It is true that he doesn’t seem to have been very clear-headed in his answer. He blamed “the intelligence” for what he said was a consensus of himself and Hilary Clinton. But the question was not, would you have trusted intelligence agencies all over again, but rather would you still do it knowing what we know now. He said he would, even now.
We know now (actually we knew then) that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda or the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program.
As Lord Goldsmith tried to tell then British Prime Minister Tony Blair (who hid Goldstone’s cautions from his own cabinet), there are only three justifications for war in post-1945 international law. The first is self-defense, but Saddam Hussein had not attacked the United States. In fact, in the 1980s Saddam launched an illegal war of aggression on Iran, using chemical weapons, and the Reagan administration actively helped him pursue that war, as well as running interference for his chemical weapons use at the UN Security Council. So not only had Saddam not attacked the US but he had been a de facto US ally.
The second ground might be a humanitarian intervention under, e.g., the Genocide Convention. This one is controversial but has gained some momentum from the Rome Statute ratified in 2002 and establishing the International Criminal Court. But Iraq was not committing genocide in 2002, whatever had happened in earlier decades.
Advocating a war of aggression in the absence of any of these three legitimate grounds for war is itself a war crime. At least one of the Nazis convicted and executed as a result of the Nuremberg trials was guilty of nothing more than war propaganda. The Tribunal there famously wrote:
“The charges in the indictment that the defendants planned and waged aggressive war are charges of the utmost gravity. War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” [emph. added]
After the end of the Nuremberg trials it became common in the US Congress to disregard all efforts to ensure that the massive crimes of the 1940s are never repeated. Small men from small states routinely proclaim that the Unites States of America will go to war against whomever it pleases whenever it pleases without let or hindrance from those pesky international tribunals. In short, their speeches sound better in the original German. (The US has invaded 50 countries since 1945.)
Jeb Bush and many other politicians routinely speak in this frankly fascist manner. What does it mean when they say they want to attack Iran or keep “all options on the table”? They mean that one of the options they want to keep on the table is a hitlerian invasion of some other hapless country, the equivalent of Poland in 1939. Iran also has not attacked the United States; and there is no UNSC authorization for the use of military force against Iran for any reason, including genocide.
The great tragedy that there was no trial for anyone guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity in the Bush administration is that this lawless and fascistic tradition of discourse can continue glibly on. As with Jeb Bush, saying he’d do it all over again.
Humanitarian organizations have high hopes in the ceasefire as a time when aid can be gotten to the people. PressTV reports, “The UNICEF said 120,000 Yemeni children are at the risk of severe malnutrition over the next three months in case health and hygiene services fail to function normally.”
The Saudi bloc also conducted another strike on the former presidential mansion of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the deposed president for life who has now allied with the Houthi rebels against his deposed successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Saleh appeared unscathed in front of it and taunted the Saudis that if they sent ground troops instead of planes, Yemenis would teach them a lesson.
Some social media posts by Moroccans are blaming King Mohammad VI for getting involved in this distant war. Morocco, a country of 32 million, has a well-equipped, well-trained military and dwarfs in military and human resources most of the small Gulf Cooperation Council countries. As a Sunni Muslim monarchy, it has commonalities with them and there has been talk of Morocco joining the GCC. Morocco is desperately poor, with a GDP of only a little over $100 bn., and presumably receives strategic rent from the wealthy Gulf principalities for its help.
The Saudis issued a warning to civilians in the Saadeh area to flee, then carpet-bombed the place, a procedure that drew a sharp rebuke from human rights organizations.
The Houthis retaliated with more SCUD and katyusha rocket attacks on Najran and on an oil facility in Dhahran al-Janub in Asir province just north of Yemen. The Houthis hit Najran for the first time last week, provoking intense Saudi bombing of the movement’s home territory in Saadeh, north Yemen, reducing much of it to rubble. The strike on the Saudi Arabian Oil Company facility is the first economically significant target the Houthis have hit inside Saudi Arabia.
At the southern front, around Aden, the Houthis vowed to go on fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The US military, despite being at odds with the Houthis, continues to hit al-Qaeda leaders with drone strikes, which at the moment helps the Houthis. Strange bedfellows abound.
Couldn’t say it looked very much like the prelude to a ceasefire.
Watching Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia nowadays, is like Kremlin-watching in the old days of the Cold War. It is not as if most Western journalists have a really good idea of the maneuverings inside the Saudi palace or know why exactly things happen.
