went entirely to the wealthiest Americans. Economist Andrew Sum and his group of researchers at Northeastern University discovered that, from the second quarter of 2009 through the first quarter of 2011, national income grew by $505 billion dollars. Pretax corporate profits grew by $465 billion. Wages and salaries, however, declined by a sobering $22 billion. In the nine months after hitting the nadir of the recession in the second quarter of 2009, they found, corporate profits accounted for 85 percent of the increase in profits and wages. For the same recovery period following the 1981 – 82 recession, only 10 percent had gone to corporate profits. In 2010, 93 percent of income growth went to the top 1 percent of households, leaving a scant 7 percent to the other 99 percent to divide up. The top .01 percent, some 15,000 families, did even better, absconding with a stunning 37 percent of new earnings. Meanwhile, benefits continued to tumble. A 2010 survey found that over the previous year, employee health insurance premiums had increased 13.7 percent while employer contributions fell by 0.9 percent.
What Chris Hedges termed “the corporate rape of America” had been going on for decades. While executive pay skyrocketed, pay for the average non-supervisory worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, had fallen more than 10 percent since the 1970s. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that between 1979 and 2005, income of the top 1 percent jumped 480 percent.
By 2007, the top 1 percent was receiving 25 percent of the national income and owned almost 40 percent of American wealth. With unions representing only 7 percent of the private work force in 2007, real wages, adjusted for inflation, were actually lower than they had been thirty years earlier. In 2007, the bottom 80 percent owned only 15 percent of all wealth. Overall, by 2011, the Economic Policy Institute reported, the richest 1 percent had more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Families had, for the most part, managed by maintain standards of living since the 1970s by expanding female participation in the workforce (women with young children working outside the home jumped from 24 percent in 1966 to 60 percent in the late 1990s), sharply increasing the number of hours worked (100 more hours per year for the typical male worker and 200 more for the typical female worker over two decades earlier), and borrowing at inordinate, and ultimately unsustainable, rates (squeezing $2.3 trillion from homes between 2002 and 2007).
A stunning measure of how far the United States had fallen came from the October 2011 Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation report “Social Justice in the OECD – How Do the Member States Compare,” which ranked the United States twenty-seventh out of the thirty-one OECD nations, only beating Greece, Chile, and Mexico, and Turkey. The report measured many factors, including poverty prevention, poverty rates for children and senior citizens, income inequality, expenditures on pre-primary education, health care, and other key metrics. The United States came in twenty-ninth in overall poverty rate and twenty-eighth in child poverty and income inequality. Columbia University’s National center for Children I Poverty reported that 42 percent of children lived in low-income families, half of them below the poverty line. The Associated Press reported in December 2011 that almost half of all Americans were either in poverty or subsisting on low incomes. The Census Bureau reported that in 2010, 46.2 million Americans were below the poverty line, which was the highest number since it began publishing those figures fifty-two years earlier.
Not only were more Americans falling into poverty, fewer and fewer were able to escape. Mobility studies shattered the myth that the United States was a society with fluid class lines and easy upward mobility. In fact, the United States, with its porous social safety net, failing schools, and low percentage of unionized workers, had considerably less social mobility than any other advanced industrial society.
The disparities had so infuriated Americans who were struggling to afford health care and mortgage payments while feeding their families that Congress reluctantly acted, passing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. The act required corporate executives of publicly traded companies to submit their pay to shareholders for non-binding approval. Among those who railed against efforts to curb corporate pay was Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo, who pulled in more than $470 million in cash plus proceeds from stock sales during the five years before the effects of his untrammeled greed and illegal dealings helped bring down the housing market. Mozilo denounced “the left-wig press and the envious leaders of unions” for pressuring corporate boards and accused them of driving “entrepreneurship” out of the public sector.
The Dodd-Frank Act, though a step in the right direction, did little to correct the underlying problems that caused the collapse, failing to address the incentive structures that encouraged risky behavior or to reverse the dynamics that allowed banks to grow to the size where they were “too big to fail.” As William Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, acknowledged in Forbes magazine, the bill, “would not have prevented the recent financial crisis, and it will not prevent the next one.” “In truth,” Isaac wrote, “the bill does almost nothing to change a dysfunctional regulatory system that drove three very serious banking crises in the past 40 years.”
Washington Post financial staff writer Steven Pearlstein was stunned that Obama could not “give voice to this populist outrage and constructively channel this populist anger” over Wall Street and Geithner’s “let-them-eat-stuffing” attitude. For Pearlstein, a “telling moment” came in November 2009, when Geithner “gave a back-of-the-hand to the idea of a global tax on financial transactions as a way of raising money for economic stabilization while also discouraging high-volume, short-term speculation.” If Obama really cared about the people instead of those who plundered the economy, Pearlstein wrote, he could instruct the Justice Department to launch an antitrust inquiry into excessive Wall Street profits, pressure Congress to close the tax loophole allowing hedge fund and private-equity fund managers to pay lower taxes than their secretaries, and push the Group of 20 to “put the transaction tax back on the agenda.”
Pearlstein wondered, “Whose Side Is Obama On?” The question became more poignant as the 2012 elections approached. Anger over the economy had boiled over. Occupy Wall Street and allied protesters gathered in towns and cities across the nation in a grassroots uprising not seen since the 1930s. Obama walked a fine line, trying to signal both the anti-Wall Street protesters and the Wall Street tycoons, whom the protesters reviled, that he was with them. In June 2011, the New York Times reported that Obama had offended Wall Street’s high rollers by calling them “ ‘fat cats’ and criticizing their bonuses” and by having the audacity to propose any curbs at all on their rapaciousness. Now, according to the Times, Obama and his top aides, looking for Wall Street backing in his election bid, were trying to salve the wounded bankers’ feeling. Franklin Roosevelt had compared ungrateful capitalists to the drowning old man who berates his rescuer for not saving his hat; Obama came before them, hat in hands, and begged forgiveness. Unlike Roosevelt, who had made enemies of Wall Street financiers by implementing large-scale government job creation and sweeping regulatory reform, Obama not only privileged those Wall Street insiders over the working masses, he apologized for having hurt their feelings.
Obama also paid debts to other corporate donors. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted, “When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift – through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price – it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.” Stiglitz cited the response from banker Charles Keating, who was brought low by the 1980s savings and loan crisis. When asked by a congressional committee whether the $1.5 million he had contributed to elected officials could be influence, he answered, “I certainly hope so.” The Supreme Court decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, which removed limits on corporate campaign spending, ensured that the influence of corporate and banking interests would mushroom.
Obama’s failure to articulate a progressive vision was also apparent in the fight over health reform, which was to have to been his signature initiative. Obama decided early on that he would avoid a fight with the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, which had not only contributed heavily to his campaign but had played a major role in defeating Clinton’s reform efforts. To win their support, he capitulated to demands that the legislation exclude core Democratic initiatives like drug re-importation and bulk price negotiations. He also took single-payer off the table, although he admitted that a single-payer system represented the best option for providing affordable care for ass, as most developed countries had long proven. Rather than leading the reform himself, he asked Congress to come up with the details. He further placated the health insurance industry by removing the public option and Medicare expansion, despite the fact that both received lopsided public support.
The medical industry did the rest. The massive effort to eliminate provisions that might reduce corporate profits was galvanized by 3,300 lobbyists representing more than 1,500 organizations, triple the number registered to lobby on defense. Fighting to shape policies that could affect 17 percent of the economy, the lobbyists, who outnumbered members of Congress six to one, spent $264.4 million in the final six months of 2009 alone. The resulting legislation expanded coverage for uninsured Americans, but did so in a way that was a windfall for the insurance companies.
The White House blamed congressional “centrists” like Joe Lieberman for forcing it to accept compromises that were anathema to most Democrats. Senator Russell Feingold, a strong supporter of the public option, wasn’t buying the excuses. “This bill appears to be the legislation that the president wanted in the first place, so I don’t think focusing it on Lieberman really hits the truth,” Feingold said. Obama’s bungled health care reform effort, marked by the inability to even refute Republican charges of death panels, was so unpopular that it became an albatross around the necks of the Democrats in the 2010 election. As Robert Kuttner noted, “This battle should have been the president and the people versus the interests. Instead, more and more voters concluded that it was the president and the interests versus the people.” And the Democrats paid for that widely perceived sellout.
Budget battles followed the same script. Obama continued to strive for bipartisanship with opponents who were out not only to defeat him, but to discredit any notion that government was at all capable of solving social problems. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson stated in April 2001, “If it does nothing else, the budget that House Republicans unveiled…provides the first real Republican program for the twenty-first century, and it is this: Repeal the twentieth century.”
Yet the final deal that Obama struck with Republicans was actually worse than the Republican starting position – not only extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but slashing desperately needed social programs for the most vulnerable. Bush had “temporarily” instituted the tax cuts a decade earlier, knowing full well that they were never intended to expire. Dan Bartlett, Bush’s former spokesman, admitted: “We knew that, politically, once you get into law, it becomes almost impossible to remove it. That’s not a bad legacy. The fact that we were able to lay the trap does feel pretty good, to tell you the truth.” The fact that the Obama-led Democrats walked blithely into the trap felt less good for the American public, which overwhelmingly opposed extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans at a time of prodigious budget deficits.
Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman bemoaned the loss of Obama the “inspirational figure” and wondered, “Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular?” He described Obama’s approach to bargaining with the Republicans as starting “by negotiating with himself, making preemptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions.” Krugman criticized Obama for failing to challenge the new consensus, which he characterized as “a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay. Shared sacrifice!”
Rather than heed such criticism, Obama tacked further to the right. First, he selected William Daley, a former JPMorgan Chase executive, as his chief of staff to replace Emanuel. Then, adding insult to injury, he chose GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt as chair of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, making him Obama’s chief outside economic advisor. Obama could not have sent a clearer signal on where he stood. In 2010, GE made over $14.2 billion in profits but paid no federal taxes. In fact, GE actually received a $3.2 billion tax credit. The company had also received $16.1 billion from the Federal reserve during the 2008 financial crisis. Obama’s selection of Immelt as his chief advisor on job creation came at a time when GE was being lambasted for outsourcing jobs as well as for cutting health and retirement benefits for new employees. For so effectively privileging private greed over social responsibility, Immelt, an “old” employee, saw his total compensation jump from $9.89 million in 2009 to $21.4 million in 2010, a raise of well over 100 percent. In case Wall Street didn’t get a clear enough message from Immelt’s appointment, Obama followed up with a conciliatory address to the arch-nemesis of everything progressive in America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and with an order to federal agencies to review regulations for the purpose of eliminating some.
When the 2010 Congressional elections rolled around, the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats was enormous. Obama’s temporizing and lassitude had so demoralized his base that the Republicans won in a landslide, prompting him to reach out even further across the aisle. He quickly reneged on his promise to implement tougher environmental standards, announcing that he would forgo new rules regarding smog and toxic emissions from boilers, leaving in place Bush administration policies.
Even this didn’t placate the Wall Street and corporate elite, who repaid Obama’s largesse by throwing their support behind Mitt Romney in the 2012 elections. By April 2012, top banking executives, hedge fund operators, and private equity investors – the same people who had backed Obama two to one in 2008 – were contributing four times as much to Romney as to Obama, and that doesn’t include the enormous sums they were lavishing upon pro-Romney “super PACs.” As of summer 2012, General Electric employees, who had contributed five times as much to the Obama campaign as they did to McCain’s in 2008, were backing Romney 4:1. And Immelt announced that he wouldn’t be endorsing either candidate.
Among the greatest disappointments to his followers was Obama’s refusal to roll back the expanding national security state that so egregiously encroached on American civil liberties. He had actually gotten off to a promising start. On his first day in office, he rescinded a 2001 Bush executive order limiting access to former presidents’ records and overturned a 2001 Ashcroft memo giving government agencies broad authority to reject public disclosure requests. He pledged his administration to a new transparency. “For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” he acknowledged. “This administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but with those who seek it to be known. The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”
Obama’s commitment to transparency did not last long. By summer 2010, the ACLU was warning about the “very real danger that the Obama administration will enshrine permanently within the law policies and practices that were widely considered extreme and unlawful during the Bush administration. There is a real danger, in other words, that the Obama administration will preside over the creation of a ‘new normal.’”
That was precisely what Obama had done – a far cry from his campaign promises to defend the Constitution against Bush’s trespasses. He had, for example, criticized Bush’s repeatedly invoking state secrets to block lawsuits. In office, he reversed himself, impeding prosecution of Bush-era torture and other abuses and advancing what the New York Times described as “a sweeping view of executive secrecy powers.” He has invoked the “states secrets privilege” more often than any previous president to halt lawsuits involving torture, extraordinary rendition, and illegal NSA wiretapping. He has continued the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, denied habeas corpus rights to Afghan prisoners, sanctioned military commissions, and authorized, without due process, the CIA killing of a U.S. citizen in Yemen who was accused of having ties to Al-Qaeda. His refusal to investigate and prosecute those in the Bush administration guilty of torture was itself a violation of international treaties.
Bush Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith quickly recognized that Dick Cheney’s rebuke of Obama for reversing the Bush-era terrorism policies was flat out wrong. In fact, Goldsmith wrote in the New Republic, “The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbolic, and rhetoric. … The Obama strategy,” he concluded, “can thus be seen as an attempt to make the core Bush approach to terrorism politically and legally more palatable, and thus sustainable.”
Civil libertarians were appalled, expecting so much more from this former professor of constitutional law. His University of Chicago law school colleague Geoffrey Stone, chairman of the board of the American Constitutional Society, decried the gap between Obama’s policies and his campaign promises, regretting Obama’s “disappointing willingness to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps.” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley observed disappointedly that “the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties.”
In many respects, Obama has been more secretive than the pathologically secretive Bush-Cheney administration. His government has classified more information and responded more slowly to Freedom of Information Act requests than his predecessor. It has prosecuted more government whistle-blowers than all previous administrations, employing the 1917 Espionage Act in six separate cases, compared to a total of three in the ninety-two years before he took office.
The most notorious case is that of Private Bradley Manning, a twenty-two-year-old army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Manning has been accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks and was indicted on thirty-four counts, including violating the Espionage Act and “aiding the enemy,” which was potentially punishable by death. Some of the leaded documents, allegedly including the “Collateral Murder” video that showed U.S. troop coldly and calculatingly gunning down a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, revealed U.S. war crimes. Manning has also allegedly leaked Iraq War logs that detailed atrocities and civilian death tolls far in excess of official government figures.
Despite not having been convicted of any crime, Manning was kept naked for days and in solitary confinement for nine months in conditions that many considered torture. Among those who bristled at Manning’s horrendous treatment was P. J. Crowley, the State Department’s top spokesman. Crowley described the treatment of Manning to students at MIT as “ridiculous and stupid and counterproductive.” Three days later, Crowley resigned after thirty years of government service.
