Donald Trump’s America

Donald Trump’s America


Howard Adelman

There is an extreme irony in watching Barack Obama leave power and be succeeded by The Donald, who has graduated from being Trump Two Two to being Trump Three Three Three. His self-deceit is so great that he must now reassure himself by repeating his messages no longer just twice, but three times. Trump won the presidency in good part by appealing to identity politics, not the identity politics of minorities who feel discriminated against, but the identity politics of a majority at the cusp of becoming a minority at the same time as their sense of personal identity and identification with the major direction of their nation dissolved before their very eyes. Trump did produce a revolution. He turned the heads of those who were drowning in nostalgia from looking at the receding past to looking for a chimera in the future. At the same time, he made those who strived to bring about a new future, in the words of Michael Brenner, look backwards for comfort and consolation. In terms of nostalgia, the positions of the regressives and the progressives have been inverted.

After Election Day, President Barack Obama expressed the hope that once Donald Trump became President, he would moderate his behaviour. Hope can curse one with mindblindness. But Trump proves again and again that he is deeply ethically challenged with an, as yet, inexplicable admiration for the authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. A New Yorker columnist quipped that the Donald was an advocate of “Peronism on the Potomac” as well as being a “xenophobic populist.” He has appointed cabinet members demonstrably unqualified for their positions – Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a critic of public education and an ignorant one at that; Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier charged with running the Environmental Protection Agency; Steven Mnuchin, one of five Goldman Sachs alumni appointed by Trump to the government coming from a company he once pointed to as a major source of the swamp in Washington. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is inexperienced, irrational, unstable, thin skinned, but with a deep conviction that he knows something better than anyone else, yet he shows little interest in reading or in the process of policy formation. And he often appears unhinged, as when he appeared before the American intelligence community yesterday. More and more, he presents himself as a clear and present danger to democratic government. ­

In yesterday’s Torah study group, as the rabbi pointed out, we had a rare confluence when the text being studied directly spoke to the contemporary situation, so I have an opportunity to marry biblical commentary to contemporary politics. The verse reads as follows:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)

When the text reads, “a new king,” does it mean just a new person taking the throne of Egypt (Trump as a democratically elected monarch) or does it mean a king at the beginning of a new line of succession, neither Democrat or Republican at heart? Or perhaps it means a new kind of king. Or all three! In the biblical text, a new line of succession is at least suggested because of the omission of any reference to forebears. After all, a king’s legitimacy depended in good part on a long inheritance line. Most commentators suggest that what took place was a dynastic change, and, further, and even more importantly, a change that discarded old patterns of behaviour and initiated new and even revolutionary ones.

This is also suggested by the way the new Egyptian king took power. He arose over Egypt – עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם. It is one thing to rule over Egypt. It is quite another to rise to power “over” Egypt, which suggests a palace coup or a revolt. Third, one manifestation of this generic change is what the king does with his power. How does he spend the government treasury – on pyramids? Or on public works or on the military? This new king spent the Egyptian treasury on the military and used the Hebrews as slaves to build new cities for stores or supplies, miskenoth –מִסְכְּנוֹת֙.

וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־ רַעַמְסֵֽס: And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. (Exodus 1:11)

See also 1 Kings 9:19; 2 Chronicles 8:4, 8:6, 16:4 and 17:12. The last makes clear that a store “city” is a fortress.

There is a fourth factor defining the new character of a ruler – who the ruler points to as the enemies of the state. In this case, the text is explicitly clear. It is the Israelites who are defined not only as the Other, but the proliferating Other, the threatening Other, the Other which can act as a Fifth Column for Egypt’s external enemies. However, the major emphasis is a fifth factor. This king “knew not Joseph.” It could simply mean that the new king had not been acquainted with Egyptian history and with Joseph’s role in that history. Not a very plausible conclusion since the generation of Joseph had just died off.

There is a much more plausible account that can connect the different strands of legitimization together. Joseph was not only a Vizier who saved Egypt through a period of famine by developing a system for collecting and storing food in the good times and then a system for distributing that food in the bad times. But he did something else as well. First, he operated a welfare state collecting the wealth of society so that all could be fed. He then exchanged bread for the livestock of the inhabitants. (Genesis :47:17) The people lost their flocks and their herds. Then when the people ran out of animals, they exchanged their land for food. (47:19) Further, they then worked the land in return for a percentage of the produce giving Pharaoh a fifth of everything they produced. 20% of gross sales, not just 20% of profits went to Pharaoh. Joseph had either converted a country of freeholders into a feudal state or converted a decentralized feudal country into a centralized collectivist economy. Further, he moved the people into cities and lauded old Jewish values which gave priority to the city, to civilization, but, in the process, probably created a mass of discontented Egyptians who likely lived just above the poverty line in an alien environment they detested. They longed for the old Egypt rooted in the banks of the Nile where rituals were attuned with the annual floods.

It is hard to believe that the new king would not know what Joseph had done. It is far more likely that the new pharaoh (initially just a king) knew precisely what Joseph had done and had rallied the ex-Egyptian herders and shepherds and landowners to overthrow the old dynasty precisely because of resentment over their new status as serfs or urbanized poor. What then could “he knew not Joseph” mean? At the very least, it meant that the new king of Egypt created a competing narrative to the one in which Joseph saved Egypt, saved the state, saved the establishment in power, but, in the new version, did so for the benefit of those in power and at the cost of the traditional way of life of the Egyptians. In the new version, Joseph and his tribe could be blamed for destroying the old social order. Since they were foreigners, they were doubly suspect.

