4 May 2013
Drones and Guantanamo
By Gwynne Dyer
John Bellinger is the last person in Washington you’d expect to criticise President Barack Obama for making too many drone strikes. It was he who drafted the (rather unconvincing) legal justification for targeted drone killings when he was legal adviser to the Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s second administration, and he still supports them. But he went ahead and criticised Obama anyway.
Speaking at a conference at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington on 1 May, Bellinger said: “This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaeda (at Guantanamo), they are going to kill them.” Leaving aside the question of whether most of the people detained at Guantanamo were ever actually members of al-Qaeda, there is a certain amount of plausibility in this accusation.
President Obama wants to close the US prison camp on the Cuban coast where hundreds of suspected supporters of al-Qaeda have been held without charge, some for more almost a decade. There are still 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, and just last week Obama, having been thwarted by Congress in his first-term pledge to close the place, announced his intention to try again with the new Congress.
The US president was quite eloquent about why Guantanamo should be closed. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
It also flouts international law, but even foreign-born Muslim socialist presidents of the United States can never concede that the whole enterprise was illegal. The furthest Obama will go is to say that it was counter-productive from the start, but that alone should be a sufficient justification for closing the place.
So why did John Bellinger, of all people, then accuse Obama of using drones too often? The US president certainly does seem to like them: the vast majority of the 370 US drone attacks, killing an estimated 3,500 people, have been carried out on his watch. According to Bellinger, it’s because Obama knows that if he can’t send the evil-doers to Guantanamo, his only alternative is to kill them with drone strikes.
What we actually have here is an unusually subtle Republican argument: if you don’t like the drone strikes (because they kill lots of innocent people), then you should keep Guantanamo open. But subtle is not the same as valid.
There are two unstated assumptions at the heart of this argument. One is that the US could put its drones away and just capture the people it suspects of being al-Qaeda supporters by conventional means and lock them away in Guantanamo. No fuss, no muss, and no innocent “collateral damage.”
That’s ridiculous: the United States is not going to have much luck in tracking down alleged al-Qaeda supporters in the wilds of Yemen or Afghanistan and spiriting them away to Guantanamo. If it doesn’t target them with drones, then most of them will go on living (and so will the innocent people nearby). But you can’t just leave such dangerous people alive, can you?
This brings us to the second unstated assumption: that if all those dangerous people had been allowed to live, then there would have been hundreds of terrorist attacks against the United States. Or at least dozens. Okay then, how about a couple?
Probably not even one. After all, there were no drone strikes for the first three years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, because the technology was not yet available. Yet even then, when al-Qaeda was still a relatively strong and cohesive organisation, there was not one further terrorist attack on the United States. The link between drone strikes and possible terrorist attacks on the United States is purely rhetorical.
There might have been one or two fewer attacks on American forces in Afghanistan if the drones had not been killing people in the tribal territories of Pakistan, but a simpler remedy than drone strikes would just be to withdraw those forces from Afghanistan as soon as possible. They are not serving any American interest by being there, and they cannot determine who will rule the country after they finally go home.
Indeed, since the Taliban’s guerilla war against the foreign armies in that country only got underway AFTER the drone strikes had begun, and has grown in almost every year since, it’s hard to argue that drones have prevented many attacks even there. The whole “war on terror”, the militarisation of what should have been a counter-terrorist campaign conducted by intelligence services, diplomats, police and courts, was a ghastly blunder from the start.
Never mind. The whole argument is moot. Obama won’t get the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to go along with closing Guantanamo this time either. And he won’t stop the drone strikes because he needs to be seen by the American public to be doing something “positive” as he brings the American troops home from another needless and lost war.
There is not one iota of strategic thinking in any of this. It’s all about American domestic politics, as the response to 9/11 has been from the beginning.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“There might…start”)
16 March 2013
Iraq Ten Years Later
By Gwynne Dyer
Why did George W. Bush choose 19 March, 2003 to invade Iraq, rather than some day in May, or July, or never? Because he was afraid that further delay would give United Nations arms inspectors time to refute the accusation (his sole pretext for making an unprovoked attack on an independent country) that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working on nuclear weapons.
The US president couldn’t say that, of course, and so instead his administration’s spokesmen mumbled about the need to get the war over and done with before the summer heat made fighting impossible. Yet American soldiers proved perfectly capable of operating in that summer heat during the ensuing seven years of fighting, in which over 4,000 of them were killed.
That was nothing compared to the number of Iraqi deaths. At least five times as many Iraqis have died violently in the decade since the US invasion as were killed by Saddam’s regime in the ten years before the invasion. The exact number is unknown, but Saddam’s secret police were probably killing less than 2,000 people a year in 1993-2003. An estimated 121,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the military and political struggles of the past ten years.
Iraq’s infrastructure has still not recovered to its prewar level. More than a million Iraqis still live in internal exile, unable to return to the homes from which they were “cleansed” during the Sunni-Shia sectarian war of 2006-2007. Another million have fled the country for good, including a large proportion of the country’s intellectual and professional elite.
