Obama (finally) confirms drone strikes in Pakistan

Barack Obama has confirmed for the first time that US drones have been used to target individuals in Pakistan, the Telegraph reports.

In a chat with web users on Google+ and YouTube, Obama discussed for the first time the covert drone program that has dramatically escalated under the Obama administration. Previously the administration refused to discuss the strikes publicly.

Talking down the estimated civilian casualties as a result of the strikes, Obama said: “I want to make sure the people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise, precision strikes against Al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we’re very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”

The New America Foundation think tank in Washington says drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in the past eight years, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 2,386 and 3,015 people have been killed including between 391 and 780 civilians and around 175 children killed. It is not known whether Obama is accepting these civilian death counts as not being a “huge number” or whether his own administration has much lower estimated death counts. Either way, human rights campaigners have expressed deep concern over increased use of drone strikes.

Obama has increased drone strikes since he came into presidency. The Telegraph has a video of Obama discussing the drone strikes for the first time.

Congress announces that frozen pizza is a vegetable….?!

Seward Co-op Organic Frozen Pizza

Image by Aaron Landry via Flickr

In a bizarre move, Congress announced last Tuesday that frozen pizza was a vegetable, rebuking new USDA guidelines for school lunches that would have led to an increase in fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias.

Bowing to large food companies, and ignoring science (and simple logic), US Congress announced that the tomato paste on frozen pizza qualified it as a vegetable. American politicians seemed to either miss or disregard the fact that tomatoes are actually a fruit and not a vegetable, not to mention the fact that the tomato paste on frozen pizza is full of sugar, chemicals and other NON-VEGETABLE, UNHEALTHY ingredients.

Still, it’s hard to act surprised at this move. After all, big  food companies have spent $5.6 million lobbying against new rules. How much pocket-money have kids spent on lobbying? Exactly.

Many conservative US politicians also believe that the government shouldn’t tell people what to eat, even in school cafeterias. But these same conservatives don’t seem to mind big food companies telling people what to eat…

As the Huffington Post reports:

“Herein lies the brilliance of the food industry — not only has it created a myriad of products but it also created the idea that children want industrial food products above all else. While most Americans have bought into this notion, it’s simply not true. Children 100 years ago couldn’t have possibly eaten the industrial foods they are eating today…

…The food industry literally shapes and changes the palates of our children. Constantly eating sugary, salty and fatty food products adjusts taste preference to the point that simple, real foods taste bland and unappealing. While the food industry insists that it only advertises to children “to influence brand preference,” a study published in the journal Appetite found that the food industry works to, “fundamentally change children’s taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods.”

But while Congress is happy to cater for the food corporations, the rising obesity problem in the US is getting worse. Big companies are making big money from people’s ill health, from children’s poor diets, while Congress blocks new guidelines that could actually help improve kids’ diets.

CNN reported that nearly 1 in 5 four-year-olds are obese in America, and the problem is getting so bad that even military figures are starting to worry; the Associated Press reports that: “a group of retired generals advocating for healthier school lunches also criticized the spending bill.”

The group has stated that poor nutrition in schools is a ‘national security issue’ because obesity is a leading medical disqualifier for military service.

Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of the group, said in a letter to members of Congress: “We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace.”

US planning to arm UAE with thousands of bombs to counter Iran ‘threat’

The Obama administration has drawn up plans to build a regional coalition to counter Iran by selling munitions to the United Arab Emirates. The US is proposing to quietly sell thousands of advanced “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions as it steps up its mission to counter the perceived threat from Iran.

With US sanctions already in place, and UN security council members Russia and China opposed to introducing new sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration has instead decided to try to “build up the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, U.A.E. and Kuwait, as a unified counterweight to Iran,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

The US is no stranger to supplying arms to the region, and the Obama administration seems to believe that arming the region is the best way to counter the threat of, and apply pressure to, Iran.

