Yesterday, an overwhelming majority (62-33) of US Senators—including every Senator who caucuses with the Democrats save two—voted in favor of a measure that calls upon President Obama to continue withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan at a steady pace, as he promised in his address to the nation in June 2011. The "sense of the Senate", which was introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), also calls upon President Obama to end all regular US combat missions in Afghanistan no later than December 31, 2014, and to "take all possible steps" to end such operations earlier.
Why is this vote significant? At present, there is no timetable for removing the 68,000 US troops that remain in Afghanistan. President Obama does not plan to announce such a timetable until after his administration has decided how many troops to leave in Afghanistan post-2014. This decision is expected to happen within the next few weeks, which means that a decision on a drawdown timetable for 2013-2014 may also be imminent.
This is slightly adapted from a presentation given at a Congressional briefing on drone strike policy on November 16, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
I want to talk about what Congress could do about drone strikes in the next 1-2 years.
To begin with, some political context, as I see it.
First, I don't think anyone will argue with me if I say that for the last ten years Congress has done very little.
Second, I think it would be extremely helpful if Congress would do something. I think Congress doing something is intrinsically important in itself, in addition to whatever the thing is. The reason is that the media, the public and the Administration take cues from what Congress is talking about. If Congress isn't talking about something, then it's perceived as not very controversial. More people would contact Congress if we had a vehicle for them to contact Congress about.
Third, I don't think it's as hard for Congress to do things on this as some people seem to think. There's a kind of conventional wisdom that Congress can't do anything because no-one cares because no U.S. soldiers are being killed by the policy. I think this conventional wisdom is completely wrong. No U.S. soldiers are being killed in Honduras and yet a hundred Members of Congress are willing to sign letters about human rights in Honduras, and these letters get press and pressure the Administration. No U.S. soldiers are being killed in Bahrain but Members of Congress are willing to sign letters about human rights in Bahrain and these letters get press and pressure the Administration. Conversely, plenty of U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan before 2009 and Congress didn't do much about that. So whether or not American soldiers are being killed is not as decisive as some people seem to think.
Hamas and Israel have reportedly agreed to terms for a ceasefire, which should be taking effect right about now. This is a welcome development.
But just because a ceasefire has been agreed upon doesn't mean that we can or should forget the United States's hypocritical response to the violence, which was on display as late as this morning when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued statements on a bus bombing in Tel Aviv said by some to be perpetrated by Hamas.
US Should Condemn Israeli Assault On Gaza And Call For Immediate Cease-Fire (But Of Course, It Hasn't)
For the last few days, Gaza has been under assault by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The US press is reporting the Israeli attack to be in response to rocket fire coming from the Gaza strip, although the sequence of events isn't quite that simple. So far, 15 Palestinians have been killed, eight of which have been reported to be civilians, including a pregnant woman, a 10-month old son of a BBC worker, and three infants. A rocket launched from Gaza after the Israeli assault began is said to have killed three Israeli civilians.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that the Obama administration would come to a decision within the next few weeks about the magnitude of the US "enduring presence" in Afghanistan. Panetta said that the White House was currently reviewing several recommendations for troop levels from General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. These options take into account the different roles US troops would play in Afghanistan after 2014. According to the New York Times,
The number, Mr. Panetta said, will be based on how many forces are needed for counterterrorism — that is, in commando raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden — as well as for training and providing air transport and other support to the Afghan security forces.
Yesterday, US media began reporting that Iranian fighter jets had shot at—but did not hit— an unarmed US drone off the coast of Iran last week. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little claimed that the unmanned military plane was over international waters 16 nautical miles off the coast of Iran, and that the drone had never been in Iranian airspace. In response, the US protested the shooting and warned Iran that it has "a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military," available to protect its assets. According to a CNN report, the incident has "raised fresh concerns within the Obama administration about Iranian military aggression in crucial Gulf oil shipping lanes."