With the background of the biblical text, look more closely at Trump’s inaugural speech. Instead of a record and narrative of survival from the threat of drought, (from the Great Recession of 2008), Trump describes a state of carnage. Not in 2007, but in 2017, ten years later. And he began, not by acknowledging traditions, not by acknowledging past accomplishments, not even by pointing to the constitution of the United States as the source of legitimation for a new ruler. “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” not to the constitution or even the flag.

The expression, “We the people,” is taken to its populist extreme. “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.” That promise was betrayed, not just by the previous Democratic regime, but by Republicans as well. These Washington politicians all betrayed their country and allowed it to fall into decay, into crime, into impoverishment of a whole swath of Americans. The promise, the covenant with the people of America, had been broken. It is time to restore power to the people preached Donald Trump.

As Trump said, inauguration day did not just mean the peaceful transition from one governing group to another. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Can you not just hear the new king of Egypt standing on the balcony of his palace and asserting that for too long, a small group in Thebes reaped the rewards while the people bore the costs, bore the burdens. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” The jobs left and the factories closed. The animal herds disappeared and you the people were forced to work the land, no longer for yourselves, but to enrich those in power with the taxes imposed upon you.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” Trump pronounced a new beginning. “All change starts right here and right now.” This is not 2017 of the Common Era, but year 1 of the Trump Era, “the likes of which the world has never seen before.” “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (my italics) That is Trump Two Two speaking in his inaugural address. When he says only America, he means only me, for he sees himself as the embodiment of the American spirit. Unfortunately, in the history of politics, the phenomenon of demagoguery has been seen too often before. “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This is precisely the definition of a demagogue, “a leader championing the cause of the common people,” and doing so by distortions and outright lies, using false claims and even falser promises. One does not have to refer to Adolph Hitler and his promise to make Germany a great world power or Benito Mussolini’s promise to return Italy to the great and glorious days of the Roman Empire. Demagoguery is as much part of American tradition as the American constitution. Think of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, Theodore Bilbo, twice Governor of Mississippi and later a U.S. Senator (“Listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me, I’ll give you a lesson in history” – a camp song I learned as a kid), Father Coughlin with his radio sermons in the dirty thirties, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. The bogey men may shift, but the elites are usually controlled by and/or in service to an unworthy and threatening group –  Blacks, Jews, Reds. The enemy shifts and may be Mexicans and Muslims, but the construction of an enemy alien never does. James Fenimore Cooper, in his 1838 essay “On Demagogues,” recognized the danger rooted in the deep populist strain of American politics. “The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting (my italics) a deep devotion to the interests of the people.”

The elements are always the same. The enemy is an elite and the demagogue opposes the elite in the name of the people with whom he establishes a visceral rather than cognitive connection rooted in agreements over policies. A demagogue connects to the people by appealing to their fears and hatreds and by pointing to the dreams and hopes that they once had and claims that they had been dashed by a powerful cabal. The new deliverer is ostensibly opposed both to that elite and the collectivities it serves. But the motivation is always the same – the narcissistic urges of all demagogues, their own inflated sense of self, their own gargantuan ambitions, and their disrespect for the norms of truth, the norms of decency, the norms of conduct and, in the end, the norms established by the rule of law.  Donald Trump is a demagogue, not only because he is the best expression of all these characteristics, but because he even disdains his own party as an institution through which he connects with the people. His connection is direct. “What truly matters is not which party controls government, but whether the government is controlled by the people.”

It is one thing in a democracy to assert that a government must be responsible to and for the people and be accountable to them. It is quite another to (falsely) claim that government is controlled by the people. It is not. It never has been. It never will be. And demagogues are the only ones who utter such a blatant lie. Plato declared that any demagogue once he gains power cannot help but drift towards tyranny. Aristotle insisted that the most dangerous form of government was one in which the people and not the law have supreme power, a false claim always made by demagogues to seize power.

The trajectory is horrific to watch. Traditions and norms that took centuries to build are destroyed in only a few years. As the opposition takes to the streets in larger and larger numbers, the new “leader” insists that order demands a sacrifice of a degree of freedom. Rule can only be exercised with a strong hand. And Trump has openly stated that he admires “order and strength” – and military parades. But, as Polybius once pointed out, the decay had set in much earlier, for without that decay, a demagogue could not have achieved power in the first place. But whatever the preparation, the demagogic storm seems to come out of the blue.  Like Cleon, who brought Athenian democracy to its knees, Donald Trump has entered the fray as a political tsunami. And what he says means precisely the opposite.

“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Translation – I am the only one that can take you to the promised land. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And attendees at the inaugural time and again applauded these words of pure demagoguery.

But the proof text came in one sentence, not the plethora of lies that rewrote history and misrepresented America’s past accomplishments and current success, though these seemed to be the preoccupation of most of the media. Donald Trump said, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The Bible says no such thing. It is a tale of divisions. And there are divisions in interpreting those divisions. Take the text with which we started.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The instant response of Jews in both the ancient and the modern world has been to pray for the welfare of the government of whatever country Jews lived in, even when the leadership of that country would turn out to be bad for the Jews as well as everyone else. In every prayer book of whatever denomination and whatever country, the Jews express loyalty to the country in which they live through a prayer, most often not in Hebrew, but in the language of that country.

When the new king arose over Egypt, one can imagine the Israelites praying for the new government, asking everyone to give him a chance and let him prove himself. But how they said it, what they said and why they said it varied. Jeremiah (29:4-7), who offered perhaps the first advice to pray for the welfare of the existing government, advised, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But the advice was strictly qualified. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie.”