Since King Salman succeeded the late Abdullah this winter, Saudi Arabia has become a different country with regard to foreign policy. Abdullah was known for being cautious and diplomatic. He appears to have attempted to head off the Iraq War at the Arab League meeting in 2002 by kissing Izzat Duri Saddam Hussain on both cheeks as a sign to Washington that he wasn’t on board with an invasion. Even in the darkest days of tension with Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he invited the quirky Iranian president to Riyadh. He wanted Bashar al-Assad of Syria gone after the latter started massacring that country’s Sunni rebel strongholds, including civilians in rebel zones, but he was uncomfortable with the rise of al-Qaeda-linked groups and Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) in Syria and threw support instead to a southern front of moderates in cooperation with Jordan and to Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam (a component of the Islamic Front).
Since Salman came to power, it is as though Bruce Banner got angry and turned into the Incredible Hulk. Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has been palpably uncomfortable with the campaign against Daesh in Iraq, which has seen Iran-linked Shiite militias take the lead in conquering Sunni Arab centers like Tikrit. Saudi Arabia is afraid of Daesh too, but not nearly as afraid of it as it is of Iran and Iran’s Shiite allies in the region. Riyadh appears to have suddenly been willing to aid the new coalition of rebels in north Syria, the Army of Conquest, even though one of its major members is al-Qaeda in Syria (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra). And then without telling the US it was going to do so until the last minute, the Saudi Air Force began a massive bombing campaign on Yemen in a bid to destroy the rebel Houthi movement of Zaidi Shiites that was taking over that country, Saudi Arabia believes, as a proxy of Iran.
I think we may conclude that something has changed. The hawks have taken over Saudi Arabia and it is newly militarily assertive and the long-standing paranoia about Iran has spun out of control.
Enter President Barack Obama, who wants to do a deal with Iran to allow it to enrich uranium for electricity generation but to forever forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon (which Iran in any case says it does not want and considers a tool of the devil). A nuclear settlement is not a threat in itself, as common sense should make clear, but it would entail an end to the severe sanctions that have somewhat constrained Iran’s economic growth and technological development.
Iran, if it came in from the cold and could freely do commerce and technological exchange with the West, could become the giant of the eastern reaches of the Middle East. Its population is nearly that of Germany, whereas Saudi Arabia’s citizen population is closer to that of Romania. And the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are tiny principalities. The citizen population of Qatar is less than 300,000 and even the United Arab Emirates has a citizen population of only a couple of million – we are talking about Iceland and Slovenia here. Population is important in geopolitics because it determines the size of the army that can be fielded and it also usually has implications for size of gross domestic product. Here, however, Iran has about the same nominal GDP as the United Arab Emirates, because the former’s oil sales and financial transactions have been throttled, whereas the UAE freely sells its petroleum and also rivals Switzerland as a banking and investment center.
That is, Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies believe that we are in a moment like that of the 1860s, when the German principalities were coming together as modern Germany. The first big sign of the new kid on the block was the defeat of Napoleon III’s France at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Since then, Germany has usually been dominant, either as a powerful enemy or as a senior partner in Europe after WW II. Saudi Arabia distinctly does not want to play France to a Bismarckian Iran.
One thing you could do as Lilliputians to constrain the Iranian Gulliver is tie it down with lots of small constraints and alliances. Hence, Obama’s summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman). They want, AP reports, a security deal with the US similar to the special relationship with Israel. Perhaps something less than a formal NATO treaty alliance, but much more than a vague commitment to be supportive and friendly. They want lots of American weapons and trainers and they want an iron clad security shield from Iran.
In the absence of many public statements, I can only speculate. But I think Obama’s priority will be to convince the GCC that:
a) The Iran deal makes them safer, not more exposed, with regard to Iran
b) This Yemen scorched earth aerial bombing campaign cannot solve the Yemen crisis and needs to be replaced with a diplomatic and political negotiation process
c) The new Saudi (and Turkish) willingness to support coalitions in Syria that include al-Qaeda is unacceptable
d) Daesh has to be rolled back and defeated, even if that strengthens the Shiite, Iran-backed government in Baghdad of Haydar al-Abadi of the Islamic Call Party (Da’wa), which is generally fiercely anti-Wahhabi (Wahhabism is the Saudi state church, and it has a history of being fiercely anti-Shiite).
