For the forthcoming book by Marjorie Cohn.
Thanks largely to American public opinion, President Obama no longer has a Roman-style legion he can deploy to distant battlefields. Obama is currently engulfed in brinksmanship over Syria; while the future is uncertain, he has repeatedly pledged there will be no American "boots on the ground." Obama has withdrawn 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, as promised, despite that country's volatile sectarian divisions. He is removing most, if not all, of the 100,000 U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan on a 2014 timeline, with that country likely to spin out of U.S. control in the years ahead. It is difficult to imagine him sending ground troops to either Iran or Egypt. Obama often emphasizes his hope to achieve "some nation-building at home," combined with a greater emphasis on diplomacy, or "soft power," abroad. That has been the demand of social justice movements for decades as the United States was committed to policies of military invasion and occupations. Caught between the global military priorities of the national security state and the skepticism of the American people, Obama has found drones to be an expedient "solution" while he engages in his careful steps of disengagement. At least that was so until the drone controversy began to boil over in 2013 because of protests, critical news coverage, and opposition from an unusual source, the advocates of counterinsurgency.
The use of drones was a classified and relatively inexpensive way to retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan without appearing "soft" on terrorism to the generals and the American Right. That Obama used drones, cold-bloodedly, with kill-lists and all, does not minimize his effort at strategic retreat and redeployment from these two ground wars and the overall "war on terrorism." "What he needs is a strategy for getting out without turning a retreat into a rout," wrote Gideon Rose in the June 25, 2011 New York Times. Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, is a key thinker in the security establishment and former Clinton-era official. His Machiavellian advice to Obama is based on the experience of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in de-escalating the Vietnam War before that one turned into a full scale debacle amidst the Watergate scandal in 1975. The basic premise for Rose, shared as a virtual oath of admission to the national security establishment, is that the State should never appear to lose even when in fact it is losing. Reputation is everything for a superpower, especially when cutting one's losses. The three rules of withdrawal [or "strategic redeployment"], according to Rose, are: first, deflect attention from the fact that you are doing so; second, "lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind"; and third, remain engaged by providing "enough support to beleaguered local partners so they can fend off collapse for as long as possible." Rose defines withdrawal as "the removal of ground forces from direct combat, not the abandonment of the country in question." According to Rose, Nixon's mistake was using "brutal and ham-fisted" secret bombing raids along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to buy time for the "decent interval"of his strategic retreat. Similarly, "drone attacks and raids against enemy targets in Pakistani sanctuaries today are a precision replay of actions in Cambodia and Laos, but more effective and less controversial."
Declassified Oval Office cables from 1972 revealed that Kissinger told Nixon to blame the failures on "South Vietnamese incompetence,” not the impotence of American power. "[W]e've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two," Kissinger added, "after which . . . no one will give a damn," he told Nixon. Obama should be able to accomplish the same in Afghanistan, Rose projects, apparently believing such an approach to be a brilliant prophylactic for the protection of empire. There were costs to Nixon's approach, Rose acknowledges, such as "charges of lying, escalation and betrayal," which Rose believed, at least in 2011, Obama could avoid because of his effective secrecy and residual popularity at home. For a brief historical moment, it appeared that these Machiavellian notions might work, especially after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, and the U.S. escalation of drone attacks, especially over Pakistan's tribal areas where the Taliban are believed to take sanctuary. But national security officials, who themselves never interact with voters in the public sphere, and whose deeds and budgets are shrouded in secrecy, underestimated the skeptical nature of the American public. Just as photos of burned and tortured Vietnamese seared into American consciousness during the first of our televised wars in the 1960s, so too, photos and images of civilian casualties would leak out even through the highly-controlled news management during Iraq and Afghanistan. While investigative reporting was virtually born with the exposure of the My Lai massacre in 1969, the spirit of independent media became even more relentless in the Internet Age. Dungeons, torture chambers, mass graves, and the human damage inflicted by drones could not be easily suppressed, much less defended.