Rabbi Chanina bar Chama of Babylon, one of the great Talmudic sages and interpreters of the Mishna who also, with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, went in person to pledge loyalty to the Roman government in Caesarea, in his version of the prayer for the welfare of the government, included a Hobbesian reason: “if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.” Without government, all would be anarchy and daily life would be a tooth-and-claw existence. This was the complement to the false prophet warning, the fear of the mob, of the populace, for without government (good or bad) and order, all would be chaos.

If Jeremiah feared false prophets as leaders, if he feared demagogues, and Chanina feared the irrationality of the masses, other prayers were far more circumspect, perhaps because they feared the wrath of the government turning against them. The fears are not explicitly expressed, but quotes are lifted from psalms which seem benign enough until you read the quote in the full context of the whole psalm. The allusion to the fears is located in those psalms rather than in the prayers themselves.

Many contemporary prayers for the welfare of the state leave out explicitly or even by implication any reference to fears. I would guess that just before the Inquisition, Jews did so as well. The prayer for the welfare of the government is unabashed. This is true of our prayer book in our synagogue which was our rabbi’s tweak of the older prayer in the siddur, The Gates of Prayer (1975). In Siddur Pirchei Kodesh (2011), our current Holy Blossom Temple Reform prayer book (in the U.S. Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, 2007), the prayer for the welfare of the country is offered without either an allusion to or certainly any expression and recognition of a danger. Like most American prayers (our rabbi is from Chicago), the prayer is usually of the flavour that asks God to make those leaders the best that they can be. There is no expression that they may turn out to be the worst possible.

Should we pray for Donald Trump and his government, pray that God make him and his government the best that it can be? Or do we recognize the real dangers and pray for the collapse of that government sooner rather than later given its obvious inherent dangers?

I think readers know where I stand.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Obama 17. Drones, Decisions, Deaths and Politics 24.02.13

This analysis is divided into two sections, a short section briefly describing the historical background to the drone program, what drones are and what they can do. The second section goes into the decision process about their use, including the objectives of the program, the strategy and tactics for their deployment and the process of implementation.
In the next Obama blog (I may write on the Academy Awards being presented tonight), I will explore what the drone program has accomplished in terms of the ratio of militant/civilian deaths, the military and political results. On the following day, I will discuss the normative debate. If I seem to be droning on about drones for far too long, my explanation is that the program offers a unique window into understanding Barack Obama. Further, the drone program is a game changer in the way wars will be fought in the future and the nature of warfare.

A. Empirical Background

1. The Equipment

A drone is an unmanned (not unwomanned) aerial vehicle (UAV). It along with the whole system — the ground control and links — is called an unmanned aircraft system (UAS); the vehicle itself is popularly called a drone. A drone is classed as an aircraft and not a rocket because, though lacking a pilot aboard, it can be flown remotely by a pilot based in the United States over Somalia or Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan and perhaps soon over Nigeria targeting Boko Haram. Evidently, autonomous control is even replacing the pilots based in the United States.

Contrary to those who believe drones are a new invention that will revolutionize war, their employment dates back a century to almost the same period that piloted aircraft have been used in warfare. But the big impetus to the development of UAV took place when Gary Power’s secret U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 though Israel developed the first modern UAVs for combat as well as surveillance and decoys after the Yom Kippur War. Israel successfully deployed them to neutralize the Syrian air defence system in the 1982 Lebanese War. By the end of the eighties, Israel had developed drones with stealth capability and three dimensional jet steering controls.

America has 1271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies working on counter-terrorism. The most common drones used for attack purposes by the USA, specifically to kill enemy `terrorists`, are predators equipped with Hellfire or Tomahawk missiles that have been employed since 2001. If they are shot down, there is no captured pilot that can be used to embarrass the USA as in the case of Gary Powers. They are used in countries that are supposedly friendly and usually without permission such as Pakistan, or in countries deemed unfriendly and in which there is no declared state of war such as Yemen or Somalia.

Since piloted aircraft have been used for all the above purposes, why have drones attracted such a raucous debate about the ethics and legality of their use? The main issue has been what is normally called collateral damage or the number of civilians killed as bystanders. Since drones are piloted remotely and the pilots on the ground in the United Sates can probably see the targets even better than in manned aircraft, it is difficult to understand why questions of law or ethics differ whether the vehicle is piloted or not. When we get to these normative issues we will have to raise questions of whether there is a distinction that affects the ethical debate, but it seems very evident that the ethical and legal issues have not been nearly as raucous over piloted attacks compared to when unmanned aircraft are used.

It reminds me of the fury aroused when spontaneous refugee claimants arrive by sea on Canadian shores. Such an incident occurred twice in one year. On the second occasion, a special session of Parliament was convened in the summer for the second time since Confederation to debate the issue. Yet the same numbers arriving weekly at Pearson airport warrant little notice or comment. I suggest that the fury over the ethical, legal and efficacy issues concerning drones is akin to that debate, aroused more by how drones are perceived rather than what they actually are and do.

I think two factors are in play. There is the sense that since drones do not have pilots on board, they are less perceptive and discriminatory. Second, there is a sense of unfairness. Though terrorists rarely have access to piloted aircraft unless they hijack one, and therefore the battlefield is asymmetrical, that is not the unfairness considered. It is the risk factor. The battle seems to challenge the very basic picture of warfare when the laws and ethics with respect to the conduct of war began to be developed. The mediaeval period presumed each side risked its military soldiers in combat and the rules of risk to combatants and non-combatants were developed in that context. Many of these questions were first raised over Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, most recently and most extensively over the last Gaza War. The analysis was then extended to the analysis of America`s use of drones in Pakistan.

