Belmont Club

Quit Lying to Ourselves

One of yesterday’s top stories was news that president Obama had authorized “boots on the ground” in Syria.  “The United States is set to deploy troops on the ground in Syria for the first time to advise and assist rebel forces combating ISIS, the White House said Friday,” wrote CNN.   The trouble was it wasn’t true.  As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin pointed out in Bloomberg news  boots “sounded like a new mission for U.S. forces in a country where the president has repeatedly insisted Americans would not be engaged in combat operations.”

But America’s special operations forces have been engaging in these kinds of missions for several months, particularly in the Kurdish-controlled provinces in northern Iraq. And the special operations forces have already built up an extensive infrastructure to support these activities. This casts doubt on the official Pentagon statements that last week’s raid was “a unique circumstance.” …

According to U.S. and Kurdish officials, the U.S. now runs an operations center in Irbil staffed by a special operations task force whose work is so classified its name is a state secret. The task force has worked in recent months to identify and locate senior leaders of the Islamic State and participated in the mission last Thursday, in which a member of the Army’s Delta Force was killed freeing prisoners from an Islamic State prison in Hawija. (He was the first U.S. soldier killed by enemy fire in the fight against the Islamic State.) These officials asked to speak on background because they were not authorized to disclose sensitive information about U.S. covert activities.

The secret U.S. military presence in northern Iraq doesn’t end there. Highly trained American special operations forces known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who help paint targets for airstrikes of Islamic State vehicles, camps and buildings, also operate in northern Iraq.

If it all sounds depressingly familiar, that is because it is. During the Vietnam War official policy maintained that there were no Americans in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. But in fact an entire secret war was being waged “over the fence” by SOF under the innocuous title of Studies and Observation Group. These nonexistent “boots on the ground” won a total of 11 Medals of Honor and 23 DSCs, quite a tally for people who “weren’t there”.

Just recently Hollywood released a Tom Hanks starrer titled the Bridge of Spies about a plane — the U2 — and a reconnaissance program which also wasn’t there.  When the Cold War started the United States had no idea what the Soviets were up to.  “Into the 1950s, the best intelligence the American government had on the interior of the Soviet Union were German Luftwaffe photographs taken during the war of territory west of the Ural Mountains.”

There was a great need to obtain new information. So began a program to create an aircraft so far in advance of Soviet technology that it could fly above everything they could throw at it and return with pictures of ground instalations: the U2.   It had one overriding political requirement: the plausible deniability of its very existence.

Procurement of the aircraft’s components occurred secretly. When [Kelly] Johnson ordered altimeters calibrated to 80,000 feet (24,400 m) from a company whose instruments only went to 45,000 feet (13,700 m), the CIA set up a cover story involving experimental rocket aircraft. Shell Oil developed a new low-volatility, low vapor pressure jet fuel that would not evaporate at high altitudes; the fuel became known as JP-7, and manufacturing several hundred thousand gallons for the aircraft in 1955 caused a nationwide shortage of Shell’s Flit insect repellent. …

Beyond not using American military personnel to fly the U-2, Eisenhower preferred to use non-US citizens. As of July 2013 the nationalities of the foreign pilots recruited remains classified. The language barrier and a lack of appropriate flying experience proved problematic; by late 1955, foreign pilots had been dropped from the program. USAF pilots had to resign their military commissions before joining the agency as civilians, a process referred to as “sheep dipping”, and were always called “drivers”, not pilots.

The government hasn’t gotten any better at telling the truth.  Eli Lake and Josh Rogin conclude their article by saying that lying is how the feds conducts foreign policy.

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told us Tuesday: “There are things that our special forces are involved in that the public is not always aware of.” He added: “It goes with the territory. It’s the way our government is set up. There are operations that take place. The president as we know can make findings.” Corker, who as chairman of his committee is often briefed on sensitive intelligence and missions for U.S. special operations, told us he was concerned about the extent of the special operations in Iraq. “I don’t think Congress is always even close to fully knowledgeable as to what is happening,” he said.

But perhaps never has an administration lied to this extent. Asked by journalists what legal authority the administration was invoking to justify their “boots on the ground”, White House spokesman Josh Earnest drily replied that “Congress in 2001 did give the executive branch the authority to take this action. There’s no debating that.”

