3 posts

Drones and America’s State of Perpetual War

Written By: Michael Baharaeen

A young boy, named Azzedine, and his family were sleeping outside a mosque in an area known to be controlled by al-Qaeda when the first missile came crashing down. It struck the car sitting outside. Instantly, there was mass panic and chaos; Azzedine ran in one direction, his father and brother in another.

Then came the second strike. Debris flew all around him, and he found cover under one of the car’s now disconnected tires. He was eventually able to make his way over to his family, where their body parts lay scattered in pieces. A 15-year-old boy – an innocent bystander, marred by a larger conflict in which he had no role.

This scene is the result of a war being waged in the Middle East. No, it wasn’t Afghanistan. It wasn’t Iraq, either. This took place in Yemen (http://www.npr.org/2012/07/06/156367047/yemen-airstrikes-punish-militants-and-civilians) just last year, and the destruction was caused by one of America’s drones that fly over that region of the world 24 hours a day. The growing use of drone technology has consequences often overlooked by the American public, and it is but a symptom of a larger problem. We are now living in a perpetual “war on terror.” The victims of this war are innumerable, the tactics increasingly unnerving. Perhaps most importantly, it is institutionalizing something that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address from office: the military-industrial complex. (In short, this term refers to the relationship between the elected officials, our armed services and for-profit defense industry.)

In conventional wars, citizens of a country are usually asked to make sacrifices. In World War II, the nation was at nearly full employment, as many jobs were added to help support our war efforts. For most of the 20th century ordinary citizens were asked (or, more aptly, ordered) to serve in the armed forces through conscription. However, since American troops entered the Middle East en masse in 2001 – and, arguably, even before that – there has been a gradual distancing of the American public from military matters. The majority of Americans are no longer asked to be inconvenienced to help their country: conscription is long gone, taxes are not raised to pay for wars, and many of the military’s operations have been outsourced to contractors.

The shift to heavy reliance on contractors lies at the core of the military-industrial complex. Numerous tasks, from developing tanks and aircraft carriers to doing basic chores, such as laundry, are no longer performed by the military but are instead given to defense companies in the form of lucrative contracts. In Rachel Maddow’s Drift, a fascinating tome on U.S. defense policy, she bemoans the rise of this relationship between the defense industry and our federal government. It’s no secret that contractors charge exorbitant fees to the government to handle the military’s tasks.

But this is only the beginning of the problem. The greater concern is fairly straightforward: defense contractors profit from the United States being at war; hence, the benefit of declaring war on a concept, making it difficult to discern when we have truly finished fighting. At first glance this might sound incredibly cynical, but it is not a hard connection to make. These companies remain profitable largely through government contracts; who else is going to purchase the latest F-35 from Lockheed Martin?

And this brings us back to the issue of drones.

Created under President Bush and accelerated under President Obama, drones carry out many of the military’s missions in the Middle East and, specifically, against al-Qaeda. They were developed to act as a substitute for soldiers, thus sparing many members of our armed forces from being deployed into dangerous situations. This tradeoff is certainly an argument that proponents of the drone strike program can point out: why sacrifice our friends, family and neighbors if an unmanned aerial vehicle can get the same job done.

I don’t care to digress into a discussion on the accuracy of such weapon systems, the moral problems of collateral damage that accompany their use, or the transparency (or lack thereof) involved when our government utilizes this technology. That is a separate, but no less important conversation to be had. It is imperative, however, to note what this expanding method of conducting war has done to our country.

Our increased use of unmanned vehicles to wage war is yet another mechanism of distancing the American public from the brutal reality of war. In his inaugural speech last month, President Obama said that in two years, with the completion of the war in Afghanistan, we won’t be in a war for the first time in over 10 years, and to most casual observers of politics that seems pretty accurate. In the meantime, though, his nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, stated that the CIA should “always maintain a paramilitary capability,” which presumably includes the drone program.