This list appears to have angered King Salman, so that he has canceled his trip to Washington and will send his new crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, instead. Likewise, Bahrain’s king will not attend (his Sunni court has been repressing a political movement of the Shiite majority that he believes is stirred up by Shiite Iran). Other absences, the top leaders of the UAE and Oman, are probably health-related and not, as with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, intended to send a signal of displeasure with Obama’s complaisance toward Iran. In fact, Oman has been a mediator with Iran and its foreign office approves of Obama’s outreach to that country. Dubai in the UAE is also reportedly happy about the Iran rapprochement.
The NYT quotes a UAE professor who maintains that the GCC countries were upset when Obama said that they faced more internal problems than they did from Iran. The GCC states are mostly absolute monarchies, with the exception of Kuwait, and many do face popular discontent, as with Bahrain. Many also have enormous guest worker populations that dwarf the citizen population and who are trapped in sweat shops without rights. Obama is right that they need substantial reforms if they are to avoid potential severe unrest, but maybe it wasn’t the right time to say it.
In short, Obama’s GCC summit will not be the high-powered equivalent of a G7 meeting, where the top leaders hobnob and make personal understandings. It will largely be a summit of crown princes, the people typically sent to the state funeral of lesser world leaders. And that should tell us something about Gulf-US relations right now.
The Hawaii legislature has just passed a bill by an overwhelming margin that sets a goal of 100% renewable energy in the state by 2045. The new law requires that the state get a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020, only five years from now. Electricity in Hawaii is expensive, about 34 cents a kilowatt hour for residences, since unlike most states it depends on petroleum as the fuel for its plants, and that has to be imported across long distances. The US average cost for residential electricity is 12 cents a kilowatt hour. New solar installations can provide it as low as 6 cents a kilowatt hour, and new geothermal plants are slightly cheaper (Hawaii has a *lot* of potential geothermal power but there is substantial public resistance, and solar may be the better play). So the legislature’s plan is the only thing that makes sense, and if anything its timeline is not nearly ambitious enough. Even a developing country like Morocco plans for 42% renewables by 2020, and Scotland may well be 100% by then. Costa Rica already is.
China put in 5 gigawatts of new solar plants in the first three months of 2015 alone. In all of 2014, the USA did not install that much new solar, and 2014 was a remarkably good year for solar power in the US. China is near to outstripping Germany for title of country with the most solar energy. It will likely have 45 gigwatts of solar generation capacity by the end of 2015, 10 gigs more than it had planned for.
Smarting from a string of losses, the proregime coalition of Hizbullah and the Syrian Arab Army is looking for some victories against the al-Qaeda-linked Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). They seek them in the Qalamoun mountain range near the Lebanese-Syrian border, where Hizbullah was victorious last year this time. In the meantime, towns like Asal al-Ward had been infiltrated by the Support Front all over again.
Fighting in this area has the advantage that it makes Lebanon itself a form of strategic depth for the campaign that will be defended by the Lebanese Army, as Hizbullah and SAA forces fight just over the border into Syria. Likewise, the Christian population in the town of Ra’s Baalbak is throwing up its own militia for self-defense on the Lebanese side of the border and is allied with Hizbullah. This coalition of Shiite and Christian forces against al-Qaeda makes for a good image of Hizbullah inside Lebanon and may be aimed at countering the charge of Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri that Hizbullah is putting Iran’s strategic interests in Yemen and Iraq ahead of the safety of Lebanon.
Journalists such as the intrepid Liz Sly covering the Syrian Civil War were struck with the victories of the Army of Conquest coalition in northern Syria, which in recent weeks first took Idlib city (they had already taken most of Idlib province) and then Jisr al-Shughur, a key town that is the gateway to the port of Latakia and its largely Alawite Shiite hinterland. What accounted for sudden breakthrough of the extremist coalition of the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front ( Jabhat al-Nusra), of Syrian Freedom Fighters (Ahrar al-Sham), and other smaller groups devoted to holy war?
Idlib Governorate via Wikimedia
One explanation: These groups were better funded all of a sudden and receiving coordinated outside help from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Under the late King Abdallah, Saudi policy in Syria was a mess. He hated the Muslim Brotherhood, from which many Syrian rebels hail, and wanted to create alternatives such as the Army of Islam (the Syrian Freedom Fighters are part of this coalition). But the Army of Islam did not do very well. The Saudis, having themselves been targeted by al-Qaeda, saw the Support Front as poison, and were reluctant to help the groups in the north who were willing to ally with the Support Front.
Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan has no such compunctions and is convince Desmond Butler of AP reports, that the Support Front cannot be all that influential in a post-Assad Syria.
The Turkish calculation is way too unimaginative and insouciant. Those Sunni countries that supported the Sunni Arab insurgency against the new American and Shiite establishment in Iraq after 2003 also appear not to have counted on an extremist group like Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) taking over 42% of Iraqi territory.
The new Saudi king, Salman, is said to be less harsh toward the Muslim Brotherhood and willing to use them both in Yemen and in Syria in his struggle with what he perceives as Iranian hegemony in the region. (Iran supports the Baathist government of Bashar al-Assad. While Iran is Shiite and al-Assad is from the Alawite Shiite sect, it is not the case that Iran is supporting Damascus because of Shiism; the Alawites are heterodox and the Baathist regime is miiitantly secular. But King Salman sees it that way).
Salman is thus on the same page with Erdogan, and this new Saudi-Turkish bloc is able to funnel substantially more funds to the Army of Conquest coalition, which includes but subsumes al-Qaeda and the Army of Islam (including the Freedom Fighters of Syria).
The United States is appalled at the idea of supporting groups that a) are themselves religious extremists, b) often have their own links to al-Qaeda, and c) are openly allying with al-Qaeda in Syria, i.e. the Support Front.
Some Syria observers have written me complaining that you cannot put the Turkey-backed Freedom Fighters of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) in the same category with al-Qaeda, although they are Salafi hardliners. An Ahrar leader, Hassan Aboud, with strong al-Qaeda links has since been killed, but I doubt he was the only one in the group with al-Qaeda connections; and it tells you something that he rose among them to become a leader! Not to mention that they are actively allied with al-Qaeda in Syria
We have seen this movie before. Syria is a multicultural society, with 14% Alawite Shiite, 5% Christian, other groups like Druze and Twelver Shiite and Ismaili, then 10% mostly Marxist Kurds, and a majority of the Sunnis are strong secularists. A Taliban-like group taking over the country would be just another huge catastrophe like 1996 in Afghanistan. Moreover, you can’t count out the Support Front rising to the top in that post-Assad government; nor, indeed, has Daesh been defeated, and it could make territorial gains.
One caveat: The fall of a couple of towns in Idlib is not necessarily a game changer in the war; the regime has lost more important cities, like Homs, and managed to come back. Things are likely to seesaw for a long time, and if the Army of Conquest has Saudi money, al-Assad has Russian and Iranian money.
The current Obama administration compromise with Turkey and Syria is to try to train and fund 5,000 “moderate” Syrian fighters a year in hopes that they over time will displace both the extremists and the al-Assad regime. But this program in Afghanistan saw substantial defections to the Taliban, and many of these ‘moderates’ could end up in al-Qaeda and Daesh with US weapons and training (as has already happened).
Pretty much anything that happens in Syria for the next 10 or 15 years is likely to be horrible. A victory for the Turkish-Saudi plan is only one of the potential horrors. But it would be a horror.
Netanyahu has again allied with the far, far right Ha-Bayit Ha-Yahudi or the Jewish Home Party, whose leader refers to Israelis to his left as “bacteria.” This small party opposes ever accepting a Palestinian state, which is to say, it is dedicated to keeping several million Palestinians stateless and without basic human rights. It also is dedicated to stealing even more of what little land they have left in the West Bank for new Israeli colonies there.
If such a government were elected in Europe, with such principles and goals, no other capital would receive its politicians because they would be seen as toxic for their ultra-nationalism and discrimination against minorities. And, it is a sad commentary on the Israeli electorate that they elected this government.
In other words, this is a government dedicated to denying millions their rights, dedicated to denigrating about half of the Israeli population themselves, dedicated to territorial expansion and expropriation of the property of others.
There have been similar turning points in the past. In 1848, for instance, James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, became Governor-General of India. He centralized the administration and vastly extended the territory directly ruled by the British as opposed to ruling through local rajas and princes. He annexed seven such principalities, including, in 1856, that of the kingdom of Awadh (Oudh). Dalhousie boasted of thus adding 10 million persons to her majesty’s stock of subjects, and talked of Oudh as a “ripe plum.”