Iraq ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index, ahead of Somalia and North Korea but below Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. The government in Baghdad, though dominated by sectarian Shia politicians, does little for the impoverished Shia majority. The Sunni minority fears and hates it. And the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north just ignores Baghdad and runs a state that is independent in all but name.
Iraq’s courts do the regime’s will, torture is endemic, and the swollen army and “security” forces (used almost exclusively for internal repression) eat up a huge share of the budget. And from the perspective of American grand strategy, the main result of the war has been to weaken the position of the US in the Gulf region and strengthen that of its perceived opponent, Iran.
The United States spent about $800 billion on the Iraq war, and will eventually spend at least another trillion dollars on military pensions, disability payments and debt service. Yet it achieved less than nothing. Why on earth did it invade in the first place?
Even the defenders of the invasion have stopped claiming that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists who were plotting to attack the United States. They were also plotting to overthrow and kill Saddam, as everyone with any knowledge of the Middle East already knew.
The UN weapons inspectors never found the slightest evidence that Saddam had revived the nuclear weapons programme that had been dismantled under UN supervision in the early 1990s. The people in the White House who took the decision to invade must have known that there was no such programme: the way they carefully worded their propaganda in order to avoid explicit lying is ample evidence of that.
The strategist Edward Luttwak once suggested that the real reason was that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had been too easy. After 9/11 the American people really wanted to punish somebody, and Afghanistan had not provided enough catharsis. So another invasion was an emotional necessity, and (given the American public’s ignorance about the Middle East) almost any Arab country would do.
There was certainly a parallel desire among the neo-conservatives in the Bush White House to restore American power to unchallenged dominance after what they saw as the fecklessness of Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s. That required a short and successful war that would put everyone else in awe and fear of American military might – but, once again, any weak and unpopular country would have done. Why Iraq?
The closest we can come to a rational answer is the argument, common in Washington a decade ago, that permanent military bases in Iraq would give America strategic control of the entire Gulf region.
The role of those bases would not be to ensure prompt delivery of the region’s oil to the United States at a low price: only 11 percent of US oil imports come from there. The bases would instead enable the United States to block Gulf exports of oil to China if the United States found itself in a confrontation with that country. (Geo-strategic arguments are often frivolous.)
None of these explanations can justify what was done, and we haven’t even gone into the damage done to international law by this blatantly criminal act. But can we at least conclude that the world, or even just the United Nations, has learned a lesson from all this?
Probably yes for the United States, at least until memories fade. (Give it ten more years.) Not so much for the rest of the world, but then most other countries are less prone to invade faraway places anyway.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 9. (“Iraq…name”; and “Even…that”)
7 November 2012
Obama, Climate Change and the Second Term
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s hard to know how much impact New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments about climate change after Hurricane Sandy had on the US election. It’s easy to overestimate that sort of thing, but President Barack Obama’s victory in several states was so razor-thin that Bloomberg’s last-minute intervention may have been decisive. What’s crystal clear is that Obama himself didn’t want to talk about it during the campaign.
Bloomberg, responding to the devastation he saw in New York City, laid it on the line. “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not have been the result of it, the risk that it may be…should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
The New York mayor, a former Republican, did not hesitate to assign praise and blame: “Over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Mitt Romney, too has a history of tackling climate change…He couldn’t have been more right. But since then, he has reversed course.”
He said this only five days before the election, in the immediate aftermath of a national calamity that may well have been climate-related. So did Obama pick up the ball and run with it? Certainly not. Apart from a one-liner about how climate change “threatens the future of our children” in a single speech, he remained stubbornly silent.
Rightly or wrongly, Obama and his team have been convinced for the past four years that talking about climate change is political suicide. Nor did he actually do all that much: higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles was his only major initiative.
And Mitt Romney, of course, said not a word about climate change: you cannot take this problem seriously and retain any credibility in today’s Republican Party. So was all the instant speculation about how Hurricane Sandy might finally awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change just wishful thinking? Not necessarily.
Obama faces a daunting array of problems as he begins his second term: avoiding the“fiscal cliff”, restraining Israel from attacking Iran, tackling the huge budget deficit, and getting US troops out of Afghanistan. But the biggest problem facing every country is climate change, and he knows it. Otherwise, he would never have appointed a man like John Holdren to be his chief scientific adviser.
Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is one of the leading proponents of action on climate change. He is also savvy enough politically to understand why Obama couldn’t do much about it during his first term, and he didn’t flounce out in a rage when the president avoided that fight.
Obama rarely start fights he cannot win, and it was clear from the day he took office in 2009 that he couldn’t get any climate-related legislation through Congress. That’s why his fuel-efficiency initiative was his only first-term accomplishment on this front: that did not require legislation, and was done as a regulatory initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency. To what extent has his re-election changed this equation?
Second-term US presidents, who no longer have to worry about re-election, often act more boldly than in their first term. The US economy is clearly in recovery mode, and Obama will (quite justly) get the credit for that. That will give him more leeway to act on other issues, and the environmental disasters of the past year may finally be pushing American public opinion towards a recognition that the threat of climate change is real.
