Electing Joe Biden Is Not Enough to Ensure a Saner and Less Belligerent Foreign Policy
(February 12, 2021) — he failure of the United States to respond effectively to a global pandemic is a predictable result of a political and economic system in which the health and other unmet needs of poor, working Americans always take a back seat to militaristic priorities. As Martin Luther King Jr. lamented in 1967, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
On the first day of 2021, the Senate joined the House in voting to override President Donald Trump’s veto of a $740 billion military spending bill to pay for “counterterrorism” wars that rage on despite Trump’s promises to end them. The veto override, the first in Trump’s presidency, allows for continued expansion of a war machine that the Trump Administration quietly but explicitly repurposed for a “new” Cold War and arms race against Russia and China.
We must confront the urgent need for a truly fresh look at the whole range of destructive policies the United States has pursued around the world for decades.
Like Trump in 2016, nearly all of the 2020 Democratic candidates for President made vague promises to end the nation’s “endless” wars. President Biden was not the most hawkish member of Obama’s Cabinet—that distinction belongs to Hillary Clinton. But the militarized “counterterrorism” policy that Biden explicitly supported is precisely what keeps these conflicts raging.
US “counterterrorism strategy” relies on airstrikes, special operations forces, and the use of proxy forces to wage bloody wars with a minimum of politically sensitive US casualties. What US military strategists have called a “disguised, quiet, media-free approach” to war keeps these conflicts out-of-sight and out-of-mind of the American public.
Biden opposed Obama’s 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan, but after the surge failed, Obama reverted to the policy that Biden favored to begin with, which became the hallmark of their broader global war policy. In insider circles, this was referred to as “counterterrorism,” as opposed to “counterinsurgency.”
In Afghanistan, that meant abandoning large-scale deployments of US forces and relying on air strikes, drone strikes, and “kill or capture” raids, while recruiting and training Afghan forces to do nearly all the ground fighting.
In the 2011 Libya intervention, the NATO-Arab monarchist coalition used a combination of proxy forces and airstrikes. They quietly embedded hundreds of Qatari special operations forces and Western mercenaries with the Libyan rebels to call in NATO airstrikes and train local militias, including Islamist groups with links to Al Qaeda. Ten years later, the forces NATO unleashed are still fighting over the spoils.
While Biden now takes credit for opposing the disastrous intervention in Libya, he was quick to hail its deceptive short-term success and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s gruesome assassination. “NATO got it right,” Biden said in a speech at Plymouth State University in October 2011, on the same day that President Obama announced Gaddafi’s death. “In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn’t lose a single life.” Biden added that this was a prescription for how to “deal with the world” going forward.
While Biden tried to wash his hands of the debacle in Libya, that operation was emblematic of the doctrine of covert and proxy war that he supported. Biden has never disavowed the reliance on inherently indiscriminate airstrikes and drone strikes that is an integral part of that doctrine. In the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, US-led forces dropped more than 118,000 bombs and missiles, reducing cities like Mosul and Raqqa to rubble and killing tens of thousands of civilians.
As Rob Hewson, the editor of the arms trade journal Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, told the Associated Press during the “Shock and Awe” bombardment of Iraq in 2003, “In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”
The same is obviously true for the people of Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and wherever else American bombs keep falling. US massacres have established a norm of crime and impunity that gives license to allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to emulate in Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Both Obama and Trump tried to “pivot” from the failed “global war on terrorism” to what the Trump Administration branded “great power competition,” or a reversion to the Cold War. But the “war on terror” stubbornly refused to exit on cue, as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and related groups spread to new countries and regions.
The Islamic State currently occupies a swath of northern Mozambique, and has also taken root in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda affiliates are active across Africa, from Somalia and Kenya in East Africa to eleven countries in North and West Africa.
After nearly twenty years of the “war on terror,” there is a large body of research on what drives people to join these “terrorist” groups. While American politicians wring their hands over the baffling attraction of Islamist Salafi ideology, it turns out that it’s really not that complicated.
A report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict, titled “The People’s Perspective: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict,” found that most fighters are not motivated by religion or ideology as much as by a rational desire to protect themselves, their families, or their communities from violence inflicted by others.
Another study, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment” by the United Nations Development Programme, found that the tipping point or final straw that drives more than 70 percent of fighters to join armed groups is the killing or detention of a family member by so-called counterterrorism or security forces. The study exposes the US brand of militarized counterterrorism as a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that generates and replenishes an endless pool of “terrorists” as it destroys families, communities, and countries.
