Sunday, November 04, 2012

From Cairo to the Drone Wars: how the Wheels Came off Obama's Rapprochement with the Muslim World

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo Univers...
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Raise your hands if you can remember when President Obama used to be accused of being soft on Islamic militancy?

Me neither.

The 44th President of the United States may well go down in history not for his health care reform, but more significantly for the dramatic volte-face in his foreign policy. The change from peace-maker (remember his Nobel Prize?) to his relentless pursuit of drone-based attacks has been dramatic. Not only that, his policy of attacking suspected militants with drone-based missiles is actually contributing to the creation of new generations of Islamic militants, radicalised by the experience of silent and lethal force which has killed between 282 and 535 civilians in Pakistan alone. This total includes 60 children (source).

It is difficult to remember the early days. The President's speech - titled A New Beginning - at the University of Cairo in June 2009 was claimed by the White House to be the start of a new process of restoring relationships between America and the Muslim-majority world which had been damaged during the Bush era and following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some saw the speech as representing a water-shed in US-Muslim relations.  The sight of an American President talking in a conciliatory manner about the rich contributions that Islam has made to the world was favourably received in some quarters, even as it was rejected out of hand by others.

It was on the back of the speech - and his earlier New Year video message to the people of Iran - that Obama was awarded the the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009. The Nobel Committee specifically referred to the President's "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" and particularly his reaching out to the Muslim world.

Two turning points can be discerned in the President's approach since these early, heady days. The first was his decision to intensify the war in Afghanistan through the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops. Initial deliberations in the White House about this policy gave some encouragement to those hoping for a early US departure from the country. Critics, meanwhile, accused the Commander in Chief of weakness and dithering.

The second turning point was Libya. Although signalling early on that America would not take a lead in military action in the country, the President nonetheless ordered cruise missiles and attack aircraft to be deployed against ground and air forces loyal to Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.  Regime change would not have been possible in Libya without American approval, participation and support.

America's co-operation during the Libya campaign with the Gulf state of Oman was significant. After the country's air force had played a crucial role in the operation, the US Defence Department concluded a treaty by which US-based Lockheed Martin supplied 18 new F-16 Fighting Falcons at a cost of $600 Million

America's engagement with Oman - a tiny Arab state with a vast military sector - highlighted the increasing difficulty with Obama's policy towards the Arab Spring, then in its early days. While endorsing the aspirations of those demonstrating for democratic freedoms in Egypt, the President also refused to publicly condemn the brutal suppression of those protesters who were demanding reform in the Gulf state of Bahrain. 

Increasingly hiding behind his Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the President's Bahrain policy stemmed from his administration's fear that the old enemy Iran was fuelling the fires of protest inside the island state. Bahrain's Shia population, with historic and cultural links to Iran, were at the forefront of the protests against the embattled and pro-Western Sunni elite who dominated the government. 

When US-made M-113 Armoured Personnel Carriers rolled menacingly across the road bridge that links Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, Obama was mute at the use of foreign military forces to put down a pro-democratic uprising. With a vast US military base in Bahrain, America simply could not run the risk of endorsing a possible takeover by a population with close links to Iran, even if such a democratic moment was in line with the President's stated policy in his Cairo speech of supporting democratic movements in the region.

With Afghanistan and Libya as hard lessons in realpolitik, the increasingly embattled President, whose domestic policy endeavours were being thwarted by a hostile Republican-Congress, began to broaden the scope of his military interventions.

Here was an area of Presidential power not hampered by internal partisan bickering. As Commander-in-Chief he had exactly what he lacked in his domestic agenda - the power to command and achieve dramatic results.

The daring raid into Pakistani sovereign territory in order to kill Osama bin Laden must have felt like an affirmation that such bold military moves were the way forward. Ignoring the legal niceties of invading a foreign country with whom they were not at war, the bin-Laden success seems to have emboldened the President. Despite no declaration of war, military activities were ramped up in Yeman and Somalia, with apparently scant regard for the killing of innocent civilians in the process.

Obama's drone wars have, since their early days in Afghanistan, expanded dramatically. US drone strikes are often controlled by operators thousands of miles away in American bases in Nevada and have resulted in hundreds if not thousands of deaths. Statistics compiled by those watching with concern the escalation in the drone wars indicate that drone attacks are now occurring about once every four days inside Pakistan.

There are several worrying developments with this drone war policy. Firstly, the weapons are killing innocent civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that over 3,000 people have been killed by drones inside Pakistan since 2004. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it has also calculated that between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed in drone attacks inside the country since Obama took office.

Secondly, the use of drones is contributing to rather than reducing the rise of Islamic militancy among those populations affected by the drone-borne missiles. A recent report by Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law highlights the psychological effects on the civilian population of those living in the areas attacked by US drones. 

This from the report
Living Under Drones:

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false......

"This report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies...."

One of the few accounts of living under drones ever published in the US comes from a former New York Times journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban. He reports:

“The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

Living Under Drones describes how

"Community members, mental health professionals, and journalists described how the constant presence of US drones overhead leads to substantial levels of fear and stress in the civilian communities below....".

"Another interviewee who lost both his legs in a drone attack said that “[e]veryone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.”

Another described the effect of the drones as causing a "wave of terror" among the civilian population of north-west Pakistan.

It is difficult to imagine how US-Muslim relations could be made any worse than by pursuing a policy that traumatizes the civilian population of Pakistan, leading to parents keeping their children away from school for fear of attack by unseen unmanned American aircraft.

The President's policy of openness and engagement with the Muslim-majority world has come a long way since the heady days of his Cairo University speech. It is a tragedy that the direction of travel has been in the wrong direction. 



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