Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Hunger strike at Guantanamo

 

From NPR: Medics Arrive At Guantanamo As Hunger Strikers Increase

About 40 medical personnel have arrived at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay amid an increase in the number of hunger strikers at the facility.

Since last Saturday, 100 of the 166 prisoners at the camp have been refusing to eat; 21 of them are being fed through nasal tubes.

As the strike gains international media attention, President Barack Obama is reportedly renewing the efforts of his failed 2009 executive order (PDF) to have the prison camp closed by early 2010.

From the New York Times: Amid Hunger Strike, Obama Renews Push to Close Cuba Prison

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference. “The notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity,” he added, makes no sense. “All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”

 

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Washington Post: U.S. Special Forces setting up for the long haul, in D.C. and abroad

A three-part series in the Washington Post this week shed light on the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus as it is more than a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration and Congress took a number of actions to counter the forces that came to bear that day.

With the two resulting ground wars are drawing to a close – U.S. troops have been out of Iraq for 10 months and are slowly leaving Afghanistan – the government is establishing a counterterrorism system for the next decade.

With public opinion tilted against these more traditional wars and the limited efficacy of traditional forces against an enemy whose ideals can’t be drawn onto a map, a precision approach makes a lot of sense for the U.S. Covert operations by definition don’t make headlines as much as thousands of soldiers marching on a capital city, and drone strikes are both low-risk and deniable.

So American national security considerations are woven neatly into a “disposition matrix,” which lists every individual on an American kill list and magically generating every conceivable kill scenario for the individual, based on current intelligence and troop locations.

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.

Currently, the kingpin of American counterterrorism is an unelected official appointed without congressional confirmation: John O. Brennan.

What was once a disparate collection of tactics — drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments — has become a White House-centered strategy with Brennan at its core.

The Post story details Brennan’s loosely defined job description and his close relationship to President Barack Obama. But despite the synergy within the current administration, officials are in the process of setting up a procedural framework that will outlast them using tools like the disposition matrix and consistent procedures.

“This needs to be sustainable,” one senior administration official said, “and we need to think of it in ways that contemplate other people sitting in all the chairs around the table.”
One part of the new set up is establishing a foothold in areas where al-Qaeda operates. With troops leaving Afghanistan and a very limited presence in Iraq, the U.S. turned to the tiny nation of Djibouti as a center of operations for its new breed of warfare.
At camp Lemonnier on the outskirts of Djibouti City, the capital city of the small, costal North African nation that borders Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the buzz of a Predator drone is a familiar sound. As part of an expansion of its duties, the base received eight of the drones in 2011. It has since become a launch point for drone activity over Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

The number of takeoffs and landings each month has more than doubled, reaching a peak of 1,666 in July compared with a monthly average of 768 two years ago, according to air-traffic statistics disclosed in Defense Department contracting documents.

 The human counterpart to the drone mission in Djibouti is the roughly 300 special operators who occupy the base alongside regular troops.

About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.
According to the Post, there are plans to expand the special operations presence at the base to upwards of 1,000 in the future, evidence of the shift in philosophy from overt “nation building” missions overseas to black ops smash-and-grabs reminiscent of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Questions remain about this new, more covert approach to national security. While the implications of long-term occupation are well-kn0wn both for native populations and the occupying force, the lack of clarity and constant fear that comes with living within a few hundred miles of a drone base could prove destructive to U.S. interests abroad. A recent report – Living Under Drones – by teams at New York University and Stanford outlined the implications of the drone war on native populations.
In The Post:

Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.

“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,” Pillar said. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and cons to the methods we use.”

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Foreign policy debate: Candidates line up on big policy points

While it was full of zingers from both sides, the Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign policy did a good job of clarifying some of the candidates’ positions on foreign policy issues. Here’s the rundown (all debate quotes come from The New York Times’ full transcript of the debate):

  • Candidates perfectly aligned on drone use

Moderator Bob Scheiffer threw in the obligatory question about drone use – it seemed as though he had forgotten to write one and then saw one of the thousands of tweets coming in demanding one after the debate hit the one hour mark, so came up with something off the cuff. Here is the full exchange on drones:

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

Let me also note that, as I said earlier, we’re going to have to do more than just going after leaders and — and killing bad guys, important as that is. We’re also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.