The decibel rate over the issue has been raised significantly since Obama was first elected. Certainly, Obama has made the use of drones a priority. Three days after his first inauguration he authorized drone strikes against targets in both South and North Waziristan and elevated the number and frequency of strikes afterwards.

At least three factors may explain the rise in the decibel rate of voices opposed to drone strikes. First, Obama`s election in 2008 followed a July 2007 release by the joint council of the 16 American intelligence agencies of the National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that al Qaeda had undergone a resurgence, and, further, that its ability to attack the American heartland had also grown since they enjoyed a safe haven in Pakistan`s Tribal Areas. The terrorists who perpetrated the 7 July 2005 attacks in London, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, had been trained there. So had the plotters who planned to use liquid explosives to bring down seven American and Canadian passenger jets flying out of Heathrow Airport. The planned bombing of a US air force base in Ramstein, Germany had been undertaken by three militants trained in the Tribal areas. However, not only had planned attacks in Europe increased, but so had the use of the Tribal areas in fighting the war in Afghanistan. Increasingly, attacks were also aimed at cities in Pakistan.

Second, when the Bush administration decided to respond with a raid by Navy Seals in September 2008, the infiltration was a public relations disaster. The vast majority of those killed were women and children, not militants. Pakistan objected vehemently to the infringement on its sovereignty. Third, Obama fought his first election on a foreign policy that the good war, Afghanistan, had been neglected to fight the bad war, Iraq. Fourth, Obama came into office determined to fight the Afghanistan war harder and smarter, and to use drones in a more effective manner.

2. Use

In addition to civilian uses for such purposes as surveillance and rescue operations, there are a wide variety of military drones classified according to their function: as targets and decoys for military practice; for spying and reconnaissance; for combat; and for logistics. (The drone considered for use in the bin Laden mission was neither a rocket or missile – often confused and called a drone – or one designed to drop a bomb, but a logistics drone intended to deliver an explosive device to bin Laden’s garden where he walked off his rooms in the compound on the third floor.) Drones are pilotless aircraft that fly using aerodynamic lift and can be recoverable or expendable. Missiles and rockets use a different propulsion system, are the weapons themselves and are not recoverable.

3. Reach

Drones vary in size, the height at which they fly, their speed, range and their carrying capacity. A small hand-held drone usually flies at a height of up to 2000ft. with a 2 km. range. Tactical drones fly at just under 20,000 ft. with about a 100 mile range. Other drones fly at over 30,000 feet and can fly anywhere at speeds which can exceed Mach 5. They come in a wide number of varieties and combinations. They also have a wide variety of names, some technical – RQ-3 and RQ -4 and MQ 1C – and others more colloquial – Wasp, Gnat, Hawk, Reaper, Predator Sentinel, Shadow, Dark Star, Dragon Eye, Raven, and various kinds of Eagles.

B. The Decision Frame

John Brennan, former Deputy Director of the CIA, President Obama`s policy adviser on counter terrorism during the last administration, and current Director of the CIA, went on a public campaign in 2011 and 2012 to defend Obama`s strategy and tactics in the use of drones. On 29 June, 2011 he gave an account of the “Obama Administration Counterterrorism Strategy” at Johns Hopkins University`s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. On 30 April 2012, he gave a presentation on “The Efficacy and Ethics of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy” at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. There were numerous other talks before, between and after. After wading through the various talks, the messages seem to be consistent.
After Bennan’s Woodrow Wilson Center talk, Leanne Erdberg of the State Department asked Brennan about the appropriate standards and processes used in making decisions. In asking the question, two separate frames were interwoven, the decisions to ensure that a drone attack would be efficacious and the standards for so deciding, and the decision frame for ensuring that the appropriate normative standards were followed. The second dimension of her question begged the question for it presumed that in making the decision to assassinate militants, the decision-makers were acting as prosecutors, judges and juries.
John Brennan addressed the presumption of the second dimension in her question. “We’re not carrying out these actions to retaliate for past transgressions. We are not a court, we’re not trying to determine guilt or innocence, and then carry out a strike in retaliation.” The decision makers were not a judge and jury assessing past activities. That is accurate. But they were required to apply normative standards to their analysis. I will deal with the extent to which they did so in a subsequent blog – probably on Wednesday. Brennan concentrated on the primary self-defence objective. “We’re trying to do is prevent the loss of lives through terrorist attacks.”
“We see a threat developing, we follow it very carefully, we identify the individuals who are responsible for allowing that plot and that plan to go forward, and then we make a determination about whether or not we have the solid intelligence base.” The standards are about the quality of the evidence and the efficaciousness of any plan in accomplishing its goals. In the process, Brennan also stated that they examine various options, not only in terms of efficaciousness and the solid quality of evidence, but in terms of the normative principle of “last resort” and “discrimination”. “We only decide to take that action if there is no other option available, if there is not the option of capture, if the local government will not take action, if we cannot do something that will prevent that attack from taking place, and the only available option is taking that individual off of the battlefield, and we’re going to do it in a way that gives us the confidence that we are not going to, in fact, inflict collateral damage.” In a subsequent blog on norms, I will suggest that the principle of last resort has not played a significant part in the decision-making and will examine the extent to which the principle of discrimination has. Today I will simply concentrate on the issues of efficaciousness that will be completed in my next blog that discusses results.
1. Objectives

In August 2007, when running for president, Obama articulated his Afghan “good war” versus Iraq War as “bad war” overview. The war in Iraq was to be brought to a responsible end. Efforts would be refocused on “the war that has to be won,” the war against al-Qaeda, particularly in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Note that this was but one dimension of the Afghan War. What about the aim of leaving behind in Afghanistan a functioning democratic state that protected the human rights of all its citizens? By omission, that goal had been abandoned. Fine, if it could be accomplished. But the goal of the Afghan War was to defeat al Qaeda.

