Various matters: Afghanistan, Libya and Manning

In the news: A liberal consensus arises on Obama's detention defense, while war lessons seem never to be learned

By Glenn Greenwald
Published March 16, 2011 11:17AM (EDT)
President Barack Obama speaks at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., Monday, March 14, 2011. (AP Photo) (AP)
President Barack Obama speaks at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., Monday, March 14, 2011. (AP Photo) (AP)

(updated below - Update II)

(1) One finding from the new Washington Post/ABC News poll has received some attention:  Americans -- by the large margin of 31-64% -- believe that "all in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting."  And they believe by an even wider margin -- 71-23% -- that the "United States should withdraw a substantial number of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer" (though 53% doubt, probably presciently, that this will happen).  But what's even more striking is that a mere 17% of the American citizenry "strongly believes" that the war was worth fighting (see this very good analysis of how dubious is the administration's new positive war spin). 

It may be that some policies should be continued as desirable no matter how little public support they command.  But war is different.  Wars are supposed to be fought only when the citizenry is behind them and they are absolutely necessary.  It's almost impossible to imagine a situation where a war should be continued when only 17% of the nation's citizens "strongly believe" it's worth fighting.  Almost by definition, a nation shouldn't be fighting a war -- especially in another country -- if such a small fraction of its citizens believe it's truly necessary.  What justifies sending fellow citizens off to die -- let alone killing people in the country we've invaded -- if so few people believe it's worthwhile let alone necessary?  But this underscores yet again the most ingenious and valuable achievement of the National Security State:  enabling endless war while appearing to impose costs on only a tiny percentage of the population, thus ensuring that pointless, unnecessary, unjust wars will continue without much resistance even when the vast majority of the public recognizes them as such.


(2) The retrospective view of Afghanistan as not worth fighting mirrors, of course, the longstanding view among Americans about the Iraq War.  But both wars began with substantial support, which means -- logically -- that large numbers of Americans came to change their initial views and ultimately concluded that the very wars for which they cheered were not, in fact, worth fighting.  One might think that this experience would teach them lessons about the dangers of cheering for unnecessary wars in foreign lands, but one would be wrong.  The same poll cited above finds, depending on how the question is asked, substantial support for U.S. military involvement in imposing a no-fly zone in Libya (between 49-56%), and of those, a robust 72% still support such an action even when told that it "first requires bombing attacks on anti-aircraft positions, and then requires continuous air patrols" (similarly, most Americans say they would support a military attack on Iran to stop their nuclear program).

Obviously, a strong humanitarian appeal can be crafted in support of military intervention in Libya.  Any decent human being would loathe Moammar Gadaffi and find his attacks on his unarmed population to be repulsive.  But exactly the same could be said -- and was constantly said -- about the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.  There's an obvious emotional appeal in vanquishing murderous tyrants out of power through the use of force.  But even leaving aside the question of whether the U.S. can effectively shape outcomes in distant lands with complex foreign cultures -- even after a full decade, our confusion seems greater than ever in Afghanistan -- nations don't fight wars primarily with humanitarian aims; they fight them to advance their interests.

Humanitarianism is the pretty package in which every new war is wrapped.  That's just the Manichean propaganda tactic needed to induce public support for killing human beings:  it's justified because we're there to destroy Evil and do Good.  Wars can sometimes incidentally produce humanitarian benefits, but that isn't the real aim of war.  We can (perhaps) remove Gadaffi from power, but we'll then up defending and propping up (and thus be responsible for) whatever faction will heed our dictates and serve our interests regardless of their humanitarian impulses (see our good friends Nouri al-Malaki and Hamid Karzai as examples). 

As our other good friends Saudi Arabia and Bahrain collaborate on attacking civilian protesters, there are no calls for U.S. intervention there -- even though that's arguably more serious than what's happening in Libya -- because those governments serve our interests.  Nor is there much anger among Americans (as opposed to Egyptians) over our decades-long support for the dictator of Egypt (and most of the other tyrants now suddenly being vilified).  That's because our conduct in the Middle East isn't driven by humanitarian objectives no matter how manipulatively that flag is waved.  It's driven by a desire to advance our perceived interests regardless of humanitarian outcomes, and exactly the same would be true for any intervention in Libya.  Even if we were capable of fostering humanitarian outcomes in that nation -- and that's highly doubtful -- that wouldn't be our mission.


