December 21, 2009

Cruising for a bruising

Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to live in an Arab-speaking country when a Democratic President in the United States is having public relations difficulties. The attack by cruise missile becomes the go-to diversion; Bill Clinton, of course, had his "I did not have sex with that woman, that Ms. Lewinsky," followed by a few cruise missiles lobbed into Iraq (it was during the between-wars period of the Iraq Wars, when we would bomb Saddam just to keep our hand in). Now Barack Obama, who's having all kinds of trouble here at home, is taking Rahm Emanuel's Clinton-era advice and giving us, "I did not campaign for President in order to help out a bunch of fat cat bankers."

No one really believed Bill. And guess what, Barack? The only people who seemed to take Obama seriously were Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon (of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, respectively), who didn't show the next day at the White House to receive Obama's apology for having to pretend to be angry at them. ("It's just politics, fellas.") They literally phoned it in. That's a little cheeky; those outfits owe their very existence to government largess, and here they are blowing off an invitation from the White House because of inclement weather. Could they have flown down the day before (Sunday)?

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate expanded the hot war against al-Qaeda into that small nation down there just south of Saudi Arabia. About 23 million people, presided over by Al Abdullah Saleh, who's been president of at least some part of Yemen since 1978. International observers who monitored the most recent (2006) elections said they were at least "partly free," so the characterization of Saleh as another Arab dictator, such as the guys next door in Saudi Arabia, is maybe a little harsh. Still, that 31-year tenure makes you wonder.

A cruise missile is really something, I imagine. It flies in on its own power at supersonic speeds hugging the terrain below radar detection - more or less like a bat out of hell. Then - there it is. Packed with high explosives, it's all over you before you can do anything. So did we kill any al-Qaeda operatives? It's the usual story. Anti-U.S. sources say the attack killed about 50 civilians, including many women and children, and no al-Qaeda. The U.S. and Saleh say the attack was successful. Saleh was on board with the hit, of course. We had his permission to launch cruise missiles at his country.

One must say that there is an internal consistency to expanding the attack to any country with al-Qaeda personnel hanging around. It does answer, in a way, the question often posed about the selectivity of only bombing and attacking Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, as if the operatives would cooperate by gathering there to be bombed.

There has been surprisingly little coverage about these cruise missile attacks. On one level, that kind of negates their P.R. value - how can the public be diverted from the President's political problems if the media don't write up the latest angle on the war on terror? More ominously, the silence suggests we no longer consider it a big deal when we bomb a brand new country. There used to be a lot of talk about "preemptive war" and the United Nations Charter requirement of imminent danger as a justification for a war of self defense before we gave the Go signal.

But no more. We more or less launch on impulse at any target of opportunity, I guess. It must relate to that Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) back in the fall of 2001, which has been given quite a workout. It's another exception to the War Powers Clause in Article I of the Constitution, which used to confine the right to declare war to Congress. The power has become so attenuated that we can bomb a brand new country and no one even mentions it. Yet if you were on the ground looking up, somewhere in that dusty terrain of Yemen, and saw a cruise missile about to land in your back yard, I imagine it would look a lot like war indeed.

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