A majority of nearly 90 percent in Pakistan expressed serious outrage against the drone attacks, doing near-fatal damage to the bilateral relationship.[a] Civil liberties lawyers connected the drone policy to a litany of constitutional abuses since 9/11. Documentary filmmakers, including Jeremy Scahill and Robert Greenwald, circulated moving on-the-ground interviews with civilian victims. Whistleblowers emerged from unlikely spaces within the very architecture of the security state itself. The Times and others published front-page disclosures on the secret war which had been downloaded and sent to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning. It began to seem like Watergate all over again, especially with revelations that Congress itself was being deceived. Obama and others were mistaken if they thought that public opinion could be calmed by the disappearance of American casualties and budgetary costs, and the simultaneous rise of a secret war symbolized by drones. While it took years for American opinion to turn against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while opinion is decidedly mixed over drones, there is little question that the drone policy is beginning to stall and flounder. Like mushrooms, drones simply cannot grow in the sunlight of a wired world. Far from his hopes of a new foreign policy, Obama is in grave danger of leaving a new Imperial Presidency as his legacy. Like the 1960’s fear of an "international communist conspiracy," the 2001-2013 fear of an "international terrorist conspiracy" has taken precedence above all other priorities and threatens to become a cancer on his presidency. Like the "military industrial complex" which President Dwight Eisenhower criticized in his farewell address, a broader national security complex has become the dominant force among competing elites, causing a growing drain on democracy, accountability and budget priorities at home. President John F. Kennedy realized the danger of unleashing these ultra-militaristic forces after his traumatic experiences during the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the U.S.-Soviet missile crisis over Cuba in 1962. In the aftermath, he began to embrace the domestic priorities symbolized in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, and in his American University call that same summer to reverse the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Credible evidence suggests that Kennedy planned to de-escalate in Vietnam after the 1964 election. At the very least, the record reveals that he opposed the sending of U.S. ground troops just as he opposed their use in the Cuban invasion of 1961. The same history reveals the existence of what some have called "the deep state,” a description of the permanent caste of elite decision-makers carrying out military strategies in favor of market-friendly regimes and opposed to even moderate progressives coming to power. In those days, their opposition was to anyone described as neutral, non-aligned, or open to coalitions with the left. The same narrowness applies today toward any forces coexisting, for example, with the Muslim Brotherhood. Kennedy was hated as virulently by the John Birch Society, right-wing generals and white Southerners, as Obama is hated by their descendants today in the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and certain allies among the police and the military. Obama will face even greater anger as he tries to orchestrate the de-escalation of the war on terror. During the Cuban missile crisis, JFK had to conspire with his brother Bobby against his own generals and security advisers in order to avoid nuclear war with the Soviets. Obama no doubt faces parallel dangers today. Interestingly, Obama himself is admitting the limited power of his office by frequently calling for Congress and public opinion to "rein in" his own presidency, a statement he first made in October 2012. There are those who may consider such calls, like his more recent "welcoming" of public debate on drones and secrecy, and his off-the-cuff comment that Medea Benjamin was "worth listening to" as she was dragged away from a public speech, as signs of Obama's chronic vacillations. Perhaps so, but Obama certainly was a man of steel during his unprecedented 2007-2008 presidential campaign against the Clinton Democrats and the mainstream establishment. What else might explain this appearance of presidential caution? Could it reflect a contending balance of forces within the executive branch? What we are seeing, in my view, is a fierce antagonism among elements of the national elite behind the curtains of power. The fight is not about withdrawing from empire, but about attempting to realistically reform empire versus making a Custer-like last stand against the rest of the world, including the rising multi-racial majority in the United States itself. Obama appears to be reducing the drone attacks as criticism has risen, from 122 on Pakistan in 2010 as U.S. troop levels peaked in Afghanistan, 73 in 2011, 48 in 2012, and fourteen as of June 2013.[b] He reversed himself suddenly in July 2013, showering nine drone strikes against Yemen for reasons that remain unclear. But the trajectory is downward. It is difficult not to believe that these declines were caused in large part by outrage, public criticism, and worries about blowback. The blowback fromhis targeted drone assassinations of Anwar al-Awlaki, Awlaki's son and others in Yemen continues to reverberate globally. If the off-on diplomatic talks with the Taliban are to succeed at all, ending drone attacks on their sanctuaries will have to be part of any political settlement. Obama also employed drones in overthrowing Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, helping sow chaos in Libya, precipitating the killing of American officials at Benghazi, and spreading the military conflict to Mali and the rest of North Africa. In Yemen, Libya, and North Africa, the use of drones appears to be a defensive tactic to fill a strategic policy vacuum. In addition to reducing the drone attacks without admitting so publicly, Obama has struggled to formulate updated rules of warfare and accountability in the age of drones, cyber-warfare and the resumption of flagrantly secret wars by the CIA. He also wants to revisit the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force that followed the 9/11 attacks. This would be a welcome step if a unified administration fought for it and if there were serious partners in Congress for democratic reform. So far there are few, with only two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee registering vocal complaints over the record of secret wars, kill lists and the like. Amidst revelations by Edward Snowden of "big data" spying on the American people, Congress did react with an opposing coalition made up of critics to the right and left of the national security state. That may be a harbinger of future efforts to reclaim foreign policy by Congress.