Let’s pause. Always maintain a paramilitary capability? Is this mentality not exactly what leads us to a state of unending war? Of course we want the United States to have a top-of-the-line defense system; no one is questioning that. But we currently spend more money on “defense” than the next thirteen countries combined, including Russia and China. We are more than prepared for attacks coming our way. By continuing to invest in technology which only perpetuates (and, in my view, exacerbates) the military-industrial complex, we are not only gratuitously spending money we don’t have, but we are also creating a wider chasm between the American populace and the battlefield.

This view may lead some to ask, would I prefer sending our brave men and women into combat and risk their deaths? There is no easy answer or preferred modus operandi in this debate. I will acknowledge that when we have required sacrifice from large segments of the public in previous wars, these conflicts were not allowed to continue on for years without an end in sight. When it looked as if the Vietnam War was heading in that direction, a sleeping beast awoke in the recesses of our national psyche, and elected officials who insisted on continuing to escalate the war paid a political price. However, we see relatively few ordinary citizens objecting to our drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan, and this in large part is due to the fact that most of us have had to sacrifice little to support these efforts. Our pocketbooks haven’t even felt the effects of war, which is usually the first factor that leads people to action.

A perpetual war on terror – with the drone program at its core – detaches us from the serious harm occurring across the world, in our name, by the will of our own elected officials. We can continue to bomb villages in North Waziristan. We can hope that by inflicting harm upon unsuspecting and innocent bystanders of these areas, such as young Azzedine’s family, we are not creating a new generation of terrorists who are fighting us for no other reason than to avenge the death of their loved ones. We can assume that since we, as ordinary civilians, are not feeling the effects of this war, it’s not really a war. We can allow the military-industrial complex that has a stranglehold on our foreign policy to swell, unhindered.

Or we can choose to pay attention and make our voices heard.

These acts of aggression were abhorred by Democrats under the Bush presidency, but there has been little, if any objection raised by them under Obama. I like the president. I think he has done a lot of good, especially considering the myriad problems he was handed upon entering office. But I have serious disagreements and concerns with this aspect of his foreign policy.

I’m more than willing to speak up on this issue. A handful of notable political and media figures have also jumped on this train. But these few discussions should only be the start of a larger conversation among all of us, and we can’t wait much longer to have it.

President Obama: The Radical Moderate

Written by: Michael Baharaeen

The members of the Republican Party establishment have crafted a portrait of President Obama as being the most liberal president in our country’s history. With GOP party leaders disseminating it across the country to credulous voters, this wildly inaccurate image has become conventional wisdom to many. To illustrate this, allow me to first offer a personal anecdote.

A couple of summers ago I was in Washington, DC, and I had the opportunity to meet with some World War II veterans who were visiting. As I spoke with one gentleman, he reminisced about what it had been like to serve under FDR, and later under Truman, maintaining that these were two of our greatest presidents in history. Then, without skipping a beat, he mused that we must do something about the socialist currently occupying the White House, perhaps not realizing that some of the biggest expansions of the federal government occurred under Roosevelt and Truman.

However tempting it may be to fault voters for holding these misperceptions, much of the blame falls on a variety of conservative institutions, from talk radio and Fox News to Washington think-tanks and pundits. They have formed a caricature of the president that never existed, and it was created in an attempt to delegitimize him, giving Republican members of Congress an excuse to obstruct him at every turn – more on this later.

So what have the president’s last four years actually looked like?

Settling for Conservative Policies

Whether or not his critics on the right care to admit it, President Obama has adopted many of their old ideas.

Health care reform – more commonly and pejoratively known as ‘Obamacare’ – was originally a plan conceived in 1989 by the very conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation. This plan was later promoted by House Republicans, including soon-to-be-Speaker Newt Gingrich, as a counterproposal to President Clinton’s universal health care plan. In 2006, a Republican Massachusetts governor worked to pass a nearly identical version in his own state. His name: Mitt Romney. Republicans supported it because it was a market-based solution to the health insurance problem, and it centered on the idea of personal responsibility. But when President Obama tried to pass the same plan, he received no support from any Republican.

The next policy for which Republicans have criticized Obama is his stimulus package, which they deride as profligacy at its worst, suggesting the policy epitomizes “wasteful government spending.” Leaving aside the fact that many economists have argued the stimulus prevented us from spiraling into a second Great Depression, conservatives have endorsed stimulus in the past. And that’s not all: they unfailingly neglect to mention that one-third of it was made up of tax cuts, something Republicans have always favored, even though some economists believed that spending was a more effective method of stimulating the economy.