At the polls Tuesday, I had the opportunity to cast a vote on one of the most important issues facing the country today. No, I'm not talking about the presidential race. I'm talking about an issue the two presidential candidates only superficially addressed during this long campaign season: the US military budget. Voters in 91 Massachusetts towns and in New Haven, CT, were asked whether Congress should redirect funds from the military budget to human needs. And we New Englanders overwhelmingly voted "Hell Yeah!"
The ballot referendum in Massachusetts was organized by the Budget for All Massachusetts Coalition, which is reporting preliminary results that 556,000 Massachusetts voters (or 74%) answered "yes", while only 190,930 (26%) said "no". In New Haven, the margin was even wider. The New Haven Register reports that 23,398 city residents (or 85%) voted “yes,” while only 15% of voters (4,152 residents) voted “no.” The New Haven ballot referendum was organized by the Greater New Haven Peace Council, City of New Haven Peace Commission, and Promoting Enduring Peace.
Both of the ballot questions asked voters whether Congress should reduce military spending and increase and protect spending on human needs, such as Social Security and Medicare. Although the referendums are non-binding, they send a strong signal to Massachusetts and Connecticut representatives that reducing the military budget must be made a priority in the next Congress, and that efforts to save Pentagon spending from the cutting board by offering up cuts to necessary domestic programs will not be tolerated.
Robert Gibbs Blames Al Awlaki 16 Year Old Son's Death By Drone On His Having A Terrorist For A Father
Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was cornered recently to answer questions on US drone strike policy. One journalist, Sierra Adamson, asked that Gibbs justify the killing of Anwar al Awlaki's 16 year old son—who was a US citizen—in a drone strike two weeks after his father was killed in another US drone attack. Gibbs said al Awlaki shouldn't have had a terrorist for a father.
Here's the transcript:
SIERRA ADAMSON: "Do you think that the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, who was an American citizen, is justifiable?"
ROBERT GIBBS: "I'm not going to get into Anwar al-Awlaki's son. I know that Anwar al-Awlaki renounced his citizenship."
SIERRA ADAMSON: "His son was still an American citizen."
ROBERT GIBBS: "Did great harm to people in this country and was a regional al-Qaeda commander hoping to inflict harm and destruction on people that share his religion and others in this country. And..."
SIERRA ADAMSON: "That's an American citizen that's being targeted without due process of law, without trial. And he's underage. He's a minor."
ROBERT GIBBS: "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father. If they're truly concerned about the well-being of their children, I don't think becoming an al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business."
The Law & Order francise has a reputation for plucking stories from newspaper headlines, but few have hit on pressing foreign policy matters quite like this. A recent episode of NBC's Law & Order: SVU featured a character plotting a terrorist attack in the United States. At the end of the episode, it's revealed that the character's father was a doctor in Waziristan—and was killed in a secondary drone strike while attending the victims of the initial US attack. The storyline is obviously inspired by the Stanford/NYU report released last month, which accused the United States of having a policy of conducting secondary drone strikes against first responders in Pakistan. Here's the clip:
Bravo SVU team for helping to promote the report's findings to what is likely a whole new demographic. A June 2012 Pew poll showed that 62% of Americans support US drone strike policy. But where pop culture goes, the American public can't be too far behind.
One benefit that has come from the simple asking of any drone question during last night's debate is that, today, people in the media are talking about drones, and in a far more substantial way than the candidates did last night.
One example is MSNBC'S Morning Joe. In the course of the commentator's discussion of last night's debate, Bob Schieffer's drone question came up. It was then that host Joe Scarborough, the former Republican Congressman, revealed himself to be a closet Code Pinker when it comes to drones. Scarborough confessed that he found US drone policy incredibly troubling, and presented a penetrating critique of US drone strikes. Joe Klein, on the other hand, defended Obama's policies, justifying the murder of four year-old Pakistani children with a "them or us" argument. In the end, three commentators, including Scarborough, said that they wished the debate last night had spent more time on the drones question.
Glenn Greenwald published an excellent critique of Klein's remarks over at the Guardian. A video clip of the discussion is below, as well as a transcript.