2. Strategy

How was that to be accomplished? As described by CIA Director Michael Hayden on 13 November 2008, through a drone program intended to make “a safe haven feel less safe, to keep the leadership guessing and preoccupied with defense and survival rather than offensive planning and to sew doubts about allies, methods, plans and effectiveness, Who were the spies who gave away their locations.”

As Luiza Savage summed it up in her article, “Obama the hawk” in Macleans Magazine (8 November 2011), Obama “is not waterboarding enemy prisoners who have been removed from the battlefield; he is killing them where they stand.”…”The last decade was dominated by the Bush administration’s ‘shock and awe’ display of U.S. military might, a swagger that descended into a ‘long war’ of occupation and nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq that left thousands of Americans dead and wounded, and cost upward of a trillion dollars. But cold, calculating and nimble, Obama has turned a new page on the projection of American power. His emphasis on technology, intelligence, and leaning on allies is leaving a smaller and less costly U.S. military footprint on the globe, but one that is proving to be just as lethal to its adversaries.” The policy is open and unequivocal. In Brennan’s words, “The United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”

Is the goal killing rather than capturing enemies or killing only if capture is unfeasible? Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had signed executive orders banning assassinations of political leaders. Yet Obama did precisely that with bin Laden. Yet there was virtually no debate about that outcome. The focus of discussion over Zero Dark Thirty was on the torture issue. I only ran across the rare article that raised a question about whether the killing was intended and whether alternatives were considered. Ronald Reagan had set a precedent when he resurrected targeted killing of enemies when he attacked Gaddafi`s residence in 1986 after the Libyans bombed a German bar frequented by US military personnel. After Clinton learned of the agents behind the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he ordered a cruise missile attack against an al Qaeda base.

However, John Brennan insisted that “one of the considerations that we go through is the feasibility of capture. We would prefer to get these individuals so that they can be captured. Working with local governments, what we like to be able to do is provide them the intelligence that they can get the individuals, so it doesn’t have to be U.S. forces that are going on the ground in certain areas. But if it’s not feasible, either because it’s too risky from the standpoint of forces or the government doesn’t have the will or the ability to do it, then we make a determination whether or not the significance of the threat that the person poses requires us to take action, so that we’re able to mitigate the threat that they pose. I mean, these are individuals that could be involved in a very active plot, and if it is allowed to continue, you know, it could result in attacks either in Yemen against the U.S. embassy, or here in the homeland that could kill, you know, dozens if not hundreds of people. So what we always want to do, though, is look at whether or not there is an option to get this person and bring them to justice somehow for intelligence collection purposes, as well as to try them for their crimes.” (Woodrow Wilson talk)

I was incredulous. Did they really weigh whether capture was feasible first? Even when they sent in the Seal Team to get bin Laden, there was no suggestion that the possibility of capture had been considered and instructions along that line were given. Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, had been directed by President Obama to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. But when Michael Morrell, the CIA director, commented on the film, he never corrected the film makers on this score. In reading various accounts of the decision-making process, I never had the impression that capture was considered as a serious option.

Further, the discussion of capture seemed to be contingent on trusting local regimes and presuming they were leak-proof. Quite aside from the leakage, I did not get the impression that Obama seriously considered working with allies, namely Pakistan over using drones. Obama had made it clear that he did not trust Pakistan and was unwilling to cooperate with them. If Obama “had actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, including in Pakistan, he would act to protect the American people” and he did so by killing them not by trying to capture them. So to say that they deliberate on whether capture is feasible or not seems to me equivalent to saying that they deliberate on whether there might be divine intervention so they do not have to send out a kill order. Finally, when Brennan says that we consider the option of bringing them to justice, this contradicted his other assertion that the whole drone program was defensive and engaged in stopping future attacks, not punishing for past activities.

Brennan described the process at the Woodrow Wilson Center: “We review the most up-to-date intelligence, drawing on the full range of our intelligence capabilities. And we do what sound intelligence demands, we challenge it, we question it, including any assumptions on which it might be based. If we want to know more, we may ask the intelligence community to go back and collect additional intelligence or refine its analysis so that a more informed decision can be made. We listen to departments and agencies across our national security team. We don’t just hear out differing views, we ask for them and encourage them. We discuss. We debate. We disagree. We consider the advantages and disadvantages of taking action. We also carefully consider the costs of inaction and whether a decision not to carry out a strike could allow a terrorist attack to proceed and potentially kill scores of innocents. Nor do we limit ourselves narrowly to counterterrorism considerations. We consider the broader strategic implications of any action, including what effect, if any, an action might have on our relationships with other countries. And we don’t simply make a decision and never revisit it again. Quite the opposite. Over time, we refresh the intelligence and continue to consider whether lethal force is still warranted.”

Where is the mention of a normative analysis? This is a risk analysis of various options including an assessment of the strength of the evidence behind each. As Savage put it in her Macleans article, Obama’s signature approach was “a specific target, a small U.S. military force, and reliance on American technology and expertise to enhance the capabilities of foreign local and allied forces.” No longer Bush’s ‘shock and awe’ or Colin Powell’s use of overwhelming force, but “precise and principled” targeting! That is how Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress depicted the national security strategy.

