(PDI Editorial) Secret raids

THAT A SECRET memo authorizing special US military operations in foreign countries was leaked to the media this week comes as no surprise; we can expect more sources inside the Bush administration to unburden themselves of more secrets as the administration’s awful term ends. That the United States conducts secret military interventions isn’t much of a surprise either; enterprise journalism has reported on such military strikes before, and civil society organizations have sounded the alarm many times.

But the existence of a 2004 memo, signed by Donald Rumsfeld, then the US secretary of defense, with the approval of President George W. Bush, offers concrete proof, if more proof was needed, of the reckless unilateralism that marks, and explains the failure of, the US war on terror.

A cloud of illegitimacy hung over the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq from the very start. It did not have the sanction of the United Nations or, indeed, of the Bush White House’s preferred international alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (In stark contrast, Nato was a major partner in the prosecution of the Afghanistan war.) Despite all the White House bluster, Bush recognized the legitimacy issue, which is why the US took great pains to cobble together a so-called coalition of the willing. But despite the active participation of British and Australian troops, the war launched against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was very much an American undertaking. Legitimacy, in other words, could not be finessed.

We all know what happened since: no weapons of mass destruction were found, and the al-Qaida terror network, once non-existent in Iraq, flourished instead. The neighboring state of Iran gained geopolitical strength, while American neglect of the Afghan war gave the Taliban new life (and complicated US relations with Pakistan).

In 2004, sensing the continuing strength of the al-Qaida network, Rumsfeld executed a new order simplifying the US government’s process for approving military excursions into areas not officially declared as war zones. “The secret order gave the military new authority to attack the Qaida terrorist network anywhere in the world, and a more sweeping mandate to conduct operations in countries not at war with the United States,” The New York Times reported.

The memo may or may not give rise to war crimes charges in the US, but there is no question it violates the sovereignty of target countries, including that of close US ally Pakistan. Even if we set aside the issue of the US military acting outside the jurisdiction granted by Congress (in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars), there is still the issue of the illegitimacy of US action. Illegitimacy feeds Islamic militancy.

Again, the difference between Bush’s Iraq war and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, or between the Iraq war and the first Gulf War in 1991 (masterfully engineered by Bush’s father), is instructive. The true lesson of 1991 and 2001 was that multi-lateral military action works. Unfortunately, the cowboys in the White House did not have the patience or the discipline to heed it.

It is only fair to consider the incoming US administration’s position on the issue. During the presidential debates, Barack Obama clearly stated that he would authorize US military strikes against terrorist targets even inside friendly countries. This does not seem too dissimilar from the current administration’s preemptive policy. Obama did lay down a consequential condition for launching such a strike—that the friendly government was either unable or unwilling to take action itself. But there is no question that he would determine which action to take according to the American national interest, not to some international consensus.

One difference does seem forthcoming: The Bush doctrine is essentially based, not on preemptive action, but on preventive war. Under such a doctrine, it is easy to see why a memo like Rumsfeld’s can come into being. As far as we can tell, Obama does not subscribe to the preventive war mindset. We will see if memos like the secret one of 2004 will have a place in his policy.

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