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Osama and Obama—Between Predator Drones and the Arab Spring

Far from rising to the occasion of what has been labeled as the Arab Spring which is surely ushering in a new era of international relations, for all Obama’s rhetoric America has simply confirmed the viewpoint that led Bin Laden to launch his campaign back in the 1990’s –American interests trump values and the rule of law.

“It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

President Barack Obama addressed the “Muslim World” from Cairo in June 2009 with these words, part of a speech labeled the “New Beginning”. In the same year alone U.S. predator drone attacks killed a reported 708 people in Pakistan – a clear violation of the norms of international sovereignty, given the Pakistani government spoke against them (at least in public). According to the Brooking Institution more than 90% of those killed have been civilians. Arbitrary, extrajudicial executions, carried out at the press of a button from CIA locations in California, with no transparency or accountability, are undoubtedly a violation of international law possibly constituting war crimes.

Two years on from the Cairo speech and in light of Obama’s second major address regarding the Middle East, this time from the State Department on May 19th, his words ring decidedly hollow. Far from a new beginning, American actions across the “Greater Middle East” point to a continuation of the same approach. May 2011 saw what has been variously described as the execution or assassination of America’s number one enemy and head of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. With more drone strikes carried out in Pakistan during his first year in office than were carried out in the whole second term of his predecessor George W Bush, and the number of attacks in 2010 more than double those in 2009, extra-judicial killing seems to have become the modus-operandi of the Obama administration.

“Justice has been done”

Or so the World was told by Obama early Sunday morning, May 11th. In this case, ‘justice’ was dispensed by a squad of US Navy Seals, rather than by a court, violating a sovereign country unannounced and uninvited. ’Justice’, as understood by the American government, does not include due process.

If there was any argument over the legality of the killing of Bin Laden, the large number of innocent civilians killed by remote control is surely indisputably criminal – along with being morally repugnant, even cowardly. Already used extensively in Pakistan, the Washington Post has recently reported how the American government now intends to significantly extend the use of Predator drones in Yemen as well. That the country is undergoing a revolution which is likely to end with the overthrow of its current incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh is of no concern. As we now know courtesy of Wikileaks – this was a man who told the Americans to kill whom they pleased in Yemen with their drones, and that they would deny American involvement in parliament.

You would think that the possible loss of such a servile client may force a change in American policy. It has. The drone program in Yemen will be shifted to CIA control, since – as mentioned by the Post – “The CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes even if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reverses his past approval of military strikes or cedes power to a government opposed to them.” What the Post fails to mention is that even if the Yemeni President has given approval (unilaterally) for military strikes within the country, the use of predator drones is still an illegal extrajudicial killing (irrespective of the target). The fact that a particular government accedes to the US’s criminality is perhaps another clue as to why some of the region’s dictators have either been overthrown or on the way out.

The public has consistently been informed by media and politicians that the difference between “us” (the civilized West) and “them” (the barbaric terrorist) is adherence to the rule of law. What is clear from practice, extending well before the execution of Bin Laden, is that the rule of law is to be applied amongst peers (“us”) while others are left to the arbitrary justice of the powerful. Such organized hypocrisy is not limited to politicians, with polling in the United States taken after the news that information from so-called “harsh interrogation” may have yielded information leading to Bin Laden confirming steady support for torture of terrorist suspects between approximately 50% to 60% over the last year, with another previous survey indicating that about a quarter of Americans believe that intentionally killing civilians can at least sometimes be justifiable. Thus, the leadership of the US government has been responsible for encouraging further moral ambivalence amongst its own citizens.

The irony is that through its actions America has shown itself to be a reflection of everything that it claimed was evil about Bin Laden. The ‘war of terror’ is a more apt description of their response since 9/11 than the coined ‘war on terror’.

The “Arab Spring” – a Rejection of the Status Quo

At the same time, the political map of the Middle East is being fundamentally altered by popular uprisings. The changes currently underway across the Middle East will have much wider implications for both the people of the region and America than the death of Bin Laden.

Far from the simple caricature of hating American’s for their values, Bin Laden’s enmity was first and foremost against the Arab regimes, with Saudi Arabia at their head. His problem with America stemmed from American foreign policy vis-à-vis the region, eventually declaring his own war against the United States due to their support for local regimes he considered tyrannical, corrupt and lacking independence, his goal being to force the withdrawal of support for the region’s despots, which would then allow for their overthrow by the people. As stated recently by ex-CIA bin Laden expert Michael Scheuer, Western politicians “can’t cope with the fact that [terrorism is] nothing to do with the way we live. It doesn’t have anything to do with elections or democracy or liberty. We are being attacked in the west and we will continue to be attacked in the west as long as we are in Afghanistan, as long as we support the Israelis, as long as we protect the Saudi police state”.