In 1857-58 the people of Oudh mounted a determined rebellion against the British that nearly cost the latter their Indian empire, which Indians now call the First War of Independence but which the British refer to as the Great Mutiny, because even British Indian soldiers joined in, often massacring their officers.
Or one thinks of the 1984 election of P. W. Botha to head the Apartheid government of South Africa. Botha had spearheaded constitutional reforms but left the black majority without representation in the government, just as the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have no representative government that controls land, air, water and property rights in their territories. He ratcheted up secret police crackdowns on protesting Africans and strengthened the Apartheid system and that of Bantustans designed to denaturalize the African citizens. He had a stroke in 1989 and was forced out of office. A few years later Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa, occupying a position Botha had created for himself.
Netanyahu’s policies and those of his far, far right allies, may or may not provoke the kind of trouble that torpedoed the political projects of Dalhousie and Botha. But if they do, it will come as no surprise.
In another sign that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right nationalism is turning Israel into a pariah state, pop star Lauryn Hill has cancelled a planned concert outside Tel Aviv. She was subjected to a great deal of pressure from fans on social media to withdraw the appearance, some of whom, The Guardian says, instanced the song “Killing Me Softly,” which she had covered, as a description of Israeli Occupation policy toward the Palestinians.
“When deciding to play the region, my intention was to perform in both Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Setting up a performance in the Palestinian Territory, at the same time as our show in Israel, proved to be a challenge. I’ve wanted very much to bring our live performance to this part of the world, but also to be a presence supporting justice and peace. It is very important to me that my presence or message not be misconstrued, or a source of alienation to either my Israeli or my Palestinian fans. For this reason, we have decided to cancel the upcoming performance in Israel, and seek a different strategy to bring my music to ALL of my fans in the region. May healing, equanimity, and the openness necessary for lasting resolution and reconciliation come to this region and its people.”
Hill, who is legendary for her stunning Grammy Award-winning work in the 1990s, is in the midst of an attempted comeback via the concert circuit after an erratic decade that included legal troubles over taxes and song releases that failed to chart.
Her strategy of dealing with the demand for a boycott of Israel over its continued brutal occupation and Apartheid policies toward Palestine, of seeing whether she could also perform in the Palestinian West Bank, is an interesting one, as a quest for even-handedness. But it proved logistically impossible, she says. So too is her framing of the cancellation as a way of avoiding tensions.
For African-American performers (and anyone with a conscience) the Apartheid dimension of the Occupation makes the appeals of the BDS fans hard to ignore.
Interestingly, Jewish Voices for Peace is the top Twitter hit at her feed, thanking her for her decision.
Wind power is on a roll in the US despite a fickle Congress and the machinations of Big Coal and Big Gas to keep all the subsidies for themselves. And one of the world’s most successful investors, Warren Buffett, has noticed.
As of the end of the first quarter of 2015, 13.6 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity from wind is being constructed in 23 states via 100 projects. About $23 billion worth of new wind farms are being implemented. US wind power is expected to double, at the least, by 2020.
BHE Renewables, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., is going to open a 400 megawatt wind farm in Nebraska in 2016 that will increase the state’s wind-generated electricity by 50% and take the state closer to its goal of getting a third of its power from renewables. Nebraska currently has 800 MW of wind-provided electrical power. The state utility will buy all of the new production.
BHE Renewables, founded in 2011, has invested $10 billion to generate 3.4 gigawatts from hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind plants. Utilities make long-term agreements to buy the energy. Since the fuel for these plants is free, there’s money to be made in generating electricity this way.
Responding, at the meeting, to criticisms that Coca Cola (in which BH invests) has too much sugar, vice chairman Charlie Munger, 91, insisted that sugar has kept his arteries from hardening. Buffett was quick to say that the two are no talking up Coca Cola, since they hope to buy more of its stock. People would be wrong to think they would do that, Buffett said.
According to USA Today, Munger agreed: “If people weren’t so often wrong, we wouldn’t be so rich.”
The same principle seems to apply to Berkshire Hathaway’s massive investments in wind. Why wouldn’t everyone do that?