David Rothkopf of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace placed Obama’s “orthoscopic” approach of using intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and teaming with others to achieve very narrowly defined but critical goals as part of a much larger “Cool War” strategy. (Op-ed, Foreign Policy, 20 February 2013) “This new war is “cool” rather than “cold” for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of ‘cool,’ in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War—which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare. The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely—permanently, even—without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory.”

But there is more to it than that. Peter Bergen, director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation, is the author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden: From 9/11 to Abbottabad. In that book he suggests that in the deliberation between using Navy Seals versus bombing the place to smithereens, was the issue of identification. Since Obama’s presence in Abbattobad had not been positively confirmed, forty highly trained “canaries” had to be risked to confirm whether or not bin Laden was there. The navy Seals may have shot an unarmed man fleeing across a hallway, but they were able to confirm who they shot. This was the key issue.

The choice of John Brennan as CIA Director and Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary in his new cabinet simply confirms that this strategy will continue in Obama’s second term. After all, Brennan has been the innovator who helped shape America’s drone strategy.

3. Tactics

As interesting as understanding the strategy is, it is perhaps more fascinating to learn that Barak Obama personally authorizes the targets. “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” (Jo Becker and Scott Shane “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times 29 May 2012) As James Russell wrote, “If ever there was an example of tactics in search of a strategy, this is it.” (“Drone Wars: Tactics in Search of a Strategy,” Foreign Policy, Lobe Log, 12 February 2012) Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann iterated the same sentiment in the first year of Obama’s presidency.

4. Implementation

There have been virtually no problems in implementing the program, either by creating divisiveness within the administration, in producing tensions with Congress or with the Courts, or, for that matter, in becoming an election issue that endangered Barack Obama’s re-election. I wrote “virtually no” problems. But there were some. I will discuss one problem that emerged in the executive branch with related problems with Congress and the problem of an emerging public critique of the drone program from his own hard core liberal supporters.

The only high level member of the Obama administrative team who resigned or was forced to quit was Dennis Blair. The Drone Program, though not the reason for his firing, was at the centre of his departure. Dennis Blair is a retired admiral who was appointed as Director of National Intelligence after Barack Obama became president. As a retired four-star admiral he filled the requirements of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act of 2004 that set up the Office of National Intelligence to coordinate the work of the various intelligence agencies in the United States. The Act required that Obama appoint a commissioned officer as either Director or Deputy Director so that at least one of the lead officials would come from the military and be acquainted with military intelligence.

After just sixteen months in that role, Obama asked for Blair’s resignation which became effective on 28 May 2010. Blair has subsequently been a vocal critic of the Drone Program. On 14 August 2011, in a New York Times op-ed, “Drones Alone Are Not The Answer,” he criticized the single-minded focus of the drone program for undercutting the program for hearts and minds in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, for neglecting the diplomatic pressure needed to produce needed social, economic and diplomatic reforms in those countries, for being ineffective in undercutting al Qaeda’s terrorist activities or its capacity to conduct such activities. “Qaeda officials who are killed by drones will be replaced. The group’s structure will survive and it will still be able to inspire, finance and train individuals and teams to kill Americans. Drone strikes hinder Qaeda fighters while they move and hide, but they can endure the attacks and continue to function.”

The criticism appeared to be contradictory when Blair supported a joint Pakistani-American drone program operated under mutual agreement since it was not all clear how such a program would either reduce the number of civilians killed, the public backlash or counter his own charges that drone attacks were ineffective against al Qaeda. Further, they ran directly contrary to Obama’s well-known deep distrust of the Pakistan government and its military’s role and ties to the Taliban.

The dispute over policy, however, cannot be disentangled from the customary Washington turf wars, this one perhaps more telling than most about Obama and his administration. Very early in the life of the administration, The Washington Times published a piece, “Panetta, Blair reportedly in turf battle”. (28 May 2009) For half a century, the CIA Director, in this case Leon Panetta, appointed the CIA chiefs in the American embassies in each country who manage the coordination of intelligence with the national intelligence services of the countries in which the embassy is located and, therefore, through which military intelligence coordination must flow.

To improve intelligence coordination, Dennis Blair tried to pre-empt those appointments, initially where the CIA did not have boots on the ground and intelligence originated from air surveillance and other means. Leon Panetta fought back and even instructed his subordinates to ignore any communications from Dennis Blair. The attempt to extend the coordination function of the National Intelligence office that operated by persuasion to a command role failed and ended up weakening Blair after only four months in office. In particular, it indicated that Blair had little sensitivity and understanding of how the executive branch worked for he failed to clear his effort to take over an area from another presidential appointee with his boss, Barack Obama, before he made his move. For an intelligence chief he revealed a remarkably blindmindedness in intelligence not only about the way the executive office functioned, but how it especially functioned under Obama. He seemed to be either ignorant or blissfully dismissive of Obama’s criticisms of Pakistan and of inefficiencies in the military.

Blair’s rocky start at offence was not helped when he could not even successfully fight a defensive war against CIA counter thrusts to cut down the size and power of the national intelligence director’s staff of 1500. These internal administrative battles for power and control were just what the National Intelligence office was designed to overcome; it had now become the biggest trigger to non-cooperation. Behind it all was Blair’s efforts to limit the CIA’s covert activities because he feared the political backlash. He so obviously had not done his homework on Barack Obama.

