Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Obama’s “Zig and Zaging”: How He Has Fought Terrorism Abroad vs. The Bush Administration



     President Obama’s missteps recently involving the Syrian civil war have given birth to a new beltway phrase:  zig and zag.  Many pundits have been referring to the zigs and zags Obama has made when addressing Syria such as his original “red line” declaration, the necessity of force, and then asking for a vote in Congress.  In a recent article published by The Atlantic, author ­­­­David Rohde examines if Syria represents Obama’s attempts to pivot away from the Middle East once and for all.  Rohde writes, “It started as ‘a new beginning’ and ended as ‘America is not the world’s policeman.’”  Rohde goes on to note “Between President Barack Obama’s historic 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo to his address to the American people on Syria last week, Obama has zigged and zagged on Mideast policy, angering supporters and detractors alike… but he has stuck to a clear pattern: reduce American engagement, defer to regional players and rely on covert operations to counter terrorism.”
     Obama campaigned in 2008 to end our conflicts abroad and instilled confidence in the American people that he was not going to start another.  Yet Obama had a political dilemma:  he did not want to seem too dovish to the right as previous administrations had been perceived, and he wanted to stay true to his base and the American people by ending unpopular overseas conflicts.  The Bush Administration went after terrorism hard post-9/11.  Obama needed to continue this fight but not in the same manner as President Bush.  In many ways, while Obama's overall actions and strategies were far different from the previous administration's, his way of conducting how he carried these polices out was, in fact, very similar.
     One of the first policies President Obama acted on was beefing up American drone strikes in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan.  President Bush and many Neoconservative hawks utilized foot soldiers rather than unmanned drones.  Obama's new drone policy was his chief method of combating terror abroad and attempting to cripple the forces of al-Qaeda.  One of the international arguments against the use of drones is that they allow one to inflict mass damage without a reciprocal threat.  In other words, in typical warfare, two sides are engaged on the same battlefield putting them on equal footing.  With drones, an operator can sit safely thousands of miles away while the enemy is in mortal danger and cannot inflict the same damage.  
     The next international furor over drones came over the issue of state sovereignty.  The United States took out many targets or "enemy combatants" in Pakistan.  While the US is allied with Pakistan (under very sketchy relations) we did not seek their permission to conduct those targeted strikes, thus violating their sovereignty.  Pakistan was not pleased after the raid which killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani compound because the US took action without consulting them first (the US was essentially afraid that if they alerted the Pakistani government that we had actionable intelligence of the whereabouts of bin Laden, the Pakistanis would have tipped bin Laden off.)
        President Obama has virtually been ordering the assassinations of certain members of al-Qaeda for the greater good of the American people and the War on Terror.  According to a paper published by the Brookings Institution called Tools and Tradeoffs: Confronting U.S. Citizen Terrorist Suspects Abroad, the Obama Administration "conducted over 100 attacks in 2010 and 70 in 2011 (the number grew again to over 100 in 2012, though more than half of these were in Yemen)."
     The actions of the Obama Administration's drone program hit mainstream America when it was discovered it was targeting American citizens who had taken up arms against the US.  Specifically, the United States ordered a strike against an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki, a high profile member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP.  Awlaki was killed in 2011.       
     Much like the justification of the Bush Administration's use of waterboarding to gain "actionable intelligence" and detaining of combatants without Due Process, the Obama's Justice Department issued a white paper justifying the use of drones and force against Americans overseas.  In the white paper, there were three prongs to the Administration's use of force: 1) the proposed target posed an imminent threat against the US; 2) capture of this individual is unfeasible, and, 3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law or war principles.  The third prong is the most enigmatic given the number of strikes having been conducted and the amount of civilian deaths or "collateral damage" that is on the hands of the Administration and Obama himself (Obama was personally an active participant in the Awlaki strike and gave the final go ahead.)  The DOJ's white paper also makes reference to AUMF or the Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force stemming from the 9/11 attacks.  The DOJ states the US must do what is necessary to protect citizens from "an armed conflict with al-Qaeda."  