Finally, in December 2001, after nineteen months in military custody, Manning was given a military hearing to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to proceed with a court-martial. That the Obama administration had decided to prosecute Manning for disclosing the truth, but to let Bush, Cheney, and their associates off the hook for lying, torture, invading sovereign nations, and committing other war crimes was a clear though sad indication of this administration’s sense of justice and transparency. As law professor Marjorie Cohn observed, “If Manning had committed war crimes instead of exposing them, he would be a free man today.”
Equally outrageous was the Obama administration’s reaction to Julian Assange’s release through WikiLeaks of over 250,000 diplomatic cables that he allegedly got from Manning. Assange made the mistake of not redacting names on the first batch released. But the intense reaction was due to the fact that the cables exposed the depths of U.S. government mendacity on a broad range of critical issues, including the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Additional revelations of corruption and repression by U.S. allies helped spark the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia that spurred what’s become known as the Arab Spring. The impact was unprecedented. Articles based on the leaked documents appeared almost daily in leading newspapers throughout the world. As Glenn Greenwald correctly observed, “WikiLeaks easily produced more newsworthy scoops over the last year than every other media outlet combined.” In recognition of this contribution, in November 2011, WikiLeaks received the award for “Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism,” Australia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, from the Walkley Foundation. The Foundation trustees applauded WikeLeaks for revealing “an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup. Its revelations, from the way the war on terror was being waged, to diplomatic bastardry, high-level horse-trading and the interference in the domestic affairs of nations, have had an undeniable impact.”
Yet, the Justice Department has been exploring ways to punish Assange and other individuals associated with the WikeLeaks release, possibly under the Espionage Act. Among the strongest backers of the “get Assange” campaign were some who had earlier decried China and other repressive societies for limiting Internet access and freedom of the press. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein demanded that Assange “be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.” Joe Lieberman agreed. Newt Gingrich called him an “enemy combatant.” Sarah Palin wanted him targeted as if he were Al-Qaeda and hunted as an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands.” James Goodale, former New York Times general counsel in the Pentagon Papers case, described the corrosive effect such a prosecution would have on American press freedoms. “Charging Julian Assange with ‘conspiracy to commit espionage,’” he warned, “would effectively be setting a precedent with a charge that more accurately could be characterized as ‘conspiracy to commit journalism.’”
Obama has tenaciously pursued whistle-blowers and “leakers.” But his efforts were dealt a serious blow in June 2011, when the prosecutors dropped felony charges under the Espionage Act against Thomas Drake, an NSA employee who had courageously revealed to the Baltimore Sun that the NSA had wasted over a billion dollars on a flawed Trailblazer system for surveilling digital communications. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for unauthorized use of a government computer and received no fine or jail time. The Drake case was the first the Obama Justice Department had brought under the Espionage Act. The Defense Department’s internal watchdog issued a report exonerating Drake and upholding his allegations. The administration vowed to press on with its other cases, even though most were of equally dubious merit.
Its vendetta against Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen, who broke the story about massive NSA wiretapping in 2005, sent a chilling message to all reporters who refused to name confidential sources – the lifeblood of information that the government wished to hide from the public. Furious with the embarrassing disclosures, Cheney had pressured the Bush Justice Department to investigate Risen’s activities but failed to secure an indictment. Obama, once again, took a stalled Bush initiative and looked to pursue it in ways that the ham-fisted Bush administration only dreamed about. In April 2010, the Justice Department subpoenaed Risen to testify. Risen made clear that he would go to jail rather than reveal his sources. In January 2011, the administration indicted former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for allegedly leaking classified information to Risen about the bungled 2000 operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, which Risen reported on in his 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Greenwald, a stalwart defender of civil liberties, condemned Obama’s unparalleled assault. “As in so many other instances,” Greenwald averred, “the Obama administration appears on the verge of fulfilling Dick Cheney’s nefarious wish beyond what even Cheney could achieve.”
Political leaders and journalists around the world mocked America’s democratic pretensions. Writers at London’s Guardian, which, like the New York Times and Der Spiegel, had published the documents, led the assault. John Naughton assailed the “delicious irony” of trying to shut WikiLeaks down. Seamus Milne wrote that official U.S. reaction “is tipping over toward derangement.” “Not much truck with freedom of information, then, in the land of the free,” he chortled. Naughton observed that Hillary Clinton’s 2009 rebuke of China for interfering with Internet freedom “reads like a satirical masterpiece.”
Nor did Obama do anything to restrain the enormous and rapidly proliferating security complex. In 2010, in a sobering four-part series, the Washington Post published the results of a two-year investigation into what it described as “an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.” In this world, 854.000 people with top-secret security clearances operate out of 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies in around 10,000 U.S. locations, working on programs involving counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. The Pentagon ran two-thirds of the programs. The intelligence budget reached well over $75 billion in 2009, more than two and a half times its size before 9/11. The NSA intercepts and stores an astounding 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other communications each day.
In the final installment of the series, the Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin reported that “the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators,” and many targets of the probe “have not been accused of any wrongdoing” but were turned in for acting suspiciously. The monitoring was being done by 3,984 local, state, and federal organizations, often using methods introduced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The FBI had also collected 96 million sets of fingerprints at its data campus in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
During the May 2011 congressional debate over extending the Patriot Act, Senate Democrats Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, both of whom were members of the Intelligence Committee, expressed outrage over the way the administration was interpreting certain provisions of the act. “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry,” Wyden warned, citing reactions to past abuses like 1970s domestic spying, the Iran-Contra affair, and Bush’s warrantless surveillance.
The American people weren’t paying sufficient attention. Congress extended the Patriot Act’s surveillance powers until 2015. The FBI significantly expanded the investigative powers of some 14,000 agents. The Supreme Court extended search and surveillance powers. Overall, Fourth Amendment guarantees of privacy and protections against unreasonable search and seizure, protections that were considered sacrosanct by the Founding Fathers, were being severely eroded.
Civil libertarians were justifiably aghast at the new powers that the U.S. government had acquired since 9/11. Jonathan Turley listed ten: 1) presidential power to order the assassination of U.S. citizens; 2) indefinite detention; 3) presidential power to decide whether prisoners will be tried in federal courts or military tribunals; 4) warrantless surveillance; 5) use of secret evidence in detentions and trials and invoking the government’s right to secrecy to force dismissal of cases against the United States; 6) refusal to prosecute war criminals; 7) increased use of secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts; 8) immunity from judicial review for companies involved in warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens; 9) monitoring of citizens without court orders; 10) extraordinary renditions of individuals to other countries, including those who commit torture. While Obama has disavowed the use of some of these powers, his forbearance would in no way constrain future occupants of the Oval Office. And, as Turley aptly noted, “An authoritarian nation is defined not just by the use of authoritarian powers, but by the ability to use them. If a president can take away your freedom or your life on his own authority, all rights become little more than a discretion grant subject to executive will.”
As much of a disappointment as Obama was on domestic and security policy, his foreign policy may have been worse. His initial foreign policy advisors consisted primarily of Clinton Administration veterans, including National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s chief of staff Michael Froman, and State Department official Gregory Craig. Also playing a significant role was Jimmy Carter’s rabidly anti-Communist national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Washington Post reported, however, that closest to Obama during the campaign were two newcomers – Samantha Power, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration. Gration, a fighter pilot for most of his years in uniform, served as director of strategy and planning under Marine General James Jones when he was supreme allied commander in Europe. Hopes for fresh thinking centered mostly on Power, who was best known for her book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, which made a liberal interventionist argument in cases where genocide was occurring, and on Obama himself. Power was forced to resign from the campaign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” but returned as a senior aide on the National Security Council and aggressively pushed for U.S. intervention in Libya.
Obama’s own foreign policy experience was quite limited and his views were conventional, if sometimes muddled. He told one campaign audience in Pennsylvania, “The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan.” While untangling precisely what Obama meant by that bizarre conflation would be a challenge, what was clear was that he was not offering a decisive break with over a century of imperial conquest. His was a centrist approach to better managing the American empire rather than advancing a positive role for the United States in a rapidly evolving world. He intended to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East and increase U.S. engagement with Asia, where American hegemony was being challenged by a resurgent and ever more potent China. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, noted. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.” “The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al-Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national security advisors, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reestablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’”
With this in mind, Obama quickly moved to redress some of the more egregious aspects of Bush’s policies. On his first day in office, he held discussions on withdrawal from Iraq and made clear his plans to be actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. He signed executive orders preventing people in the executive branch from accepting gifts from lobbyists and from lobbying the executive branch upon leaving government. His second day was even better. He barred enhanced interrogations, closed the CIA’s “black site” prisons and announced plans to shut the military prison at Guantanamo within one year.
For a variety of reasons, Obama would fail to deliver on many of these promises. Opposition would come from lockstep Republicans, conservative Democrats, and sometimes even his own advisors. The Washington Post described Obama’s incoming foreign policy team as “experienced and centrist.” His chief advisor – Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Bush Republican holdover Robert Gates as secretary of defense, General James Jones, a John McCain ally, as national security advisor, and Admiral Dennis Blair, the former chief of U.S. Pacific Command, as director of national intelligence (DNI) – may have been experienced but, unfortunately, “centrist” would prove to be a stretch.
Obama had said that if he had to take one book with him into the White House, it would be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom in bringing his political rivals and personal detractors into his Cabinet. Obama followed those guidelines in choosing the hawkish Clinton and Gates, but he neglected to balance them with equally forceful critics of American empire.
The results were predictable. In August 2009, neocon Elliot Cohen’s Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “What’s different About the Obama Foreign Policy” reassured conservatives that very little had changed: The underlying structure of the policy remains the same. … Moreover, because the Obama foreign policy senior team consists of centrist experts from the Democratic Party, it is unlikely to make radically different judgements about the world, and about American interests in it, than its predecessors.”
Gates was the principle guarantor of imperial continuity. A staunch Cold Warrior with close ties to the neocons, Gates’ involvement in several scandalous situations, including allegedly delaying the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980 and facilitating arms sales to both Iraq and Iran during their disastrous war, have never been fully investigated. During the Reagan years, he was instrumental in revamping CIA intelligence gathering, purging independent-minded analysts who wouldn’t go along with the view of a menacing Soviet threat that justified an enormous U.S. military buildup. He was also a key proponent of Reagan’s murderous policies in Central America, advocating illegal covert measures against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Gates teamed with Clinton to frustrate those who hope for reassessment of America’s role in the world. “People are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad,” Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “So, let me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.” “We are still, essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation,” Gates concurred I November 2010. But in declaring a “new American moment” before the CFR, Clinton offered a version of American history stunning in its simplicity and vapidity: “After the Second World War, the nation that had built the transcontinental railroad, the assembly line, the skyscraper, turned its attention to constructing the pillars of global cooperation. The third World War that so many feared never came. And many millions of people were lifted out of poverty and exercised their human rights for the first time. Those were the benefits of a global architecture forged over many years by American leaders from both political parties.”
In speeches in Prague, Cairo, Oslo, and elsewhere, Obama articulated a more nuanced understanding of America’s role in the world. But his ultimate message was largely the same as that of Clinton and Gates. Nothing as more disappointing than his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December 2009. That a president waging two wars would receive the prize was preposterous in the first place. But the selection committee members must have been even more chagrined when they heard Obama’s defense of American militarism in an address that came just days after announcing that he was sending additional forces to Afghanistan. An at-times thoughtful speech about the complex, problems facing the world was sullied by a defense of war, unilateralism, and preemption.
Obama asserted presidential power in ways that must have made Dick Cheney jealous. In 2011, Obama defied his own top lawyers, insisting that he did not need congressional approval under the War Powers Resolution to continue military activities in Libya beyond the sixty-day limits inscribed in the resolution. Offering a bizarre, some would say Orwellian, interpretation reminiscent of George W. Bush’s definition of “torture” and Bill Clinton’s definition of “sex,” Obama insisted that the U.S. military engagement was outside the legal definition of “hostilities.” Even hawkish House Speaker John Boehner was taken aback by Obama’s assertion that prolonged bombing of Libya as part of an effort to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi and overthrow his regime didn’t constitute “hostilities.” “The White House says there are no hostilities taking place,” Boehner commented. “Yet we’ve got drone attacks under way. We’re spending $10 million a day. We’re part of an effort to drop bombs on Qaddafi’s compounds. It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test, in my view, that we’re not in the midst of hostilities.” Obama rejected the views of Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson and acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel Caroline Krass. Disregarding the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel in such affairs was almost unprecedented.
When asked, during the 2008 primary campaign, if a president could bomb Iran without congressional authority, Obama responded, “The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” NATO went far beyond the limited UN resolution authorizing it to take steps to protect Libyan civilians, thereby establishing a very dangerous precedent.
Despite regime change in Libya, signs abounded that the American empire was in serious decline. U.S. ability to control events had eroded. WikiLeaks’ November 2010 release of secret State Department cables prompted the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins to decry the sheer ineptitude and wrongheadedness of U.S. foreign policy: “The money wasting is staggering. … The impression is of the world’s superpower roaming helpless in the world in which nobody behaves as bidden. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the United Nations are all perpetually off script. Washington reacts like a wounded bear, its instincts imperial but its power projection unproductive.”
Nowhere was this more apparent than Afghanistan, where U.S. forces had been bogged down since 2001 with the stated goal of defeating Al-Qaeda. Obama shared this commitment, having promised during the campaign to end the war in Iraq so he could throw more resources into Afghanistan. Many tried to dissuade him from such folly. On June 30, 2009, Obama dined in the White House with nine of America’s leading presidential historians, seeking their insights into what had enabled past presidents to succeed and what had caused them to fail. Because Obama indicated that he wanted such dinners to become an ongoing event, participated maintained their silence about what was discussed. More than a year later, Northwestern’s Garry Wills finally broke his silence. “There has been no follow-up on the first dinner, and certainly no sign that he learned anything from it,” Wills wrote in frustration. “The only thing achieved has been the silencing of the main point the dinner guests tried to make – that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson.” As the meal was winding down, Obama had asked them to go around one more time for final words of advice. Wills recalled, “When my turn came, I joined those who had already warned him about an Afghanistan quagmire. I said that a government so corrupt and tribal and drug-based as Afghanistan’s could not be made stable. He replied that he not naïve about the difficulties but he thought a realistic solution could be found. I wanted to add ‘when pigs fly,’ but I restrained myself.”
