President Barack Obama’s important speech at the National Defense University on de-escalating his drone war should be seen as a window into the state of play among competing forces in the national security state.
Obama is trying, in his own words, to “rein in” the vast executive power directing the secret operations of the Long War, which was originally unleashed by George Bush after 9/11. Obama ended the Iraq phase of American combat, has promised the same by 2014 in Afghanistan, while sharply escalating the drone war and special operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and beyond. So far he has avoided direct intervention in Syria, which would require ground troops, and Iran, which ignite an unpredictable storm.
In the process, Obama has grown a cancer on his presidency in the form of tens of thousands of disgruntled and difficult-to-control Special Forces, CIA personnel, a legion of spies and mercenaries, mainly in the Middle East and South Asia, but including also a steel defensive ring along the US border with Mexico and Central America.
The apparatus of this Long War is well described by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, and his previous work, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Their numbers are classified but, according to Nick Turse, the Special Ops are 60,000 or more, with their personnel deployed abroad quadrupled since 9/11; their budget jumping from $2.3 billion after 9/11 to $6.3 billion today, not including funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally there are 7,000 armed border patrol agents and thousands more in the DEA.
These forces constitute the cancer, and they may not be willing to follow a presidential command to wind it down. They might fight back to the end. According to Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, the generals tried to manipulate Obama into escalating Afghanistan into a “forever war.” The same forces undoubtedly have their objections to much of Obama’s recent speech as well.
The purposes of the Obama speech, as parsed by the New York Times on May 28, were to scale back the use of drones, target only those who actually threaten the US, remove the CIA from drone and targeting killing, and end the paradigm of the Global War on Terrorism. The speech and its policies were “two years in the making,” reflecting the depth of unresolved tensions surrounding the administration. Obama, himself, first spoke of “reining in” the national security state in a Jon Stewart interview in October 2012.
There is no doubt that criticisms by Obama supporters, civil liberties lawyers, and many mainstream journalists helped the administration change its calculations. But greater pressures were exerted behind the scenes by the advocates of drones and counterterrorism.
- Obama kept secret until the day before the speech that he was lifting the moratorium on repatriating Guantanamo detainees, many of them on hunger strike, to Yemen, and appointing a new lead person to implement the transfers. Similarly, in 2009, when Obama announced his 33,000 troop escalation in Afghanistan, he slipped in paragraph at the last minute pledging to begin his withdrawals in 18 months. The military objected.
- Against CIA objections, Obama decided to declassify the fact that US drone strikes had killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other Americans who “were not intentionally targeted.”
- The CIA and Pentagon “balked” at tighter restrictions on drones, and the CIA’s counterterrorism center resisted the president’s proposal “to take its drones away.”
- A fierce debate broke out over whether “signature strikes” would continue, the drone war version of racial profiling. The new Obama policy remains murky as a result of internal compromise, and the CIA reportedly succeeded in keeping control of the drone war in Pakistan through 2014.
- The criterion for drone strikes was modified from targets that are “significant threats to US interests” to targets representing “a continuing, imminent threat to US persons.” No sooner was the tighter standard announced than the CIA killed a Pakistan Taliban leader in apparent revenge for his organizing a suicide bombing, which killed seven CIA operatives. Ignored in the militarized targeting criteria was the fact that the same figure was considered a “moderate” Taliban leader favoring a peaceful settlement of Pakistan’s internal bloodshed.
- Obama was unable to use his own speech to endorse a mechanism to carry for an independent review of how and when drone attacks would occur. He could achieve no consensus in the administration.
Enlisting Public Opinion
Many will see these compromises and deferrals as evidence of Obama indecisiveness. But this is a leader who campaigned like a man of steel in 2008 and 2012, so the problem more likely lies in the nature of the state itself and the permanent forces contesting for power. If that is so, the Obama speech was designed to enlist public opinion in the internal arguments to come.
Obama often follows a confusing pattern of leaning toward the military’s preference while planning in his private chambers to later change course. Obama escalated in Afghanistan, then de-escalated. He escalated the drone attacks, then sharply reduced them this past year. He escalated deportations, then sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio and legalized the status of one million Dreamers by executive order. He dispatched DEA and even CIA agents in Mexico’s bloody drug war, then called for a new “conversation” about shifting to a harm-reduction approach. In this zigzagging course Obama has sent thousands of largely clandestine troops and police into battles they could not win, causing enormous potential resentment and push back. When the union representative of 7,000 border patrol agents testifies in defiance against Obama’s relaxed enforcement policies, you can assume that many in the national security state are considering forms of refusal to obey their commander-in-chief. Many will not de-escalate quietly or loyally.
There is a disturbing analogy here with the 1960-63 John F. Kennedy era. JFK campaigned on a Cold War pledge to fight a long twilight struggle against communism. Like Obama, JFK became enthralled with special forces as a secret counter-force against radical insurgencies in Latin America. The counterterrorism policies unleashed by JFK would lead eventually to the CIA’s tracking down Che Guevera, whose assassination was witnessed by a CIA agent in 1967, a parallel with Obama’s raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Kennedy gradually evolved toward a greater wisdom in the three years of his presidency; antagonizing many in what Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. At first, Kennedy went along with the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation, conceived by the CIA under Eisenhower. But Kennedy refused to be drawn into sending American ground troops, which doomed the invasion of Cuba and provoked a violent right-wing Cuban backlash in Miami. Those Cuban exiles remained a virulent force in American politics down through the present time. Then, after the near-apocalypse of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy moved steadily toward ending the nuclear arms race with the Russians, and turned instead to supporting the domestic goals of the 1963 March on Washington. JFK sent advisers to South Vietnam but showed a strong reluctance to dispatch American ground troops. In November 50 years ago, he was dead, to the unforgettable cheers of the John Birchers and the Cuban exiles, and to the more muted satisfaction of elements in the CIA and military-industrial complex.
It is by no means inevitable or even likely that Obama will meet JFK’s fate, although even the Homeland Security Agency has reported rising assassination threats due to the election of a black president and economic depression for many in the white working class. What is most important is to realize that change can evolve unexpectedly, due first to the experiences of a president while in office – JFK regarding Cuba and nuclear weapons – and the persistent pressure of activists demanding change – the Freedom Riders, SNCC and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time, the reaction against the “threat” of change is relentless and explosive – the Goldwater movement, the Reagan presidency.
In the Republicans seemingly crazed opposition to everything Obama represents, and their well organized “fixes” to their electoral deficit – Citizens United, voter suppression, a partisan Supreme Court, reapportionment to gain Electoral College advantage, etc. – there is a pattern of resistance that Obama himself may have underestimated. The Republican intransigence is at least, on the surface, something that can be seen and confronted. But it is also connected to the cancerous tumors of the security state, which citizens hardly encounter and cannot easily access.
The question at hand is what force can be strong enough to offset the power of those wishing to trap Obama in the legacy of an Imperial Executive he does not want to pass to an unpredictable successor. And if there is not a civic power strong enough to put the cancer in remission, what does that say about the state of American democracy?