The president’s reported quote, “Don’t do stupid stuff,” is good advice. However, our policy makers too often ignore it. The Middle East wars, Guantánamo and the unconditional support of Israel are ongoing examples of stupid stuff.
His critics jeered when reporters quoted President Obama last spring: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” They would have done better to reflect on all the “stupid,” illegal and immoral “stuff” that the president and his predecessor have already inflicted on the United States and the world.
Our Middle East wars, the indefinite detention of Guantánamo prisoners, and unconditional military aid to Israel are ongoing examples of counterproductive policies that keep making things worse.
Middle East Wars
In response to 9/11 and in violation of the UN Charter, Article 51 (which limits self-defense to an “armed attack”), the United States launched two wars: on October 7, 2001, against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and on March 19, 2003, against the forces of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Extending the wars to northwestern Pakistan and Yemen, the targeted killing of militants began in 2004 and increased over the years, killing or maiming hundreds of civilians, terrorizing local communities and aiding militant recruitment.
The Afghanistan war, now in its 13th year, is winding down. President Obama marked the end of the US combat mission in Iraq on December 21, 2011. However, in a televised address to the nation on September 10, 2014, the president announced a planned US bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria – this time against ISIS.
What do we have to show for 13 years of warfare? No clear victory, a loss of 5,000 US soldiers, between 100,000 and 500,000 civilian casualties and a war bill of more than $1 trillion. Though less visible, a downgrading of international law and US standing in the world is due to the Middle East wars. The UN Human Rights Committee recently condemned the United States’ performance under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, citing among other breaches: targeted killings, drone strikes, Guantánamo and extraordinary rendition. The degrading photos from the Abu Ghraib prison shamed the United States before the world.
President Obama seemed to recognize Guantánamo’s liabilities when he pledged to abolish it during his first week in office. However, the pledge lapsed from legal complications and Congressional opposition. Now six years later, the prison still festers. It has become an even larger symbol for the recruitment of ISIS militants. In clear reference to Guantánamo, the two kidnapped and murdered American journalists had been waterboarded and were shown wearing orange jumpsuits.
Guantánamo is also a showcase for the United States’ new disrespect for law. Only a lawless society could tolerate indefinite detention and force-feeding.
According to a 2013 Miami Herald estimate, US taxpayers now pay almost $500 million a year to maintain the facility and pay troop salaries. That’s almost $3 million a year for each current inmate. Notwithstanding administration promises, the 77 prisoners who have been cleared for release still languish in the prison, with no relief in sight. Recent reports from detainee attorneys describe brutal beatings of hunger strikers forcibly extracted from their cells.
The Gaza War
Israel’s 50-day war on Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and was grossly disproportionate to the damage inflicted by Hamas’ rocket strikes, will be a proper subject for war crimes inquiries.
The failure of the US president and Congress to restrain Israel by withholding unconditional military aid enabled not only the IDF’s massacres of civilians, but also Israel’s continued occupation of Gaza. Unless the Israeli occupation ends and borders are opened, hostilities will likely resume. In their August 23, 2014, advertisement in The New York Times, more than 350 Holocaust survivors and their descendants condemned the United States for providing Israel with the funding to carry out its attacks on Gaza.
In her 1984 book, The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman wrote, “There is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy maker has the moral courage to exercise it.” In his May 23, 2013, speech to the National Defense University, President Obama addressed force-feeding in Guantánamo: “Is this who we are?” he asked. “Is that the America we want to leave our children?”
Now we need the moral courage to end the stupid stuff.