For example, the United States formed the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership with eleven Northwest African countries in 2005 and has so far sunk a billion dollars into this effort. In a recent report from Burkina Faso for Vice, Nick Turse cited US government reports that describe how fifteen years of US-led counterterrorism have fueled an explosion of violence across West Africa. The Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies reported that about 1,000 violent incidents in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in the past year killed nearly 8,000 people and constituted a seven-fold increase in such incidents since 2017.
Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), explained to Turse that focusing on Western concepts of “counterterrorism” and embracing a strictly military model has been a major mistake. Ignoring drivers of militancy, such as poverty and lack of social mobility, and failing to alleviate the conditions that foster insurgencies, like widespread human rights abuses by security forces, have caused irreparable harm.
Indeed, The New York Times reports that “counterterrorism” forces in Burkina Faso are killing as many civilians as the “terrorists” they are supposed to be fighting. Similarly, a 2019 US State Department Country Report on Burkina Faso documented allegations of “hundreds of extrajudicial killings of civilians as part of its counterterrorism strategy,” mainly killing members of the Fulani ethnic group.
Souaibou Diallo, the president of a regional association of Muslim scholars, told Turse that these atrocities are the main factor driving Fulani people to join militant groups. “Eighty percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the armed forces,” said Diallo. “So many people have been killed—assassinated—but there has been no justice.”
Throughout the “war on terror,” both sides have used their enemies’ violence to justify their own escalations, fueling a seemingly endless spiral of violence and chaos spreading from country to country and region to region. But the US roots of this chaos run deeper than that. Both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State evolved from groups recruited, trained, armed, and backed by the CIA to overthrow foreign governments: Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Syria since 2011.
If the Biden Administration wants to stop fueling chaos and terrorism, it must radically transform the CIA, whose role in supporting terrorism, spreading chaos, and creating false pretexts for war and hostility has been copiously documented since the 1970s by the Church and Pike Committees, William Blum, Gareth Porter, and other writers.
The United States will never have an objective, depoliticized national intelligence system, or therefore a reality-based, coherent foreign policy, until it exorcises this ghost in the machine. Biden has chosen Avril Haines, who crafted the secret quasi-legal basis for Obama’s drone killings and protected CIA torturers, to be his Director of National Intelligence.
Is Haines up to the job of transforming these agencies of violence and chaos into a legitimate, working intelligence system? That seems unlikely, and a coalition of peace and anti-torture groups, including our own group, CODEPINK, oppose her confirmation.
Now that a new administration is in place, Americans must confront the urgent need for a truly fresh look at the whole range of destructive policies that the United States has pursued around the world for decades, and how these failed efforts to project and expand American power misappropriate and squander the resources we need to build a broadly prosperous and healthy society in the United States.
Just as it has taken a nationwide social movement to prioritize Black Lives Matter and stand up to police brutality, it will take the same kind of public outrage and organizing to transform our country’s militarized, coercive relationship with the rest of the world. US wars and sanctions against Black and brown people overseas are driven by the same corrupt interests and the same racism and brutality as the killing and repression on America’s streets. They should therefore be equally unacceptable to Americans, despite the “disguised, quiet, media-free” way these overseas wars are currently being conducted.
Americans should reject harebrained, militarized policies that destroy societies and ruin people’s lives for the sake of unattainable geopolitical ambitions. Instead of sending US troops to train foreign recruits to kill their own people, we should support local and international efforts to reach out to marginalized communities and provide whatever help they need to live peaceful and prosperous lives, with due respect for the diverse cultures that make up our human family.
But a revitalized peace movement must also defund Trump’s pivot back to the Cold War. Only in the “tail wags dog” world of the Military-Industrial Complex does ending a war require trading it in for an even more expensive and dangerous new model. We must unequivocally reject this false choice between bloody, self-perpetuating “counterterrorism” wars and a suicidal high-tech arms race.
Progressives and peace activists, from Bernie Sanders’s Democratic Convention delegates to CODEPINK members, organized to successfully oppose the then widely expected nomination of Michèle Flournoy, an inveterate war-hawk, as Secretary of Defense.
We take inspiration from this success, and we will keep working together to build a powerful peace movement to consistently oppose and neutralize the “unwarranted influence” of the destructive but profitable interests that Flournoy has so shamelessly served throughout her career. We have real problems to confront in this century — existential problems that can be solved only by genuine international cooperation, from nuclear weapons to climate change to mass extinction.
The powerful interests driving endless war and militarism and the diversion of 65 percent of federal discretionary spending to an insatiable, sociopathic war machine will not voluntarily release their grip on our country’s foreign policy or purse strings. But a powerful grassroots peace movement can succeed in challenging the dominance of the Military-Industrial Complex and building the better world we all know is possible.
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