By the time of that June meeting, Obama had already doubled down on the mess he inherited from Bush, regarding which a senior U.S. military commander informed the Washington Post during the final days of the Bush administration, “We have no strategic plan. We never had one.” When Obama took office, the United States had 34,000 troops in the country. In February, he ordered 34,000 more “to stabilize a deteriorating situation.” In May, Gates, upon the urging of regional commander General David Petraeus, fired General David McKiernan as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and replaced him with Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal appeared to have been cast for the part by Stanley Kubrick. The Times described his as an “ascetic who…usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness,” operates “on a few hours’ sleep,” and runs “to and from work while listening to audiobooks on an iPod.” He oversaw “secret commando operations” in Iraq for five years as head of the secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), running what Sy Hersh called an “executive assassination wing” out of Cheney’s office. According to the Times, “former intelligence officials say that he had an encyclopedic, even obsessive knowledge of the live of terrorists, and that he pushed his ranks aggressively to kill as many of them as possible.” Some thought of him as a “warrior-scholar,” others as a “driven workaholic.”
McChrystal implemented a Petraeus-like counterinsurgency strategy inside Afghanistan, though he took greater pains to limit civilian casualties and adopted a much more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Pakistan. Unlike McKiernan, McChrystal viewed Afghanistan and Pakistan as “one thorny problem,” having supported commando attacks on Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. Although McChrystal’s days were numbered, targeted assassination would become the sine qua non of U.S. global strategy.
Obama understood the strategic importance of Pakistan. “The cancer is in Pakistan,” Obama acknowledged at a November 25, 2009, Oval Office meeting. Succeeding in Afghanistan was necessary, he insisted, “so the cancer doesn’t spread there.”
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship was marked by opportunism on both sides. In the 1980s, the United States worked closely with Pakistani intelligence – the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – to train and supply the “holy warriors” who battled the Soviets in Afghanistan. In appreciation for Pakistani assistance, the United States burned a blind eye toward Pakistan’s then nascent nuclear program, which expanded at breakneck pace throughout the Bush/Obama years. By 2001, Pakistan possessed an arsenal estimated at 110 nuclear weapons with enough fissile material to make 40 to 100 more, replacing France as the world’s fifth largest nuclear power. Despite substantial U.S. assistance in securing those weapons and materials, lax security made theft of bomb-making ingredients a real threat in a country rife with Islamic extremists, many of whom had been hardened, with U.S. backing, on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Pakistani alliance was a fragile one. Following Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, it took U.S.-backed mujahideen three more years to finally overthrow the Soviet-allied Najibullah government in 1992. Thereafter, U.S. interest in the region waned. President Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani army chief who took power in a 1999 coup, said that Pakistanis felt that they had been “used and ditched” by the United States. U.S. restoration of sanctions during the 1990s because of Pakistan’s nuclear program further exacerbated tensions.
After 9/11, the United States again sought Pakistani assistance. But this time the Pakistanis weren’t so eager to lend a hand. The United States threatened to bomb them “back to the Stone Age” if they didn’t comply with U.S. demands, including ending support for the Afghan Taliban. The United States paid Pakistan over $2 billion per year for assistance in driving the Taliban out of sanctuaries in the remote frontier areas near the Afghan border, from which the Taliban waged war against NATO forces. Pakistan proved a reluctant partner, targeting insurgents who struck within Pakistan while covertly harboring the two largest Taliban groups operating in Afghanistan.
While the Pakistanis dragged their feet, the United States acted unilaterally. U.S. special forces and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams – a three-thousand-man Afghan secret army – launched assaults into the ungoverned tribal regions where insurgents clustered. Pakistanis were outraged by U.S. violation of their sovereignty.
Pakistanis particularly bristled at increased U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan, which, the Washington Post reported, had left between 1,350 and 2,250 dead in Obama’s first three years in office. Drones, which could be used for surveillance or attack, when equipped with Hellfire missiles, had increasingly become the U.S. weapon of choice in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obama authorized as many drone attacks in his first nine months as Bush had in the preceding three years, leading to deaths of many innocent civilians.
David Kilcullen, who had served as a counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus from 2006 to 2008, and Andrew Exum, an army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, provided insight into Pakistani rage in May 2009. They cited Pakistani press reports indicating that over the past three years, U.S. drone strikes had killed 700 civilians and only 14 terrorist leaders, which equated to 50 civilians for every militant, “a hit rate of 2 percent.” While noting that U.S. officials “vehemently” denied these figures and acknowledging that they likely exaggerated the proportion of civilian casualties, Kilcullen and Exum warned that “every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased” and that “visceral opposition” was being expressed in areas of Pakistan far from where the strikes were occurring.
An accurate account of civilian casualties was hard to come by. Pakistan photographer Noor Behram, who hailed from the tribal region of Waziristan where most of the strikes were occurring, held an exhibition in London in summer 2011 of graphic and grisly photos from twenty-seven drone attacks. Behram lowered the ratio of civilians to terrorists a bit. “For every 10 to 15 people killed,” he found, “maybe they get one militant.” The New American Foundation placed the civilian toll at 20 percent. Behram’s account of the aftermath sounds strikingly similar to the effects of U.S. bombing in other wars: “There are just pieces of flesh lying around after a strike. You can’t find bodies. So the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes, and only because we are Muslims. The youth in the area surrounding a strike gets crazed. Hatred builds up inside those who have seen a drone attack. The Americans think it is working, but the damage they’re doing is far greater.” Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who is best known as “the Times Square bomber,” is a case in point. Shortly after his arrest, he asked, “How would you feel if people attacked the United States?” You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan.” At his trial, when asked by the judge how he could risk killing innocent women and children, he responded that U.S. drone strike “don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody.” To the Pakistanis, the victims were human beings. To the drone operators, they were “bug splats.”
No wonder that 97 percent of Pakistanis told Pew researchers that they viewed U.S. drones negatively and the number who saw the United States as an enemy jumped from 64 percent in 2009 to 74 percent in 2012. No wonder so many were incensed at the smug indecency of President Obama’s comment at the May 2010 White House Correspondent’s Association dinner upon spotting the popular teenage Jonas Brothers band members in the audience. Referring to his daughters, Obama quipped, “Sasha and Malia are huge fans but, boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.” In spring 2012, only 7 percent of Pakistanis held a positive view of Obama.
Obama’s tasteless remarks were at least an attempt at humor, though one on a par with George W. Bush’s feigned search for WMD under his Oval Office desk six years earlier. In June 2011, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor Julian Brennan claimed with a straight face that for almost a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” from the drone attacks, an assertion that drone supporter Bill Roggio, who followed the strikes closely as editor of The Long War Journal, dismissed as “absurd.” Shortly thereafter, Britain’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that based on interviews in the tribal areas, at least forty-five civilians had been killed in ten strikes in the past year. Brennan could make such a ludicrous claim in part because Obama had classified any military-age male who happened to be in a strike zone as a combatant. That apparently included civilians who had tried to help rescue victims or had the bad judgement to attend funerals of combatants, dozens of whom had been killed by CIA drones, the Bureau reported in February 2012.
In 2010, with Pakistani anger exploding, U.S. ambassador Cameron Munter complained that the operation was “out of control.” “He didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said. Obama and Biden saw increased use of drones as a way to punish the Taliban and Al-Qaeda without an expanded troop commitment, but others recognized the questionable legal status of such targeted assassinations and worried about the future implications of a world in which such lethal technology was widely dispersed. In fact, prior to 9/11, the United States had opposed “targeted killing” by other nations. In 2000, U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Inkyk condemned Israeli targeting of Palestinians. “The United States government,” he said, “is very clearly on record as being against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings and we do not support that.”
Obama signaled his intention to not only aggressively pursue Bush’s war on terror, but to expand the use of drones in doing so even before he took office. A former CIA official disclosed that Obama’s transition teams assured agency personnel that “they were going to be ‘as tough if not tougher’ than the Bush people. … They basically shitcanned the interrogation board. But they wanted to make it clear that they weren’t a bunch of left-wing pussies – that they would be focusing and upping the ante on the Predator program.”
Drone usage would expand on Obama’s watch from Pakistan – the only country targeted when Bush left office – to six countries over the next three plus years as the United States added Islamic rebels in the Philippines to the list in February 2012. Critics agreed with Tom Engelhardt’s astute observation that “drones…put wings on the Bush-era Guantanamo principle that Washington has an inalienable right to act as a global judge, jury and executioner, and in doing so remain beyond the reach of any court of law.”
What was not appreciated until later was the direct, hands-on involvement of the president himself in targeting specific individuals who were put on official “kill lists.” In 2006, former vice president Al Gore expressed outrage over George Bush’s exercise of powers and wondered whether there were any limits to what presidents could do. Gore asked: “If the president has the inherent authority to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant, imprison American citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can’t he do?” Obama’s targeted assassinations provided a chilling answer. Glenn Greenwald warned that “the power to order people executed (including U.S. citizens) is far too extreme and dangerous to vest in one person without any checks, review, oversight, or transparency.” After all, he reminded readers, “it was a consensus among Democrats that George Bush should be forced to obtain judicial review before merely spying on or detaining people, let alone ordering them executed by the CIA.”
The Obama administration kept a tight veil of secrecy around the program, refusing to divulge information about targeting or casualties. The CIA, which conducted the attacks in Pakistan, even refused to acknowledge that such a program existed. But drone warfare had breathed new life into an agency that had been left for dead after 9/11. “You’ve taken an agency that was chugging along and turned it into one hell of a killing machine,” one former official declared. In the decade after 9/11, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center staff had grown seven-fold. Approximately 20 percent of CIA analysts were now “targeters” and 35 percent supported drone operations.
The overall cost and complexity of the operation was immense. Each combat drone required a team of at least 150 people to maintain it and ready it to strike its target. The Air Force, which ran the drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, was spending $5 billion per year to operate the program and the cost was increasing rapidly. The Pentagon requested an additional $5 billion for 2012. The JSOC carried out additional strikes in Yemen and Somalia. Strikes were being launched in late 2011 form more than sixty widely scattered bases, by “pilots” wearing the same green flight suits as fighter pilots and maneuvering drones with joysticks and video-game-like computer screens. Plans were in the works to supplement these land-based drones with aircraft-carrier-based attack planes that could be deployed in the Pacific and strike targets from three times as far away as Navy fighter jets. The United States was working on miniaturizing these remotely operated intelligence gathering and killing machines to the size of birds and even insects and promoting them as the future face of warfare. In 2011, the Pentagon disclosed plans to spend close to $40 billion over the next decade to add more than 700 medium and large drones to a stockpile that in 2012 totaled more than 19,000, including mini-drones. The Air Force already had more pilots learning to fly drones than it had pilots training to fly aircraft. There were also plans to supply soldiers with thousands of hand-launchable mini-drones for surveying areas and dive-bombing enemy forces.
But U.S. allies and UN officials questioned the legality of such targeted assassinations. Further concerns about legality were aroused when the United States killed U.S. born Al-Qaeda supporter Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn, a naturalized American citizen, in Yemen in late September 2011. The following month, another strike killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old U.S.-born son. In July 2012, relatives of the victims joined with the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA Director Petraeus, and two senior commanders of the military’s Special Operations forces on the grounds that the “killings violated fundamental rights afforded to all U.S. citizens, including the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law.”
The Awlakis and Khan were among the many victims of the Yemeni drone campaign. Much like in Pakistan, the drones were creating far more enemies than they were killing. When the U.S. began its Yemeni drone campaign in 2009, Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula had fewer than 300 militants in Yemen. By mid-2012, that number had jumped to over 700. The Washington Post reported, the stepped-up targeting in southern Yemen was “stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.” The Post quoted one Yemeni businessman who lost two brothers – a teacher and a cellphone repairman – in a U.S. strike as stating, “These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side.’” Hundreds of tribesmen had also joined the fight not out of sympathy for Al-Qaeda, but out of hatred for the United States. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.” Warned a local human rights activist.
For American policy makers, drones represented an ingenious low-cost, low-risk form of robotic warfare that kills enemies from thousands of miles away, without endangering U.S. forces. Critics, however, deplored this cowardly form of remote, long-distance killing. Thailand’s Nation newspaper wrote acerbically that “drones…satisfy our selfish and rather lily-livered need to eavesdrop, kill and destroy without facing the slightest chance of reciprocation in kind.” The army was also experimenting with killer robots that could supplement or replace combat troops. One robot design being tested in Fort Benning, Georgia, operated in conjunction with surveillance drones and was equipped with a grenade launcher and a machine gun. Many feared that these new steps in mechanized warfare, by greatly limiting the number of Americans coming home in body bags, would lower the threshold for going to war. “War will be started very easily and with minimal costs,” warned Wendall Wallach, who chaired the technology and ethics study group at Yale’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics.
For Engelhardt, drones were simply the latest in a long line of “wonder weapons” guaranteed to ensure American military hegemony from atomic bombs to hydrogen bombs to the Vietnam-era electronic battlefield to Reagan’s missile defense shield to the First Gulf War’s “smart-bombs.” Doubt was cast upon their wonder-weapon status in late 2011 when the Iranians displayed an RQ-170 Sentinel that they had brought down intact while it was spying over their territory. More than two dozen others had crashed up to that point but none with much fanfare of such embarrassing consequences.
Some expressed concern that the Iranians would reverse engineer the drone and learn its secrets. Dick Cheney demanded that Obama send planes to destroy the downed aircraft while it lay grounded. But it was too late. The cat was already out of the bag. More than fifty countries, some friendly and some hostile to the United States, had already purchased drones, and several had their own sophisticated drone programs in place. Most of those purchased were of the surveillance variety, but the United States had sold attack drones to close allies. In 2009, the United States punished Israel, which was second only to the United States in drone manufacture, for selling an attack drone to China. WikiLeaks revealed that Israel had angered U.S. authorities by selling advanced model drones to Russia. Among the other countries that claimed to have mastered manufacturing drones with lethal capabilities were Russia, India, and even Iran. In summer 2010, Iranian president Mahmound Ahmadinejad displayed a model he called the “ambassador of death.”
But the main challenge to U.S. ambitions and pretensions appeared to come from China, which had the most dynamic program outside the United States. By 2011, five years after publicly displaying its first drone, China boasted over two dozen varieties, with more on the way. And, most troubling, China appeared to have no compunctions about selling armed drones to other nations. China’s Aviation Industry Corp. offered customers a model comparable to the U.S. Predator called the Yilong (“pterodactyl” in English) that combined combat and surveillance capabilities. Among the countries lining up to buy combat models from China was sometime U.S. ally Pakistan.
Leading U.S. defense contractors like General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, whose advanced Predators and MQ9 Reapers sold for over $10 million each, clamored to get in this market and pressured the U.S. government to ease export controls. Vice Admiral William Landay III, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversaw such sales, instructed his subordinates to determine in advance which countries could purchase drones with which capabilities, so U.S. manufacturers would be ready to hit the ground running when they got the green light.
By using the rationale that it was engaged in a battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that was not restricted to “hot battlefields” as a justification for targeted assassinations in multiple countries, the United States was establishing a dangerous precedent. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, what was to stop China from targeting Uighur activists living in New York City or Russia from killing Chechen militants in London?
Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair, who had tried to curb drone attacks and other CIA covert activities, believing them a blot on America’s reputation, was replaced in 2010 by retired Lieutenant General James Clapper, the former head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, who defended such actions. Blair complained that the White House’s obsession with drone strikes had replaced serious strategizing about how to defeat Al-Qaeda. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ – reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” Blair observed.
In Afghanistan, U.S. officials touted drone attacks as an improvement over the aerial bombardment that marked earlier stages of the war. In March 2010, the New York Times reported that “civilian deaths caused by American troops and American bombs have outraged the local population and made the case for the insurgency.” U.S. bombs had killed thousands of Afghan civilians. Many others were shot at checkpoints. Command Sergeant Major Michael Hall, the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan, said that many of those imprisoned at the Bagram Air Base had joined the insurgency after the deaths of people they knew. “There are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents,” he told his troops. “Every time there is an escalation of forces we are finding that innocents are being killed.”
Obama and his advisors had been reading Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein’s cautionary study of the deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Goldstein shows how foreign policy makers’ failure to question basic assumptions about a monolithic Communist threat and the domino theory had led the U.S. astray. Obama determined not make the same mistakes in dealing with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Obama understood that getting bogged down in Afghanistan would doom his presidency, much as Vietnam had destroyed Johnson’s. Having already increased the U.S. troop commitment and declared that winning the war was vital to America’s national interests, he now sought options that would limit U.S. involvement and offer an exit strategy. But, as Washington Post staff writer Bob Woodward has skillfully shown, he was boxed in and outflanked by his top military advisors – Mike Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal – who, with the aid of Secretaries Gates and Clinton, pushed for 40,000 additional troops, and expanded mission, including full-scale counterinsurgency organized around military-led nation building, and an open-ended commitment. Obama demanded the provide additional options. But at a September 30 meeting he eliminated one option that made sense, telling he national security advisors, “I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan.” Still, he made clear he didn’t want a commitment that would last ten years and cost $1 trillion. The military leaders, he charged angrily at the November 11, 2009, strategy review session, had presented only the one foolhardy option. To make matters worse, all three had publicly stated that anything less than their desired troop buildup would result in a humiliating defeat, a view that was immediately trumpeted by the leading neocons and their allies in the media.
New York Times and Washington Post editors did all they could to back the hawks. The media watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Media and Reporting (FAIR) surveyed all Times and Post op-eds during the first ten months of 2009 that addressed the direction of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The Times, despite having been scandalized by Judith Miller’s role in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, ran thirty-six columns supporting the war and only seven opposing it. The ratio was more than ten to one in the Post, whose editors were very explicit about where they stood. Breaking with McChrystal’s war policy, the Post editorialized in September 2009, “would both dishonor and endanger this country.”
Biden and Marine General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, proposed a scaled-back approach that would still increase troops by 20,000 but reject nation building and population protection, thereby promising a much quicker exit. They wanted to focus on weakening and dividing the Taliban in hopes of reconciliation and on training Afghan forces. Gates and Mullen later punished Cartwright for his dissent by blocking his elevation to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, even after Obama had informed him that he had the job.
What Afghanistan actually needed was economic aid and social reform, not more U.S. troops. The depths of Afghan poverty were staggering. As of 2009, even with U.S. dollars flooding the country, Afghanistan was still the world’s fifth poorest nation with one of the widest gaps between rich and poor. Per capital income stood at $426. Sixty-eight percent of the population lived on less than a dollar per day. Only 23 percent had access to sanitary drinking water. Average life expectancy was 43 years. Twenty-four percent of adults could read and write, but only 14 percent of women. Even in 2011, a decade into the war, only 30 percent of girls attended school. Despite such enormous need, the United States was spending over $100 billion annually on military efforts and only $2 billion on sustainable development. The Center for American Progress reported that “even the Soviet Union spent more on reconstruction than the United States had. But even that paltry sum was in shocking excess of what the Afghan government could generate. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was part of McChrystal’s civilian advisory team in 2009, wrote that “outside aid is some 14 times higher than the Kabul government’s revenue-generating capability.”
The condition of Afghan women was particularly deplorable. They had been suffering terribly ever since the United States and its allies overthrew the Soviet-backed regime, whose unpopularity was partly due to its egalitarian impulses toward women. Liberating women from Taliban repression had been one of the U.S. justifications for invading in the first place. But, as Atiq Sarwari and Robert Crews reminded readers, “within a twenty-five-year period Afghan women became the object of emancipation at the hands of four separate regimes: the communists, the mujahideen, the Taliban, and the American-led coalition all presented the amelioration of the plight of women as an obligation that made their rule legitimate.” And in the rural areas, where the overwhelming majority of Afghans live, little had changed and infant and maternal mortality rates remained among the highest in the world, although they, like life expectancy, had recently shown signs of improving. In some Taliban-controlled southern provinces, fewer than 1 percent of girls attended middle school. David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis wrote, “arming one group of men with a terrible record on rights so they could overthrow another group of men with a terrible record on women’s rights has done little to improve the situation for women. Afghan women remained unequal in law, in health, and in life.” In 2009, Afghanistan still ranked second worst on the UN’s Gender-Related Development Index measuring, among other things, female literacy, access to education, and life expectancy. And that was after eight years of U.S. occupation and reform.
Under the circumstances, more U.S. troops was the last thing Afghanistan needed, and many people tried to save Obama from making a colossal blunder. In early November, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry wrote two secret memos to Hillary Clinton warning that the counterinsurgency policy was failing and troop increases would backfire. Eikenberry, who had been the commander of U.S. troops in the country for 18 months in 2006 and 2007, cautioned: “The last time we sent substantial additional forces – a deployment totaling 33,000 in 2008 – 09 – overall violence and instability in Afghanistan intensified.” And, he made clear, “More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain.” The corruption of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the incompetence of the Afghan army and police only made the situation more hopeless.
Others with knowledge of the region concurred. In September 2009, four former top intelligence officials warned the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof that “the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem” and a buildup would only “prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct. The basic ignorance by our leadership is going to cause the deaths of many fine American troops with no positive outcome.” One of the four, Howard Hart, former CIA station chief in Pakistan, campaigned for rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. He told students at the University of Virginia that the United States could send hundreds of thousands of troops and spend “umpteen billion” dollars and it would still do no good: “They will never stop fighting us,” Hart said. “They never stopped fighting the Soviets. They’ve never stopped fighting each other.”
Not only did Afghans hate the presence of invading forces, they hated their tactics, especially in the heightened counterinsurgency phase of the war. Afghans resented night raids in which U.S. and Afghan troops forced their way into people’s homes, kicking in doors, and breaking Afghan taboos about invading the privacy of women. The night raids, which increased exponentially once Obama took office, targeted Taliban leaders and insurgents in an attempt to destroy the Taliban “shadow government” that functioned throughout the country. What the Israeli geographer Eyal Weizman said about such tactics in Palestine and Iraq applies equally, if not more so, in Afghanistan: “unexpected penetration of war into the private domain of the home has been experienced by civilians in Palestine, just like in Iraq, as the most profound form of trauma and humiliation.
And, to make matters worse, nighttime raids, like the drone, often mistakenly targeted innocent civilians. In May 2011, a midnight NATO raid on a home outside Jalalabad killed a local policeman mistakenly identified as a Taliban leader. Troops also killed his twelve-year-old niece, Nelofar, who was sleeping outside in the courtyard to escape from the sweltering indoor heat. A NATO official promptly apologized for the tragic accident. Nelofar’s grieving father took little comfort in the apology. “They killed my twelve-year-old innocent daughter and my brother-in-law and then told me, ‘We are sorry,’” he said. “What does that mean? What pain can be cured by this word ‘sorry’?” That the homegrown Taliban were guilty of killing more civilians than the foreign invaders that year did nothing to mitigate Afghans’ anger toward NATO forces.
Reports surfaced repeatedly of American soldiers who went over the line, gratuitously killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan as was earlier the case in Iraq. One twenty-year-old soldier, who went AWOL in Canada, described the process that led to the erosion of human empathy:
I swear I could not for a second view these people as anything but human. The best was to fashion a young hard dick like myself – “dick” being an acronym for “dedicated infantry combat killer” – is simple and the effect of racist indoctrination. Take an empty shell off the streets of L.A. or Brooklyn, or maybe from some Podunk town in Tennessee and these days in American isn’t in short supply. I was one of those no-child-left-behind products. Anyway, you take this empty vessel and you scare the living shit out of him, break him down to nothing, cultivate a brotherhood and a camaraderie with those he suffers with, and fill his head with racist nonsense like all Arabs, Iraqis, Afghans are Haji. Haji hates you. Haji wants to hurt your family. Haji children are the worst because they beg all the time. Just some of the most hurtful and ridiculous propaganda, but you’d be amazed at how effective it’s been in fostering my generation of soldiers.
One group of deranged young men formed a twelve-person “kill team” that murdered innocent Afghans and then staged evidence to make it look as if they acted in self-defense. One of the accused confessed to the murders. U.S. authorities were not pleased when photos of the soldiers posing with the corpses appeared in Der Spiegel.
The damage done by American troop presence was only exacerbated by the deplorable behavior of afghan leaders. When Matthew Hoh, a senior U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province who had previously served as a Marine Corps captain in Iraq, resigned in September 2009, he wrote that Karzai’s government is awash in “glaring corruption and unabashed graft” and that Karzai is “a president whose confidants and chief advisors comprise drug lords and war crimes villains, who mock our own rule of law and counter-narcotics effort.”
Ambassador Eikenberry, too, opposed throwing dollars and arms at the notoriously corrupt Karzai regime, headed by Karzai’s friends, family members, and political allies, who gorged themselves on the money that poured into the impoverished country, and warlords who were just as brutal, repressive, misogynistic, and undemocratic as the Taliban who preceded them – men who former Afghan parliament member and human rights crusader Malalai Joya described as “photocopies of the Taliban.” The Economist reported that in “parts of Afghanistan, where insurgents have been driven out and the writ of government has been restored, residents have sometimes hankered for the warlords, who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai’s lot.”
In 2010, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the world’s second most corrupt nation behind Somalia and two spots ahead of Iraq. The UN reported that in 2009 Afghans spent $2.5 billion to bribe police and government officials, which equaled approximately a quarter of Afghanistan’s legitimate gross domestic product. The bribes averaged out to $158 per capita – a substantial amount in a country where the average annual GDP is only $426.
In November 2010, release of part of the quarter million confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks proved quite revealing and profoundly embarrassing. Corruption was pervasive, engulfing almost everyone in leadership positions. Karzai’s anti-corruption tsar, Izzatullah Wasifi, spent four years in a U.S. jail for selling heroin in Las Vegas. Karzai worked hard to protect family members and supporters, often seeing that charges were dropped even when they were caught red-handed.
The Commerce Minister told diplomats that the Transportation Ministry collected $200 million per year in trucking fees, but only $30 million of that total ended up in government coffers. People pay up to $250,000 to get jobs overseeing these operations. The American Embassy in Kabul reported that Afghanistan’s first vice president from 2004 – 2009, Ahmad Zia Massoud, was found by customs officials to be carrying $52 million in cash when he visited the United Arab Emirates in 2009. Massoud denied the charges but didn’t explain how, on a salary of a few hundred dollars a month, he could afford to live in a waterfront house alongside other Afghan officials in Palm Jumeirah, a luxury Dubai community. Another cable acknowledged that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and the most powerful man in Kandahar before his assassination in July 2011, who had long been on the CIA payroll, was “widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.” Other Hamid Karzai allies also gorged on the drug trade. British forces caught the governor of Helmand with 20,000 pounds of opium in his office. Though ousted from the governorship, he was later appointed to the Senate.
The Taliban had actually done a good job of keeping the drug trade under control when they were in power. But following the U.S. invasion, drugs had proliferated wildly. Opium production skyrocketed from 185 tons in 2001 to 8,200 tons in 2007, constituting 53 percent of the entire national economy and employing nearly 20 percent of the Afghan population. The drugs lords lived in opulent carnival-colored mansions called “poppy palaces” that were distinguished by their non-Afghan “narcotecture” styles. But many Afghans suffered from the resulting drug abuse. In 2005, 920,000 addicts were reported. The number increased substantially after that.
Under Karzai, illicit drugs provided a steady flow of funds for the Taliban, who taxed them at a rate of 10 percent and protected drug convoys for an additional fee. The Taliban also received hundreds of millions of dollars indirectly from the United States and NATO. Journalist Jean MacKenzie reported that in much of the country, contractors factored at least a 20 percent cut on projects to the Taliban to let them proceed. One Afghan contractor reported, “I was building a bridge. The local Taliban commander called and said, ‘don’t build a bridge there, we’ll have to blow it up.’ I asked him to let me finish the bridge, collect the money – then they could blow it up whenever they wanted. We agreed, and I completed my project.”
In 2010, American officials paid $2.2 billion to U.S. and Afghan trucking companies to transport supplies to U.S. bases. These trucking companies hired security firms that were often linked to top government officials to protect the trucks for between $800 and $2,500 per truck. The security firms, in turn, often faked fights to magnify the need for their services, and bribed the Taliban to let the trucks pass without attacking them, leading one NATO official in Kabul to complain, “We’re funding both sides of the war.”
Karzai’s brother Mahmoud was exonerated by a commission appointed by Hamid Karzai to look into the massive fraud at Kabul Bank, the country’s largest, where powerful insiders and shareholders received $925 million in loans often without either collateral or documentation. Among the recipients were government ministers and members of Parliament. The commission reported that Mahmoud Karzai had paid back his loans although a Central Bank governor informed parliament that Karzai still owed $22 million. He wasn’t the only well-connected brother implicated. Abdul Hassin Fahim, the brother of the country’s powerful first vice president, owed over $100 million by assured the commission that he would pledge enough property to cover that amount.
In June 2011, Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, the governor of Afghanistan’s Central Bank, resigned and fled the country. He had come under increasing attack by Karzai’s allies in the wake of his testimony to Parliament and subsequent investigation into the bank fraud and feared for his life. Afghanistan’s attorney general brought charges against him. The allegations were supported by commission chairman Azizullah Ludin, who had earlier served Karzai as head of the Independent Electoral Commission that gave its stamp of approval to the hotly contested 2009 presidential election, which was universally condemned as fraudulent.
The extent of the vote fraud in that and other elections had proved an outright embarrassment to the United States and NATO. The UN’s Electoral Complaints Commission threw out more than a million votes, 28 percent of Karzai’s total. Deputy UN envoy Peter Galbraith declared, “The fraud had handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.” When the Afghan parliament subsequently rejected Karzai’s attempt to replace the three foreign members of the five-member commission with hand-picked Afghan, Karzai threatened to join the Taliban.