“Recent arms deals include a record $60 billion plan to sell Saudi Arabia advanced F-15 aircraft, some to be equipped 2,000-pound JDAMs and other powerful munitions. The Pentagon recently notified Congress of plans to sell Stinger missiles and medium-range, air-to-air missiles to Oman,” the Wall Street Journal writes. “The U.S. has also sought to build up missile-defense systems across the region, with the goal of building an integrated network to defend against short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Iran.”

It remains unclear whether the “bunker-buster” bombs would be effective at breaching Iranian fortifications, as it is believed some are deep enough to withstand such strikes. Just to be sure, the Pentagon has been developing larger guided bombs.

The proposal to further arm UAE is perceived to be a move to support the UAE in expanding its ‘security role’ in the region and beyond, and to deter Iran.

Once the arms deal proposal is announced, a congressional challenge could block the deal, although this is unlikely to happen as officials have said the U.A.E. package is seen as less controversial because the country is viewed as less hostile toward Israel.

US arms deals to the Middle East have slowed in pace in recent months due to the outbreak of pro-democracy protests. For example, the Wall Street Journal writes that: “Last month, the State Department put a proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain on hold after some lawmakers and human-rights groups protested the monarchy’s violent crackdown on protesters earlier this year.”

However, it is back to ‘business as usual’ with the Obama administration as arms sales to the Middle East are once again being fast-tracked by the administration.

“We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy,” the U.S. military official said of sales to ‘key allies’.

Obama rebuked by House of Representatives over Libya, whilst Congress challenges his authority

People look at destroyed tanks belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Reuters)

US President Obama has been facing mounting criticism for the US role in the Libya… what? War? Conflict? Bombing? Mission? ‘Operation’? You see, Obama has recently been keen to stress that the Libya… engagement is not a war amid rebukes from Congress who have been challenging his authority. Now the House of Representatives has stepped in, also rebuking Obama and refusing to authorise the US ‘mission’.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives delivered a symbolic vote on friday to reject a resolution to authorise US involvement in the Libya war. I’m going to call it a war, because I feel calling the military action anything else shapes and desensitises our response to it. Bombs are being dropped, buildings are being destroyed, lives are being lost. To call such violent action an ‘operation’ or a ‘mission’ is an affront to those whose lives are being lost, whatever side they are fighting for. It makes us forget the reality of the situation; this is not some sanitised, smooth military operation. It involves real harm and loss of life, even if those that are losing their lives are classed as “the enemy”. As Jonathon Schell writes:

“American planes are taking off, they are entering Libyan air space, they are locating targets, they are dropping bombs, and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things. It is war. Some say it is a good war and some say it is a bad war, but surely it is a war.”

So anyway. I’m going to call the NATO military intervention in Libya a war, because I believe it to be so. Obama has a rejected this worldview, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The House of Representatives refused to give President Obama the authority to continue US participation in the NATO-led war against Libya, but rejected a call to cut off money for the conflict. In this sense, the House refusal is a largely symbolic gesture. Obama has said he does not need additional congressional approval, as US forces are simply supporting NATO. However, the House has shown its disproval for the ongoing war against Libya, reflecting the disenchantment in the US over the ongoing conflicts.

The House voted 295 to 123 against the resolution to authorise the war. About 70 of the president’s Democratic party joined the Republicans to vote it down. This is the first time since the 1999 Bosnian conflict that either the House or the Senate has voted against a military operation. The House ignored Hillary Clinton’s pleas against voting it down.

“The president has operated in what we now know is called the zone of twilight as to whether or not he even needs our approval,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida said. “So what are we left with?”

House speaker John Boehner said: “I support the removal of the Libyan regime. I support the president’s authority as commander-in-chief, but when the president chooses to challenge the powers of the Congress, I, as speaker of the House, will defend the constitutional authority of the legislature.”

It is clear there is growing unrest in the US against the Obama administration’s involvement in the US war. It is also evident that the ‘excuse’ of, “oh, well, we’re only supporting NATO” is not going to stick; opponents of the US involvement are, perhaps, becoming riled at the growing culture whereby the Obama administration is becoming increasingly unaccountable for its actions in conflicts.