We haven’t done that yet. We talk a lot about these things, but you look at the — the record. You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We’ve created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism — in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engage these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their government aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they are treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown, and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States.

And we want to shrink those groups and those networks, and we can do that, but we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office, and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

While neither candidate seems to note the irony of seeking to reduce Islamic extremism while simultaneously establishing a canopy of lethal robots over a good chunk of the Middle East, that seems to be the policy America will pursue for the next four years, regardless of the outcome of the next election.

  • Iran’s a threat. We should negotiate.

On Iran, Obama went first. After saying that he would support Israel if they were attacked by Iran, he articulated his administration’s approach:

But to the issue of Iran, as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

I’ve made that clear when I came into office. We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.

And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Iran’s a state sponsor of terrorism, and for them to be able to provide nuclear technology to nonstate actors — that’s unacceptable. And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map.

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

Nothing off the table means the possibility of a military solution to the Iranian problem.

Now Romney:

Well, first of all, I — I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one.

Number two, with regards to — to Iran and the threat of Iran, there’s no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America.

It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us.

It’s also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps.

Crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I’d have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.

Number two, something I would add today is I would tighten those sanctions. I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can’t come into our ports. I imagine the EU would agree with us as well. Not only ships couldn’t, I’d say companies that are moving their oil can’t, people who are trading in their oil can’t. I would tighten those sanctions further.

Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world, the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

We need to increase pressure time and time again on Iran because anything other than a — a — a solution to this which says — which stops this nuclear folly of theirs is unacceptable to America. And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.

Both candidates want to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through peaceful means, but both are willing to follow their diplomacy with military force if necessary.

Can a U.S. President indict a foreign leader under the Genocide Convention, as Romney said, for what might be considered – in the U.S. – free speech? Politico’s Byron Tau looked into it.

In essence, Ahmadinejad’s comments would likely be protected by the first amendment if prosecuted in the U.S. Romney, however, said that he would have the Iranian leader indicted under an international, United Nations convention. That being the case, such a trial would likely occur in international courts which are generally less protective of free speech.

“That said, some of the calls for genocide of the Jewish people, and wiping Israel off the map may be actionable, as true threats.  It is doubtful that this would be prosecuted in the U.S., but international courts may view the rhetoric differently,” he [First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters] said.

If the candidates have a difference on Iran, it is that Romney’s approach to diplomacy is slightly more hard-nosed. Both candidates have pledged military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal.

  • Syria solution: Hold a meeting

Both candidates have strongly condemned the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but neither is willing to devote military troops to removing the dictator from power.

Here’s Obama:

What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance, and we are helping the opposition organize, and we’re particularly interested in making sure that we’re mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria. But ultimately, Syrians are going to have to determine their own future.

Romney goes out of his way with his answer to talk about the tragic results of the Syrian conflict so far and then mention the strategic importance, especially relating to Iran, of Syria in the overall picture of the Middle East. Then he agrees with Obama: No military action.

Well, let’s step back and talk about what’s happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster.

Secondly, Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so the right course for us is working through our partners and with our own resources to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — of — if not government, a form of — of council that can take the lead in Syria, and then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves.

Romney’s premise that Syria is Iran’s only route to the sea was a bit troubling, given a quick look at a map shows that Iran has coastline on two seas, and does not border Syria.

  • Romney likes democracy, just not the leaders it brings

Romney had a strong opening, summarizing what he likes in the Middle East and highlighting Iran as his big talking point for the evening. He also took a swipe at Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and — and public life and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in — in — in Libya an attack apparently by — well, I think we know now by terrorists of some kind against — against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and minds go to them. Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaida-type individuals. We have in — in Egypt a Muslim Brotherhood president.

Later, Romney:

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

So Romney has, in less than an hour, listed the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt as a “disturbing event,” despite the fact that Morsy was democratically elected, which Romney thinks “Americans should be proud of.”

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Three questions a sensible opponent would raise about Obama’s foreign policy

As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are getting ready to debate on foreign policy. I suspect far too much time will be spent on both sides bickering over whether or not Obama’s policy was too wussy in Libya and whether the White House was trying to pull the wool over America’s eyes about intelligence suggesting the consulate attacks were caused by an organized effort or a spontaneous mob.

