"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Case For Secret Warfare

It became obvious to even the casual observer that the Obama Administration turned the final corner away from the traditional military strategy of the battle lines and fixed emplacements WWII and the Korean War, away from the classic counter-insurgency warfare begun in Vietnam and honed in Afghanistan, and towards an asymmetrical, amoral warfare against an enemy even more determined and implacable than the Viet Cong – al Qaeda. This transition was not sudden, but progressive.

Image result for images osama bin laden

The second Iraq war represented a new form of insurgency – suicide bombings and IEDs.  Militant groups, so passionately committed to their particular cause that they would blow up civilians and themselves in well-planned attacks, added a troubling dimension to warfare.  Few security installations and perimeters could prevent an innocent-looking civilian from causing hundreds of deaths.

The IED was another canny expression of the new insurgency. While these roadside explosive devices did not kill many troops, their unpredictability added a new level of fear, stress, and fatigue to American troops.  Not only did you know who was going to blow you up, any random piece of street trash could be the bomb that ended your life.

Now in the final stages of the Afghan war, a conflict which is truly regional in nature (no one is sure whether Pakistan is an ally or an enemy), and which has energized a truly international terrorist organization – al-Qaeda – the Obama Administration (and the Bush Administration before it) resorted to drone attacks, ‘extraordinary rendition’, torture, targeted killings, and cyber-warfare.  In the face of an implacable, canny, and ruthless enemy who plays by no rules of engagement recognized by the West (Geneva Convention among other examples), the United States has had to finally give up on its noble ambitions to wage moral war and to get down and dirty. 

Of course torture is forbidden under international law and treaty.  Of course the spiriting away of terror suspects to countries with fewer moral and legal compunctions concerning torture compounds the crime; and of course the collateral damage done by drones piloted by computer geeks in Washington raises prickly moral and ethical issues.  There was certainly more collateral damage done by the B-52s in Nixon’s horrific Rolling Thunder campaigns in Vietnam, but somehow when pilotless model airplanes do the killing, it seems somehow a great erosion of American values.

Image result for images rolling thunder vietnam war

At the same time, in this age of asymmetrical warfare against an enemy who does not play by the rules and for whom the most heinous war crime possible in American law – the wanton, deliberate murder of innocent civilians – is not only acceptable but necessary to show resolve and purpose, the United States has to become less principled and more ruthless.

There are a number of philosopher warriors who have even speculated that war might actually become less frequent if there were no rules of engagement, no Geneva Convention, no war crime tribunals.  If all the stops are pulled and war becomes truly savage and unrestrained, we might just keep our finger off the trigger.

In any case, any President must walk a fine line between the old, principled, moral strategies of warfare and the new realities of terrorism.  Obama dismissed the ethical conundrum of drone attacks and viewed them as necessary and efficient (reducing American casualties, always the first principle of  modern US warfare).  It is likely that the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty were probable, and more commentators are speaking out publicly about the importance of torture within the current terrorist environment. The targeted killings (assassinations) of al-Qaeda and Taliban figures from bin Laden on down have been considered triumphs of US military prowess, and are no longer considered murders.

Cyber-warfare in which an enemy’s entire electrical grid is brought down, or reservoirs emptied is now considered legitimate.  Current sanctions against Iran are obviously taking their toll, but the ayatollahs are still in power and the country is proceeding with its nuclear arms program.  Why not raise the ante and really give the civilian population something to think about?

Jack Goldsmith writing in the Washington Post (2.5.13) agrees and takes the argument one step further.  Right now, he says, all of these new US military strategies are still largely ad hoc – that is they have not been codified in a new, official Pentagon strategy, and sees that movement in this direction has already begun:
Signs of the new war are all around us. Late Monday a Justice Department "white paper" outlining the president’s power to kill U.S. citizens associated with al-Qaeda was leaked to the public. Since the beginning of the year, U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen have killed dozens of terrorists, and the government is planning a drone base in North Africa to surveil, and perhaps later attack, Islamist militants in the region. We have also recently learned that the Pentagon is ramping up its offensive cyber-capabilities and that government lawyers have secretly concluded that the president has "broad power" to order preemptive cyberstrikes.
Congress of course has a role to play.
Outside the surveillance context, Congress as a body has not debated or approved the means or ends of secret warfare (except, perhaps, through appropriations)…In short, executive-branch decisions since 2001 have led the nation to a new type of war against new enemies on a new battlefield without focused national debate, deliberate congressional approval or real judicial review.
The framework statute should include a rethinking of the covert-action regime that was not designed for its current role. It should include special-operations activities within that regime. The statute should specify the means by which the president must keep the public informed about his secret wartime activities, including the legal basis for his actions. And it should have a sunset provision to force Congress to debate and renew the framework, in light of experience, after a set number of years. Whatever its contents, the proposed framework statute would be a focal point to debate and could legitimize— or not — the new type of war.
This is laudable and under our political system, necessary; but whether codified, legalized, or formally institutionalized, American warfare must change.  No one believes any more that America holds a moral high ground.  Our war in Iraq dispelled that idea once and for all.  The cracking and near failure of our financial system which we trumpeted to the world as the best expression of free market money flow tarnished our economic image.  The gridlock of our political system shows that democracy has more warts, blemishes, and infirmities than we were ever willing to admit.  Perhaps, having been knocked down and blooded a bit, we can finally get rid of  idealistic notions of American exceptionalism and finally become Kissingerian and Machiavellian.

1 comment:

  1. "in this age of asymmetrical warfare against an enemy who does not play by the rules and for whom the most heinous war crime possible in American law – the wanton, deliberate murder of innocent civilians – is not only acceptable but necessary to show resolve and purpose, the United States has to become less principled and more ruthless."
    Such a wise words!
    Thanks for this post!


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