Republican congressman Tom Rooney, who sits on the armed services committee, said: “The last thing that we want as Americans is for some president, whether it’s this president or some future president, to be able to pick fights around the world without any debate from another branch of government.”

Whether it’s the self-perpetuating “War on Terror” or NATO-involvement, the Obama administration is increasingly avoiding accountability for its conflicts and engagements. Few Republicans or Democrats would wish to be seen to be against the “War on Terror”, which began in ‘self-defence’ (right?), though opponents of the unaccountability are beginning to draw the line; the Libyan war is, rightly or wrongly, aimed at unseating a ‘dictator’ from power rather than aiming to defend US soil… but then again, I have this strange feeling of deja vu…

Libya is not a war, says Obama

A bus burns on a road leading to the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The U.S. military said 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships and submarines at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force. (AP)

As I mentioned earlier, President Obama has already been facing criticism from Congress. He has defended his right to take war to Libya without the approval of Congress, after Republican leaders challenged his authority. How? In his administration’s eyes, the issue is one of semantics. The US participation in the NATO-led bombings in Libya do not, in his eyes, amount to a full-blown war.

As the Guardian reported, “this week the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, wrote to Obama telling him that, under the 1973 war powers act, the president was obliged to seek congressional approval for the Libyan venture before Friday.

“The White House replied by saying the law, which says there must be a vote in the legislature within 90 days of the president taking the US to war, did not apply”.

Congress warned Obama that refusal to comply with a congressional request to seek authorisation for military action in Libya appeared to violate the war powers act.

“The combination of [White House] actions has left many members of Congress, as well as the American people, frustrated by the lack of clarity over the administration’s strategic policies, by a refusal to acknowledge and respect the role of the Congress, and by a refusal to comply with the basic tenets of the War Powers Resolution,” Boehner, the speaker of the House, stated in a letter to the president.

The White House responded to the warning with a 38-page report to Congress, describing the Libya operation not as war, but a mission to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. As stated earlier, the administration considers the war as an operation, a mission, a military ‘intervention’, shall we say, rather than considering the bombings as an act of war. And why do they not consider the bombings as an act of war? Because US troops are not directly under fire. The Obama administration only considers a conflict as being a ‘war’ when there is US soldiers at risk.

“US operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve US ground troops,” the 38-page report said.

Boehner dismissed the White House position on Thursday. “It doesn’t pass the straight-face test in my view that we’re not in the midst of hostilities,” he said. “It’s been four weeks since the president has talked to the American people about this mission. It’s time for the president to outline for the American people why we are there, what the mission is, and what our goals are.”

In an article published in the Guardian,  denounced the White House’s report, stating: “In other words, the balance of forces is so lopsided in favour of the United States that no Americans are dying or are threatened with dying. War is only war, it seems, when Americans are dying, when we die. When only they, the Libyans, die, it is something else for which there is as yet apparently no name. When they attack, it is war. When we attack, it is not.”

This is very worrying thinking from the leaders of the United States of America. Would it be naive to suggest that this worldview may represent a new age of warfare? An age of unaccountability? As Schell writes, “In the old scheme of things, an attack on a country was an act of war, no matter who launched it or what happened next. Now, the Obama administration claims that if the adversary cannot fight back, there is no war.”

In the age of the predator drone, when war can truly be waged with no damage or sacrifice, government’s can claim that bombing a country (before, a clear act of war) is simply an operation, a mission, designed to bring about a set agenda with minimum civilian casualties. Of course, civilian casualties are inevitable, but the less the better, right? When war can be waged without a soldier’s boot on foreign soil, does that end the meaning of the word, “war”?

In an act of double-think that George Orwell would be proud, War is not War – War is Peace. War is not war when there are no “active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor [when] they involve US ground troops”. But surely this means that it is in the best interests of the adversaries of the US, the ‘enemy’ that the US is (at the time) engaged with, to ‘actively exchange fire’ with US drones/planes? For then, the adversaries are suddenly turning the one-sided conflict into a war – where they are then afforded the ‘rules’ of warfare, and the US is suddenly subjected to International Law and the like? They are, essentially, suddenly held accountable for their actions, like some child that has been caught out?

