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One of the most alarming developments in US foreign policy in 2016 was the ratcheting up of the new iteration of the Cold War. Looking back across US foreign policy in this last year of Barack Obama’s presidential tenure, other weighty developments include the ongoing proxy war in Syria, the US-supported Saudi-led bombing in Yemen, US use of drones and manned bombers in Libya, US bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan, unprecedented US military aid to Israel, US special operations in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen, US saber-rattling against China in the South China Sea, and steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba.
The ratcheting up of Cold War dynamics became particularly apparent in March, when the US government announced that it would significantly increase the number of troops stationed in Eastern Europe, a direct provocation of Russia. Reuters called the expanded positioning of NATO troops and military equipment in that region the “biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War.”
“With the US openly talking [of] a war with Russia, the continued deployments seem far from a purely defensive measure,” Jason Ditz wrote in Antiwar.com.
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In spite of overwhelming American support for a “no first use” nuclear policy, President Barack Obama refused to promise the United States would not again be the first nation to deploy nuclear weapons. Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and leader of the US Strategic Command, warned in an August New York Times column that “using nuclear weapons first against Russia and China would endanger our and our allies’ very survival by encouraging full-scale retaliation.”
In October, the United States and other major nuclear powers voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a treaty that would outlaw nuclear weapons.
The CIA report of Russian involvement in email hacking during the US presidential election has fanned the flames of anti-Russia sentiment in the United States. But, as Ivan Krastev wrote in the New York Times, private citizens, not just governments, hack email accounts. “The Cold War narrative ignores this new reality because it tends to see any subversive activity as the work of states,” according to Krastev.
Meanwhile, Obama has continued to prosecute his drone wars in seven countries. After three years of resisting transparency on numbers of civilian casualties in his targeted killing program, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) finally released figures far lower than those documented by the leading NGOs such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
And three and half years after Obama promised to make the rules for the US targeted killing program more transparent, he finally released the Presidential Policy Guidance, although much of it is redacted, or blacked out. The release was judicially compelled in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
US military operations abroad were the primary motivation for “homegrown terrorism,” according to a secret FBI study.
Here is a rundown of US foreign policy in 2016:
The tragic war in Syria continues unabated, with the Syrian government fighting ISIS (also known as Daesh) and defending itself against rebel forces. Although Assad has been responsible for large numbers of civilian casualties, New York University and Princeton Professor Emeritus Stephen Cohen told Democracy Now! that the “fog of war” makes it difficult to sort out whether the liberation of Aleppo is “a good thing” or whether Russia and Syria are committing war crimes, which is “a bad thing.” Cohen added that “the charge that Russia deliberately targets civilian facilities and centers is, of course, a part of the growing anti-Russian line that’s captured our politics and has led to this scandal in Washington.”
Paul Pillar wrote on Consortium News that “brutality and infliction of wholesale suffering on civilians have not been limited to any one side,” as there are multiple parties fighting in Aleppo. Pillar noted “the war against Assad is all about regime change.”
Regime change in Syria has been US policy, and to that end, the US military has armed and assisted the “Free Syrian Army” and other rebels to destabilize the Bashar al-Assad regime. The US-supported armed opposition joined with the al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, and its jihadist allies to destroy the ceasefire in August, Gareth Porter wrote for FAIR. Forcible regime change violates the United Nations Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
US-led sanctions against the Assad government have led to widespread suffering by the civilian population, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Obama has resisted pressure for a no-fly-zone in Syria — including pressure from Hillary Clinton, who admitted during the election it “would kill a lot of Syrians.” Since the US and Russia are involved in a proxy war in Syria, with Russia backing Assad and the US backing the rebels, a no-fly-zone would result in a shoot-down of Russian planes, leading to a wider and more dangerous conflict. It would “require war with Syria and Russia,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in September.
Iran, Russia and Turkey, which have their own ulterior motives in the conflict, issued a joint statement on December 20, expressing their “full respect for sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” stating “there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” calling for an expanded ceasefire and recognizing the essential role of the UN to help resolve the crisis. They reiterated their “determination to fight jointly against ISIL/DAESH and Al-Nusra and to separate from them armed opposition groups.”
The United States has supported the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthi rebelsin Yemen since March 2015. This conflict is part of a regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are bombing Yemen in order to defeat the Houthis, a Muslim minority who have been resisting government repression for the past several years. Iran has been accused of supporting the Houthis, although Iran denies this. Yemen is strategically located on a narrow waterway that links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. Much of the world’s oil passes through this waterway.
The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights accused the coalition of violating international humanitarian law by attacking civilians, medical personnel and the wounded. The UN recommended that the coalition stop using the “double-tap” in Yemen, in which a second strike targets those trying to rescue any survivors from the first strike, as well as funeral mourners. Double-taps are also used by the Obama administration in its drone strikes in several countries.
In August, the US State Department announced it had approved a $1.15 billion agreement to send military weapons and equipment to Saudi Arabia. The United States has shipped more than $20 billion in weapons to the Saudis since March 2015.
“If you talk to Yemeni Americans, they will tell you in Yemen this isn’t a Saudi bombing campaign, it’s a US bombing campaign,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in June, adding, “Every single civilian death inside Yemen is attributable to the United States.”
Obama told Fox News “the worst mistake” of his presidency was not planning for the aftermath of the US 2011 regime change in Libya, although he stubbornly maintained that ousting President Muammar Gaddafi was “the right thing to do.” The US regime change created a vacuum, leading to the rise of ISIS.
