Drones are President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice in the war on terror.
Since taking office, he has ordered over 280 drone strikes in Pakistan alone. That’s more than eight times as many as George W. Bush authorized and doesn’t even count the scores of other unmanned attacks in Somalia and Yemen. When the mainstream media reports these operations, it claims that almost all the people killed are “militants” — members of al-Qaeda or affiliated radical groups.
American policymakers and their advisers are struggling with the question of Pakistan. The last ten years have produced a host of policy reviews, study group reports, congressional hearings and a few academic and more popular books, with more expected as the 2014 deadline for the end of US major combat operations in Afghanistan nears. Much of this literature sees Pakistan as a policy problem and seeks to inform Washington’s debate on how to get Pakistan to do what the United States wants it to do. The literature also reveals the limits of American knowledge and power when it comes to Pakistan.
Conventional wisdom among scholars of the Middle East is that the September 11, 2001 attacks left behind a threatening professional environment. Graduate students and faculty alike speak of hostile infiltrators in their classrooms, inevitably bitter tenure battles and the self-censorship that both can produce. At the same time, in the aftermath of September 11 Middle East scholars anticipated that the perennially spotty job market might improve.
On Tuesday I became a citizen of the United States. Almost ten years ago, I was granted permanent residency. Between my Green Card and my naturalization certificate lies the seemingly endless decade of the “war on terror.”
On President Barack Obama’s second day in office, one of the three executive orders he signed was a commitment to close the detention facility on the naval base at Guantánamo Bay as soon as possible but no later than one year thence. An inter-agency task force headed by White House counsel Greg Craig was established to come up with a plan. The new administration did not anticipate that this step would be controversial because, at the time, closing Guantánamo had bipartisan support, including from former President George W. Bush and Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain. Bagram, the main US-controlled prison in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was being expanded — like the war in that country.
The 9/11 Commission Report is the closest thing in print to an official narrative of the events that gave rise to the “war on terror.” In American political culture, the Commission embodied a trans-partisan act of knowledge creation, handing down a narrative meant to establish treasured national consensus. Also, the Commission acted as a filter trusted to use classified information in a manner that educated the public without jeopardizing national security.
Back in 2004, three years into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 Commission report made its debut to the gushing admiration of the Washington press corps. The report was everything that the mainstream media adores: bipartisan, devoid of divisive finger-pointing, full of conventional wisdom.
Take this pearl: “One of the lessons of the Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most brutal and repressive governments were often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America’s stature and interests.”
Many expected the Obama administration to slow or altogether stop the growth of the national security state that its two predecessor administrations brought into being, but just the opposite has occurred. Prisoners are still held without charge at Guantánamo Bay; the Patriot Act is still the law; the administration has retained the use of rendition and protected state secrets with punitive vigor. President Barack Obama’s Justice Department has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all others combined. In key respects, indeed, the Obama administration has expanded and institutionalized the national security state.
When 19 al-Qaeda hijackers attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the United States faced a strategic dilemma that was unique in magnitude, but not in kind. Terrorists had killed numerous civilians before, in the US and elsewhere, with and without state sponsorship. Al-Qaeda was not the first non-state actor to present no coherent demands alongside its propaganda of the deed or to have no single fixed address. Nor were Americans the first victims of unprovoked terrorist assault to set aside political differences, at least for a time, in search of a unified self-defense.
I was at Guantánamo Bay prison on Halloween. In a ghoulishly fitting coincidence, that was the same day a former child solider was convicted for war crimes for the first time since the end of World War II. Eight years and one day after Omar Khadr arrived at Guantánamo, his military commission case concluded with a plea-bargained sentence of eight more years.
Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was 15 on July 27, 2002, when US forces captured him in an Afghan village following a firefight. His father had sent him to Afghanistan the previous month to translate for an al-Qaeda operative.
Amir Bar-Lev, The Tillman Story (2010).
At 23, Omar Khadr is the youngest of the 176 people still imprisoned at the US military’s detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He has been there for eight years, one third of his life.
On June 14, the Supreme Court buried the prospect of justice for Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who was “extraordinarily rendered” by the United States (via Jordan) to Syria in 2002. Arar was suing the US officials who authorized his secret transfer, without charge, to a country infamous for torture. With the justices’ 22-word statement, the case of Arar v. Ashcroft exited the American legal system and entered the annals of American legal history under the category “grave injustice.” Alphabetically, Arar precedes Dred Scott v. Sanford, which upheld slavery, and Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans. In this case, however, the grave is literal: Arar spent ten months of his year in Syrian custody confined in what he describes as “an underground grave.”
Within 24 hours of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration had announced the identities of the alleged perpetrators, all but one dead, and had largely reconstructed the plot as it understood it. In short order the administration put forth the notion that another such attack was imminent and authorized immediate, aggressive law enforcement and domestic anti-terrorism actions. These activities were justified with statements such as this from Attorney General John Ashcroft: “Today’s terrorists enjoy the benefits of our free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction. They live in our communities—plotting, planning and waiting to kill Americans again.”
The president who campaigned on a pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” has now been compelled to declaim: “We abide by the law of the United States, and we do not torture.” In the closing months of 2005, President George W. Bush has been forced to repeat this undignified denial several times, most recently with the head of the World Health Organization standing beside him, because a dwindling number of people believe him.
Forget for a moment how shamelessly President George W. Bush tried to manipulate Americans’ emotions by invoking September 11 six times during his recent prime-time sales pitch for staying the course in Iraq. There is no need to recall the reports finding no connection between that day’s terrorist attacks and Iraq, and no call for repeating that Iraq was not in danger of becoming a “safe haven” for al-Qaida until after it was invaded. The president doesn’t really claim otherwise.
Just under a week after the collapse of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush issued Military Order 1 to establish principles for the “ detention, treatment and trial of certain non-citizens in the war against terrorism.” The order, promulgated on November 13, 2001, was the first step in the Bush administration’s careful crafting of the term “illegal combatant” to describe a nebulous third category of detainee outside the Geneva Conventions’ clear division of prisoners into either civilians or military personnel. “Illegal combatants” were not to be accorded the protections of either the international laws of war or the laws of the United States.