The Neocons Never Left: Obama War Crimes in Afghanistan & Around the World


by Anthony DiMaggio

(Originally published on ZNet, January 14, 2012)

The Obama administration becomes a more worthy successor to the neoconservatives’ criminal agenda as every day passes. The parallels between the Bush and Obama administrations are so striking as to make me wonder, is there any difference between these administrations at all? The answer, sadly, seems to be a resounding no. In terms of public opinion, there appears to be a large difference in how the administrations are perceived, with Obama-noids among liberal segments of the population worshipping Obama for allegedly restoring honor to the American presidency and pushing for a  more multilateral foreign policy. Such celebration is nonsense, considering the reckless criminality with which Obama has carried himself. The most recent example is seen in the newly emerged video depicting American soldiers urinating on a number of dead Afghans; whether they are civilians or Taliban “insurgents” is not ultimately known.

If nothing else, this act is flagrantly illegal under the rules of war, as described in the Geneva Conventions – which are legally binding upon U.S. military forces acting abroad. As the Guardian reports, the recent surfacing of the urination video compounds feelings of anger toward the U.S., in light of previous military transgressions in Afghanistan:

“The US military command in Kabul, which was severely embarrassed last year by revelations that Americans soldiers were running a ‘kill squad’ murdering Afghan civilians, said it would investigate the undated video, and that if it proved to be authentic, desecration of corpses would be regarded as a serious crime. Despoiling of the dead is illegal under the Geneva conventions as well as under US military law.”
The video depicts behavior that is unquestionably illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires parties to an armed conflict to take steps “to search for the killed and wounded,” while the First Geneva Convention (Article 15) and the Second Geneva Convention (Article 18) state explicitly that occupying powers’ responsibilities with regard to those killed in combat are to “prevent their being despoiled.” Urination on the bodies of the dead (whether they are civilians or military personnel) clearly constitutes a violation of the rules of war, as agreed to by the United States. Such protections under the Geneva Conventions hold the force of national law in the United States, as the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution states that foreign treaties enjoy protected status as the highest law of the land.

The Obama administration is trying to distance itself from the disturbing behavior in question, releasing a series of statements depicting these acts as the vulgar acts of a vicious few, and with buck passing directed at those in the field who engaged in this behavior. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the act “deplorable,” and that “this conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military.” Panetta refrained from referring to the behavior as criminal, however, similarly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed “total dismay” at the video, but also explained that the behavior ran contradictory to the alleged standards that “the vast, vast majority of our personnel – particularly our marines – hold themselves to.” 

The harsh reality surrounding recent events in Afghanistan – when taken in conjunction with other behaviors of the U.S. – suggest that the Obama administration is guilty of the very same criminality and thuggery that characterized the Bush-neocon agenda. This is ultimately Obama’s war, and all the criminal and terrorist acts undertaken by foot soldiers on the ground ultimately fall on Obama’s shoulders. Obama may not have ordered soldiers to urinate on the Afghan dead, but he – like Bush – has created a system of criminality and impunity in which the United States flouts national and international law while contemptuously wagging its finger at the rest of the world. U.S. paternalism and aggression, it turns out, didn’t end with Bush. Democrats and faithful liberals will shudder at these thoughts, but their rose-colored glasses looking back at Obama’s first term are the product of their own indoctrination and willful ignorance concerning the reality of U.S. foreign policy.
Little distinguishes the foreign policy agendas of the past three presidents – Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Those who question this claim should review Clinton’s national security strategy, which reads like a carbon copy of the Bush administration’s strategy – articulated only a few years later. Clinton, like Bush, spoke in his security strategy about the importance of using military force to further U.S. military power and secure key natural resources around the globe. Clinton’s strategy similarly focused on the issues of radical Islamists and terrorism, while also stressing the alleged dangers of weapons of mass destruction and their supposed proliferation among Arab and Muslim states throughout the Middle East. Clinton was a gleeful supporter of murderous sanctions and the military siege directed against Iraq; his administration was long concerned with overthrowing Saddam Hussein through the use of military force. The only real difference between the Clinton and Bush administration was tactical; Clinton recognized that a long, protracted military occupation of Iraq would be toxic to his presidential legacy, whereas Bush stumbled incompetently through a war that destroyed his presidency’s credibility.

Obama’s behavior as commander in chief is identical in most respects to that of the Bush regime, as he’s displayed a fundamental contempt for the rule of law, for the sovereignty of foreign nations, and for the basic securities of the people of the Middle East and surrounding regions. His escalation of the war in Afghanistan led to the widespread destruction and destabilization of a society already left in ruins after decades of war. According to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, estimates suggest that 1,462 civilians were killed in the first half of 2011 alone, an increase of 15 percent from 2010. The UN documented another 2,677 civilian deaths in 2010, following Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, translating into a total of 4,239 for the first year and a half of Obama’s Afghan campaign. This total represents a significantly larger death toll than that seen in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which 2,966 were murdered. In total, various estimates suggest that somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 Afghan civilian lives were lost since 2001, between six to 13 times as many lives as those lost on 9/11. This pattern of killings is tantamount to dramatically escalating terrorism in the name of “fighting terror.”