However, a sensible opponent to Obama and his policies abroad might touch on another, broader, set of issues. To name a few…

Among progressives and civil-liberties voters, Obama’s initial decision to shelve the Guantanamo issue represented a betrayal of the highest order. Dreaming publicly now about closing Gitmo after he didn’t take the opportunity to do so in the first two years of his term — when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress — rips open an old wound that only depresses base enthusiasm rather than energize it.

Neither is it clear that the proposal will get much traction in the broader electorate. Americans supportkeeping the prison open for business at a rate of 70 percent.

What other foreign policy issues would you like to see Obama give answers on? Let us know in the comments.

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NYT offers a glimpse into Obama’s careful national security approach

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In a doozy of a story, the New York Times offers a view of the decisionmaking process behind drone strikes, Guantanomo and the President’s secret ‘kill list.’

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.

“Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee. “They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.”

Personally approving the nation’s sketchiest overseas kills would help explain all that gray hair.

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Steve Coll on Afghanistan: ‘Let us hear from the spies’

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Steve Coll at the New Yorker wants America to dive into the nitty gritty in 2012. As the war in Afghanistan enters its second decade and Barack Obama’s spot in the White House is contested, Coll is asking for the facts.

The facts, in this case, come in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate on the war in Afghanistan that should be published soon, according to Coll. The Estimate, compiled by analysts in all 16 American intelligence agencies, is — to use a military term — a ‘no-bullshit assessment’ of the current situation in Afghanistan.

Typically, Coll says, these estimates are classified Secret or Top Secret, as they are compiled using a range of data, some of which is presumably classified. These Estimates, however, are compiled with a distinct lack of something else: political influence. Coll explains:

After the debacle of misreported intelligence during the infamous 2002 N.I.E. on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community made changes to try to ensure a drafting process of high integrity. Thomas Fingar, who oversaw some of the reforms, described the process in a 2008 speech. The protection of dissent was certainly one of the goals of the post-Iraq reforms. But they were not intended to create yet more ways for four-star generals to be weigh in on finished intelligence. The idea was to protect civil servants from a politicized process—to defend the proverbial analyst-dweeb (i.e., Chloe O’Brian on “24”) who might be poorly socialized but who happened to see what her slick bosses had overlooked.

In today’s Washington, ‘no-bullshit’ is a phrase than can often only be used literally. With partisan mud-slinging from both sides of the aisle and gridlock on some very basic issues, a government assessment free of partisan influence is probably about as common in Washington as an actual pile of bull feces, so the upcoming N.I.E. is a golden opportunity.

Not only does this Estimate give us the first comprehensive view of a war fought with the increased troop presence provided by Obama starting in 2009, but it will answer better than anything else the question: What has Barack Obama’s administration done in Afghanistan?

After the 2009 troop surge became one of the first major issues to divide the democratic government during the Obama administration, the importance of that question cannot be understated.

But the answer provided by the upcoming N.I.E. is one the public may not see. Since the Estimates seem to be classified by default, someone in Obama’s government would have to opt to go public with the information, either by way of WikiLeaks or the like, or officially, as Coll suggests:

Let us have the facts, as the intelligence community describes them. Obama should publish unclassified versions of the key judgments in the latest N.I.E. once it is complete. The Bush Administration did this twice at the height of public controversy over the Iraq war.

Based on the hints Coll was able to get about the latest Estimate, they don’t pain a pretty picture.

These days, an Estimate usually contains “Key Judgments” backed by analysis near the front of the document. There are six such judgments in the Afghanistan draft, I was told. I wasn’t able to learn what all of them were; according to the accounts I heard, however, the draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

A grim official analysis of his efforts in Afghanistan could seriously hurt president Obama’s reelection campaign, and that is motivation enough for his administration to keep it under raps. If they truly have America’s best interests in mind, and truly believe they’re doing the best that could be done for the country, then let’s hope an official (and not-too-severely-redacted) version of the assessment is released to the public before Americans head to the polls next year.

Photo: Then-Senator Barack Obama with then-General David Patreus in July 2008. The pair have climbed the ranks in Washington: Petraeus is now head of the CIA and Obama was elected President in 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell.

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