In addressing the issue of climate change and pollution control, the president tried using a
market-based approach, a modus operandi conservatives always claim to favor. Again, setting aside the fact that this was a policy created by such groups as Enron and Goldman Sachs, let’s see what it did. The law would have essentially capped the amount of pollution that companies could emit. The federal government would then distribute a limited number of permits to these companies to allow them to pollute. Every year there would be fewer and fewer permits, as new ways would emerge to cut down on carbon emissions. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? The old Republican Party, and even most of their candidates for the 2012 presidential race, would have thought so. However, when it came to a vote in Congress, President Obama received zero GOP support in the House, and the Republicans in the Senate ultimately killed it.

Actively Pursuing Conservative Policies

In addition to compromising his original policies to craft the aforementioned solutions, President Obama has adopted other conservative policies and actions, many of which have disappointed his progressive base. While most conservatives would undoubtedly love to see these same policies under a Republican president, they can’t seem to express the same sentiments under our current president.

Civil liberties:

  • Pushed for an extension of the USA PATRIOT Act, which, among other things, allows the federal government to wiretap its citizens without first seeking a warrant. The bill was so egregious that two Democratic Senators warned that Americans would be shocked if they knew how the government was interpreting the provisions of this bill, invoking memories of the Bush years.
  • Led the effort to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the government to indefinitely detain anyone they may suspect of having affiliated with a terrorist group – no proof required.
  • Although upon entering office the president insisted that he would decrease the number of medical marijuana raids conducted by the Justice Department, he has shut down facilities that have been determined by state law to be legitimate operations.

Promoting conservative foreign policy ideas:

  • The Obama administration actually wanted to keep more troops in Iraq, past the original December 2011 deadline. It was only after the Iraqi civilian leadership threatened to retaliate that U.S. forces were fully withdrawn.
  • The president has become a strong proponent of drone strikes to target al-Qaeda.

Other conservative policies endorsed by President Obama:

  • Approving fewer EPA regulations than George W. Bush
  • Expanding offshore drilling
  • Stepping up deportations and placing more boots at the border
  • Lessening the number of government jobs
  • Doing nothing to strengthen gun laws, even in the wake of the Gabby Giffords and the Aurora movie theater. (In fact, the only move he has made on guns is to remove the restriction on carrying them in national parks. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has given him an F on his scorecard. (And for those on the right who still wonder, Fast and Furious was not the scandal you thought it was. For those who want to know about this story, read here.)

There are also some things he has done that everyone should be happy about: GM has come roaring back, Osama bin Laden is dead, and the stock market has rebounded. And yes, Obama has actually implemented some progressive policies – the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, student loan reform, credit card reform, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, coalition- building in the Libya air campaign, the end of “enhanced interrogation” (i.e. torture), investment in science and technology – as he should have, since after all, he is a Democratic president.

If conservatives still believe Obama is too liberal, here’s an idea: ask liberals if they think he’s lived up to their expectations, because if his policies were actually progressive in nature, they should be delighted! Here are some things he would have done during the last four years were he really governing like a liberal: pulled the troops out of Afghanistan, pushed for single-payer health care, ended the drug war, advocated for serious cuts to the bloated defense budget, closed Guantanamo Bay, instituted better gun control and prosecuted former Bush administration officials for war crimes. But he didn’t.

(On a side note: none of this is to say that some of the more conservative policies he managed to implement (health care, stimulus, the Volcker Rule) didn’t go on to do great things (regulating insurance companies, preventing a depression, lessening the casino-like nature of Wall Street).

I am also not so naïve or obstinate as to eschew the act of compromise when necessary, and I understand the president’s need to do this from time to time (e.g. extending the Bush tax cuts in return for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the ratification of the small arms treaty).

The purpose of this post is to simply show the Republican base that their perception of President Obama as a radical president is inaccurate.)