Obama is continuing Bush’s reckless contempt for the law, state sovereignty, and elementary principles of democracy in many other ways. Most recently, he signed Congressional legislation illegally allowing the government to indefinitely detain American citizens who are merely suspected of supporting or engaging in terrorism (court proceedings used to determine whether such charges were legitimate). A list of other transgressions from this administration is extensive, and includes the following:

–          A contempt for open public access to information, most clearly seen in the sadistic punishment directed at Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning. While Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg successfully avoided incarceration following his exposure of official lies used to justify the Vietnam War, and is now celebrated as an anti-war hero, Manning has been held in solitary confinement – a punitive practice in which civil liberties lawyer Glenn Greenwald correctly refers to as “cruel and inhumane treatment.” As Greenwald argues, such confinement – and the accompanying deprivation of social contact that solitary confinement necessitates, “create[s] long term psychological injuries…For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he [Manning] sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.”
–          The Obama administration’s invocation of the state secrets doctrine. In late 2010, Obama invoked this doctrine in order to prohibit a federal judge from obtaining information in relation to the CIA’s criminal targeting of U.S. citizens for assassination. The case in question involved U.S. citizen Anwar al-Aulaqi (who was believed to be residing in Yemen) for his alleged role in attempting to bomb a Detroit bound airliner. In encouraging the federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit over the targeted assassination, Obama claimed that the case would reveal information that would threaten U.S. national security. The state secrets doctrine is based on a long discredited and dubious justification for refusing to share information with other branches of government that reaches back to the 1950s. In 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government had the right to classify information that would endanger national security in relation to the widows of three engineers who were killed in a military airplane crash. The widows, who had sued the government for negligence, were denied remuneration after the court allowed the government to refrain from sharing information about the deaths. Declassified government documents made available decades later definitively refuted the notion that classifying information on the accident had anything to do with national security. Rather, the documents revealed embarrassing information exposing government negligence in relation to the crash. The government’s bogus state secrets justification didn’t stop the Obama administration from declaring its “right” to refusing to share information about its illegal assassination program (in terms of illegality, the 5th amendment explicitly states that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”). The state secrets declaration was rightly condemned by even the neoconservative elements of the establishment media such as the Washington Post, which complained that “there is something utterly un-American about saying that the executive branch can simply tell the judicial branch to butt out of a matter for national security reasons – and there’s no recourse.”
–          Obama’s engagement in illegal attacks against a variety of sovereign states, including Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. All three have been targeted in various predator drone strikes, to the dismay of political leaders in those countries. These strikes were undertaken in the name of fighting terrorism, but clearly violate the United Nations Charter, which allows force only with either Security Council authorization or in the case of an act of self-defense against an ongoing attack. Obama would no doubt cite the 9/11 attacks as justifying predator drone strikes in the name of self-defense, but there’s little to take seriously in such a claim. The U.N. Charter (Article 51) states that any acts of self defense must be immediately reported to the Security Council (a stipulation in which the Obama administration has not fulfilled, since many of these attacks were secret and information about them was classified). The Charter also states that self defense includes only actions taken “if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”  The 9/11 terrorist attacks do not represent an ongoing attack on the United States (especially since the Obama administration already declared an end to the “War on Terror”), and this point is important to establish in light of the stipulation, referred to in Article 51 U.N. Charter, that military force used must be to repel an attack that is occurring in the present, rather than in an increasingly distant past. If the 9/11 attacks can be used to legally justify the use of force against any alleged terrorist threat, at any time, in any place that the U.S. chooses through the foreseeable future, then international law becomes vacuous – a tragic farce.

–          The Obama administration’s complete contempt for law in the case of its vicious attacks on the rule of law, as related to due process and the rights of the detained. Obama notoriously succumbed to Democratic Congressional opposition to the closing of Guantanamo and the movement of detainees to U.S. federal prisons where they could await trial. Obama folded on closing Guantanamo, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that detainees festering there have to be granted full due process rights, as required under the Geneva Conventions and the Bill of Rights. Obama also continued the rendition torture program began under Bush, despite the fact that the use of rendition and torture for intelligence gathering is blatantly illegal under the Geneva Conventions and the 8th amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Obama announced this month that he will be moving forward with the lifting of the ban on military tribunals, in direct violation of the Supreme Court ruling, which declared such tribunals illegal. The Supreme Court declared in 2004 that military tribunals violate the normal proceedings that accompany domestic U.S. trials, since they grant a far lower standard of protection to the accused (tribunals allow hearsay to be admitted into court, allow convictions based on majority, rather than unanimous voting, and allow the government to monitor attorney client communications). Obama’s decision to ignore the Supreme Court’s outlawing of military tribunals (which violate the Geneva Conventions’ requirement that court proceeding provide normal protections for the accused) reveals just how far this administration has come in its criminality and contempt for the law.

Obama’s assault on basic principles of liberal democracy is an affront to our basic dignity. He’s helped institutionalize fundamental attacks on the American legal and political system that were the hallmark of an imperial Bush presidency. That Obama’s been able to pursue essentially identical policies to the Bush administration, while liberals praise the president for restoring respectability to the White House, is a testament to the powers of Orwellian propaganda and liberal delusion. Fortunately, most Americans reject such propaganda. As of November 2011, CNN polling found that Americans were twice as likely to oppose the Afghan war than to support it. Three-quarters want a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Strong majorities oppose rendition and the denial of due process to detainees. Most are suspicious of the notion that the president (or any political leader) can refuse to provide basic information to other branches of government or to the public. Sadly, the many transgressions of the Obama administration are largely ignored by a political-media system that obsessed over Bush’s crimes, but is all too happy to ignore them when they’re engaged in by a Democrat in the White House.

Anthony DiMaggio is the author of numerous books, including most recently The Rise of the Tea Party, and other works such as Crashing the Tea Party (2011); When Media Goes to War (2010); and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He has taught American politics and International Relations in Political Science at a number of colleges and universities, and can be reached at:

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0 Responses to The Neocons Never Left: Obama War Crimes in Afghanistan & Around the World

  1. Jeff says:

    It’s truly amazing that anyone can defend Obama for not closing Guantanamo as repeatedly promised because Congress won’t let him. Not only is he the Commander in Chief, but the whole operation is so blatantly illegal and unconstitutional, there is no reason not to ignore everything Congress has to say on the matter.

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