Another Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, MidAmerican Energy Company, is active in Iowa and the Midwest and it is putting nearly another $1 billion into wind in Iowa. MidAmerican said Friday that since 2004, it has invested almost $6 billion in wind energy. In Iowa, it currently powers some 1.2 million homes with 4 gigawatts of wind energy. The new projects will increase wind electricity by 522 megawatts in that state. That’s about half the nameplate capacity of a small nuclear power plant. With two new wind farms finished, MidAmerican Energy will have 2000 wind turbines in Iowa. Even today, the state gets 27% of its electricity from wind, the highest of any state in the country, and it seems likely to go on up from there. Iowa avoids on the order of 9 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually because of its wind generation. (In 2011 the state put out 84 million metric tons of CO2).
The state’s record on renewables allows it to implement EPA carbon regulations much less painfully than will be the case in many other states.
Wind energy employs 6,000 people in Iowa, up by 2000 from 2013.
Cleaner air and avoiding pollution and climate change will also improve Iowans’ health. Otherwise, they are looking at shortages of clean water, increased asthma in children, increased infectious diseases, and a host of other problems.
The Obama administration has adamantly refused to count. Not a body. In fact, for a long time, American officials associated with Washington’s drone assassination campaigns and “signature strikes” in the backlands of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen claimed that there were no bodies to count, that the CIA’s drones were so carefully handled and so “precise” that they never produced an unmeant corpse — not a child, not a parent, not a wedding party. Nada.
When it came to “collateral damage,” there was no need to count because there was nothing to tote up or, at worst, such civilian casualties were “in the single digits.” That this was balderdash, that often when those drones unleashed their Hellfire missiles they were unsure who exactly was being targeted, that civilians were dying in relatively countable numbers — and that others were indeed counting them — mattered little, at least in this country until recently. Drone war was, after all, innovative and, as presented by two administrations, quite miraculous. In 2009, CIA Director Leon Panetta called it “the only game in town” when it came to al-Qaeda. And what a game it was. It needed no math, no metrics. As the Vietnam War had proved, counting was for losers — other than the usual media reports that so many “militants” had died in a strike or that some al-Qaeda “lieutenant” or “leader” had gone down for the count.
That era ended on April 23rd when President Obama entered the White House briefing room and apologized for the deaths of American aid worker Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, two Western hostages of al-Qaeda. They had, the president confessed, been obliterated in a strike against a terrorist compound in Pakistan, though in his comments he managed not to mention the word “drone,” describing what happened vaguely as a “U.S. counterterrorism operation.” In other words, it turned out that the administration was capable of counting — at least to two.
And that brings us to the other meaning of “Who counts?” If you are an innocent American or Western civilian and a drone takes you out, you count. If you are an innocent Pakistani, Afghan, or Yemeni, you don’t. You didn’t count before the drone killed you and you don’t count as a corpse either. For you, no one apologizes, no one pays your relatives compensation for your unjust death, no one even acknowledges that you existed. This is modern American drone reality and the question of who counts and whom, if anyone, to count is part of the contested legacy of Washington’s never-ending war on terror.
Once upon a time, of course, enemy deaths were a badge of honor in war, but the American “body count,” which would become infamous in the Vietnam era, had always been a product of frustration, not pride. It originated in the early 1950s, in the “meat-grinder” days of the Korean War, after the fighting had bogged down in a grim stalemate and signs of victory were hard to come by. It reappeared relatively early in the Vietnam War years as American officials began searching for “metrics” that would somehow express victory in a country where taking territory in the traditional fashion meant little. As time went on, the brutality of that war increased, and the promised “light at the end of the tunnel” glowed ever more dimly, the metrics of victory only grew, and the pressure to produce that body count, which could be announced daily by U.S. press spokesmen to increasingly dubious journalists in Saigon did, too. Soon enough, those reporters began referring to the daily announcements of those figures as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”
On the ground, the pressure within the military to produce impressive body counts for those “Follies” resulted in what GIs called the “Mere Gook Rule.” (“If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC [Viet Cong].”) And soon enough anything counted as a body. As William Calley, Jr., of My Lai massacre fame, testified, “At that time, everything went into a body count — VC, buffalo, pigs, cows. Something we did, you put it on your body count, sir… As long as it was high, that was all they wanted.”
When, however, victory proved illusory, that body count came to appear to ever more Americans on the home front like grim slaughter and a metric from hell. As a sign of success, increasingly detached from reality yet producing reality, it became a death-dealing Catch-22. As those bodies piled up and in the terminology of the times a “credibility gap” yawned between the metrics and reality, the body count became a symbol not just of a war of frustration, but of defeat itself. It came, especially after the news of the My Lai massacre finally broke in the U.S., to look both false and barbaric. Whose bodies were those anyway?
