Why We Should Care More About 'Blowback' From U.S. Foreign Policy

Democrats are letting Obama off easy for things they'd never let Bush get away with.

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Reuters

Less than a year after President Obama was sworn into office, Yemen announced that it had conducted a series of military strikes on al-Qaeda training camps operating in its southern province. The Pentagon wouldn't comment on the matter, and Yemen repeatedly insisted that it acted alone. But a Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Shaye, traveled to the scene of the attack, where he discovered the remains of American missiles and cluster bombs, and reported on the innocents that were killed. "To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested," Jeremy Scahill reports. "The Pentagon would not comment on the strike and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye was later vindicated when Wikileaks released a US diplomatic cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament."

The journalist who exposed the civilian casualties and the Yemeni lies about American involvement is now in prison, accused of assisting terrorists, though no evidence has been presented to support that charge. Nearly pardoned by Yemen's government, he remains in custody, to the dismay of human rights groups. As Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Drum debate what that means, I want to remark on the domestic political angle. Judging by the apathetic reaction to the imprisonment of innocents at Guantanamo Bay, I don't expect Americans would care if their president was complicit in unjustly imprisoning a foreign journalist. But the raid -- the one that killed all those women and children -- is just the sort of bungled effort that creates antagonism toward America, aids in terrorist recruitment, and ultimately makes us less safe. It's certainly part of why some Yemenis are increasingly radicalized against us. And it is an awful human tragedy, the sort that no American would want on his or her conscience. Had you heard about it before now, even as a single data point?

President Obama is likely to campaign in part on his repeated successes in killing various al-Qaeda members, Osama bin Laden foremost among them. It's perfectly legitimate for him to do so. But the various assessments of Obama's foreign policy record, whether offered by the mainstream media, the conservative press, or the Republican presidential candidates, almost invariably ignore the cost of waging undeclared, under-the-radar drone and missile wars in numerous Muslim countries. During the Bush Administration, the blowback critique was commonplace. It even persisted into the early days of current administration. Said Obama himself:

Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists than it ever detained.

But now that establishment Democrats have one of their own in office and are less inclined to advance the blowback critique, almost no one is doing it. Look at our sad loyal opposition: It's a political liability to be seen as overly apologetic to foreigners. A single press conference about American exceptionalism has generated critical mentions for years. But a bungled raid that kills dozens of innocents? Opinion polls positing that Obama is less popular in the Arab world than Bush? Aren't those major fails? Neither Republicans nor mainstream Democrats act like it. 

In our politics, dead innocents aren't generally treated as costs that are set alongside the benefits of Obama's policies. They're just unmentioned, as if they're insufficiently consequential to merit it. As if we could stop worrying about blowback when "bellicose cowboy George W. Bush" left office and "cosmopolitan Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama" took over. Under Obama, blowback is only on our radar when, as in the Koran burning, it might occur within the next several 24 hour news cycles. That's too bad. I'd feel better about the incentive system we've established for our president if it wasn't so skewered toward rewarding cathartic, short term kills at the expense of morality, relationships with allies, and long term terrorist depletion.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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