Schell concurs: “It follows that adversaries of the United States have a new motive for, if not equaling us, then at least doing us some damage. Only then will they be accorded the legal protections (such as they are) of authorised war. Without that, they are at the mercy of the whim of the president.”

“The War Powers Resolution permits the president to initiate military operations only when the nation is directly attacked, when there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces”. The Obama administration, however, justifies its actions in the Libyan intervention precisely on the grounds that there is no threat to the invading forces, much less the territories of the United States.”

It is, perhaps, a sign of things to come. Much of the media outlets have been picking up on the government’s use of language; the subtle semantic changes that government’s implement into their vocabulary. Much like in Orwell’s 1984, governments realise the power of language and carefully shape and construct their verbiage for their benefit, be it influencing public opinion or escaping the nuances of their own laws. Those who construct the laws evidently and innately hold the power to escape the law – either overtly, by changing the very law itself, or covertly, by slipping through loop-holes and the like. By deciding that the Libyan war is actually a ‘mission’ or ‘operation’, the Obama administration has seemingly escaped accountability and the force of the law.

Schell continues: “In a curious way, then, a desire to avoid challenge to existing law has forced assault on the dictionary. For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of Congressional authorisation, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give.”

“It chose language.”

And as we enter an age of predator drones, “War on Terror” and a newfound distaste for ‘evil dictators’ residing in the Middle East, are we also entering an age where the self-proclaimed “protagonists” of the world (the US, the UK, NATO, and the like) are becoming unaccountable for their actions? Are we entering an age where war ceases to exist, merely because language is changing? Wars become conflicts; conflicts become operations; operations become missions; missions become peace.

Iraq belongs to the US now


Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

The US will not be withdrawing from Iraq in the foreseeable future. Despite promises made by the Obama administration, and declining public support for the occupation, it is becoming increasingly clear that US control over Iraq is there to stay. A cynical person might suggest that this was pretty clear from the start, but I suppose there are those who genuinely believed in their government’s promises for withdrawal.

On Thursday (June 9th) the current CIA Director, Leon Panetta, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that Iraq will request US military presence to remain in the country.

Panetta said: “It’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of (troop) presence to remain there (in Iraq).

“I believe that if Prime Minister al-Maliki – the Iraqi government – requests that we maintain a presence there, that ought to be seriously considered by the President” as the situation in Iraq remained “fragile,” he added.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in April that soldiers could stay in Iraq even after the withdrawal date, provided Baghdad made a request which is becoming a possibility.

The US currently has about 47,000 troops in Iraq, none in a combat role. Under a 2008 deal, they are expected to leave by 31 December 2011.

The BBC stated that it is likely that the US has offered Iraq some inducements to maintain its troop presence. This should come as no surprise given US commercial interests; last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened a business forum attended by senior executives from major US corporations that focused on discussing business opportunities in the “new Iraq”:

According to the IMF, Iraq is projected to grow faster than China in the next two years. Now, let me repeat that, because when I read it I said, okay, are you sure because we always think of China as being the juggernaut? But no, indeed, Iraq is projected to grow faster than China,” Clinton stated.

Clinton also stated that “President Obama and I and our government believe strongly that expanding economic opportunity is as essential as building democratic institutions

The video of the Clinton speech can be found here or the transcript can be read here.

Not only are there business opportunities in war-torn Iraq (no better opportunities for growth than in a country decimated by years of war, eh? – Clinton and co. generally sound enthusiastic about the money to be made there), but Iraq is already sitting on the world’s third-largest oil reserves. No wonder the US is not keen to withdraw.

Even if there was a withdrawal of US soldiers (which is looking increasingly unlikely), the US would still maintain a powerful presence in Iraq, potentially controlling the power there still. As warcriminalswatch.org states:

“There are thousands of U.S. employees stationed in Iraq at the largest U.S. embassy in the world. Over 100,000 U.S. contractors are still present in the country. Many of these are armed mercenaries who have routinely killed Iraqi citizens. In addition, Iraq is surrounded by a massive U.S. military presence in nearby countries and seas. This includes air and naval armadas and tens of thousand of troops stationed within striking range of Iraq.”