Outright buying of votes is so pervasive in Afghanistan that it was barely hidden during the September 2010 parliamentary elections. Votes that cost little as $1 in Kandahar might go for $18 in eastern Ghazni Province. Most were in the five- to six-dollar ranges. And with only 2,500 votes needed to win in certain districts, this seemed like a sound investment. The New York Times explained, “many well-heeled Afghan independent candidates are looking to buy their way into the lucrative sinecure of a seat in Parliament. That not only comes with a healthy salary – about $2,200 a month gross – but tremendous opportunities for graft.” Registration cards for female voters were in particularly high demand both because they don’t contain photographs and because men often voted for women who were not permitted to leave the house.
Much of the corruption and fraud was well-known to Obama while he was trying to decide which course of action to pursue in Afghanistan. On November 25, 2009, he met with Rahm Emanuel, national security advisor General Jones, and Jones’s deputy Thomas Donilon and expressed his frustration: “It’s be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, ‘You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we’re going to put in 10,000 trainers because that’s how we’re going to get out of there.’” Woodward contends that was precisely what Obama wanted to say if he had the courage to stand up to his military advisors.
“It’s not the number,” Biden explained. “It’s the strategy.” Still wavering, Obama met with close National Security Advisors over Thanksgiving weekend to weigh his options. “I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here,” Army Colonel Joh Tien warned him, implying that his entire military high command – Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal, and Gates – might resign in protest. Donilon and CIA director Leon Panetta had been expressing similar view. “No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it,” Panetta admonished. “So just do it,” he recommended. “Do what they say.”
Seeing that Obama was again being forced into a corner against his better judgement, General Douglas Lute, the NSC coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reminded him, “Mr. President, you don’t have to do this.” Just the day before, Colin Powell had offered the same advice. “You don’t have to put up with this,” he told the president. “You’re the commander in chief. Because they’re unanimous in their advice doesn’t make it right. There are other generals. There’s only one commander in chief.”
When it finally came down to decision time, Obama didn’t have the courage or integrity of a post-Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy. He settled on a 30,000 troop increase, giving the military leaders almost everything they wanted, and more than they expected.
Borrowing a page from the Bush guidelines on patriotic atmospherics, Obama chose West Point for his December 1 speech outlining plans to increase U.S. troop levels to around 100,000. He explained that the United States and its allied had invaded Afghanistan because it had provided sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, which was responsible for 9/11. He forgot to mention at least three crucial facts. First, only fifty to one hundred of Al-Qaeda’s worldwide total of 300 cadre were actually in Afghanistan, while the rest of its badly degraded force operated out of Pakistan and received most of its support from citizens of U.S.-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. Second, Taliban leader Mullah Omar had actually opposed the 9/11 attack against U.S. targets. According to the official report of the 9/11 Commission, “As final preparations were under way during the summer of 2001, dissent emerged among al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan over whether to proceed. The Taliban’s chief, Mullah Omar, opposed attacking the United States. Although facing opposition from many of his senior lieutenants, bin Laden effectively overruled their objections, and the attacks went forward.” And, third, terrorists didn’t need a safe haven replete with training camps to conduct clandestine operations. As Paul Pillar, the former deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, pointed out, “the operations more important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.”
Obama’s logic befuddled CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria: “If Al-Qaeda is down to 100 men there at most, why are we fighting a major war?” Citing the 100 NATO troops who had been killed the previous month and the $100 billion plus annual cost, he determined that the war was costing “more than one allied death for each living Al-Qaeda member in the country in just one month” and “a billion dollars for every member of Al-Qaeda thought to be living in Afghanistan in one year.” In response to those who justified the war because the Taliban were allies of Al-Qaeda, Zakaria observed, “this would be like fighting Italy in World War II after Hitler’s regime had collapsed and Berlin was in flames just because Italy had been allied with Germany.”
Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College made his own calculations, based on the 140,000 coalition soldiers, and determined the cost was actually $1.5 billion annually per Al-Qaeda member in Afghanistan. “Did anyone do the math?” Lacey wondered. “In what universe do we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”
Historian Andrew Bacevich pointed out the most glaring contradiction. If Afghanistan was really so critical to U.S. safety and security, which he considered “a preposterous notion,” “then why set limits on U.S. involvement there? ...Why not send 100,000 troops rather than 30,000? Why not vow to do ‘whatever it takes,’ rather than signal an early exit? Why not raise taxes and reinstate the draft…? Why not promise ‘victory’ – a word missing from the president’s address?”
And the price tag was indeed astronomical and climbing. In 2006, congressional researchers estimated that is cost $390,000 per soldier per year in Afghanistan. By 2009, the figure had climbed to $1 million per year because of the heightened cost of mine-resistant troop carriers and surveillance equipment and the $400 per gallon cost of delivering fuel through insurgent-thick and forbidding mountainous terrain.
Obama tried to mollify his progressive supporters by announcing that troop withdrawals would begin in July 2011, with all troops out by 2014. In The Promise, Jonathan Alter reported that Obama said to Petraeus and Mullen: “I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in eighteen months?” Petraeus replied, “Sir, I’m confident we can train and had over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame.” Obama pressed further, “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?” Petraeus assured him, “Yes, sir, in agreement” and Mullen chimed in, “Yes, sir.”
But, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wryly observed, “President Obama’s eighteen-month deadline for starting the Afghanistan pullout didn’t survive its first eighteen hours.” Administration officials testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee the day after Obama’s speech made clear that the pull-out date was only aspirational. Gates set the tone when he testified: “Our current plan is that we will begin the transition…in July 2011. We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective.” Gates informed senators that the president had the prerogative to change his mind. Mullen agreed. Hillary Clinton added, “I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving.” In May 2010, at a dinner that Clinton hosted for Karzai and some top cabinet ministers, Gates assured the Afghans, “We’re not leaving Afghanistan. In fact,” he added, “we’re not ever leaving at all.” Indeed, the Pentagon was planning to keep 10,000 to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and believed it was in a strong position to get its way because of Afghan dependence on foreign aid.
Withdrawal was contingent upon training, arming, and equipping an ANA and police force that could provide security. McChrystal lobbied for a combined force of 400,000. Estimates of the annual cost of maintaining an Afghan security force of that size ran to around $10 billion, but Afghan tax revenues only totaled some $2 billion, and three-quarters of the national budget came from foreign aid, leading John Kerry to ask: “So who will pay the bills to avoid having those armed soldiers and policy mobilized as part of the next insurgency?”
Internal government reviews made clear that building such a force was a daunting, if not impossible, task. After years of training, few Afghan army of military units could function independently, and leadership was lacking at all levels. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the American who headed the NATO effort to train Afghan forces, reported in 2011 that 30 percent of Afghan soldiers deserted every year with the highest rates in combat areas where they were most needed. A comparable percentage left the police each year. Caldwell put the literacy rate of army recruits at around 10 percent. Corruption ran rampant. Conditions were deplorable. Afghan soldiers damaged new buildings by tearing sinks off wall to wash their feet before praying or building fires on barracks floors for cooking and heating in buildings that already contained kitchens and furnaces. Repairs were time-consuming and costly.
Another issue was motivation. As Thomas Friedman observed in chiding Obama for not having the courage to reject a war that neither he nor his advisors wanted: “You know you’re in trouble,” he wrote, “when you’re in a war in which the only party whose objectives are clear, whose rhetoric is consistent and whose will to fight never seems to diminish, is your enemy: The Taliban.” “Why,” he asked, “do we have to recruit and train our allies, the Afghan army, to fight? … If there is one thing Afghan males should not need to be trained to do, it’s to engage in warfare. That may be the only thing they know how to do after thirty years of civil war and centuries of resisting foreign powers. After all, who is training the Taliban? They’ve been fighting the U.S. Army to a draw – and many of their commanders can’t even read.”
Those who wondered what government forces were doing if not reading or fighting got some disturbing insight in January 2011, when the Afghan government signed an agreement with the UN to stop recruiting children into the police force and to ban the common and, according to the Washington Post, growing practice of using young boys as sex slaves. The New York Times reported that “as part of the Afghan tradition of bacha bazi, literally, ‘boy play,’ boys as young as nine are dressed as girls and trained to dance for male audiences, then prostituted at an auction to the highest bidder. Many powerful men, particularly commanders in the military and the police, keep such boys, often dressed in uniforms, as constant companions for sexual purposes.” In Afghanistan, bacha bazi had actually become rampant among the insurgent mujahideen during their U.S.-backed campaign to oust Soviet forces. It was most openly practiced around Kandahar, where, the Times noted, the “Taliban originally came to prominence…when the intervened in a fight between two pedophile warlords over the possession of a coveted dancing boy.” The Taliban had banned this practice when they were in power.
While Afghan commanders cavorted, American troops were paying a tremendous price, both physically and psychologically. A study by doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where most wounded troops stopped before returning to the United States, found a dramatic increase in the percentage of injured troops who had lost limbs between 2009 and 2010 due to the widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In 2010, 11 percent of the casualties had undergone amputations. Thirty-eight percent of the amputees had undergone multiple amputations.
Among the most gruesome were injuries to the genitals and urinary tract, the number of which almost tripled in just one year. Retired Army Colonel Dr. John Halcomb, who had had extensive combat medicine experience, called the findings of the study “unbelievable.” “Everybody was taken aback by the frequency of these injuries: the double amputations, the injuries to the penis and testicles,” said Halcomb. “Nothing like this has been seen before.”
Some injuries were going unreported. By mid-2010, the military reported 115,000 troops had suffered mild traumatic brain injuries from shock waves from roadside bombs. The injuries could cause long-term mental and physical damage. An investigation by ProPublica and National Public Radio discovered that such injuries were far more pervasive than the military indicated and that tens of thousands of sufferers had gone uncounted.
The psychological toll was also profound. In November 2009, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Erik Shinseki noted that “more veterans have committed suicide since 2001 than we have lost on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard public policy professor Linda Bilmes reported in 2010 that 600,000 of the 2.1million who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan had sought medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs and that 500,000 had applied for disability benefits, which was approximately 30 percent higher than initially estimated. With treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other health issues only increasing over time and life expectancy rising, they estimated that the real cost of both wars could top $4 trillion. Considering that 9/11 cost Al-Qaeda approximately $50,000, the multi-trillion-dollar U.S. response was indeed playing into bin Laden’s goal of bankrupting the United States.
Given the fundamental illogic of fighting decade-long and immensely costly war in Afghanistan in order to defeat a debilitated enemy that was based in Pakistan, some concluded the United States must have an ulterior motive. They found a possible answer in 2010, when the Pentagon announced that its team of geologists and other investigators had confirmed the existence of vast Afghan mineral resources. The Pentagon projected that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a crucial ingredient in batteries for various electronic devices. London banker Ian Hannam, a mining expert JPMorgan, went further, drooling over the prospect that “Afghanistan could be one of the leading producers of copper, gold, lithium, and iron ore in the world.” Petraeus, who would shortly replace McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, agreed. “There is stunning potential here,” he said. Afghan officials estimated mineral worth at $3 trillion, a truly staggering figure for a country whose gross domestic product was around $12 billion and whose economy consisted largely of narcotics and foreign aid.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding this “discovery,” Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was hardly a surprise. In January 1911, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Afghanistan “is rich in natural resources. It produces copper, lead, iron, and even gold.” In 1928, the newly formed Afghan-American Trading Company announced that it had acquired exclusive concessions to exploit Afghanistan’s oil and minerals. Little had been done to extract these resources in subsequent years, but both Afghans and foreign investors knew that day would eventually arrive.
While western investors waited for the security situation to stabilize before descending on the region, the resource-hungry Chinese pounced. A Chinese state-owned firm secured the rights to a copper mine in eastern Afghanistan. The Afghan minister who negotiated the deal, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, was ousted after being accused of accepting a $30 million bribe from the Chinese. He had been appointed by President Karzai in March 2006, when his predecessor refused to privatize the Ghori cement factory, Afghanistan’s only operating cement plant, when approached by Mahmoud Karzai. Adel’s first act was selling the factory to Karzai’s Afghan Investment Company. His last was accepting the bribe from China’s Metallurgical Group Corporation.
Investors also salivated over the potential energy resources in Central Asia. Atop that list was natural gas in Turkmenistan, which had potentially the fifth largest has field yet discovered. Regional governments envisioned transporting that gas via pipeline running through Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Pakistanis were maneuvering to undercut both the United States and India and make Pakistan the principal player in Afghanistan. They decided to exploit the growing rift between the United States and Karzai, who said he no longer felt the United States and NATO cold win militarily and would eventually withdraw. Top Pakistani officials met repeatedly with Karzai, offering to deliver key Taliban leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for a power-sharing arrangement that would end the conflict. Karzai’s ouster of intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and interior minister Hanif Atmar, both of whom had opposed such negotiations with Taliban fighters, showed that he too was interested, as was most of the country’s Pashtun population. However, such negotiations were fiercely opposed by the country’s more pro-American Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara communities, who constituted almost half the population. Having suffered the most during the reign of the Pashtun Taliban, they now constituted the most aggressive fighters in the ANA and their adamant opposition to such a deal raised the spectre of civil war.
After a decade of wasting blood and treasure, the American people had finally wearied of this futile war. In March 2011, an ABC News-Washington Post poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans did not believe the Afghanistan war was worth fighting. One year later, CNN reported, opposition had jumped to 72 percent.
Among the fiercest critics were the nation’s mayors, who had seen their cities undergo draconian cuts due to declining revenues and shrinking federal aid. When they gathered in Baltimore in June 2011 for the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, they let the administration know how they felt. They called for a speedy end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for using the $126 billion annual savings to rebuild the nation’s cities. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles said that the notion “that we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City absolutely boggles the mind.”
The pressure to leave had increased dramatically on May 1, 2011, when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, who was living comfortably in a home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the shadow of Pakistan’s premier military academy. Believing Pakistani officials must have known of bin Laden’s whereabouts, many Americans demanded that aid be cut off. Mistrust of Pakistani leaders ran so deep that the United States did not alert them that they had found bin Laden or were planning the attack, fearing that they would tip him off.
The raid proved to be a huge embarrassment to Pakistan, whose government was only a notch more stable than that of neighboring Afghanistan. U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson had reported in early 2010, “Pakistan’s civilian government remains weak, ineffectual and corrupt.” President Asif Ali Zardari, America’s principal ally, had earlier confided to Biden that the army and ISI, Pakistan’s real power brokers, might “take me out.” Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was also in a tenuous position, facing a challenge from officers objecting to his ties to the United States. Under pressure, Kayani announced that Pakistan would no longer cooperate with U.S. drone attacks against insurgents operating from within Pakistan and would greatly restrict the latitude of U.S. intelligence operatives within the country.
Relations between the “allies” were dealt a further blow in November 2011 when a NATO air attack killed 24 Pakistani troops. When U.S. officials refused to apologize, the Pakistani government shut down supply routes to Afghanistan, forcing NATO to rely upon slower and more costly alternatives. The following May, a Pakistani court convicted a Pakistani doctor of treason for assisting the CIA in tracking down bin Laden and sentenced him to thirty-three years in prison. The U.S. Senate immediately retaliated by voting to cut $33 million in military aid on top of the $1.2 billion it was already withholding. Pakistan finally reopened the routes in early July 2012 after extracting an apology from Secretary of State Clinton.
