War Takes No Holiday

Memorial Day was conceived as a way of celebrating the sacrifices of men and women in uniform, although the Obama administration continues to greatly dishonor these individuals in pursuit of unnecessary, illegal foreign wars.  I’d like to propose a not so radical proposition that runs counter to the propaganda rhetoric used by Obama in defense of U.S. foreign policy: the bombing campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the special operations authorized against Iran do nothing but further radicalize the people of countries who already view the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace and stability.  These wars pose a serious threat not only to people in the countries under assault, but to American soldiers and civilians as well.

The slick talking Bush-lite Obama administration may have fooled those on the liberal left with its talk of promoting peace and democracy worldwide, but imperial propaganda is still the order of the day under this Democratic regime.  Take, for example, the recent military inquiry into the death of nearly two dozen Afghan civilians in the central-southern Pashtun province of Uruzgan – an attack dating back to February this year.  The report opportunistically blamed low level grunts for the attack, citing “inaccurate and unprofessional” behavior on the part of those operating the predator drone that killed the civilians in question: “Information that the convoy [which U.S. soldiers erroneously concluded was full of Taliban “insurgents”] was anything other than an attacking force was ignored or downplayed by UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) personal.”

Military investigators were careful to stress that the civilian deaths were the result of mistaken intelligence and poor behavior from individual soldiers, in regards to this individual incident, rather than a result of a systematically reckless, destructive U.S. foreign policy.  They suggested that better intelligence gathering and more careful planning of attacks could succeed in reducing “unintentional” civilian casualties caused by the U.S.  This approach was echoed in the press, where Reuters dismissed criticisms of U.S. troops “who are frequently accused of using indiscriminate firepower – even in civilian areas – to fight the insurgency.”  As Reuters reminded readers, “U.S. counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes seizing population centers and avoiding combat in built up areas whenever possible to avert civilian deaths.  Similarly, the L.A. Times erroneously reported that “Air Force Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan rarely fire accidentally on civilians.  But in cases in which group troops or manned aircraft inadvertently kill civilians, drones have often provided intelligence.”

Reporting on Obama’s escalation of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan overwhelmingly neglect the civilian casualties that result from U.S. bombing, as evidenced in the L.A. Times report above.  Statistical studies, on the other hand, suggest that civilian casualties are climbing steadily.  Afghan civilian casualties escalated by 40 percent in 2008 to a total of 2,100.  Civilian deaths reached an estimated 2,400 in 2009.  The 60 U.S. predator drone strikes undertaken in Pakistan from January 2006 to April 2009 resulted in the alleged deaths of 14 al Qaeda leaders, but an additional 687 Pakistani civilians.  In other words, 94 percent of all deaths reportedly committed by the U.S. were innocent civilians.  This reality is regularly omitted from reporting on the strikes.  The L.A. Times, for example, ran a headline in March 2009 that read “U.S. Missile Strikes Said to Take Heavy Toll on Al Qaeda.”  The story referenced the alleged members of al Qaeda killed in U.S. attacks, but omitted any reference to the number of civilians killed.  Nowhere in the story were international legal scholars or anti-war critics quoted explaining that these attacks are a criminal act of aggression and a blatant violation of international law.  This approach to reporting the Pakistan bombings is standard operating procedure.  For example, the New York Times ran 16 stories, and the L.A. Times 12 stories on the U.S. bombings and aerial drone missions in Pakistan from January 1 to August 31, 2009.  Not a single story in the New York Times, and only one story in the Los Angeles Times emphasized the deaths of civilians from these attacks (“emphasis” here is defined as the discussion of civilian deaths in the headlines or in the first few paragraphs of each story).  These papers preferred to frame the attacks as targeting and killing al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants, but not civilians.

Expansion of U.S. militarism is occurring in relation to Iran as well, as recent reports indicate.  In targeting Iran, Obama demonstrates a commitment to more of the same “might makes right” politics, in direct contravention to the rule of law.  In a recent revelation, General David Petraeus (the architect of the Iraqi “surge,” which succeeded in ethnically cleansing much of Baghdad’s Shi’a population) is now ordering, as the New York Times reports, “a broad expansion of clandestine military activity [in the Middle East] in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and other countries in the region.” The directive “authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces.”  The directive is also notable, as the New York Times reports, because it may “pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.”

Critics can be forgiven for failing to see a difference between the criminal aggression of the Obama and Bush administrations.  Like Obama, Bush also supported secret military actions in the Middle East.  His Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld claimed that secret military attacks on regional “enemies” could be as effective in helping achieve U.S. strategic goals as CIA spies have traditionally been.  During Bush’s tenure, military actions were contemplated for at least twenty countries, authorized against more than twelve countries, and put into effect in Syria, Pakistan, and Somalia (the cases we know about).  While Obama’s and Bush’s covert actions are typically framed in U.S. discourse (what little discourse there has been on them) as necessary in order to promote national security and regional stability in the Middle East, most throughout the world see such attacks as accomplishing the opposite by increasing instability and fostering further hatred and animosity against a country that’s seen as the world’s leading rogue state.

Perceptions of the U.S. have improved significantly under the smooth talking rhetoric of Obama (see Worldpublicopinion.org, “Global Views of the U.S. Improve While Other Countries Decline,” April 18, 2010).  Many Muslims throughout the Middle East appear to appreciate the fact that the president of the most powerful country in the world knows something about their religion, and at least appears in public to care about what people in the rest of the world think of the United States.  None of Obama’s eye candy propaganda, however, should be taken as a confirmation that people around the world are warming to U.S. foreign policy, which is still strongly opposed under this regime.  As the Program on International Policy Attitudes reported once Obama took office: “around the world U.S. foreign policy continues to receive heavy criticism [in a majority of countries surveyed]…The U.S. is criticized for coercing other nations with its superior power, failing to abide by international law, and for how it is dealing with climate change.  Overall, views are mixed on whether the U.S. is playing a mainly positive or mainly negative role of the world.”

The world public is right to be angry at U.S. officials of both parties for their contemptuous disregard of international law and the sovereignty of other nations.  Nothing in the U.N. Charter authorizes the United States or any other country to engage in military attacks against another state, short of 1. explicit authorization of such military action by the U.N. Security Council, or 2. use of force in immediate self defense.  The United States’ conception of “self defense” – defined as the use of violence against any country, at any time, for any reason that officials deem appropriate – is widely rejected by the rest of the world and by international law.  Article 51 of the U.N. Charter states explicitly that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, [or] until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.  Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council.”

Notice that the language of the Charter authorizes violence in the pursuit of self defense only in cases where “an armed attack occurs,” not in cases where an alleged attack may or may not take place in an unknown future.  Additionally, actions taken in the name of “self defense” must be reported to the Security Council, a legal requirement long violated by U.S. officials who use violence without concern for their international legal obligations.

Obama’s snake oil campaign is designed to sell Democratic wars as qualitatively different from Bush’s wars.  Old wine in new bottles, however, still pose the same threat to world security.  The invasion of Iraq was accompanied by a seven-fold increase in terrorist attacks abroad, as anger at the U.S. exploded in light of the occupation’s destructiveness and greatly contributed to regional instability (see Peter Bergen and Paul Cruikshank, “The Iraq Effect,” March 1, 2007).  Similar to Bush, Obama’s wars will not succeed in winning over hostile populations who are angry at the widespread death and destruction caused by U.S. bombs.  Those who’ve fallen under the spell of the “Obama effect” will need to realize this if they are to help reel in U.S. imperialist aggression.


Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.