The “Fast and Furious” – The covert operation to arm Mexican drug cartels

Many Weapons

Image via Wikipedia

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) permitted hundreds of guns to be sold to suspected gun smugglers in a bid to track down senior members of Mexican criminal cartels.

The Center for Public Integrity has reported that the ATF allowed around 1,765 firearms over the course of 15 months to be sold to buyers suspected of being involved in gun smuggling.

Dubbed “Operation Fast and Furious”, the covert programme aimed to trace arms sold in the US to “straw buyers” – people who buy arms on behalf of others. The ATF operation let gun shops sell weapons in bulk to suspected “straw buyers”, aiming to track the guns as they made their way into Mexico. The ‘low-level criminals’ would, it was hoped, lead the ATF to more senior members of the criminal gangs.

Instead, out of the 1,765 that were knowingly sold (plus around 300 weapons sold before the operation began), fewer than 800 have been recovered. Two of these guns recovered were found near the border of Nogales, Mexico and Tucson, Arizona in December. The weapons found were AK-47s, recovered near the body of Brian Terry, a US Customs and Border Patrol Agent who was killed during a firefight.

The ATF told the Washington Post that its agents had taken every possible precaution to ensure that guns were recovered before they crossed into Mexico. If that truly is the case, then clearly this Operation was out of their control.

Senator Chuck Grassley, a senior Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned whether the weapons sold to suspected “straw purchasers” were then tracked adequately by the ATF.  He has set up an inquiry to determine with the weapons used in Operation Fast and Furious crossed the border inadvertently, or were deliberately spread to areas of Mexico by US law enforcement.

Many ATF field agents harboured concerns over the covert operation, including Special Agent John Dodson who advised superiors that the operation was unwise. Ignoring their concerns, the ATF continued the contentious operation.

The violence in Mexico has claimed over 35,000 victims since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón began his crackdown on the drug cartels. Juan Francisco Sicilia and six other young men were amongst the victims of the widespread violence. They were murdered last March, their bodies bearing signs of torture.

Sicilia’s father, Javier Sicilia, is a renowned poet and intellectual in Mexico. He is committed to the nonviolent struggle against the violence and led a protest march in May where over 200,000 people rallied to support the cause. He is, naturally, against the cartels but he also holds the Mexican president and the US culpable also. He is calling for the legalisation of drugs, and is joined by conservative former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, and increasingly by Calderón himself.

Calderón is traveling in the US this week and is denouncing the US arms industry that is profiting from the sales of weapons which are ending up in Mexico, fuelling the violence. A report released by three Democratic US senators finds that around 70% of guns seized in Mexico from 2009-2010 originated from the US; around 20,000 weapons seized during that period came from the US .

Secret cables reveal US concerns for post-quake militant occupation of Haiti

Debris in the streets of the Port-au-Prince ne...

Image via Wikipedia

Washington began deploying 22,000 troops to Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake despite there being no serious security problem, according to secret US cables released by Wikileaks and provided to Haiti Liberte.

After the 7.0 earthquake struck, decimating the Haitian capital and surrounding areas, the capital Port-au-Prince “resembled a wazone”, Haiti Liberte reports. “Bodies lay strewn, collapsed buildings spilled into dust-filled streets, while Haitians frantically rushed to dig out survivors crying out from under hills of rubble.

“But the one element missing from this apocalyptic scene was an actual war or widespread violence. Instead, families sat down on the street, huddled around flickering candles with their belongings.”

Washington responded by sending thousands of armed troops in what would be the third US military intervention in Haiti in the last 20 years. The decision drew criticism from aid workers and government officials from around the world. The militarised response to a humanitarian crisis was not looked upon kindly by many in the international community, who seemed to view such a response as being inappropriate and counterproductive.

French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet stated that international aid efforts should be “about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez similarly denounced the decision to send “Marines armed as if they were going to war. There is no shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine, fuel, field hospitals, that is what the United States should send. They are occupying Haiti in an undercover manner.” Continue reading