Barack Obama was not inclined to fire those who disagreed with him; he welcomed dissent. Even a turf battle was insufficient to get Blair fired, though Obama could not have been impressed with the way Blair fought that battle. However, the coup de grace came when tensions arose between Obama’s intelligence and the Congressional oversight committees. On Christmas Day in 2009, a young Nigerian man almost detonated a bomb on a Northwest Airlines trans-Atlantic flight 253 flying from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to Detroit Airport. The famous underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had concealed plastic explosives in his underwear, but bungled setting those explosives off, although admittedly the trigger mechanism was not very well developed and the 80 grams of PETM were probably just sufficient to kill himself and insufficient to down the aircraft. On 28 December, al Qaeda openly took credit for the failed attempt.

At first questions originally arose over the handling of the interrogation of Abdulmutallab when the plane landed and he was arrested by FBI officials. On 21 January 2010, in hearings before the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, it emerged that neither Panetta nor Blair had been consulted after the arrest of the underwear bomber. Blair in his testimony insisted that the suspect should have been detained as a terror rather than a criminal suspect — even though the arrest had taken place on American soil. Blair was most concerned with intelligence they could have gained from the underwear bomber rather than either his rights or the order of command established by the White House or for that matter, the issue of his innocence or guilt. (Cf. Jim Kouri, “Was ‘Underwear Bomber’ Case Mishandled by White House?” Family Security Matters, 22 January 2010) The White House had already decided that turf war and accepted Attorney General Eric Holder’s earlier recommendation that interrogations on domestic soil were the responsibility of the FBI, a move that had been applauded by virtually all the human rights organizations, many of which would later embrace Blair as their key expert on drones.

Blair’s virtual mutiny from decisions that had already been determined by the White House backfired. The Senate Intelligence Committee in its report on the underwear bomber affair was particularly critical of Blair and laid specific blame on the National Counterterrorism Center that Blair supervised. As ABC News reported, “US Intel Agencies Could’ve Stopped the ‘Underwear Bomber.’ New Senate Report Says.” (Rhonda Schwartz, Matthew Cole and Jason Ryan, 18 May 2010) “US intelligence agencies had enough information to detect and prevent a 23-year-old al Qaeda would-be suicide bomber from obtaining a US Visa and boarding a NW flight on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underwear, but the agencies failed to connect the dots in time, according to a new report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

It was not that the NCTC just made a mistake; it just had not assumed the unique responsibility assigned to it for putting various pieces of intel together. But there were also plenty of mistakes – from even spelling Abdulmutallab’s name improperly so the State Department could not have picked up his name to deny him a visa. Databases of the various agencies had not been integrated, intelligence had not been shared and the bureaucratic hurdles for adding a name to a watch list guaranteed that any postings would be stale-dated. Even the data available had not been properly searched. Blair’s biggest mistake was a statement he subsequently withdrew; he insisted that the new high level interrogation unit should have been deployed to question the underwear bomber, a statement which simply revealed that he was ignorant of the fact that the high level interrogation unit was in the process of being planned and had not yet been set up.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the “Unclassified Executive Summary of the Committee Report on the Attempted Terrorist Attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253” dated 18 May 2010 could not have been blunter: “The NCTC was not organized adequately to fulfill its missions. Following 9/11, Congress created the NCTC and charged it with serving as ‘the primary (my italics) organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the United States Government pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism…’ In practice, however, the Committee found that no one agency saw itself as being responsible for tracking and identifying all terrorism threats. In addition, technology across the IC is not adequate to provide search enhancing tools for analysts, which contributed to the failure of the IC to identify Abdulmutallab as a potential threat.” The Report went on to identify fourteen specific points of failure, two of which were specifically aimed at the NCTC and three of which targeted the NSA. If Blair had already not proven himself insensitive to how the executive branch worked, if he had not already showed himself to be contemptuous of priorities and decisions Obama had already made, if he had not already made enemies as he tried to extend his power, his inability to even run the relatively small corps under his command doomed him. He was not a scapegoat asked to fall on his sword but a senior bureaucrat who had committed suicide many times over.

There were all sorts of other problems I have not gone into that emerged in the days between the Senate Report and his firing. Items in the Report of a blue-ribbon panel handed to President Obama just weeks before the Senate Report were leaked would have fatally damned him if the Senate Report had not. That report concluded: “The DNI should be charged with ensuring that the ODNI is as small as possible so that it is focused on strategic priorities and not distracted from its core missions.” (See Josh Gerstein “Panel found ‘distracted’ DNI”, iPolitico, 2 June, 2010) Blair was not only at odds with virtually every other non-military intelligence chief, especially Leon Panetta, but his relationship with John Brennan, Obama’s key advisor on counter-terrorism, had been toxic. And he now been condemned by Obama’s specially selected panel.

Obama fired Blair for his incompetence and his inability to share intelligence in a tight, coherent and timely way, his primary mandate, and not for differences over the drone program. His subsequent efforts at rehabilitation by trying to shift the focus to policy differences were undercut by questions about his astuteness, his self-contradictory approach to the use of drones, which seemed to be more about who controlled them than about the wisdom of their use, and the repeated evidence of his inability in analysis of the issue and a preference for wide sweeping conclusions that were supposed to be true because of his authoritative judgement though without the evidence to back his conclusions up.