The United States continued to strike targets in Libya, now focusing on ISIS, with drones and attack jets. US Special Operations forces provided ground support to forces battling ISIS.
Attacks on territory controlled by ISIS “simply does not destroy ISIS,” Phyllis Bennis said, discussing the August US airstrikes in Libya on Democracy Now! “You can’t destroy terrorism that way … you’re playing a kind of global whack-a-mole, where you stamp out ISIS in one place, and it pops up somewhere else…. There is no military response to terrorism.”
Four US presidents — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have bombed Iraq almost continuously for more than 25 years.
In October, US-led airstrikes struck Mosul, which ISIS had occupied, at the rate of one bomb every eight minutes, according to Col. Daniel Manning, deputy director of the Combined Air Operations Center.
Nearly 1,000 civilians were killed by ISIS and Iraqi and US-led coalition forces. ISIS left behind dangerous explosive munitions when it fled the city.
In October 2015, US troops bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22 people, including patients, three children and medical personnel from Doctors Without Borders, or MSF. Thirty-seven people were injured, including 19 staff members, in the Oct. 3, 2015, attack.
US forces had to know they were targeting a hospital because MSF, as it does in all conflict contexts, had provided its exact GPS coordinates on multiple occasions. There was a nine-foot flag on the roof that identified the building as a hospital. After the first strike, MSF contacted US officials and reported the hospital was being bombed and begged them to halt the attack. Nevertheless, the US AC-130 gunship continued to pummel the hospital repeatedly for more than one hour. Targeting civilians violates the Geneva Conventions.
In April 2016 an Army investigation concluded US forces had no intent to destroy the hospital, but rather the targeting was the result of confusion and miscommunication. Sixteen US soldiers, including a general, received administrative punishments for the attack, but no criminal charges were filed.
Matthieu Aikins of the Nation Institute told the PBS News Hour, “there’s evidence that Afghan forces may have provided an exact description that matched the hospital as a target, meaning that they intentionally targeted the hospital, leading to US forces perhaps unintentionally striking the hospital as a result of that description.”
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that during the first half of 2016, 5,166 civilians were killed or maimed, more than a third of them children.
The United States continues to pursue “low-profile missions,” “named operations” and “quasi-wars” in Africa, Nick Turse reported, after studying a declassified but heavily redacted secret report covering activities from 2012 to 2016.
“On any given day, between 1,500 and 1,700 American special operators and support personnel are deployed somewhere on the continent,” Turse wrote on TomDispatch. “Over the course of a year they conduct missions in more than 20 countries.”
Special Operations Command Africa provides training, equipment and other assistance to military forces in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen “to conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda affiliates, and al-Shabab,” as well as aiding national military forces in Somalia, Turse added.
In late November, the White House admitted “the United States is currently using military force” in Somalia, including commando raids and drone assassinations.
In late September, Obama pledged to give Israel a record $38 billion in military aid over the next 10 years, fortifying his legacy as the strongest financial supporter of Israel ever to occupy the White House. Obama, whom Israeli journalist Gideon Levy calls “the patron of the occupation,” increased the amount of money the US provides Israel each year from $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion.
On December 23, the UN Security Council passed a resolution reaffirming that Israel’s Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.” The United States, a permanent member of the council, could have vetoed the resolution. But the US abstained, allowing the resolution to pass.
In October, a US Navy warship sailed close to islands China is claiming in the South China Sea. It was the fourth time this year the US challenged what it considers China’s unfounded claims in the South China Sea.
A US underwater drone seized by a Chinese warship in the South China Sea has just been returned to the United States by China.
President-elect Donald Trump angered China when he spoke to the president of Taiwan after his election. Trump indicated he might scrap the “one-China” policy the United States has pursued since the Nixon administration.
In March, Obama made a historic visit to Cuba, the first by a US president since 1928. Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro forged a pact in December 2015 to work toward normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. They have concluded bilateral agreements connecting the two countries by direct telephone service, postal service and commercial air travel. The US State Department removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“American patients are getting access to a lifesaving Cuban lung cancer vaccine, Cubans are getting greater access to the internet, and Cuban entrepreneurs are getting greater access to US travelers,” observed Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
Obama certified Iran’s compliance with its initial obligations under the nuclear deal and the corresponding lifting and/or waiver of international sanctions on Iran. Additionally, Iran released five Americans detained in Iran and the US and Iran settled a long-standing financial dispute.
Phyllis Bennis has proposed “a massive reduction of the military budget,” slated at $619 billion this year. The US must also “demand to replace the so-called global War on Terror with nonmilitary solutions,” since “killing people simply creates more terrorists.” And we must “broaden efforts to end the US support — military, economic and diplomatic — for Israeli occupation and apartheid.”
Trump may oppose the perilous movement toward war with Russia, but his provocation of China and hints that he may abandon the US’s long-standing “one-China” policy pose serious dangers.
Trump’s threat to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem would undermine any hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The president-elect has promised to “destroy ISIS,” but has given no details about how to accomplish that goal. He opposes the Iran nuclear deal, although the United States and Iran are not the only parties to that agreement. Trump favors expanding US nuclear capability until the “world comes to its senses.” He pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to keep out immigrants he has called “criminals” and rapists.” And he continues to reiterate his pledge to ban Muslims from the United States and build a Muslim “registry.”