Obama's Legacy of War without End

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE unexpected pardon that the former American president, Barack Obama, has given to the whistle blower, Chelsea Manning, has come as a welcome surprise for human rights activists and millions of ordinary Americans, who had demanded his release. Obama has not extended the same gesture to Edward Snowden, the other famous whistle blower, who exposed the widespread State surveillance by US intelligence agencies. The Obama administration has arrested more whistle blowers on charges of espionage than any previous administration. Manning's leak had brought to light serious war crimes committed by American occupation forces in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, including the targeting of civilians during the eight years of the Bush presidency. The Nobel peace prize winner during his two terms in office did not deliver on most of the promises he had made as an anti- war candidate. He did withdraw the bulk of the 200,000 American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan but his legacy as a votary for global peace will remain a tainted one.

The unfortunate fact however is that the United States continued to be at war during the two terms of the Obama presidency. Libya and Syria became two more states where the United States got deeply involved. The American military continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan. The former president's military pivot to East Asia has raised military tensions in the Asia Pacific region. In the last days of his presidency, Obama deliberately escalated tensions with Russia by deploying NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic states. Under Obama, the targeting of civilians in war zones had registered a significant increase. President Obama initially turned to drone warfare in a big way to combat groups hostile to American interests from Pakistan to Somalia.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner also increased America's defense spending to a record high and was also an avid salesman of American weapons in the international arms bazaar. The Obama administration had approved more than $278 billion in foreign arms sales in eight years. Most of the weaponry sold has been to the states in the West Asian region, with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia heading the list. Deals worth more than $128 billion have been signed with the Saudis alone during the Obama presidency. Many of the deals were signed in the last two years when the Saudi army was butchering the people of Yemen. Among the weapons sold were F-16 planes, Apache attack helicopters, tanks and missiles. According to military analysts, Obama had brokered more arms deal than any American president since Second World War. The Bush administration had only approved arms deals worth $128 billion in the eight years it was in office.

Though under his watch, the United States officially never invaded any country, President Obama's military budget exceeded that of his predecessor, George W Bush's by many billions of dollars. In real terms, according to figures released by the Pentagon, US military spending was 42 percent more than that was spent during the peak of the cold war. During the Cold War, the United States at least had a serious rival in the shape of the Soviet Union. Russia and China, which are now being portrayed as a serious threat to America's status as the world's only superpower, spend considerably less on their defense budgets. The Russian military budget is currently only one-tenth of that of the Americans.

Under Obama, the American special operations forces had expanded their operations to 138 countries, many of them on the African continent. Under the Bush administration, the American special forces were only used in 60 countries. American special forces today are active in the Horn of Africa helping Kenyan, Ugandan and Ethiopian forces fight the al Shabab insurgents in Somalia and keep the central government in Mogadishu in office. In Libya, American special forces and its air force had played a role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The Obama administration intervened militarily in Libya invoking the bogus “responsibility to protect” doctrine. It was argued at the time that the civilian population was under dire threat from the Gaddafi government.

Since the overthrow of Gaddafi, the peace and stability enjoyed by the Libyan people for more than 50 years has been shattered.  The Obama administration had backed a long time CIA asset, Khalifa Haftar, to run the country. But the former Libyan officer, who had defected to the US in the 1980's, had failed to get the support of the key tribal militias and populace. The American covert and overt military intervention in Libya, was one of the factors that led to the killing of Christopher Stevens, the US envoy to Libya in the port city of Benghazi.

American special operations forces have been also active in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, battling forces like the Boko Haram. The US air force too has been very busy under the Obama administration. According to a report published by the American Council of Foreign Relations, a record number of bombs were dropped by American planes in the last eight years. In 2016 alone, American planes and drones dropped more than 26,000 bombs. This amounts to more than 72 bombs every single day. Most of the bombs targeted civilian areas in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The people in Libya, Somalia, Yemen and the tribal areas of Pakistan, were also subjected to the attacks from the air.

The Obama administration also did not see it fit to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Mine Ban Treaty.  Only 35 countries, which includes India, have not signed the 1997 Ottawa accord banning the use of conventional mines. Till a couple of months ago, the United States was selling cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia for its bombing campaign in Yemen. The death toll among civilians in Yemen has already exceeded ten thousand.

But what has really stood out in the last eight years was the Obama administration's extensive reliance on drone warfare. There was a ten-fold expansion of drone warfare during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Under the Bush administration, American drone warfare was mainly confined to Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama embraced the concept and authorised its use on an almost worldwide basis. According to reports, Obama had taken personal responsibility about the individuals to be targeted in drone attacks. Among those targeted was Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen, who had joined the al Qaeda. Awlaki, who was once an imam in a mosque in America and his son were killed in a drone attack in Yemen.

The Obama administration claimed that it had the legal authorisation to sanction the use of drones without geographic restrictions under previous laws passed by the US Congress following the 9/11 attacks by the al Qaeda. By the beginning of 2016, President Obama had authorised 506 drone strikes according to the official figures available. There may have been many more covert attacks that may not have been officially recorded. Under the Bush presidency, only 50 drone strikes were ordered.

President Obama had consistently claimed that drone strikes were more effective than fighter aircraft and much less expensive to operate. It was also claimed that the drones were more clinical in the elimination of terrorists and at the same time helped reduce civilian casualties. Available evidence however has shown that collateral civilian damage due to drone strikes has been grossly underestimated. A study showed that only 2 percent of high level fighters have been killed in drone attacks. According to estimates by human rights groups, at least 3000 civilian deaths have been caused by American drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and in other countries.

Drone attacks have alienated the local populace in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan with many of them joining terror groups to avenge the killings of close relatives. A study by American Center of Naval Analysis came to the conclusion that drone attacks were ten times more deadly for civilians that attacks by conventional military aircraft. Another report said that 90 percent of those killed in drone attacks were not the “intended targets”. Some of drones used in combat like the “Golden Hawk” cost twice as much an F-35 fighter jet. The cost of an F-35 is around $100 million. In 2015, President Obama cleared the sales of armed drones to foreign countries.

In the last year of his presidency, Obama issued an executive order making the protection of the civilian populace a priority during airstrikes by drones and other weapons. The order would make it mandatory for future American governments to report the deaths caused by such operations every year. Obama wanted to ensure more openness on drone operations in the future, finally realizing that the potential for its misuse. But his successor, Donald Trump, would very well prefer to draw back the cloak of secrecy which marked drone warfare during most of the Obama presidency. The executive order issued by Obama, seven months before he left office, also legitimises the use of military drones outside conventional war zones as part of America's national security policy.

The executive order declared that “civilian casualties are a tragic and sometimes unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of the state's inherent right to self defense”. The executive order at least officially recognised that there were unavoidable civilian casualties as a result of American drone attacks. In a speech in 2013, Obama had acknowledged that the “hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties” and said that “these deaths will haunt us for a long time”. Before that the tendency of the Obama administration was to presume that all civilian casualties who were adults were automatically enemy combatants.

The president's statement in 2013 was a tacit admission that most of those killed in American drone attacks were civilians whose names were unknown to the US government. A month before leaving office, President Obama in a speech to American soldiers, sanctimoniously denounced the “false promise” that “we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs”. He then went on to proclaim that “democracies should not operate in a permanent state of war”. One of his last acts as president was to dispatch American troops to Norway opening up another cold war front with Russia.

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