The global counterterrorism mission imposes substantial political costs to the U.S. Yet policymakers are rushing ahead anyway. Why we should start thinking more about politics, and less about killing bad guys.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the media from the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, DC / Reuters
If you talk to any security or intelligence professional, they'll tell you that the consequences of the Arab Spring -- it turned one this week -- have been devastating to U.S. security interests in the region. Information gathering, operations, intelligence, and general context about the Middle East and North Africa had become so lopsided -- utterly reliant on the security services of the unpopular dictatorships in the region -- that their overthrow more of less crippled U.S. efforts.
Over the last year the U.S. bureaucracy has worked feverishly to reestablish itself in the MENA region. But while it does so it stands on the verge of making a similar mistake in its reliance on drones to achieve policy objectives. The first hints of this imbalance are manifesting themselves all the time in the politics of target countries -- places where U.S. drones fly and fire weapons.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled this week a plan to dramatically expand the use of drones and special operations as the DoD tries to figure out how to operate in a universe of limited resources. It is part of President Obama's shift toward smaller covert actions in place of bigger, overt wars. But this policy shift is not without cost, and those costs are rarely debated in the public or behind closed doors.
As one example, drones carry inherent political costs to the regime that allows them. Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will. The resistance to drones is debated heavily in Pakistani circles, but it's difficult to ignore the effects, like a walkout in Parliament.Given the precariousness of President Zardari's administration, the impending military resistance to his rule, and the intrigue over Memogate, it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.
In Yemen, too, the situation continues to deteriorate. There remains society-wide unrest at the horrible rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and even his replacements and other contenders are finding it hard to placate public anger (which seems to be spreading).While Yemen has never been particularly stable, there is every indication that the drone strikes -- which will continue so long as officials feel threatened -- have only made the instability worse.
The problem with the drones policy isn't that drones themselves are bad, but that they are happening without broader political, social, and even economic policies that could mitigate their pernicious consequences. In Pakistan, the limp U.S. engagement has at the very least not helped the nasty politics of Islamabad (the case of Raymond Davis -- whose case became the source of deep, vicious public anger -- shows that the drones policy almost certainly made Pakistani politics and the government worse off). In Yemen, the limp U.S. political engagement with the Yemeni opposition groups has not only failed to mitigate the negative consequences of shooting missiles into desert villages, it has also crippled the U.S. ability to cope with a post-Saleh future.
In both countries, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. faces a future similar to what it faces in the Arab Spring countries: a sudden cut-off of information and cooperation it thinks critical to the global struggle against extremism. Yet that hasn't slowed down the pace of drone warfare -- especially when they come to define U.S. policy in places like the Horn of Africa (another area where U.S. engagement is primarily through drones and special forces instead of through politics).
Already, some countries are reacting against this global assertion to fly airplanes and kill at will. Last December, Algeria denied the U.S. permission to fly drones over its territory to help contain negative spillover effects from the Libyan intervention. Needless to say, that has limited U.S. options in the area because the U.S. never bothered to come up with a policy that doesn't rely on drones. Thus, as there appears to be a growing gap between the CIA and Algeria on how to react to the threat posted by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, there just isn't the political foundation in place to work those differences through.
Future drone technology, which includes making the planes autonomous, are unnerving to many of us who wonder about the substantial costs imposed by the current, human-controlled aircraft.There are no immediate plans for an autonomous lethal drone yet -- all of the automated systems will be for surveillance and resupplying ground troops -- but the rush to robots in warfare is worrying. There just isn't enough thought about what consequences these systems impose on U.S. policy. There needs to be.
If the president and his aides will tell easily disproven falsehoods about crowd sizes and speeches, what else will they be willing to dissemble about?
One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.
In his first official White House briefing, Sean Spicer blasted journalists for “deliberately false reporting,” and made categorical claims about crowd-size at odds with the available evidence.
In his first appearance in the White House briefing room since President Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered an indignant statement Saturday night condemning the media’s coverage of the inauguration crowd size, and accusing the press of “deliberately false reporting.”
Standing next to a video screen that showed the crowd from President Trump’s vantage point, Spicer insisted that media outlets had “intentionally framed” their photographs to minimize its size. After attacking journalists for sharing unofficial crowd-size estimates—“no one had numbers,” he said—he proceeded to offer a categorical claim of his own. “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” he said, visibly outraged. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
Popular demonstrations can bring change and topple governments. They can also spark retaliation from those in power.