It should be noted that the Congress' own intelligence committees would not even exist but for the public outcry in the 1970’s that led to Nixon's resignation and the Vietnam war’s dismal end. Ever since, those committees have appeared to be steadily more complicit in secret CIA maneuverings than watchdogs for the public interest in transparency. Oversight has been hollowed out. The question is whether the drone controversy will find its way into Congressional debate, which is what occurred when the Vietnam and Watergate debates finally drove Congress to pass the War Powers Resolution in 1973 and cut funding for an earlier Imperial Presidency in 1975. So far, there is little evidence of the sort of Congressional will that was asserted in that earlier time. In the recent behind-the-scenes power struggles - the darkness where the mushrooms grow - the CIA appears to be keeping control over its secret "Af-Pak" war machine, including the drone war in Pakistan, and Obama has appointed a CIA insider, John Brennan, to help "rein in" the Agency's operatives. Far from reining in the horse, the problem is that the beast is out of the barn. A sense of the crisis Obama faces may be gleaned from a parallel on the domestic front, the "war on gangs" of several past decades which was theorized by neo-conservatives like James Q. Wilson, framed by Reagan Republicans like William Bennett, led by police chiefs like William Bratton, and ended in the greater incarceration of young prisoners than anywhere else in the world. Law-and-order worked in politics, but the inner cities still suffer from the domestic counterterrorism imposed by elite units of local police. Hundreds of thousands of people will be stigmatized by criminal records for life. Civil liberties were set aside for secret dossiers and data bases. Street violence finally declined for multiple reasons, including the hard measures of law enforcement, but the violence only spread to the prisons, cycled back to the streets, and could flare up again at any moment. The same mano duro policies, often with the same advisers, were exported to Central America and beyond, where prisons remain choked with thousands of young people lacking all hope. Meanwhile, poverty in black communities has risen, even under Obama, and the neo-conservative trope about suppressing crime in order to create investment opportunities has proven to be absurd. If one thinks of the unconstitutional tactics imposed by the New York and (until recently) Los Angeles police, not to mention in hundreds of smaller cities, and project that level of domestic suppression into the villages of Afghanistan or Yemen, one might just begin to imagine the future of suffering and humiliation without alternatives that millions of young people face around the world. The limitations of the drone war should be clear from any study of history and strategy. Wars cannot be won from secret aerial launches against unknown forces and figures on the ground. But since America is unlikely to re-launch ground troops any time soon, the power vacuums on the ground will expand and threaten American security officials. The lobbyists for the military and for drones in particular [yes, they have their very own lobby] go on making money off their failures, while the discretionary funds available continue to shrink. Public opposition to both drones and excessive secrecy is likely to expand indefinitely. The options are narrowing. Opposition and protest are not enough, however, now that the drone protests have had a global effect. An articulate new vision of American security, with a blueprint to overhaul the policies on drones, cyberwarfare and counterterrorism to bring them under much greater public scrutiny and Congressional oversight, is desperately needed to avoid the drift. Kevin Martin, longtime director of the organization Peace Action, is right in declaring we need "a foreign policy for the 99 percent." As the status quo disintegrates, that need will only grow.
 Gideon Rose, What Would Nixon Do?, N.Y. TIMES (June 25, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/opinion/sunday/26afghan.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
 Id. (emphasis added).
  See generally Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America (Univ. of Cal. Press, 2008).
  See generally Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars (Nation Books 2013).
 Kevin Martin, Towards a Foreign Policy for the 99 Percent, Foreign Policy in Focus (Dec. 18, 2012), fpif.org/towards_a_foreign_policy_for_the_99_percent/.