Nation Topics - US Wars and Military Action
News and Features
Concerning the impending or perhaps imminent intervention in Iraq, we now inhabit a peculiar limbo, where the military options are known while the political and moral options are not.
Counterinsurgency aid will be a big boost to Occidental Petroleum.
If the Bush Administration has its way, Iraq will be the first test of its new doctrine of pre-emption. To adopt such a destabilizing strategy is profoundly contrary to our interests and endangers our security.
In this issue, on the twentieth anniversary of the June 12, 1982, march
of a million people in Manhattan's Central Park protesting nuclear arms,
we publish an appeal calling on the public to demand that the United
States commit itself, together with the other nuclear powers, to the
abolition of nuclear weapons--and to take prompt, concrete steps toward
that goal. The appeal will be introduced in Congress by Representative
Ed Markey as a resolution on June 11.
As it happens, the cloud of nuclear danger is blacker at this moment
than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear danger has
spread, as it was destined to as long as the United States and the other
cold-war-era nuclear powers insisted on holding on to their arsenals.
Now the grim drama is being played out in a new locality, South Asia.
The hatred is not ideological but religious and ethnic. The millions of
potential victims are not the rich and powerful but the poorest of the
poor. The antagonists, partitioned in 1947, are twins from a single
zygote. Nuclear suicide would also be fratricide.
The United States, which actually did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki what the
South Asians so far only threaten to do to each other, and which for
more than a half-century has been the trailblazer in the development and
rationalization of nuclear weapons, cannot condescend to the newcomers
to the game. At the end of May the United States announced that it will
be building a plant for the construction of brand-new nuclear weapons,
to be ready for use in 2020. And George W. Bush has announced that
deterrence no longer works--"pre-emptive" attacks will be the order of
the day for our military. Such are the actions of the US officials now
on their way to South Asia bearing scenarios showing the awfulness of
nuclear war and counsels of "restraint."
But all that doesn't prevent us from noticing that India and Pakistan
are writing new chapters in the book of nuclear folly. When India tested
five nuclear weapons in 1998 and declared itself a full-fledged nuclear
power, it proved, in the words of its Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh,
that there was to be no "nuclear apartheid" in the world. Now it seems
bent on proving that there is no apartheid for nuclear madness either.
One of South Asia's distinctive contributions to the field is a
flippancy in discussing nuclear danger, adding a new dimension to Hannah
Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil." Early in the crisis, General
Padmanabhan, India's army chief, commented, "If we have to go to war,
jolly good! If we don't, we will still manage." Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg,
retired chief of Pakistan's armed forces, commented, "I don't know what
you're worried about. You can die crossing the street, hit by a car, or
you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday, anyway." Die,
yes, but must we all be killed?
Around the same time, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said that
Pakistan's President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, should not use nuclear
weapons because "I'm sure he doesn't want to kill all the Pakistanis."
Of course, it would not be Musharraf but Indian Prime Minister Atal
Behari Vajpayee and Defense Minister Fernandes who would kill all the
Pakistanis, in retaliation. Have they reflected that a threat to kill
all Pakistanis is a threat of genocide, the gravest of all crimes
against humanity? There was no sign that they had. The world should tell
Meanwhile, the human imagination, brought once more to the brink,
fitfully tries--and mostly fails--to take in the news that 12 million
people (according to a Pentagon estimate) might die immediately in a
nuclear war in South Asia. Millions more would die slowly. (One
television station labeled the story with the logo "Nuclear
Distraction." Presumably, the danger of nuclear war was breaking its
concentration on the squabbles between the FBI and the CIA over
September 11 warnings.)
Yet from South Asia there also came at least one voice that offered the
imagination something to hold on to, a way to begin to grasp the awful
prospect--the voice of novelist Arundhati Roy. Her foreign friends asked
why she doesn't leave New Delhi. Doesn't she think the threat of nuclear
war is real? "It is," she answered, "but where shall we go? If I go away
and everything and every one--every friend, every tree, every home,
every dog, squirrel and bird that I have known and loved--is
incinerated, how shall I live on? Who shall I love? And who will love me
And so she and friends have decided to stay. "We huddle together. We
realize how much we love each other. And we think what a shame it would
be to die now. Life's normal only because the macabre has become normal.
While we wait for rain, for football, for justice, the old generals and
the eager boy-anchors on TV talk of first-strike and second-strike
capabilities as though they're discussing a family board game. My
friends and I discuss Prophecy, the documentary about the bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.... The dead bodies choking the river. The
living stripped of skin and hair.... We remember especially the man who
just melted into the steps of a building. We imagine ourselves like
that. As stains on staircases.... The last question every visiting
journalist always asks me: Are you writing another book?