In Congress, Republican and Democrats alike used bin Laden’s assassination to press for rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that it was “no longer clear why we’re there” and rejected the idea that the United States should be involved in “such grand nation-building.” Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic Party whip, concurred. “If you believe that resolution of this conflict by military means is highly unlikely and not a realistic basis for U.S. policy, how can we send one more American soldier to fight and die in Afghanistan?” he asked.
The rift between the United States and the Karzai government also continued to widen. In mid-June 2011, Karzai denounced coalition forces in an address to the Afghanistan youth International Conference. “You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them,” he said. “Now I have stopped saying that…” “They’re here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that,” he complained in the nationally televised broadcast. Karzai cited not only the mounting civilian casualties caused by NATO bombing but also the environmental damage, singling out the effect of depleted uranium weapons. A few weeks earlier, Karzai had expressed outrage at a NATO bombing that killed several children and other civilians and threatened to take “unilateral action” against NATO if it continued to bomb Afghan homes. “If they continue to attack our houses…” he warned, “history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers.” U.S. officials were taken aback by such ingratitude. Outgoing Ambassador Eikenberry responded, “When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on.”
Chastened by the angry response to his indelicate remarks, Karzai watched his words more carefully for a few months. But in October, he again infuriated his U.S. backers by telling a Pakistani journalist that “if war ever breaks [out] between Pakistan and America, we will side [with] Pakistan. I don’t want any American soldier entering Afghans’ homes anymore.”
Nor, as Senator Durbin suggested, was a military solution in the offing, troop surge or no troop surge. In July and August 2011 alone, the Taliban assassinated 181 high-ranking Afghan government officials, including Ahmed Wali Karzai. Other recent victims included Kandahar’s major, the head of Kandahar’s religious council, one of President Karzai’s close advisors, and peace negotiator and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. In late July 2012, NATO released data showing that the number of insurgent attacks over the past three months had actually increased by 11 percent over the previous year, exposing the hollowness of repeated claims of success in defeating the insurgency.
Bad news kept pouring out of the country. In September, Human Rights Watch reported that U.S.-trained and –funded members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces and militias known as arbakai had been abusing the villagers they were supposed to be protecting. Documented abuses included murder, rape, abductions, arbitrary detention, and forcible land grabs. Building up such forces was key to U.S. plans to stabilize the country/ Petraeus had told the U.S. Senate that the ALP is “arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself.”
The United Nations drug control agency reported that NATO efforts to slow the Afghan drug trade were failing. Opium poppy cultivation was up in 2011 for a second straight year, despite a 65 percent increase in antidrug efforts in 2011. Seven percent more land was under cultivation and, due to soaring prices, the expanding crop was bringing in $1.4 billion – double what it had the previous year. Cultivation, like the insurgency itself, had spread to the norther and eastern provinces from which it had previously been absent. Attacks on eradication teams had quadrupled from the previous year.
Foreshadowing what would eventually be a miserable end to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, in October 2011, Obama announced that U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by year’s end. The December 31 departure date had actually been negotiated by George W. Bush in 2008. Still, Obama took credit for fulfilling his campaign promise, and the majority of Americans applauded the end of the Iraq debacle.
Many within the Pentagon, however, found the announcement infuriating. After earlier insisting that a force of between 10,000 and 20,000 remain, military leaders had lowered their sights to between 3,000 and 5,000. They joined Obama and Clinton in pressuring the Iraqis to grant immunity from prosecution to U.S. troops remaining in the country. But, unmoved, the Shiite bloc in Parliament, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, refused, and the final drawdown began.
To be sure, that would not entirely end U.S. presence in Iraq. The State Department estimated that as many as 16,000 or 17,000 U.S. personnel might remain, including 5,500 armed military contractors. The world’s largest U.S. embassy, a 104-acre walled compound in Baghdad, and consulates in Basra and Irbil would remain as constant reminders to Iraqis of U.S. invasion, devastation, conquest, and occupation. Colonel John S. Laskodi, commander of an army brigade that was assisting the State Department during the transition period, noted that “the Department of State is establishing its largest mission in its history.” Senator John Kerry worried that the United States was “replacing a military presence with a private mercenary presence.” The smaller number of remaining troops would oversee the $10 billion in U.S. contracts to arm the Iraq military with tanks, fighter jets, and other weapons, $3 billion of which the U.S. government was paying for. The United States was also spending close to $1 billion per year to train the Iraqi police.
The final tally would be almost 4,500 U.S. troops killed and more than 32,000 wounded. Tens of thousands more suffered from PTSD and other psychological ailments. Estimates of Iraqi deaths ranged from 150,000 to over 1 million. In October 2006, a team of U.S. and Iraq epidemiologists reported 655,000 “excess” Iraqi deaths resulting from the U.S. invasion. The United States had spent close to $1 trillion, but that was a small down payment on what the final cost would amount to.
Obama welcomed the troops home at Fort Bragg. But instead of honestly treating the Iraq War as the unmitigated disaster it had been for the United States, drawing some poignant lessons, and thanking those gathered for their sacrifice, Obama felt compelled to cloak the war’s end in the kind of patriotic drivel that conjured up the powerfully haunting words of Rudyard Kipling, the erstwhile proponent of empire, who had convinced his son to enlist in the First World War, only to have him die his first day of combat. In his “Epitaphs of the War,” Kipling wrote, “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Obamas lies would sear just as deeply and painfully. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” he told the troops, praising their “extraordinary achievement,” The “most important lesson,” he declared, was “about our national character…that there’s nothing we American can’t do when we stick together. … And that’s why the United States military is most respected institution in our land.” He commended their willingness to sacrifice “so much for a people that you had never met,” which, he insisted, was “part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory of for resources. We do it because it’s rights. There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are.” Having rewritten the history of Iraq, he turned to Afghanistan, claiming that the troops had also “broken the momentum of the Taliban.” The wars, he assured them, had made “America stronger and the world more secure.” Reaching deep into the repository of Americas sacred myths, he saluted the source of U.S. greatness, “the values that are written into our founding documents, and a unique willingness among nations to pay a great price for the progress of human freedom and dignity. This is who we are. That’s what we do as Americans, together.” He reminded them that they were “part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries – from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you – young men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar, and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11.”
One would be hard-pressed to know where to begin dissecting the distortions and debunking the myths, but, as we have shown throughout these pages, the notions of American altruism, benevolence, and self-sacrifice might be a good place to start, especially when combined with an explicit disavowal of interest in territories and resources. Obama identified America’s uniqueness among nations as it “willingness…to pay a great price for the progress of human freedom and dignity.” The wars, he absurdly claimed, had made the United States, “stronger and the world more secure.” He compared the troops who had slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi civilians in Fallujah to the American colonists “who overthrew an empire” and to the World War II generation who “faced down fascism.” Perhaps he hadn’t seen the American-flag burning jubilation of Fallujah’s crowds during their Day of Resistance and Freedom that commemorated the U.S. departure from Iraq. Perhaps he hadn’t read the accounts by U.S. marines of wanton and often indiscriminate killing of Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in Haditha and elsewhere throughout the country. Perhaps he hadn’t seen the commander of U.S. forces in Anbar Province’s explanation of why he didn’t investigate U.S. troops’ random killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha. “It happened all the time…,” he explained, “throughout the whole country.” And in what was either the most contemptable lie since the early days of the Bush administration or unfortunately sloppy and careless phrasing, Obama congratulated the troops for having “fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar, and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11,” adding credence to the Bush-Cheney fabrication that the invasion of Iraq was somehow justified by Saddam’s support for Al-Qaeda and perpetuating the dangerous illusion that the occupation of either country, as of 2011, had anything at all to do with the initial Al-Qaeda attack.
The words were barely out of Obama’s mouth before “stable” Iraq fell back into chaos. Within days, the country was wracked with a series of suicide bombings that left scores of people dead and hundreds injured and the country on the verge of relapse into civil war. Sunnis were feeling particularly aggrieved. The coalition government that U.S. officials had finally managed to cobble together nearly eight months after the 2010 election had effectively collapsed. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, had issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, charging him with running a death squad out of his office, and had tried to unseat the Sunni deputy prime minister. Hashimi fled to the Kurdish region to escape arrest. Maliki’s security forces had already arrested hundreds of Sunni opposition leaders and former Baathists in recent weeks while Maliki tightened his control over the army and police. Opponents accused him of becoming a dictator. Sunnis and secular critics boycotted Parliament. For months, Sunni provinces had been demanding greater autonomy, along the lines the Kurds had established in oil-rich Kurdistan, which had its own Parliament, president, and security forces. The country threatened to split into three separate regions.
Iraqi disdain for the American “sacrifice” that had deposed of a hated dictator but resulted in the death and wounding of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians was reflected in the fact that most senior Iraqis who were invited to what the Washington Post described as a “seemingly endless process of military ceremonies” did not attend. The United States had actually stopped holding large base-closing ceremonies the previous spring because insurgents were using them as an opportunity to launch attacks. One gathering particularly stood out. On December 17, U.S. and Iraqi officials assembled for a signing ceremony to turn Contingency Operating Base Adder, the last U.S. base in Iraq, which once housed 12,000 U.S. troops and contractors, over to the Iraqi Air Force. The Post’s Greg Jaffe described the scene. First, a “six-man Iraq band, clad in dirty blue uniforms, played a ragged marching song on dented trumpets and trombones.” Following that, “an Iraqi military officers cheered in Arabic, clapped and stomped his feet. Soon the mostly Iraqi crowd was chanting and cheering with him.” Jaffe noted that “an American military officer sat stiffly on the stage behind a sign marked ‘colonel.’” The Iraqi speaker next shouted, “This is the end of the American occupation. May God have mercy on our martyrs.” The remaining U.S. forces snuck off in the dead of night in what the paper described as “a secret predawn convoy to Kuwait.”
The two wars had been unmitigated disasters. Even Gates, on some level, acknowledged the indefensibility of ever again plunging the United States into the invasion of another country. In February 2011, he told West Point cadets, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
The consequences of years of misguided and short-sighted U.S. policies were coming home to roost around the world. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Middle East, where the United States was largely relegated to the role of bystander as the Arab Spring’s extraordinary democratic upheaval was fundamentally transforming the region that the United States had done so much to shape. Decades of uncritically supporting Israel while arming, training, and propping up one Arab dictator after another, as well as the post-9/11 use of Egyptians, Libyans and others as surrogate torturers, had stripped the United States of all moral authority. Its professions of democracy rang hollow. Nor could anyone take seriously U.S. outrage about repressive regimes using force against their citizens after U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had directly or indirectly been responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Even the goodwill generated by Obama’s Cairo speech proved short-lived. Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, spoke for activists throughout the region: “It’s become fashionable now to ‘diss’ the Americans,” he said. “The prevalent mood now is to say that the United States is no longer relevant, that the Arab Spring is happening without the help of the United States.” Former International Atomic Energy Agency director and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mohamed ElBaradei blamed the United States for decades of backwardness and repression throughout the region. “America,” he charged, “is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.”
United States support for regime change and the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya on the pretext of preventing threated atrocities reeked of hypocrisy when stacked against prolonged U.S. inaction in the face of actual atrocities being perpetrated by governments in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, or fierce internal suppression in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi extremists continued to fund Al-Qaeda and other global jihadists. The lesson seemed to that only U.S. allies were permitted to slaughter and repress their citizens.
In fact, when criticizing repressive Middle Eastern regimes, Obama pointedly omitted mention of Saudi Arabia, whose reactionary monarchy the United States had propped up for six decades in return for Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia had long been the largest purchaser of advanced U.S. weaponry. The Wall Street Journal projected that the sale Obama approved in 2010 might top $60 billion. Now with the Saudis helping thwart democratic reform throughout the region, intervening politically, monetarily, ad, in the case of Bahrain, even militarily, the United States proved itself an unreliable ally for those seeking progressive change.
The United States was also trapped by its continued embrace of an Israeli government that had moved sharply to the right. Obama appeared to have more sympathy for the Palestinian position than his predecessors and his choice of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East raised hopes that the United States would support an evenhanded settlement of the outstanding issues. Paramount among them was the presence of a half million Jewish settlers in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Compounding this problem was the Israeli blockade of Gaza following Hamas’s election in 2006. Everyone, with the exception of Israel’s right-wing government under Bibi Netanyahu and members of the conservative Israel lobby in the United States, recognized that this was not only unjust and untenable, but that it threatened the continuation of Israel’s increasingly tenuous democracy.
However, it was not Mitchell but Dennis Ross, Obama’s chief Middle East advisor, who prevailed in internal debates. Ross, a Wolfowitz protégé and advisor to presidents going back Reagan, was a staunch defender of Israel. In May 2011, King Abdullah II of Jordan complained that “we get good responses” from the State Department and the Pentagon, “but not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross.” Ross and Mitchell were at odds over whether the United States should propose a comprehensive peace plan for the region. Mitchell thought it might put needed pressure on a Netanyahu government that continued its illegal settlements policy and resistance to a meaningful two-state solution. Ross argued against pressuring Israel. The well-organized Israel lobby, which exercised inordinate influence in the United States, endorsed that view. Frustrated by Obama’s buckling, to pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Mitchell resigned in April 2011.
The United States again expressed contempt for world opinion over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory not only as illegal but as an obstacle to peace. The resolution was sponsored by at least 130 nations and supported by all 14 other members of the Security Council. While the Obama administration sought to curry favor with AIPAC – the most conservative branch of the powerful Israeli lobby – much of the world looked toward a UN vote to recognize an independent Palestinian state despite the vociferous opposition of the United States and Israel.
Though Israel and the United States managed to side-track that effort, the Israelis had grown increasingly isolated. The ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and growing Turkish support for the Palestinians had cost Israel two of its closest regional allies. Islamists were on the rise throughout the region. Thomas Friedman blamed this on “50 years of Arab dictatorship, in which only Islamists were allowed to organize in mosques while no independent, secular, democratic parties were allowed to develop in the political arena.” The uprising in neighboring Syria against the brutal Assad regime, although a major setback to Iran and Hezbollah, added another element of instability on Israel’s border, exacerbated by the danger that Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Still, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies remained intransigent, expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in defiance not only of Obama but of universal opinion and knowing full well that such actions would undermine the prospects for a two-state solution.
Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, wondered if Israeli leaders had any intention of finding an equitable resolution. “Can we continue to exist without a perennial adversary, without being victims of persecution?” he asked. Distinguished Israeli intellectual Zeev Sternhall provide an answer in an article in Haaretz aptly titled “Israel Right Needs Perpetual War.”
