The Library Basement
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Walking the thin red line in Syria

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

Yes, there's nothing like military strikes to help preserve a cease-fire...

I agree with the fifty-one U.S. State Department bureaucrats that US policy in Syria is not productive. The Obama administration calling for the ouster of Assad but taking no military action to back that up makes me speculate that they fear the consequences of the government falling. Based on recent misadventures in Iraq and Libya they should, mightily. However the U.S. has intervened by arming certain rebel groups, by brokering a chemical weapons deal with Russia, and by launching airstrikes against ISIS.

The aforementioned dissent memo in the State Department of course invokes ISIS in its justification - namely that to defeat the proto-state the civil war must first be resolved. I happen to agree with that point. Once there is a clear winner among the "legitimate" belligerents, the world will unite (or at least stop interfering) with the winning party to defeat ISIS. However the Obama administration's reluctance to use decisive force makes me wonder if they suspect that the rebels, having triumphed over Assad with U.S. help, would nonetheless be unable to effectively rule the country and defeat ISIS.

So here we stand in a great policy blunder: the U.S. officially opposes Assad thanks to old rivalries and a careless remark on the campaign trail, but President Obama's temperance won't allow the U.S. to double down. I appreciate his instinct to keep the U.S. out of a quagmire. I also mourn for the people of Syria who must endure this prolonged conflict.

"First as tragedy, then as farce", but now we're on to the third or fourth iteration.

US Unable to Kill Voldemort

Newsweek has an article on the CIA's program to hunt down and kill suspected terrorists. In it we learn about the CIA's process for deciding which suspects to kill via Predator drone or other means. It is incredible though unsurprising that the final decision comes down to a lawyer:

The hub of activity for the targeted killings is the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, where lawyers—there are roughly 10 of them, says Rizzo—write a cable asserting that an individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages.

Wow, five entire pages! Now that's due process. If I find myself to be on a foreign government's hit list, I could only dream of getting five pages dedicated to my death warrant. Glad to know that the CIA are really doing due diligence before unilaterally murdering people abroad.

The cables that were “ready for prime time,” as Rizzo puts it, concluded with the following words: “Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.” There was a space provided for the signature of the general counsel, along with the word “concurred.”

The CIA general counsel, an unelected (though nominated and confirmed) civilian, has the authority to kill suspects overseas without a trial. Judge, jury, and executioner. Of course it is all strictly legal and in accord with executive orders. That this sort of activity is perfectly legitimate behavior for the US government is disturbing. Yet nobody is surprised.

My favorite part of the article comes with a Harry Potter reference (intentional or not, I cannot tell):

Many of them ended up dead, but not all: “No. 1 and No. 2 on the hit parade are still out there,” Rizzo says, referring to “you-know-who and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri,” a top Qaeda leader.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is now Voldemort: he who must not be named. I have observed that  for quite some time the name "Osama bin Laden" seems to have disappeared from official vocabulary in Washington. We hear a lot about al Qaeda and the Taliban, but very rarely the name of the infamous architect of 9/11. His name cannot be mentioned, because to do so would be to admit the impotence of US military power and intelligence. One man living in a cave has defied the will of the largest, most advanced military on the planet. Surely the US government could not admit to this, so he has simply been erased, and replaced by generic or abstract foes.

[][]In this context, I find it very amusing to hear the former acting general counsel of the CIA refer to bin Laden as "you-know-who." In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the wizarding world lead by Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is terrified by Voldemort and refuses even to utter his name. The more evidence mounts of his return, the more taboo the name becomes. With bin Laden it is the converse. It is not that he has come back, it is that he never left. No matter how obvious this is to the general public, the authorities cannot admit it officially.

Here we have a government where a lawyer has final say on overseas assassinations, but even such a creature has yet to eliminate the elephant in the room.