"That question mocks me. Another book? Right now? When it looks as
though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature--the
whole of human civilization--means nothing to the fiends who run the
world? What kind of book should I write?
"It's not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on
hairtrigger alert. It's all of us. That's what nuclear bombs do. Whether
they're used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter
the meaning of life itself."
If the world can attune itself to this voice, it will abolish nuclear
weapons, and there will be no nuclear war.
One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command
was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska
Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the
keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The
conference--"International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the
U.S. Record"--took place at New School University, where Kerrey is
president, and grew out of Kerrey's own suggestion that his experience
in Vietnam be turned into an "educational moment." On hand were an array
of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh
Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials
(former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone,
former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the
former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important
subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey
was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience
might shed light on America's culpability for human rights violations in
Vietnam. "When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an
educational moment," he announced, "I did not intend to meekly submit to
cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign
policy during the war in Vietnam."
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since
Gregory Vistica's excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey's
Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica
presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question.
According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of
Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of
fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching
for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the
more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however--a
version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors--roughly a dozen
women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night.
Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had
reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough
that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for
an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" of the case. "For the US
to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as
have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the
world to enforce these essential standards," the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has
evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New
School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found
itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey
never told school officials about the operation until the story made
international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for
him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the
faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey's public acknowledgment
should serve as an occasion for the United States "to consider its own
record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere."
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the
controversy about Kerrey's past has been compounded by growing rancor
over his vision of the New School's future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt,
the popular dean of the school's vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political
and Social Science, resigned after concluding that "the emphasis was on
revenue flows rather than building academic excellence." At a public
forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested
awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of
tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was
his own "bad idea." Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been
straightforward about the future of the university's core division, the
Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its
budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral
programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When
Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course,
indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner
two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was
reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey's handling of the
Vietnam story. When Klann's account first appeared, after all, Kerrey
did not flat-out deny it ("I'm not going to make this worse by
questioning somebody else's memory"), but he accused the media of
"collaborating" with those who want to believe the worst about America.
He expressed anguish and regret ("If I'd have lost both arms and both
legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn't have been as much as I
lost that night"). But he hired public relations adviser John
Scanlon--who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry
whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)--to spin the story.
In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US
troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp
on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose
reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the
New School. "I really question the wisdom of the university leaders
here," said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and
heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. "If he had come out
openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I
would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty
should demand his resignation until there is an independent
investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role."
International law offers too little protection for prisoners of the new war.
It is now widely acknowledged that what sparked the most devastating attack on the American mainland in history was the continued presence of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil after the Gulf War--which, in 1991, prompted the disaffection of Osama bin Laden, until then part of the Saudi political/business establishment. With US troops, warplanes and other military hardware stationed in all the gulf Arab monarchies, and the Pentagon's Fifth Fleet headquartered in the island state of Bahrain, why does the United States need to maintain a military presence on Saudi soil?
It would be naïve to expect a straight answer from US authorities, so one has to make do with the explanations offered recently by unnamed Pentagon officials, especially the one "who has worked intimately with Saudi Arabia" and who told the Washington Post in mid-January that the United States promised to withdraw its contingent from the Saudi kingdom "when the job is done." As the Post reported, "Saudis interpreted that to mean the job of expelling Iraq from Kuwait [in 1990-91], but many US officials think the job remains undone as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad."
The official was referring to the written promise from President Bush Senior, secured by King Fahd before he invited US troops to his country, in August 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. So, out goes the explanation dished up routinely by the State Department and the Pentagon for many years--that the troops and warplanes are based inside Saudi Arabia to monitor the US/UK-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq, implying that the discontinuation of this zone would end the Pentagon's presence in the desert kingdom. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the logic even more explicit in a January 20 Fox-TV interview quoted in the International Herald Tribune: The US military presence in Saudi Arabia, he said, "might end only when the world turned into 'the kind of place we dreamed of. They [US forces] serve a useful purpose there as a deterrent to Saddam Hussein, but beyond that as a symbol.'"
Fahd extracted Bush Senior's promise in 1990 in order to overcome stiff opposition from ranking clerics, who provide legitimacy to the rule of the House of Saud. The presence of US troops under their own flag in Saudi Arabia violates a cardinal Islamic principle that the kingdom has enforced since its inception in 1932, treating all Saudi territory as a mosque, based on Mohammed's deathbed injunction: "Let there be no two religions in Arabia." Clearly King Fahd was apprehensive about US troops in his kingdom acting as an independent force to achieve their anti-Iraq objective without regard for its impact on Saudi interests or sovereignty. Twelve years on, he and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, find Washington trying to impose its interpretation of what "the job" entails and when it is "done."