Even after all of this evidence, some conservatives like to point to the literally unanimous
opposition by Congressional Republicans as a way of saying the president’s policies were too liberal; however, two points strongly refute this:

  1. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, stated that his main goal between the 2010 midterms and the 2012 election was to make sure Obama was a one-term president, indicating zero willingness to work with the president on any initiative that might make him look good.
  2. Republicans have run away from ideas they once supported simply because Obama endorsed them. This is epitomized by senators who would sponsor bills and then vote against them.
  3. Conservatives will be shocked to find that the man in the White House that they have ridiculed and lambasted over the past four years is actually not the fire-breathing liberal they thought him to be. As much as they may want to believe that President Obama is an anti-war socialist who gives away free health care, he’s just not. Maybe they are thinking of Jesus.


Ryan VP pick signals shift

Written by: Connor Stangler

The Republican Party is nothing if not resilient. During the past few weeks, it has weathered a storm of regrettable comments and an actual tropical storm. But neither Todd Akin’s gaffe nor Hurricane Isaac could dampen the revolutionary mood at the Republican National Convention this week. The party has a smart and capable nominee with Mitt Romney, an opponent who can’t seem to fully rescue the economy and an intellectual vice presidential nominee with Paul Ryan.

Wait, what?

Did I really just hear the Republicans boast about an intellectual ally? Isn’t this the same party that a decade ago ridiculed and distrusted the intellectual elites of the Democratic Party? Isn’t this the same party that once championed the ruggedly confident George W. Bush and the blissfully irreverent Sarah Palin, neither of whom disguised their suspicion of intellectualism but actually wore it like a badge? Isn’t this the party of those Texas rebels who want to ban critical thinking from school curricula? It can’t be. No political party can be that bipolar.

But, it is. No longer does the party’s golden boy wear cowboy hats or heroically brandish his shotgun to prove his American credentials. Instead, the new guy is often portrayed orating about the finer points of Medicare or crouched over his budget plan, “The Path to Prosperity.” Now that foreign wars and enemies have disappeared from the American consciousness, our leaders don’t need to flex their brawn because brains have become sexier.

But Ryan is not the Republicans’ type. They want someone who can fight the war, not conceptualize it. There are three reasons to question whether the new intellectual love affair is earnest and, more importantly, whether it’s even a good idea for the party.

First, is Ryan really an intellectual? Everyone seems to assume so. The press praises him as a “wonk hero.” “This guy is smart,” wrote Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. I don’t doubt he’s a smart guy. He’s articulate and has proven his knowledge of federal entitlement programs.

But the only basis for his “intellectualism” seems to be a single, albeit ambitious, budget proposal and the fact he has famously referenced Ayn Rand as his ideological inspiration. During 2005 Ryan said Rand’s works were required reading for his staff. The second reason does not make him an intellectual, someone who draws on a large and varied knowledge base, but an ideologue, someone who applies one narrow set of principles to a host of problems.

Second, if he is an intellectual, Ryan’s brand of intellectualism is nightmarish. His budget plan would, according to The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, “amount to the most radical revision of governing priorities in our lifetime.” For a plan that ultimately aims to drastically reduce government debt, Ryan’s plan to privatize social security would do nothing to accomplish that. His proposed cuts to Medicaid would force between 14 to 27 million low-income Americans, the majority of whom are disabled and elderly, to lose health insurance.

The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki said Ryan’s plan to reduce the role of government would dangerously “return the federal government to something like its nineteenth-century role.” If this is intellectualism, I don’t want to see it in the White House.

Third, because the Republicans’ tough-guy campaign has effectively cast Democrats as out-of-touch and spineless elitists before, why pick now to play the intellectual card against, of all people, Barack Obama? Obama is a credentialed intellectual, the author of two best-selling books, and a renowned idea man. Is this someone the Republicans’ want to engage in a battle of wits?

Ryan’s willingness to tackle the big questions about the role of government is valuable and as students we should appreciate the attempt to move past the petty image-bashing of the Bush years and into a more “serious” campaign. But considering the Republican tradition, I question the legitimacy and effectiveness of the move. On the other hand, we might be witnessing the birth of a new Republican Party.

Connor is a regular columnist for the Truman Index. This column was featured in the August 30, 2012 issue.