There is not yet any opinion-polling data on that, but it wouldn’t be surprising. This year has seen meltdown in the Arctic, heatwaves that killed over ten percent of the main grain crops in the United States, big changes in the jetstream (which may be responsible for the prolonged high-pressure zone that steered Hurricane Sandy into New York), and then the fury of the storm itself.
It has long been argued that what is needed to penetrate the American public’s resistance to the bad news of climate change is a major climate-related disaster THAT HURTS PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES. Even if Sandy may not have been a direct consequence of global warming, it fills that bill. It may get the donkey’s attention at last.
There is no guarantee of that, and each year the risk grows that the average global temperature will eventually rise by over 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) and topple into uncontrollable, runaway warming. Moreover, the Republicans still control the lower house of Congress. But hope springs eternal, and at last there is some.
The past two weeks have seen an unexpected and promising conjunction of events: a weather event that may shake the American public’s denial of climate change, and the re-election of a president who gets it, and who is now politically free to act on his convictions. As “Businessweek” (a magazine owned by Michael Bloomberg) put it on last week’s cover: “It’s global warming, stupid.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The New York…course”; and “There is…itself”)
31 October 2012
Changing the Guard in China
By Gwynne Dyer
By the end of November 6, we will know who will be the president of the United States for the next four years. We already know who will be the leader of China for the next ten years, although Xi Jinping will not be officially installed in power until a few days later. But some would argue that that is the more important event.
The United States, after all, is a rich country with a stable and democratic political system. American politics has suffered a severe case of gridlock in recent years, but nobody believes that it should be solved by radical changes in the US constitution. Any changes that result from the outcome of next Tuesday’s election will be marginal, because that’s the way that most Americans want it.
China, by contrast, has had thirty years of high-speed economic growth that has created huge inequality.There are a million Chinese millionaires, most of them closely linked to the ruling party, while most people get by on around $250 a month. Yet there has been no perceptible change in the Chinese political system in all these years, and the new guy’s family is stinking rich.
Bloomberg revealed last June that Xi Jinping’s elder sister, his brother-in-law, and their daughter had property and investments worth at least $300 million. There is no evidence that Xi himself, who gets a ministerial salary of about $1,000 a month, is directly involved in these enterprises, but his family’s rise to great wealth is typical of what has been happening in the senior cadres of the Chinese Communist Party.
Indeed, the outgoing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has an even bigger family problem. Wikipedia published a US diplomatic cable dated 2007 that quoted a business executive in Shanghai who said: “Wen is disgusted with his family’s activities, but is either unable or unwilling to curtail them.” A New York Times investigation published this month estimated the Wen family’s wealth at $2.7 billion.
Both of these men’s wealth problems were dwarfed by those of the now-disgraced Bo Xilai, until recently the Communist Party chief in the city of Chongqing. The family’s wealth was only in the low hundreds of millions, but when Bo’s wife Gu Kailai fell out with a British businessman who helped them to transfer money abroad, she had him killed.
Even among the Chinese elite, this is seen as excessive, and Gu is on trial for murder. Bo has been stripped of his offices and expelled from the Party. But everybody knows that the families of senior officials mysteriously often end up very rich.
Not all of the 2,987 members of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, are rich – but the richest seventy of them, according to the Hurun Report, a magazine best known for its “China Rich List”, have a combined net worth of $85 billion.
Virtually nobody believes in the old Communist ideology any more: “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is only another way of saying “capitalism plus authoritarianism.” The Party’s power survives because it has been able to deliver steadily rising living standards for most people, and because it has been fairly successful in persuading them that the only alternative to its rule is chaos.
This is not a stable situation. No capitalist economy can avoid an occasional recession, but that kind of cyclical decline in jobs and incomes is dangerous for a system whose credibility depends on providing continuous growth. The Chinese regime has been very good at postponing the inevitable – it escaped the 2008 recession by massive public spending – but at some point in the relatively near future, there will be a major recession in China.
The resemblance between the current Chinese economic bubble and the great Japanese bubble of the 1980s is close enough to suggest that the hangover may be just as great in China when the bubble finally bursts. Two decades later Japan is still unable to get its economy growing again, but its political system has survived because it is democratic, and because the level of corruption is relatively low.
The Chinese regime’s lack of democratic legitimacy and its manifest corruption make it very vulnerable in such a situation. The economic misery would be compounded by massive civil unrest, and it might even bring the end of Communist rule.
Most of the senior people in the Party will be well aware of this, but they seem incapable of doing anything about it. Part of the problem is that they remember all too clearly what happened to the old Soviet Communist Party when it started trying to reform itself under Mikhail Gorbachev. It disintegrated instead.
An even bigger obstacle to change is the degree to which the economic interests of the elite are linked to the present, deeply corrupt system. If apparently honest men like Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping are unable to control the reckless greed of their own relatives, what hope is there that the Party can change its behaviour in time to avert disaster?
The coronation of Xi Jinping probably won’t make any difference at all. You might as well watch the American election. At least there is some uncertainty about the outcome.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“Both…rich”; and “The resemblance…low”)