America's insistence on imposing its will on Riyadh is fueling the anger many Saudis feel toward Washington, especially regarding its unquestioned support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which generates sympathy for Osama bin Laden. A secret survey in mid-October by the kingdom's intelligence agency, Istikhabart, showed that 95 percent of educated Saudis in the 25-to-41 age group supported "bin Laden's cause." Given this sociopolitical fact, it seems unlikely that the regime in Riyadh can continue its tight military links with Washington. The writing is on the wall. "Since September 11 America has lost the Saudi people," said Dr. Abdulrahman al-Zamil, chairman of the al-Zamil business group. "America tried to convince people that they are here to protect the [Saudi] regime, and that is total garbage. Their presence is a liability to the Saudi government." The airing of such a view by an affluent businessman, who is also a member of the consultative council appointed by the monarch, could have happened only with the connivance of the royal family.
Perceiving widespread opposition to the presence of US troops in the kingdom, the top decision-makers in Riyadh may have decided to raise the previously taboo issue in public, if only to signal to their subjects that their views are being taken into account. However, along with their American counterparts, they face a dilemma: How can US military presence in the kingdom be curtailed or ended without appearing to reward bin Laden? There is no easy way out.
It's one thing to have Somali groups protesting Black Hawk Down for what they say is an inaccurate and racist portrayal of Somalis.
Black Hawk Downer
It's safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It's also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that "the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk" from hunger and "rampant" dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and "are not sheltered from severe winter conditions."
The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence that X-Ray's prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House's February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.
In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.
But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead "unlawful combatants," suggesting that they don't deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords' broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners--those Al Qaeda "Arab Afghans" who fought as allies of the Taliban regime--the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.
A press outspun by Rumsfeld's daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. "Unlawful combatants" is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: "Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise." Only a court or other "competent tribunal"--not the Defense Secretary or the President--can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon's own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that "when doubt exists" about a prisoner's status, "tribunals must be convened"--as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.
The United States has good reason to care about these procedures. During the Vietnam War, Hanoi declared captured US fliers "unlawful combatants." It was Washington that insisted otherwise; in 1977 the United States made sure that the Geneva protocols were revised to insure that anyone captured in war is protected by the treaty whether civilian, military or in between, whether or not they technically meet the POW definition. Simply put, when President Bush unilaterally declares the majority of its prisoners outside the penumbra of the Geneva convention, he is still flouting both international law and international sensibility.
The trouble with placing Guantánamo's prisoners in a legal no man's land doesn't end there. If captured militia are not POWs then they can continue to be held only if they're individually charged with war crimes or other specific offenses. If that should happen to the Guantánamo prisoners, they're entitled to a "fair and regular trial" (a standard that almost certainly cannot be met by the drumhead courts authorized by Bush).
Bush's latest policy turn amounts to internment without trial for alleged Al Qaeda. It's entirely appropriate to want to question the Al Qaeda mafia's foot soldiers, and there are plenty of legitimate claims on the prosecution of Al Qaeda, from citizens in Kabul and New York and points between. But the way to go about both is through existing criminal and international laws--an approach that gets results, as the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet proved in courts on two continents. The Rumsfeld-Bush strategy, on the other hand, undermines the idea of cooperative transnational prosecution and representation of victims, replacing evolving international law with an autocratic extension of this Administration's foreign-policy unilateralism: If we can live without the ABM treaty, why not pitch those troublesome Geneva accords over the side as well?
In the Administration only Colin Powell understands how profoundly this shortsighted approach runs counter to the national interest. Powell is no friend of human rights. But he pushed so hard--winning the compromise of Geneva Convention recongition for Taliban prisoners--because as a former military man he knows that the United States, the world's number-one projector of force, has its own reasons to seek universal respect for the Geneva Conventions--conventions we instantly invoked when American pilots were shot down in the Persian Gulf, and again in the Balkans. Powell knows, too, that the whole logic of the Geneva accords--those special POW protections--is to entice losing combatants into pragmatic and dignified surrender. By making a transnational mockery of the Geneva protocols, Rumsfeld and Bush are inviting future enemies to conclude that suicidal escalation, rather than surrender, is the only sensible closing chapter of their jihad.
Rumsfeld is hell-bent on turning the prisoners of Camp X-Ray into legal nonpersons--essentially stateless, without the safe harbor of either international law or the US Constitution, granted status and rights only at the whim of the Defense Secretary. That may seem to serve the short-term goals of Al Qaeda interrogation, but the picture it presents to the world--a superpower playing semantic games with the most basic wartime covenants, setting back the evolving machinery for transnational justice--will generate its own unhappy blowback.