(3) The forced nudity imposed on Bradley Manning followed by the forced resignation of P.J. Crowley has clearly created a media tipping point in this story.  In addition to the scathing New York Times Editorial from Monday (Manning's treatment "conjures creepy memories of how the Bush administration used to treat terror suspects"), editorial condemnation has now come from The Los Angeles Times ("punishment, not protection, is the purpose of these degrading measures") and The Guardian ("There was at least the ghost of an excuse for bullying foreign combatants but no US need for mistreating one of their own").  Perhaps most notably, even the military-revering, establishment-defending Washington Post Editorial Page today emphatically condemns these conditions as "uncomfortably close to the kind of intimidating and humiliating tactics disavowed after the abuses at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons that eroded the country’s standing in the world."

The abusive treatment of Manning is indeed now reverberating internationally.  Der Spiegel has a long article on the conditions of Manning's detention, noting that "even US politicians believe they're illegal" and highlighting the point I've repeatedly made:

Before he was inaugurated, Obama talked about the importance of whistleblowers, or sources who expose abuses within their organizations. Such "acts of courage and patriotism" ought to be "encouraged, rather than stifled," his website read at the time.

Once in office, Obama underwent a radical shift. His government is currently taking legal action against a number of whistleblowers. The government apparently wants to use the Manning case as a deterrent.

Meanwhile, The Guardian has an excellent article today describing how Physicians for Human Rights is now formally raising objections to the role of brig psychiatrists in enabling Manning's inhumane treatment (just as they once raised objections to the role played by health professionals at Guantanamo).  On Twitter today, the generally pro-administration Ezra Klein re-printed this insightful observation: "Oddly, Manning's treatment helps to justify his actions ex post. Is a govt that would do this a govt we should trust to act in secret?"  And even National Review, in a fairly good feature article, discusses the consensus among progressives and other Obama supporters that has now arisen in condemnation of Obama's treatment of Manning (though they amusinglys note at the end that "there’s a notable (though not surprising) exception: The New Republic":  once again dutifully fulfilling its principal function in life).

(4) Without endorsing all of their observations, here are two very worthwhile commentaries about what the Manning episode (and related matters) reflects about Barack Obama:  (a) this post and (b) this Tom Tomorrow cartoon.


(5) Evan Bayh has long been one of the most perfect expressions of the rotted sickness and corruption plaguing Washington.  In The Washington Post, Ezra Klein perfectly documents how Bayh's new, conflict-ridden post-Senate trough-feeding is itself a perfect expression of what Washington is.


(6) In The American Conservative, Daniel Larison twice expertly mocks the laughable claim from "conservative intellectuals" that Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are degrading their otherwise high-minded and profoundly substantive movement.


UPDATE:  Yale Law Professors Bruce Ackerman and Jack Balkin, along with Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School, have issued an exceptionally good statement -- for which they are seeking the support of other academics -- condemning the "degrading and inhumane" conditions of Manning's detention as "illegal and immoral."  Similarly, the ACLU today issued a letter (not yet online) sent by its Executive Director, Anthony Romero, to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, arguing that the "cruel and unusual treatment" of Manning "violates fundamental constitutional norms" and that the "purpose of such treatment is to degrade, humiliate, and traumatize."  Not only has the Obama administration's treatment of Manning now become a national scandal, there are very few people outside of the Far Right who are doing anything other than condemning it.

UPDATE II:  The ACLU letter to Gates is here.  And at CNN, prison psychiatric expert Terry Kupers explains why Manning's detention is so destructive and barbaric, including this:  "The problem with the argument that Manning is being kept in long-term solitary confinement to prevent his suicide is that long-term solitary confinement causes suicide."

Glenn Greenwald

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