     Another striking similarity to the Bush Administration's handling of the War on Terror is the issue of Due Process.  By not giving these American citizens a fair trial and simply "assassinating" them, their right of Due Process afforded to them by the Fifth Amendment is being violated as well as their Fourth Amendment rights guarding against illegal searches and seizures.  When citizens travel abroad, these rights travel with them but it is the feeling of the Administration that "'the realities of combat’ render certain uses of force ‘necessary and appropriate,’ including force against U.S citizens who have joined enemy forces in the armed conflict against the United States and whose activities pose an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States-and ‘due process analysis need not blink at those realities.’  These same realities must also be considered in assessing ‘the burdens the Government would face in proving greater processes to a member of enemy forces.”
      There were a few famous cases during the Bush years denying Due Process, one being Hamdi v. Rumsfeld in which an American citizen-Hamdi was captured by American troops in Afghanistan.  American intelligence discovered Mr. Hamdi was actually Osama bin Laden's personal driver.  He was then transferred to the US and detained in a naval base with no access to a lawyer or trial.  The Administration held that he was an enemy combatant and in times of war he could be detained without Due Process until the conflict was resolved-much as a World War II POW.  The Supreme Court ruled that Hamdi was an American citizen and his right to Due Process could not be denied-a huge blow to the Bush Administration.  Another similar case was that of John Walker Lindh, an American citizen "unlawfully" detained by the US after being captured by soldiers.  Mr. Lindh had joined the Taliban and eventually pled guilty to charges in a US court.  
     There are still cases pending in the United Stated judicial system against the Obama Administration's use of drones and unlawful deaths associated with them such as the accidental killing of Awlaki's son who was killed by a strike in which he was not the target of.  The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the use of drones in this Constitutional capacity but it may be helpful to look back at the Bush Administration's rules for foresight.
     Obama has been thought by some to be too dovish in international matters, not willing to pull the trigger.  As in Libya, Egypt (both times), and Syria, he has waited for the game to play out.  However, to hush his opponents, he has also stated that he is not afraid to use military force when necessary especially against Iran in their quest for obtaining operational nuclear weapons.  The current situation in Syria may certainly, as Rohde indicates, be the last straw for Obama in the Middle East and may be implementing an exit strategy.  This would be complicated from the War on Terror aspect since al-Qaeda has resurged in the region.  The underlying fact is that, for the most part, Obama's War on Terror has been secret and covert, while Bush's was open to the public in a sense.  The Neoconservative rhetoric was boots on the ground, instill a wedge in Islam, and create a long-lasting partnership with an American-friendly ally in an increasingly anti-American region.  John McCain had stated over a year ago that he wanted troops on the ground in Syria.  This was not an option for Obama because it would have directly violated his campaign pledges.  Instead, he has relied heavily on the use of drones, and Special Forces as seen with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  Obama has also determined that these terrorists are too dangerous to pursue and they would be better off being killed by unmanned aircraft than sacrificing human capital (troops) to capture them.  Also, the major dilemma then-which the Bush Administration experienced firsthand-is once captured, where do we detain these terrorists?  How are they tried?  Are they war criminals or are they to be litigated in a civilian court?
     When it comes to the use of drones and "targeted strikes," the Obama Administration is not messing around especially when it comes to dangerous individuals such as Ibrahim al-Asiri, a prominent member of AQAP.  He is a talented young bomb maker utilizing revolutionary tactics making detection even more difficult.  He build the bomb used by the "underwear bomber," and was responsible for the bombs found in Yemen being shipped in printers to the US by plane.  The Administration feels these individuals are so dangerous, that capture is "unfeasible and therefore should be targeted." 
     Granted, the surge of troops in Iraq authorized by President Bush worked and was emulated by Obama in Afghanistan, but these wars continued to drag on and grow increasingly unpopular for the American people.  In 2008, John McCain stated he would keep troops in Iraq and we could even be occupying the nation for 100 years.  For the Obama Administration, it is much more convenient to beef up the drone program for the reasons previously stated.  Plus, the war on terror is not directly on the minds of Americans.  Through covert action, Obama has been able to fight the War on Terror and Americans are virtually ignorant to how the war is being conducted.
     The two Administrations had stark differences in their beliefs on conducting the War on Terror but they each used similar methods in fighting it.  President Obama, as a member of the Illinois and United States Senate, strongly believed in human rights issues and held conflicting opinions to those he has now.  Obviously everything changes once one is elected to the Executive Office but there is no question that some of these tactics are shady.  It must be duly noted that the War on Terror is unlike any war fought in history given the "grassroots," underground, guerrilla tactics of proxies such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban but do these circumstances justify Obama's (or even to some degree Bush's) conduct?  
                

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