In the post-Vietnam era, not surprisingly, Washington would treat anything associated with the disaster that had been Vietnam as if it were radioactive. So when, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration’s top officials began planning their twenty-first-century wars in a state of exhilarated anticipation, they had no intention of reliving anything that reeked of Vietnam. There would be no body bags coming home in the glare of media attention, no body counts in the battle zones. They were ready to play an opposites game when it came to Vietnam. General Tommy Franks, who directed the Afghan invasion and then the one in Iraq, caught the mood perfectly in 2003 when he said, “We don’t do body counts.”
There would be no more “Five O’clock Follies,” not in wars in which victory was assured for “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world” and “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” (as presidents took to calling the U.S. military). And that remains official military policy today. Only recently, for instance, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby responded to a journalist’s question about how many Islamic State fighters and civilians U.S. air power had recently killed in Washington’s latest war in Iraq this way: “First of all, we don’t have the ability to — to count every nose that we shwack [sic]. Number two, that’s not the goal. That’s not the goal… And we’re not getting into an issue of body counts. And that’s why I don’t have that number handy. I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t have asked my staff to give me that number before I came out here. It’s simply not a relevant figure.”
From 2003 to 2015, official policy on the body count has not reflected reality. The U.S. military has, in fact, continued to count bodies. For one thing, it kept and reported the numbers on America’s war dead, bodies that truly counted, though no one would have called the tallies a body count. For another, from beginning to end, the military has been secretly counting the dead on the other side as well, perhaps to privately convince themselves, Vietnam-style, that they were indeed winning in wars where a twenty-first-century version of the credibility gap appeared all too quickly and never left the scene. As David Axe has written, the military “proudly boasts of the totals in official documents that it never intends for public circulation.” He added, “The disconnect over wartime body counts reflects a yawning gap between the military’s public face and its private culture.”
To Count or Not to Count, That Is the Question
But here was the oddest thing: whatever the military might have been counting, the fact that it stopped counting in public didn’t stop the body count from happening. It turned out that there were others on this planet no less capable of counting dead bodies. In the end, the cast of characters producing the public metrics of this era simply changed and with it the purpose of the count. The newcomers had, you might say, different answers to both parts of the question: Who counts?
Over the last century, as “collateral damage” — the deaths of civilians, rather than combatants — has become ever more the essence of war, the importance of who is dying and in what numbers has only increased. When the U.S. military began refusing to make its body count part of a public celebration of its successes, civil society stepped in with a very different impulse: to shame, blame, and hold the military’s feet to the fire by revealing the deeper carnage of war itself and what it does to society, not just to the warriors.
While the previous counters had pretended that all bodies belonged to enemies, the new counters tried to make “collateral damage” the central issue of war. No matter what the researchers who have done such counts may say, most of them are, by their nature, critiques of war, American-style, and included in them were no longer just the bodies, civilian and military, found on the battlefield, but every body that could somehow be linked to a conflict or its fallout, its side effects, its afteraffects.
Think of this as a new numerology of defeat or disaster or slaughter or shame. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, distinctly non-military outfits took up this counting or estimating process. In 2004 and 2006, the Lancet, a British medical journal, published studies based on scientific surveys of “excess Iraqi deaths” since the American invasion of 2003 and, in the first case, came up with an estimated 98,000 of them and in the second with 655,000 (a much-criticizedfigure); such studies by medical and other researchers have never stopped. More recent counts of such deaths have ranged from 500,000 in 2013 to one million or 5% of the Iraqi population this year.
The most famous enumeration of civilian casualties in Iraq, however, comes from the constantly upgraded tally — based on published media reports, hospital and morgue records, and the like — of Iraq Body Count, the independent website that bills itself as “the public record of violent deaths following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.” At this moment, its most up-to-date top estimate for civilian deaths since that invasion is 156,000 (211,000, including the deaths of combatants). And these figures are considered by the site and others as distinctly conservative, no more than what can be known about a subject of which much is, by necessity, unknown.