The signs were so clever.
“We shall overcomb.”
“Viva la vulva.”
“I MAKE THE BEST SIGNS I REALLY DO EVERYONE SAYS SO THEY’RE TERRIFIC.”
Someone even made a papier-mâché vagina dentata.
The people were so cheerful and happy to be with one another, forgetting the cold and enjoying what often seemed less like a protest and more like a block party. There were families there, with grandmas in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. They were ecstatic and in disbelief at the number of people. TheWashington Post reported that the organizers put the attendance at up to half a million. They had hoped for less than half that.
It was surreal how similar this all felt, and my Russian friends on social media confirmed it: “Totally Bolotnaya,” one of them wrote. Bolotnaya is the square in the center of Moscow, right across the river from the Kremlin, where on December 10, 2011 around 50,000 people came out to protest fraudulent parliamentary elections. They had expected 3,000 and were stunned by their success. It was cold and gray that day, too, and the feeling of being in that joyous crowd was unforgettable, which is why I remembered it so vividly today. It is the giddiness of watching people vent their political frustrations with a sense of humor and good cheer, and the euphoria of observing people discover that they are not alone, that there are thousands and thousands of people just like them.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
The new president’s first actions in office suggest his style from the trail isn’t going away soon.
Inaugurations are America’s modern equivalents of Roman triumphs. Flanked by military and police vehicles, clad in the pomp of tradition, presidents of the United States take their solemn oaths and parade between the classical facades and colonnades lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Crowds of thousands—sometimes millions—of citizens look on. It is meant to be a celebration of the nation in all her stately, martial honor, and of the vir triumphalis who has claimed the status of its moral leader and commander-in-chief. But inauguration is also a transition, not only between presidents, but from the combat of the campaign to the peacetime of governance.
For President Donald Trump, however, that transition has not yet taken place. On Inauguration Day, Trump did not take off the laurel wreath and transform into a governor, but rather extended his fiery campaign. The earliest hours of his presidency suggest that, dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.
Images of today’s marches in Washington, New York, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and from other cities in England, Ghana, France, Canada, Serbia, Australia, Kenya, Germany, India, and many more.
In Washington, DC, today, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets in a demonstration called the Women’s March on DC, while even more marched in cities across the United States and around the world, one day after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Larger-than-expected crowds of women and their allies raised their voices against the new administration, and in support of women's rights, health issues, equality, diversity and inclusion. Below are images of today’s marches in Washington, New York, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and from other cities in England, Ghana, France, Canada, Serbia, Australia, Kenya, Germany, India, and many more.
Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz tells a story about a man who ventures out in the immediate aftermath of the fall of a regime. Papers full of state secrets lie in the streets, their knowledge less important for the moment than that of where to find something to eat. A little boy plays in a bombed-out street, whistling a song about the leader. “The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.”
When authoritarians fall from power, even if they are secretly mourned, they must be publicly forgotten. Yet they remain as traces within the bodies of their people. The muscle memory to salute, to sing their songs, to fear their wrath, can be hard to shake. My years of studying Mussolini and his two-decade long regime have taught me not to underestimate the individual and collective work of disentanglement that comes with the ruler’s fall from power.
Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.
For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.” [Update: Other images suggest it could have been VP Lyndon Johnson who was offering Frost the hat. I didn’t really notice at the time; whoever it was, the lasting image was of Frost’s struggling with his script and then beginning to recite.]
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
The Women’s March on Washington was a protest that also, in its own way, marked a peaceful transition of power.
WASHINGTON, D.C.— In the middle of the National Mall, on the same spot that had, the day before, hosted the revelers who had come out for the inauguration of Donald Trump, a crowd of people protesting the new presidency spontaneously formed themselves into a circle. They grasped hands. They invited others in. “Join our circle!” one woman shouted, merrily, to a small group of passersby. They obliged. The expanse—a small spot of emptiness in a space otherwise teeming with people—got steadily larger, until it spanned nearly 100 feet across. If you happened to be flying directly above the Mall during the early afternoon of January 21, as the Women’s March on Washington was in full swing, you would have seen a throng of people—about half a million of them, according to the most recent estimates—punctuated, in the middle, by an ad-hoc little bullseye.