It was war with Iran that most captivated the right-wing Israeli imagination. Israeli hawks tried to build support for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, which they alleged were being used to produce a nuclear bomb. There was good reason to make sure that Iran did not reach that point, particularly because it might trigger a nuclear arms race throughout the region, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and possibly others quickly following suit. In September 2011, Iran inaugurated the Middle East’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, a Russian-built model. But other Middle Eastern nations were not far behind, with dozens of nuclear reactors set to come on line beginning 2017 or 2018. Iran insisted it had no intention to build a bomb and continued to allow international monitors into the country. Israel, on the other hand, was widely believed to possess some 200 weapons. The U.S. intelligence committee stood by its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran had stopped working on nuclear weapons in 2003 and not restarted the program. U.S. officials warned the Israelis that a preemptive attack would not only likely fail to achieve the desired results, it could lead to disastrous and destabilizing consequences in the region and beyond. They hope that strengthening sanctions against Iranian oil exports and Iran’s Central Bank would quiet the demand for military action.
Israel had come dangerously close to launching such an attack in 2010. In June 2011, Meir Dagan, who had headed the Israeli spy agency Mossad for eight years before stepping down the previous September, revealed that he, military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and Yuval Diskin, director of the Shin Bet internal security agency, had managed to block such reckless behavior on the part of Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But now that all three were out of office, Dagan feared what Israel’s leaders might do. Dagan explained, “I decided to speak out because when I was in office, Diskin, Ashkenazi and I could block any dangerous adventure. Now I am afraid that there is no one to stop Bibi and Barak.” Other reports indicated that President Shimon Peres, Israeli Defense Forces Senior Commander Gadi Eisenkot, and recently retired chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin had also opposed attacking Iran.
A majority of Israelis also rejected a military strike. A November 2011 poll found that only 43 percent of Israeli Jews backed an attack although 90 percent believed that Iran would succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons. Sixty-four percent supported turning the region into a nuclear-free zone even though it would require Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal.
The erosion of U.S. power and influence has also been obvious in Latin American, where, like in the Middle East, the effects of a century of supporting dictators who favored U.S. business and political interests over the well-being of their own people had resulted in a wave of anti-Americanism that swept the continent in the early years of the twenty-first century. Aside from tolerating the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, the United States had been largely unable to stop the leftist trend sweeping Central and South American. Even Columbia, the closest U.S. ally, had been reassessing its ties to the “colossus” of the north. Since taking office in 2010, Columbia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has not only taken steps to reduce the enormous gap between Columbia’s rich and poor, he had mended relations with Venezuela and Ecuador and no calls Hugo Chavez his “new best friend.”
In December 2011, Chavez convened a two-day summit of Latin American and Caribbean heads of state in Caracas. The colorful and controversial Venezuelan leader let it be known that his goal was to establish a hemispheric counterweight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). Unlike the OAS, the new organization – the thirty-three-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) – included Cuba and excluded the United States and Canada. Chavez proclaimed the summit “the most important political event in our America in 100 years or more.” Cuban President Raul Castro was even more grandiose, anointing the new organization as potentially “the biggest event in our 200 years of semi-independence.” The new organization was intended to further lessen U.S. influence in the region. “We are sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death,” announced Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, referring to President James Munroe’s assertion that the Western Hemisphere was the United States’ sphere of influence. “It’s great to be here in the land of Bolivar,” Paraguay’s President Simon Bolivar, the lionized Caracas-born nineteenth century liberator of South America. “Bolivar’s dream is becoming concrete little by little,” he added. Even U.S. allies like Presidents Felipe Calderon of Mexico, Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia, and Sebastian Pinera of Chile showed up for the inaugural event.
The United States was isolated further when Obama attended the Summit of the Americas in 2012. Meeting in the Columbian coastal city of Cartagena, leaders of the Western Hemisphere, emboldened by the rare Caracas gathering, openly defied the United States in a way that was unprecedented and invigorating. Debate centered on two issues that were fundamental to hemispheric relations – the exclusion of Cuba and the U.S.-backed war on drugs. Whereas the United States had previously set the agenda and dictated the terms of the discussion, that was no longer the case. President Calderon described the change – the frankness with which the issues were discussed – as “radical and unthinkable.” An article on the summit in the Jamaica Observer was headlined, “Summit shows how much Yanqui influence has waned.”
Latin American leaders made clear that they had had it with U.S. efforts to ban Cuban participation, a stance defended only by the United States and Canada. Members of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) – a group of Latin States that had formed in 2004 – said that they would not participate in another summit meeting without Cuba. Santos dismissed U.S. policy toward Cuba as “anachronistic” and “ineffective” and demanded Cuban inclusion, as did Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who also indicated she would no longer attend without Cuba. Though defending U.S. policy, Obama noted that the discussion reminded him of “gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the cold war.”
Some of the leaders also challenged the United States on its drug policy, which Obama again defended despite his own admitted youthful indulgence. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina declared the forty-year-old war on drugs a failure and called for decriminalization. Santos noted that Columbia’s own successful efforts to reduce coca cultivation had only resulted in a production spike in Peru and Bolivia and that drug violence, while lowered in Columbia, had now spilled over to Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
And in an act of unprecedented defiance, in August 2012, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa outraged U.S., British, and Swedish authorities by offering political asylum to Julian Assange. Assange had holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was under investigation for sexual assault. He feared that once in Sweden, he would be extradited to the United States. The British were so disturbed by Ecuador’s actions that they threatened to storm the Ecuadorian embassy and arrest Assange, which would constitute a flagrant violation of international law.
In June 2012, Paraguay’s right-wing forces fought back with a parliamentary coup in that impoverished nation, impeaching left-leaning President Fernando Lugo, whose moderate program of land reform threatened Paraguay’s wealthy landed interests and multinational agricultural corporations. The International HeraldTribune went out of its way to comment on the fact that the United States, which once called the shots in Latin America, had become irrelevant to political processes in the region. However, by its refusal to join hemispheric neighbors in condemning the action, the United States was effectively sending a signal of support. Not so other Latin American nations. Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay voted to suspend Paraguay from the South American free trade association Mercosur and invite Venezuela to join as a full member. Paraguay had been blocking Venezuela’s membership in the trade organization, which operates by consensus.
Despite repeated setbacks in the Middle East and Latin America, U.S. military strength remained unchallenged. As Chalmers Johnson revealed years ago, the United States maintains its global hegemony not through an empire of colonies, but through an empire of bases strung across the planet. Journalist Nick Turse found it impossible to ascertain the exact number, but found evidence to indicate that the total was over 1,000. And the cost of maintaining this vast network was tens of billions of dollars. In 2010, the United States still had 124 bases in Japan, 38 of which were in Okinawa alone. South Korea still had 87. In 2012, anthropologist David Vine confirmed that the total number of bases, despite the closure of 505 bases in Iraq, was still more than 1,000 and the cost of maintaining that global network of bases and 255,000 overseas troops was around $250 billion. Forces were being shifted, in large part, from mammoth Cold War-style bases to widely dispersed smaller bases known as “lily pads” that could serve as jumping-off points for highly mobile U.S. troops. Such bases were proliferating in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. And the U.S. military was rapidly expanding its presence in Africa. China, America’s new global rival, had no overseas bases.
The nation faced a quandary. The post-Cold War world refused to play by its rules. Neither its unprecedented military strength nor its overwhelming economic power translated into an ability to bend history in the ways U.S. leaders desired. The world seemed to be spinning increasingly out of U.S. control. Nothing symbolized this more than the rise of China, with its 1.3 billion people, booming economy (almost 40 percent of which remained state-owned), and authoritarian Communist Party-controlled political system. China’s economic growth, while extraordinary under any circumstances, stood out even more starkly when measured alongside U.S. economic stagnation and decline. In 2011, China’s per capita GDP, though still only 9 percent that of the United States, was double what it had been four years earlier. And Chinese leaders were projecting another doubling in the next four years. China had already replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, having jumped remarkably from number seven in 2003. Indicative of future prospects, the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young reported that China devoted 9 percent of its GDP to infrastructure – more than triple the portion invested by the United States.
China’s new economic clout in October 2011 came into sharp relief when Europe asked China for help in saving the euro, inviting it to invest tens of billions of dollars in Europe’s emergency stability fund. China was, in effect, being asked to assume the role long played by the United States as the world’s financial leader. China had already bought up key economic assets in Europe, which had become China’s largest trading partner. Although China balked at investing so heavily at a time when Europe’s economic situation remained so precarious, the significance was unmistakable, especially coming just weeks after Timothy Geithner’s advice to a gathering of European finance ministers had been so rudely dismissed. The New York Times aptly titled ins front-page article “Advice on Debt? Europe Suggests U.S. Can Keep It.”
Believing that recent developments had proven the superiority of its economic and political systems to those in the declining West, China had been asserting itself in other ways as well. Most troubling to U.S. leaders and Asian neighbors alike, China was rapidly modernizing its military. Defense spending had tripled to $160 billion in the course of one decade. It was building a blue-water navy. It added warships, submarines, fighter jets, and offensive missiles and armed its first aircraft carrier.
The military modernization would not have been so alarming to China’s neighbors if China had not also aggressively pressed claims to disputed oil-, gas-, and mineral-rich islands and territories in the East and South China Seas. China’s claims to the South China Seas alone conflicted with claims by Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. In the East China Sea, tension remained high between China and Japan. Relations were punctuated with a series of confrontations that aroused passions on all sides. The rhetoric heated up. In October 2011, China’s widely read and stridently nationalistic Global Times wrote threateningly, “If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for disputes in the sea to be resolved.”
China’s military buildup, aggressive pursuit of energy and raw materials, and bullying of weaker neighbors gave the United States the opening it was looking for. Instead of helping resolve the disputes amicably, U.S. leaders decided to exploit regional tensions and exaggerate the Chinese threat. In hyping China’s military buildup, U.S. officials neglected to mention that China had in the past two decades substantially decreased the size of its army, the number of planes in its air force, and its fleet of submarines, and that the proportion of its GDP devoted to defense spending was in line with that of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
The United States appeared ready to use this manufactured crisis not only to reassert U.S. hegemony in Asia and justify a bloated, if shrinking, defense budget, but to halt the overall decline in U.S. power and prestige. With all the trappings of a new cold war, the United States set out to “contain” China economically, militarily, and politically, and pressed other Asian nations to assist in the effort.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had thrown down the gauntlet with an article in the November 2011 issue of Foreign Policy magazine bluntly titled “America’s Pacific Century.” The article began, “As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point.” The dramatic change she heralded would be “a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region,” which included the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific.
Obama reinforced that message during his eight-day trip to the Pacific later that month. He informed the Australian Parliament, “In the Asia-Pacific century, the U.S. is all in. … I’ve therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the shaping this region and its future.” “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” he said, even predicting the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. Impending cuts in U.S. defense spending, he assured the Aussies, “will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.” Proving his point, Obama announced that the United States would deploy 2,500 marines to Australia in what amounted to the first long-term U.S. troop increase in Asia since Vietnam, reversing decades of steady decline. The increase would come on top of the 85,000 troops the United States already had in the Pacific, where seven of its eleven aircraft carriers and eighteen nuclear submarines were based.
From Australia, Obama went to Bali, Indonesia, for the annual meeting of the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and became the first U.S. president to attend the larger East Asia Summit meeting. During the summit, Obama joined with other participants in confronting Premier Wen Jiabao over China’s South China Sea claims. Obama pledged to strengthen ties with each of the participants and announced that the United States was selling twenty-four F-16 fighters to the Indonesian air force. He also surprised attendees by unveiling plans to dispatch Secretary of State Clinton to Myanmar to repair U.S. relations with that Chinese ally.
Clinton was in the Philippines when Obama visited Australia. From the deck of a U.S. warship in Manila Bay, she signaled U.S. support for the Philippines’ position in the South China Sea dispute. The United States had previously conducted joint naval exercises with the Philippines in June and then did so with Vietnam in July. In September, the United States and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation. The once bitter enemies even discussed possible U.S. naval access to the port at Cam Ranh bay. Vietnam announced a 35 percent increase in defense spending in 2012. The United States had also divulged plans to station some of its littoral combat ships in Singapore.
In December, the Philippines relaunched its biggest and most modern warship, a U.S. coast-guard cutter. A Thai newspaper described the scene: “As a navy brass band played, Roman Catholic priests sprinkled holy water on the deck of the newly repainted warship, equipped with anti-aircraft guns and a newly refurbished surveillance helicopter on the flight deck. Three navy planes flew past and official broke a bottle of sugarcane wine on the bow as the ship went into commission.” Officials also unveiled the Philippines’ first troop- and tank-carrying ship and announced plans to purchase another coast guard cutter and fighter jets from the United States. In July 2012, with tensions flaring anew over the disputed islands, President Benigno Acquino III announced plans to purchase helicopters and other aircraft that could be used in military confrontation. Malaysia, too, showed off its enhanced military strength by displaying its newly acquired submarines. Malaysia has extensive oil and gas resources in the South China Sea.
Admiral Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, indicated that efforts were also under way to fortify strategic ties with India to counter China’s growing strength. India loomed large in the effort to contain China. Despite the imposition of sanctions on India following its May 1998 nuclear tests, in March 2000 Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit New Delhi in twenty-two years. The New York Times described the visit as a “lovefest.” George W. Bush went much further to bolster U.S.-India ties. After 9/11, he lifted all sanctions and later established a military alliance. In 2006, he signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with India despite the fact that India was a non-signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Though limited to civilian uses of nuclear power, this was a clear violation of the NPT and one that freed India to enhance its nuclear weapons program. The United States first had to gain approval of the forty-five nations that comprised the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium that the United States had established following India’s illegal 1974 test. “The administration bullied and wheedled the international approval of the president’s ill-conceived nuclear deal with India,” charged a Times editorial. Ron Somers, president of the United States-India Business Council, called it a “tectonic shift” in relations between the two countries. It was also a major setback to nonproliferation efforts.
Obama accelerated the strategic partnership, hosting the Indian prime minister at his first White House state banquet, pushing ahead with implementation of the nuclear agreement despite strong opposition from some of his own fellow advisors, and solidifying the military alliance established by Bush. Hillary Clinton declared it the joint responsibility of United States and India to “determine the course of the world.” Obama’s three-day visit to India in 2010 strengthened the partnership.
In November 2011, India’s defense ministry approved a massive $12 billion modernization program, which would include the Indian army’s largest expansion on its border with China since the 1962 war. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that India would spend a total of $80 billion by 2015. India had already been the world’s leading arms importer between 2006 and 2011. To counter China’s growing naval power, India planned to spend $54 billion on 103 new warships over the next twenty years.
India’s elevated levels of defense spending seemed even more objectionable in light of its persistent widespread poverty and enormous gap between rich and poor. A survey of 73,000 households in nine of India’s poorer states released in early 2012 found that 42 percent of children under the age of five were malnourished. “The problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame,” acknowledged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who continued to spend lavishly on unneeded weaponry.