In Afghanistan, there has been less tallying, but the U.N. Mission there has kept a count of civilian casualties from the ongoing war and estimates the cumulative figure, since 2001, at 21,000 (though again, that is undoubtedly a conservative figure). However, when it comes to the American drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, in particular, where the Obama administration has adamantly resisted the idea of significant civilian casualties, the civilian counters have been there under the most impressively difficult circumstances, sometimes with representatives on the ground in distant parts of Pakistan and elsewhere. In a world in which drone operators refer to the victims of their strikes as “bug splat” and top administration officials prefer to obliterate those “bugs” a second time by denying that their deaths even occurred, the attempt to give them back their names, ages, and sexes, to remind the world of what was most human about the dead of our new wars, should be considered a heroic task.
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in particular, has done careful as well as dogged work tabulating drone casualties in Pakistan and Yemen, including counts and estimates of all those killed by drones, of civilians killed by drones, and of children killed by drones. It even has a project, “Naming the Dead,” that attempts to reattach names and other basic personal information — sometimes even photos — to the previously nameless dead (721 of them so far). The Long War Journal (a militarized exception to the rule when it comes to the counters of this era) has also kept a record of what it could dig up about drone deaths in Pakistan and Yemen, as has the New America Foundation on Pakistan. In 2012 the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic studied the three sources of such counts and issued a report of its own.
Among the more fascinating reports, the human-rights group Reprieve recently considered claims to drone “precision” and surgical accuracy by doing its own analysis of the available data. It concluded that, in trying to target and assassinate 41 enemy figures in Pakistan and Yemen over the years, Washington’s drones had managed to kill 1,147 people without even killing all the figures actually targeted. (As Spencer Ackerman of the Guardianwrote, “The drones came for Ayman Zawahiri on 13 January 2006, hovering over a village in Pakistan called Damadola. Ten months later, they came again for the man who would become al-Qaida’s leader, this time in Bajaur. Eight years later, Zawahiri is still alive. Seventy-six children and 29 adults, according to reports after the two strikes, are not.”)
In other words, when it came to counting, civil society rode to the rescue, though the impact of the figures produced has remained limited indeed in this country. In some ways, the only body count of any sort that has made an impression here in recent years has been sniper Chris Kyle’s 160 confirmed Iraqi “kills” that played such a part in the publicity for the blockbuster movie American Sniper.
In his public apology for deaths that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years. Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. “It is a cruel and bitter truth,” he said, “that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur. But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones. This attitude has infused Obama’s global assassination program and the White House “kill list” that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen. Pride in his killing agenda was evident in the decision to leak news of that list to the New York Times back in May 2012. And this version of American exceptionalism fits well with the exceptionalism of the drone itself — even if it is a weapon guaranteed to become less exceptional as it spreads to more countries (in part through recently green-lighted U.S. drone sales to allies).
On the rarest of occasions, Obama admitted in that White House briefing room, drone strikes even kill exceptional people (like us) who need to be attended to presidentially, whose deaths deserve apologies, whose lives are to be highlighted in special media accounts, and whose value is such that recompense is due to their families. In most of the places the drone goes, however, those it kills by mistake are, by definition, unexceptional. They deserve neither notice nor apology nor recompense. They count for nothing.
One thing makes the drone a unique weapon in the world of the uncounted dead on a planet where killing otherwise seems like a dime-a-dozen activity: its pilot, its “crew,” those who trigger the launch of its missiles are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from danger. Though we speak loosely about drone “warfare,” the way that machine functions bears little relation to war as it was once defined. Conceptually, the drone represents a one-way street of destruction. Because in its version of “warfare” only one side can be hurt, its “signature” is slaughter, not war, no matter how carefully it may be used. It is an executioner’s weapon.
In part because of that, it’s also a blowback weapon. Though it may surprise Americans, those to be slaughtered, the hunted, don’t take to the constant buzz of drones in their skies in a kindly fashion. They reportedly exhibit the symptoms of PTSD; they are resentful; they grasp the unfairness and injustice that lies behind the machine and its form of “warfare” and are unimpressed with the exceptionalism of the Americans using it. As a result, drones across the Greater Middle East have been the equivalent of recruitment posters for those who want revenge and so for extremist outfits everywhere.
Drones should be weapons of shame and yet, despite the recent round of criticism here in the wake of the hostage killings, their use is still widely supported in Washington and among the public. The justification for their use, whatever “legal” white papers the Obama administration has produced as cover, is simple enough: power. We send them across sovereign boundaries as we wish in search of those we want to kill because we can, because we are us.
So all praise to the few in our world who think it worth the bother to count those who count for nothing to us. They do matter.