BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Posted by Bulatlat
How long does it take a mild-mannered, antiwar, black professor of constitutional law, trained as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, to become an enthusiastic sponsor of targeted assassinations, “decapitation” strategies and remote-control bombing of mud houses the far end of the globe?
There’s nothing surprising here. As far back as President Woodrow Wilson in the early twentieth century, American liberalism has been swift to flex imperial muscle, to whistle up the Marines. High explosive has always been in the hormone shot.
The nearest parallel to Obama in eager deference to the bloodthirsty counsels of his counter-insurgency advisors is John F. Kennedy. It is not surprising that bright young presidents relish quick-fix, “outside the box” scenarios for victory.
Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan the counsels of regular Army generals tends to be drear and unappetizing: vast, costly deployments of troops by the hundreds of thousand, mounting casualties, uncertain prospects for any long-term success – all adding up to dismaying political costs on the home front.
Amid Camelot’s dawn in 1961, Kennedy swiftly bent an ear to the counsels of men like Ed Lansdale, a special ops man who wore rakishly the halo of victory over the Communist guerillas in the Philippines and who promised results in Vietnam.
By the time he himself had become the victim of Lee Harvey Oswald’s “decapitation” strategy, brought to successful conclusion in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy had set in motion the counter-insurgency operations, complete with programs of assassination and torture that turned South-East Asia and Latin America into charnel houses, some of them, like Colombia, to this day.
Another Democrat who strode into the White House with the word “peace” springing from his lips was Jimmy Carter. It was he who first decreed that “freedom” and the war of terror required a $3.5 billion investment in a secret CIA-led war in Afghanistan, plus the deployment of Argentinian torturers to advise US military teams in counter-insurgency ops in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
(Though no US president can spend more than a few moments in the Oval Office scanning his in-tray the morning after the inaugural ceremonies without okaying the spilling of blood somewhere on the planet, it has to be said that Bill Clinton did display some momentary distaste before settling comfortably into the killer’s role. “Do we have to do this?” he muttered, as his national security team said that imperial dignity required cruise missile bombardment of Baghdad in 1991 in retaliation for a foiled attack on former President G.H.W. Bush, during a visit to Kuwait. The misisiles landed in a suburb, one of them killing the artist Laila al-Attar.)
Obama campaigned on a pledge to “decapitate” al-Qaida, meaning the assassination of its leaders. It was his short-hand way of advertising that he had the right stuff. And, like Kennedy, he’s summoning the exponents of unconventional, short-cut paths to success in that mission. Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal now replaces General David McKiernan as Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s expertise is precisely in assassination and “decapitation”. As commander of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for nearly five years starting in 2003, McChrystal was in charge of death squad ops, with its best advertised success being the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The phrase “sophisticated networks” tends to crop up in assessments of McChrystal’s Iraq years. Actually there’s nothing fresh or sophisticated in what he did. Programs of targeted assassination aren’t new in counter-insurgency. The most infamous and best known was the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, designed to identify and eliminate cadres of Vietnam’s “National Liberation Front”, informally known as the Viet Cong of whom, on some estimates, at least 40,000 were duly assassinated.
In such enterprises two outcomes are inevitable. Identification of the human targets requires either voluntary informants or captives. In the latter instance kidnapping (ie extrajudicial seizure of “enemy combatants”) and then torture are certain, whatever rhetorical pledges are proclaimed back home. There may be intelligence officers who will rely on patient, non-violent interrogation, as the US officer, Major Matthew Alexander, who elicited the whereabouts of al-Zarquawi told Patrick Cockburn on this site that he did. There will be others, US personnel who will either personally reach for the garden hose and the face towel, or delegate the task to the local talent. It has been thus, without remit, through the entire course of Empire. Not so long ago CounterPuncher Prof. Bruce Jackson of SUNY, Buffalo, sent us an illustration from the May 22, 1902 issue of the original (pre-Hearst) Life. The only military action the US had going at the time was in the Philippines, where Pershing was fighting the Moros — Muslims who wanted independence from US rule. A pipe-smoking GI pours water into a funnel held in the mouth of a barefoot prisoner by another GI, who sits on the prisoner’s genitals and points a pistol at his throat.