President Obama’s claim that he has “ended” America’s wars refers only to its most visible aspect: the deployment of regular infantry units to the battlefield.   But that says nothing about private military contractors, proxy warriors or even robot combatants.  All that is going great guns. As Sean McFate writes in his book, the Modern Mercenary , that Amercan presidents in their quest for “plausible deniability” have taken “sheep dipping” to its logical conclusion: they are outsourcing the dying to contractors.

Contractors have been present on US battlefields since theAmerican revolution, but never before has the country relied so heavily on their services to wage war. … The market’s value remains unknown … what is known is that from 1999 to 2008, the US Department of Defense contract obligations … increased from $165 billion to $414 billion. In 2010, DOD obligated … an amount seven times the United Kingdom’s entire defense budget … this only entails DOD contract obligations and does not include contract made by other government agencies … the actual amount … remains unknown…

During World War II, contractors accounted for only 10% of the military workforce, compared with 50% in Iraq today …. [in Afghanistan contractors outnumbered troops 2:1 in 2010] … contractors are also paying the ultimate sacrifice … in 2003 contractor deaths represented only 4% of all fatalities … in 2010 more contractors were killed than military personnel, marking the first time in history that corporate casualties outweighed military losses on the battlefields.

Despite the fact that America is engaged in military action in at least seven countries it is apparently sufficient for president Obama to avoid deploying regular troops to evade the restrictions placed on activities designated as “war”. Though even that claim is questionable it spares the president from the need to explain his strategic goals to the American public or go before Congress to obtain an authorization for the use of military force.

This ability to wage war-not-war creates an enormous shift of power away from Congress to the Executive Branch.  The result is not the actual cessation of American wars but their continuation and proliferation by unaccountable and covert means. The collapse of whole countries, the widespread bombings, the confrontation between Russia, the US, Iran and the Gulf States, the generation of millions of refugees from South Asia and MENA, not even counting the 2 million displaced persons in Ukraine are phenomena inexplicable under the theory that Obama has restored peace to the world.

How did such carnage happen without war?  What is transpiring looks like war, sounds like war, kills like war. Maybe it is war but perish the thought. The only thing that prevents it from being recognized as such the legal parsing and hairsplitting so slickly demonstrated by Josh Earnest.

Yet as president Eisenhower found during the U2 crisis, no amount of “sheep dipping” or painting over of US insignia could wholly shield a great state from the consequences of its physical actions.  What goes around, comes around no matter what Josh Earnest says. Indeed, one of the first things Ike did when it became clear that Gary Powers had been shot down over the USSR was to own up to it and make a case for its continuation before the American people.  Today’s leaders would never be so forthright and most likely  claim the U2 was covered by FDR’s declaration of war against Japan after Pearl Harbor.

Knowing that he was jeopardizing the Paris Peace Summit, Eisenhower decided to reveal the aerial espionage program and his direct role in it, an unprecedented move for a U.S. President. His speech on May 11 revolved around four main points: the need for intelligence gathering activities, the nature of intelligence gathering activities, how intelligence activities should be viewed (as distasteful, but vital), and finally that we must not be distracted from the real problems of the day. Eisenhower closed passionately by reacting to the Soviet claim that the US acted provocatively and said: “They had better look at their own [espionage] record.” As he finished, he told reporters he was still going to the Paris Peace Summit.

By coming clean Eisenhower was doing the right thing. Even secret wars have effects and by bringing Cold War intelligence ops into the light of day Ike allowed the public to make an informed judgement about their costs and benefits. This was no doubt wise. The only way the Cold War could have been waged for 40 years was to bring the American people broadly behind it. While the exigencies of secrecy necessarily prevent the public from knowing the whole truth about the activities of a great state, the requirements of sanity require that they know the basic truth about what their government intends.

If as George Clemenceau said, “war is too important a matter to be left to the military”, it is similarly too weighty a matter to be entrusted to one man. Calling war something else does not change its nature or its perils. At present it seems clear the administration is only creeping toward a gradual admission that it needs — or has had — “boots on the ground”.  What it hasn’t done is explain what they are for.

That’s for the president to know and for everyone else to guess. As David Burge (Iowahawk) wrote in regard to the president’s new announcements “the most exciting thing about going into war in Syria is solving the mystery of what side we’re on.”

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