It is said that the uprisings have implicitly side-lined al-Qaeda, which since its inception has always been an extremely fringe element and therefore never in the mainstream in the first place. But what the uprisings really represent is an explicit rejection of the order embodied by the repressive Middle-Eastern and North African regimes, which for decades have been armed, supported and given legitimacy by Western governments, with America at the forefront.

The most important result so far has been the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a man lauded at the time of Obama’s Cairo speech as a “force for stability and good” and hailed by Vice-President Joe Biden as recently as January 27th (after the uprisings had began) as an American ally who shouldn’t be referred to as a “dictator”. After being forced to step down (“regrettably” in the eyes of John McCain), he now resides in hospital awaiting trial regarding corruption and human rights abuses while in power. For the Arab people Mubarak is undoubtedly seen as a criminal dictator, responsible for the imprisonment, torture and killing of literally hundreds of thousands (sometimes at the behest of the Americans through their rendition program), but one that will at least get a semblance of judicial process.

That one of the foremost American allies of the region is now under arrest to be held accountable as a result of popular pressure despite American efforts to keep him in place ought to be a cause of reflection and recalibration of policy towards the region. For years the mantra has been “stability” of allies in the region at all costs, with support given to unrepresentative regimes that could protect Western interests at the expense of the aspirations of the local populations.

But a brief survey of the US response to regional events does not suggest much room for optimism. Though Mubarak was toppled by the Egyptian people, the Americans were working furiously behind the scenes to ensure any transition would be managed by their long standing military assets in the Egyptian army, such as current de-facto head of government Field Marshall Mohammad Tantawi, described by Egyptian officers as “Mubarak’s poodle”.

In Libya, NATO quickly got militarily involved ostensibly to protect civilian lives from Muammar Gaddafi’s elite Khamis Brigade, who only recently were being trained by the SAS and equipped by British military firms. What is now indisputable is that any political resolution cannot occur without NATO blessing – so maintaining a deep engagement for the purpose of Western national interests. In Syria, the Assad regime’s furious efforts to crush a growing uprising in a manner which has surpassed the brutality shown by Gaddafi, has been met so far with the limp response to place sanctions on elements of his entourage and the President. As of the beginning of June, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that the Assad’s legitimacy had “nearly run out”. Considering the brutal actions of the regime it is highly surprising that anyone could still consider that the regime retained any legitimacy and that a reformed Assad regime would be acceptable if even achievable, and smacks of hypocrisy given that Gaddafi and his family are effectively being targeted by NATO missiles while facing warrants for their arrest by the International Criminal Court.

Yet the most cynical demonstration of American realpolitik is in respect to its relationship with its close Gulf allies. The Saudi monarchy prohibits any demonstrations within its borders and has been arresting and torturing hundreds of peaceful protesters without charge, as well as sending their army to Bahrain as part of the Peninsula Shield Force helping the monarchy to quell peaceful protests there while even hospital staff are attacked and arrested. This has been done with the explicit support of the American administration keen to maintain its strategic naval asset the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, and ensure its most reliable remaining ally (and source of energy) stays onside. Hence Obama in his recent speech effectively excused Bahraini government actions, while failing to even mention Saudi Arabia once. At the same time there were news reports of quiet deals between the two countries to expand and deepen military co-operation.

The Re-ordering of the Post-colonial Middle East?

Despite external attempts to help channel any potential revolution into a process of managed change or minor reform, it appears that such efforts are only delaying the inevitable re-ordering of the post-colonial set-up which has afflicted the region for decades. As the common mantra chanted across the Middle East mentions – the people demand the fall of the system, not its reform.

And herein lays the fundamental crux of the problem of America’s relationship with the Middle East and wider Muslim World. While Bin Laden may have been killed, the policies that created a Bin Laden are still very much in evidence in America’s crude actions trying to maintain their control of the region. History has shown that while there is little appetite amongst Muslims to adopt a violent ideology that goes against the Quranic teachings that killing a soul unjustly is equivalent to the killing of the whole of humanity, the shared grievances against the regimes and their international backers are very real. Any settled future government which is more representative of the people of the region is invariably going to look more Islamic and act more independently, and is unlikely to forget the past.

But until now, far from rising to the occasion of what has been labeled as the Arab Spring which is surely ushering in a new era of international relations, for all Obama’s rhetoric America has simply confirmed the viewpoint that led Bin Laden to launch his campaign back in the 1990’s –American interests trump values and the rule of law. This means that Bin Laden’s legacy will include that, even in death, he gave meaning to the criticism of America as a hegemonic power who does unto others what they would not have others do unto them.*


Reza Pankhurst has recently submitted his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics where he is also a graduate teaching assistant. He spent time between 2002 and 2006 in jail as a political prisoner in Egypt. All accused involved in the case were adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Upon his return to the UK he entered academia, achieving a distinction in his Masters degree before beginning doctoral research.

*This article was adapted from the most recent issue of Political Theology, where you may access the editorial notes and book reviews without a subscription

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