The United States had no patience for those who vacillated, as Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama learned when he tried to renegotiate the agreement to relocated the large U.S. marine air base within Okinawa from Futenma to Henoko. Obama insisted that Japan abide by its commitment, despite fierce opposition by the Okinawans themselves. When Hatoyama caved to U.S. pressure, his government collapsed.
Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, learned his lesson. In late December 2010, Japan announced a shift in military doctrine to deemphasize the threat from Russia to the north and shift resources to combating China and North Korea. Japan’s Special Defense Forces would also cooperate much more closely with the United States, Australia, and South Korea. The new National Defense Program Guidelines called for increasing Japan’s submarine fleet from sixteen to twenty-two, adding several new fighter jets, and cutting the number of tanks to create a more mobile force that could quickly dispatch troops to deal with the crises in the China Seas or Korea. In December 2011, Japan announced purchase of some forty Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets at a cost estimated at between $6 and $8 billion, despite the desperate need for funds to rebuild after the previous March’s devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident.
Chinese leaders accused the United States of trying to encircle them, insisting that it was the United States, not China, that was projecting military power in the region. China, they maintained, had tried to peacefully resolve its disputes with its neighbors. They expressed outrage over Obama’s approval of $5.8 billion in arms sales to Taiwan after having approved $6.4 billion the previous year. Congressional Republicans demanded even more, to which a senior administration official replied that compared to Bush, Obama had “provided twice the amount in half the time.” The People’s Daily, the official Chinese newspaper, informed the United States that it could forget about Chinese cooperation on other global issues: “American politicians are totally mistaken if they believe they can, on the one hand, demand that China behave as a responsible great power and cooperate with the United States on this and that issue, while on the other hand irresponsibly and wantonly harm China’s core interests.” The Chinese were also angry over other perceived slights, including Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama after choosing not to do so earlier in his administration when he was trying to improve relations with China.
The United States had also let slip that it was developing a new war strategy for Asia called the AirSea Battle Concept. Although highly classified, mention of it first appeared in the United States’ 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. It was designed as a way to coordinate U.S. naval and air forces to counter China’s growing ability to disrupt the United States’ high-tech weapons and communications systems and thereby interfere with its ability to project its military power in a conflict. U.S. military leaders pointed to the threat from China’s “anti-access” strategy, which would limit U.S. ability to militarily aid allies. The fear, according to Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), was that such Chinese action would give it control of sea lanes in the Western Pacific. Speaking at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that such threats “appear designed to neutralize the advantages the U.S. military has enjoyed since the end of the cold war – unfettered freedom of movement and the ability to project power to any region across the globe by surging aircraft, ships, troops and supplies.”
Chinese leaders understood that it was actually their shipping that was being threatened by tightened U.S. control over the South China Sea through which tankers carrying most of China’s oil imports passed. They pledged to resolve outstanding regional differences peacefully. But they also made clear that they would defend their interests. In a December address to China’s Central Military Commission, President Hu Jintao told the navy to “make extended preparations for warfare.”
Also included in that calculation was war with the United States. When CSBA, one of the defense think tanks that had been gaming large-scale warfare with China for the Pentagon, issued a report on the topic in 2010, “the PLA (China’s People’s Liberation Army) went nuts,” according to a U.S. official who had just returned from Beijing. An internal report prepared for the Marine Corps commandant warned that “an Air-Sea Battle-focused Navy and Air Force would be preposterously expensive to build,” and, if used in war between the United States and China, would produce “incalculable human and economic destruction.”
In pushing the confrontation with China, the United States and its Pacific allies were playing a very dangerous game. Their economic dependence on China made them particularly vulnerable to retaliation. As the holder of over $1 trillion in U.S. treasury bonds, China had the U.S. economy by the throat. Could the United States really afford to risk a hostile relationship with its biggest creditor? And, complicating matters further, China had replaced the United States as the biggest trading partner of all the Asian nations. In 2004, the United States had been the largest trading partner of the ten nations that comprised ASEAN. By 2011, China was first and the United States had fallen to fourth. In December, Japan and China announced that their currencies would convert directly into each other, obviating the need for each to buy dollars before converting them into the other’s currency. Such a move not only would expand trade between the two nations, it represented an important step toward making the yuan an alternate reserve currency to the dollar, as China desired.
Undeterred, the United States persisted in the effort to bolster its economic position. In fall 2011, it formed a free trade group, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with allies in Asia, Latin America, and North America. It did not invite China to join, which made Fred Hu, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs in greater China, who now chaired the Primavera Capital Group financial advisory firm, wonder, “How can you have a credible trade organization if you exclude the biggest trading nation?”
In a parallel military move, the United States Pacific Command invited Russia and India to participate in a major naval exercise off Hawaii in June 2012. China was not invited to join.
U.S. hegemonic pretensions remained lofty, but U.S. ability to police Asia and the rest of the globe was constrained by the dimensions of its budget crisis. By 201, the U.S. was spending $1.6 trillion over revenues in its $3.8 trillion budget. The shortfall was borrowed largely from China and Japan. Debt services alone cost $250 billion. The military budget, including black operations, intelligence, foreign military aid, private contractors, and veterans’ benefits, totaled over $1 trillion. Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project calculated that the U.S. actually spends over $1.2 trillion of its $3 trillion annual budget on “defense,” when all military- and security-related expenses are factored in.
The figure approximately equaled what the rest of the world spent. Even during the height of the Cold War, the United States spent only 26 percent of the world total. As Congressman Barney Frank observed, “We have fewer enemies and we’re spending more money.” U.S. military spending consumed approximately 44 percent of all U.S. tax revenues. Maintaining bases cost approximately $250 billion. Hiring the Pentagon’s vast army of private contractors, which, according to the Washington Post, totaled 1.2 people, cost almost as much. New and costly high-tech weapons systems added to the burden. Did all this spending make Americans safer? Frank commented, “I don’t think any terrorist has ever been shot by a nuclear submarine.”
In 2011, the Obama administration announced plans to reduce the Pentagon budget by at least $450 billion over the coming decade with additional cuts of $500 billion looming if Congress failed to meet other revenue goals. But Obama and Leon Panetta, who had moved from CIA to Defense, made clear that the restructuring would not impinge upon the U.S. shift toward Asia. They rejected proposals to cut the number of aircraft carriers from eleven to ten and planned to increase investment in the long-range stealth bombers and antimissile systems considered essential in combating China, as well as armed drones, cyberspace systems, and rapid-deployment aircraft. In June 2012, Panetta notified a conference of defense officials from twenty-eight Asia-Pacific nations that the United States would “rebalance” its forces. By 2020, 60 percent of U.S. naval forces would be in the Pacific, and only 40 percent in the Atlantic, a substantial shift from its 50 – 50 split in 2012. U.S. forces will include, Panetta explained, “six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines.” In case anyone missed the point, Panetta outlined some of the United States’ spending priorities: “We are investing specifically in…an advanced fifth-generation fighter, an enhanced Virginia-class submarine, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities, and improved precision weapons – that will provide our forces with freedom of maneuver in areas in which our access and freedom of action may be threatened. We recognize the challenges of operating over the Pacific’s vast distances. That is why we are investing in new aerial-refueling tankers, a new bomber, and advanced maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.” And if that weren’t sufficient, Panetta had the gall to remind listeners, including officials from China, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, that “over the course of history, the United States has fought wars, we have spilled blood, and have deployed our forces time and time again to defend our vital interests in the Asia-Pacific region.” He insisted, with a straight face, that stepped-up U.S. efforts in the region were not aimed at containing China. Even the New York Times noted that “few in the audience said they believed that.” Indonesia’s foreign minister voiced the views of many who resented U.S. pressure to choose sides, a seeming throwback to John Foster Dulles’ 1950s attacks on nations that refused to choose sides in the Cold War, commenting, “What worries us is having to choose – we don’t want to be put in that position.”
U.S. plans to militarize the region were coming up against other obstacles as well. Some of America’s Asian allies were confronting the same budgetary constraints that were impeding U.S. efforts. In May 2012, Australia, where Obama had kicked off his Asian tour a few months earlier, announced cuts in defense spending 10.5 percent or $5.5 billion over the next four years, which, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, would represent the lowest percentage of gross domestic product since 1938. The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald warned that “Events in Canberra and Washington raise serious questions about the ability of the alliance partners to give effect to their grand pledges to each other. On the Australian side, it is stunningly clear what’s happened. The Gillard government has chosen to reduce Australia’s defense effort to its feeblest in 74 years. … The government weighted its priorities, and defense came in at the bottom.”
For the United States, with the Pacific off the table, defense saving would come, in part, from cutting the size of the army from 570,000 to 490,000 and lowering force levels in Europe. Joining Panetta at the Pentagon in early January 2012, Obama declared, “We’re turning the page on a decade of war. … We’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces. We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future.”
While cutting defense spending, pulling combat forces out of Iraq, and beginning the drawdown in Afghanistan represented a welcome retreat from the hyper-militarization of the Bush-Cheney years, they did not represent the sharp and definitive break with empire that the world needed to see from the United States and that Obama had been encouraged to pursue by the man who had engineered the end of the Soviet Empire: Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev had pressed Obama to pursue the kind of bold initiatives that had allowed Gorbachev to change the course of history. “America needs perestroika right now…,” he said in 2009, “because the problems he has to deal with are not easy ones.” Gorbachev called for ending the kind unregulated free market policies that caused the global economic downturn and perpetuated the gap between the world’s rich and poor. The United States, he warned, can no longer dictate to the rest of the world. “Everyone is used to America as the shepherd that tells everyone what to do. But this period has already ended.” He condemned the Clinton and Bush administrations’ dangerous militarization of international politics and urged the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan as Russia had done over twenty years ago when Gorbachev inherited a similarly disastrous and unpopular war.
As 2012 dawned, the world was in extraordinary flux. U.S global power had eroded, opening the door to an exciting array of possibilities, some fraught with dangers of their own. Recognizing the extraordinary upheaval that rattled ruling elites across the globe in 2011, Time magazine had just name “The Protester” its person of the year. The spark had actually been ignited inn December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian street vendor, having been humiliated by police one too many times, set himself on fire. That simple and desperate act sparked a massive popular rebellion in Tunisia that overthrew the twenty-three-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The sight of ordinary Tunisians standing up fearlessly to their police state rulers struck a chord with millions who had suffered their own indignities at the hands of corrupt, dictatorial regimes that, more often than not, had been backed and armed by the United States. The movement spread quickly to Algeria, Egypt, and across the Arab world. The WikiLeaks release, beginning in February 2011, of a quarter million U.S. diplomatic cables poured fuel on an already burning fire. Protests in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain were soon spiraling out of government control. Opposition to government- and banker-imposed austerity swept across Europe, most prominently in Spain, Greece, Italy, France, and Britain. Chinese citizens defied their government officials in protests against corruption and inequality. Russians rose up against vote fraud and Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule. Japanese expressed outrage over government and power company deception in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
And in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement brought desperately needed attention to the tremendous and ever-growing gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the population – the 99 percent. The Pew Research Center reported in January 2012 that two-thirds of Americans believed that “strong” conflicts existed between rich and poor, a 19 percent increase since Pew’s July 2009 survey. Thirty percent felt there were “very strong conflicts,” a 50 percent jump in two and a half years. This was no surprise given the fact that the net worth of the median American family had dropped 39 percent in three years from $126,400 in 2007 to just $77,300 in 2010, according to the Survey of Financial Resources issued every three years by the Federal Reserve. Those without high school diplomas saw their net worth plummet by 54 percent. In 2012, Joseph Stiglitz calculated that the combined $90 billion wealth of the six Walmart heirs equaled that of the bottom 30 percent of Americans. The movement also raised profound and troubling questions about U.S. priorities in the aftermath of the financial meltdown. Budget cuts, though often ill-conceived, had forced Americans to reconsider the wisdom of the imperial project itself. At a time when unemployment soared, infrastructure decayed, and social services were decimated, could the United States really afford to maintain its vast global empire? Was it really in the U.S. interest to police the planet? Should the United States ever again invade countries that posed no threat to the American people?
The prospects for reform at home also brightened. The movement, harkening back to the workers’ rights, social justice, and anti-war struggles of the 1930s and1960s, ignited the imagination of millions across the country, especially America’s youth. Suffused with a sense of utopian possibilities for the first time in decades, Americans began to ponder what a fair, equitable, and just society might look like. No longer would they tolerate the inordinate power and influence the wealthy exercised in dominating all spheres of public and private life. And the impact of the Occupy movement was felt far beyond its own ranks as its egalitarian and redistributionist sentiments reshaped political discourse in the United States. The broadening link between renewed U.S. activism and democratic strivings on a global scale augured well for the future.
But monumental problems exist that demand attention. Global warming threatens the future life on the planet in ways that only nuclear war had done previously. It is already melting the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, raising ocean levels, causing floods and droughts, expanding the reach of deadly diseases, and ruining global food and water supplies. The United States itself reels from the effects of record temperatures, disastrous hurricanes, floods, forest fires, and droughts rivaling the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Nor has the nuclear threat by any means abated. The danger of nuclear proliferation, even nuclear anarchy, continues. Nuclear arsenals remain far in excess of the megatonnage that experts believe necessary to trigger a life-extinguishing nuclear winter. And, despite Obama’s professed commitment, the prospects for substantial reductions, let alone complete abolition, seem bleak.
In what would presage a remarkable turnaround if it continues, even Barack Obama began showing faint signs of returning to the transformational figure he had appeared to be during the 2008 campaign. Spurred by the Occupy Wall Street movement’s success in getting its message out, continued Republican intransigence, economic stagnation, budgetary constraints, and tumbling approval ratings, by late 2011 Obama appeared to be regaining some of his old dynamism. Traces of populism crept into his speeches. He openly embraced ending the Iraq War and cutting defense spending, even though both developments had been forced upon him. Was there a chance that he might be undergoing a Kennedyesque road-to-Damascus conversion and realizing how poorly American militarism and imperialism had served the American people and the rest of the world? The prospects looked dim, and his Fort Bragg speech and his willingness to sign the extremely dangerous 2012 Defense Authorization bill were not encouraging. What had become apparent that the real hope for changing the United States – for helping it regain its democratic, egalitarian, and revolutionary soul – lay in U.S. citizens joining with rebellious masses everywhere to deploy the lessons of history, their history, the people’s history, which is no longer untold, and demand creation of a world that represents the interests of the overwhelming majority, not that of the wealthiest, greediest, and most powerful. Building such a movement is also the only hope to save American democracy from the clutches of an ever-expanding, ever-encroaching national security state. Such tyranny was a threat that America’s revolutionary leaders understood very well. When a woman asked Benjamin Franklin in 1787, after the Constitutional Convention, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded with words as timely today as when he uttered them, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”