It Ain’t Over Till We Say It’s Over

Article in the NYT today about our ongoing inability to close Guantanamo (see article).

Did you know that this year, it is costing about $443 Million to incarcerate 149 people? That’s $3 Million per prisoner or $8,145 PER DAY! That’s a hell of a tropical resort, particularly since the pool is closed. For that price we could put every last detainee on a cruise ship and sail the 7 seas. Hey, I know! Then we could drive the ship up and down the east coast of Africa until it was highjacked by Somali pirates, who would hold the prisoners for ransom and…ha ha, joke’s on you. Problem solved. Of course we couldn’t really do this—the cruise ship would put the prisoners at risk of Norovirus, which even the US would have to consider an unacceptable violation of their rights. Oh, and also the prisoners are “enemy combatants,” who can be held until the “war is over.”

Now we can disagree about the justice and wisdom (or lack thereof) of this plan, but just for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s a good idea. My question is this: How do we know when the War On Terror is over? What visible event could we conceivably witness that would allow Dick Cheney to give the nod and have every last Republican agree that “Yep, by golly we’ve won.” (Of course, the war could equally be over if it was “Oops, we’ve lost,” but I notice nobody is going there).

Now we knew when the war with Japan ended because in 1945 some Japanese government officials put on funny Western formal clothes, lined up on the deck of a battleship and signed a bunch of papers. Now, even though we don’t have any more battleships, I’m sure we can find a suitable boat, but who signs the surrender forms in the War On Terror? The Mayor of Terrorville? The Secretary of Sorry I Don’t Have a State? Even if the current, and highly temporary, successor to Bin Laden as leader of Al Qaeda were to show up in his best formal camouflage and execute a document (as opposed to a journalist), that would be binding on maybe a few of his closest followers and more likely on no one whomsoever. Most current Al Qaeda groups share only the name; they take inspiration but not orders. And that’s just Al Qaeda. The biggest bunch of terror trouble-makers currently are the nutcases from ISIS, who even Al Qaeda told to “tone it down a little, you’re making us look like crazy extremists.” No, bombs will continue to go off as long as there’s a half-dozen numbnuts somewhere with a grievance and a case of C-4.

So if there’s nobody who even can surrender, and there will always be somebody willing to blow stuff up, what does the end of the WOT actually look like? Is there one, or are those who profit (politically or financially) from endless war the only winners here? Hey, I know! How about if Al Qaeda and ISIS sold all their guns and bombs and formed a super PAC to support Republican candidates? Would that be enough to let us say we won? Well, you know, that might actually do it—for the Republicans anyway—but the rest of us would still think they were out to destroy our country. Oh well…

Syria: How Many Are You Allowed to Kill?

Not us (the US hunting license doesn’t seem to come with a bag limit), I mean the government of Syria, the rebellion against which has resulted in some 93,000 deaths to date (on both govt and rebel sides, although mostly civilians caught in the middle).  John McCain and Bill Clinton are beating the war drums trying to get us all worked up and ready for yet another mid-East war under the unspoken assumption that no country is entitled to kill anyone in order to maintain the status quo. It’s just not permissible to use force to keep a government in power and in control of its whole country. Right? I mean, that’s what made Saddam evil, wasn’t it? He killed people who rebelled against his government, or people who his spies thought looked like they might be thinking about rebelling. How evil is that! I mean, who would dream of killing suspected rebels based only on surveillance data?

So the US is clearly against killing rebels, right? Really? Tell that to honest Abe Lincoln, whose actions to quell the rebellion against the United States cost the lives of 600,000 Americans.  And he didn’t even have any nerve gas.  Everybody seems to think that was just fine. Ancient history? How about some more recent examples. We chased the Taliban and al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2001 and have been fighting there ever since to keep the new, preferred Afghan government in power. Quashing that rebellion (or, more realistically, trying ineffectually to) has caused the deaths of many 10s of thousands of Afghans (poorly counted).  Another one? We overthrew the government of Iraq in May of 2003 and installed a new one. Every bit of the fighting in Iraq over the decade since then has been to kill rebels trying to defeat the new Iraqi government. Conveniently, nobody’s gotten an accurate count of the number of Iraqis who’ve died as a result, but that (again, poorly counted) figure appears to be in excess of 100,000.

All right, so it really is ok to kill rebels. But then, if it’s fine for 100,000 to die to keep a shitty Iraqi government in power, how is it a casus belli when 93,000 die in the course of keeping a shitty Syrian government in power? Which is it? Killing rebels good? Killing rebels bad?

But Rob, we were killing people in Iraq and Afghanistan to keep Al Qaeda forces from getting control! Oh, that explains it. It’s ok to cause death on a massive scale as long as it’s to keep Al Qaeda and other Muslim fundamentalists from overthrowing a government (after all, we don’t want them in power because they’ll kill people who oppose them). There we go. But hold on. Many of the Syrian rebels are Al Qaeda or Muslim fundamentalists, and now we want to help them. Damn, there goes that theory. This is hard. Wait a minute. I detect a common thread here. Killing rebels is good when we do it, even on flimsy excuses (drone strikes anyone?), and bad when anyone else does it. There you go.

Now Rob, that’s not fair. Sometimes we support rebels and sometimes we support governments. It just depends what’s in our national interest. 

Oh, ok. And our national interest in Syria is what exactly? If it’s not keeping Assad in power, and it’s not letting Muslim fundamentalists gain power, what is it? Haven’t heard that yet. Seems to me, our main national interest should be to not get dragged into yet another mid-eastern snake pit that will drain money, lives, time and effort that we could better apply to problems that affect people here in the USA.