John Meuller in Terrorism Case 33: The Underwear Bomber (12 July 2011 argued that the two other cases of uninterrupted terrorist attempts got Dennis Blair fired. “Dennis Blair’s tenure as Director of National Intelligence included not only this attempt, but the equally unsuccessful Times Square terrorist effort of May 2010 (Case 34) as well as the shooting rampage at Fort Hood by a deranged psychiatrist (Case 32). The case of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born immigrant who had just recently become a citizen before he tried to set off a bomb on 1 May 2010, was particularly pertinent because his unsuccessful attempt and capture two days later in the same month Blair was fired. Many interpreted that Blair was made the scapegoat for this failure. Certainly that was too much for President Barack Obama. Blair was fired on May 20, 2010. However, I have suggested that the Fort Hood case on 5 November 2009 and the Times Square bomber were merely candles on an explosive cake that blew up in Blair’s face and forced Obama’s hand.

In sum, Obama’s style of administration indicates a very loose approach to dissent, a tolerance even of differences over policy and power struggles, but a dislike of those not on side once decisions are made and a determination to fully air differences and different perspectives but to make decisions in deliverable, acute and timely fashion. Finally, on the tough decisions, he is willing to stand holding the ultimate responsibility and will not tolerate others who do not.

Public Criticism of the Drone Program

One does not have to probe very deeply into the drone issue to find that a considerable and articulate number of critics of the drone program can be located on the left of the American political spectrum, critics who form part of Obama’s hard-core base. The numbers of critics increase significantly when you talk to academics and read members of the chattering classes abroad. My Norwegian colleague, Astri Suhrke, whose analyses I have generally admired and respected and usually shared, has been inquiring about my views of the program and urged me to write about it. Knowing her well, I presume she expects a critical appraisal. I will await and communicate her response.

Obama’s snipers targeting him on the drone program are critical of the lack of transparency in the program, the absence of accountability, the clear impression that the program was one aimed at killing individuals suspected of belonging to al Qaeda without adequate means to verify their identity or any real efforts to capture suspects, the killing of American citizens without bringing them to trial, the inability to adequately discriminate to protect civilians. Critics charged that the program was counter-productive in that every missile dropped ended up recruiting more new militants than it killed while, at the same time, alienating both the public and the politicians in countries like Pakistan, but also in Somalia and Yemen, whose support America needed. The use of drones is criticized as another way of fighting the Afghan War while reducing the risk to American soldiers when Obama was supposed to be reducing and withdrawing America’s imperial footprint from these overseas adventures but not substituting a fingerprint and signature in its place.

The latter seemed particularly true when the body count revealed far more Taliban leaders than al Qaeda high level operatives killed (the next blog on drones). Finally, they feared that the Drone program was setting a precedent for other countries to follow to “take out” their own enemies once the technology becomes more widespread. This view was aired by Peter Bergen in an interview with Jennifer Rowland on CNN, “A dangerous new world of drones” on 4 October 2012. Peter Bergen claims that seventy countries already possess drones and that their use by the United States is fundamentally changing warfare and has set off a new arms race. Peter Bergen can hardly be called a member of the left liberal claque in America indicating that hard-core security wonks also are critical of the program. As an aside, in his book, he also says that the key CIA figure obsessed with finding bin Laden was not even female but an individual named John.

However, the main concern has been about the legal and ethical just war issues that I will discuss tomorrow, not because the war against al Qaeda is unjust and not because many charge the administration with intentionally killing civilians when al Quaeda militants are killed, though some abroad have charged America with following up initial missile attacks from drones with further attacks against rescuers who swarm onto the sight of the attack afterwards. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made such claims in its Report that I will discuss in the next blog, but that is not a charge believed by many Americans. The critics have largely focused on problems of identification and insufficient attention to the issue of collateral damage. Referring to a YouTube Forum, President Obama was quoted in Scott Shane’s piece In The Globe and Mail (5 February 2012) denying significant numbers of civilian casualties. “I want to make sure that people understand: actually, drones have not (my italics) caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates.”

I thought of Obama’s defence and all these criticisms when our former Governor-General gave a short speech on Friday evening at Massey College at an awards dinner honouring David Malone, who currently heads the Canadian International Development Agency, for his extensive contributions to foreign policy, and to Clifton van der Linden, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, already with a long list of public service contributions beginning with his involvement in programs for the integration of immigrant and refugee youth and, perhaps the most important, his leadership of a team that created an IT program that allows voters to check whether and how their values and views align with those of the candidates running for office, a program that was actually used by three million Canadians in the last federal election. Although the Clarkson Laureates in Public Service Awards were for precisely that purpose and although the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson had been the first recipient, that was not what made me think of the drone program. Two other items did: a student at Massey who sat opposite me at dinner disconcerted me by provocatively and possibly facetiously insisting she believed in dictatorship rather than democracy, and by a short aside Adrienne made in the introduction to her speech about taking two days this past week to watch all the episodes of Homeland.

I have not seen the television series, but I did recall that Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review had written an op-ed after the elections crediting Homeland with keeping the discussion of the Drone program out of the 2012 presidential election campaign. It was not sufficient that in the 22 October 2012 Presidential debate that Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, explicitly and effusively praised the program. Evidently, the series is about an al Qaeda sleeper agent who, implausibly, has gotten himself elected to Congress. All my friends who watch the show – and there are many – find it addictive. Is the popular program responsible for inculcating a fear of an al Qaeda fifth column such that the American public is willing to bend just war norms and tolerate a loose approach to civilian casualties?

I will try to answer that question in a subsequent blog. But my next blog will show that a number of American critics of the Drone program are not primarily worried about enemy sleeper cells but about the efficaciousness of the program and a deep concern with following proper normative guidelines in the conduct of even an asymmetrical war.

Next Obama Blog Obama 18. The Results of the Drone Program [Tomorrow unless I decide to write about the academy awards that are given out tonight]

[Category Politics]
[Tags Obama, Drone Program, Blair, Brenner, Decision-making]