We Need a President Who Won’t Trick Us Into War

Lessons from Tonkin and Libya: We Need a President Who Won’t Trick Us Into War

in these times

Deception about Libya–and possibly Syria as well–descends from Vietnam-era policies. Both major parties are guilty. Where do the 2016 candidates stand?

BY Stephen R. Weissman

As in post-invasion Iraq, the U.S. could become enmeshed in a fratricidal conflict it has no real plan to resolve.

Fifty-one years ago, an American president deceived the public about the true purpose of a U.S. military mission, ushering in a decade of foreign policy disasters. Unfortunately, this method of abusing democracy has continued, on a bipartisan basis, to the present day, when it is casting a shadow over U.S. policy in Syria.

In August 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers deliberately misled Congress and the American people about the mission of two U.S. destroyers that were allegedly attacked off the coast of communist North Vietnam and their connection to U.S.-directed raids on nearby offshore islands. Their lie paved the way for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and congressional passage of the administration’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution: a broadly worded measure that would soon facilitate Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. A policy that began with an act of deceit about a U.S. military mission had awful and ill-considered consequences for Americans, Vietnamese and other southeast Asians, U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China, and America’s global reputation. Many historians are convinced that a diplomatic settlement could have avoided most of this damage.

In March 1969, President Richard Nixon initiated 15 months of secret B-52 bombing attacks against North Vietnamese sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia, mainly to let North Vietnam know he would take harsh measures that Johnson had rejected. The number of civilians killed by the carpet-bombing will never be known; and the North Vietnamese responded by moving their forces deeper into Cambodia.

Fast forward to March 2011. Challenged by the popular unrest of the Arab Spring, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s troops bore down upon armed rebels in Benghazi and other cities. In response, the Obama administration drove through a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” After organizing extensive British, French and U.S. air operations under NATO, President Barack Obama reassured war-weary Americans and legislators, “But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” Rather, the U.S. would use “nonmilitary means” to get Gadhafi to step down, including an arms embargo, financial sanctions, aid to the opposition and diplomacy.

But in reality, NATO air operations, complemented by covert CIA, British and French military aid to the rebels, were critical for the overthrow of Gadhafi and his capture and assassination by rebels in October.

Obama implicitly admitted his deception concerning the U.S. military mission during his October 2012 debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he said: “We went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre … [W]e also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. … [W]hen it came time to make sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep. … We were going to make sure that we finished the job.”

In recent memoirs and confidential interviews, top U.S. and Western officials have been more forthright. Leon Panetta, who was CIA director at the outset of the conflict and became secretary of defense on July 1, 2011, wrote that during an early July visit to Afghanistan, “I said what everyone in Washington knew but we couldn’t officially acknowledge: that our goal in Libya was regime change.” His predecessor, Robert Gates, revealed that he “tried to raise” with the president the issues of “an open-ended conflict, an ill-defined mission, Gadhafi’s fate, and what came after him,” but Obama “had not been interested in getting into any of that.” Key advisers on Libya in the French and British governments and a leading U.S. participant in the decisive administration meetings have all confirmed to me that getting Gadhafi out was a clear goal from the early days of the NATO mission.

Once again a hidden and poorly thought out military policy had malign consequences. The rebel group we sponsored was unable to prevent the country from dissolving into chaotic violence that has claimed the lives of four American citizens and precipitated a migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. A continuing exodus of arms, ethnic fighters and Islamic fighters from Libya has strengthened violent extremists in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria and other countries. And NATO’s misapplication of the U.N. authorization of force reinforced Russia’s distrust of the West; it led directly to its veto of a subsequent U.N. nonmilitary resolution on Syria.

In retrospect, the Obama administration would have been better off either following its professed two-pronged military/political policy or, better still, supporting the African Union’s creative initiative for a negotiated cease-fire and orderly democratic transition supervised by international peacekeeping forces. Yet, as the aforementioned U.S. participant in the decisions revealed, “There was no discussion of using our force as a set-up for negotiation.”

More recently, in September 2013, Obama asked Congress to support his plan to attack Syria after it violated his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Compelled at last to assume its constitutional responsibility for making war, Congress was about to turn Obama down before a diplomatic agreement to dispose of the weapons saved the day. What lay behind Congress’ reluctance was the war-weary public’s doubt that it had received an honest description of the military mission—which was characterized in widely different ways by administration representatives—and therefore of its potential consequences.

Indications are that the problem of deceptive military missions persists today as the U.S. expands its military presence in the Middle East to confront violent jihadis. In June 2014 the administration sent Congress a proposal to “train and equip” Syrian opponents of the Bashar Assad government in neighboring countries. In September, after the Islamic State group expanded from Syria into Iraq, it repackaged this program to target the Islamic State in Syria rather than Assad. Congress approved. Despite this straightforward and focused ground mission, administration officials have recently been saying that they might provide U.S. close air support or otherwise move to “protect” their clients after they “integrate” with existing rebel groups in Syria. Such scenarios could bring America into direct conflict with Syrian government forces.

Even more far-reaching, U.S. and Turkish officials have just revealed that they are about to implement a long-discussed “safe zone” in northern Syria along 68 miles of Turkey’s Western border. While this is once again publicly justified as an anti-Islamic State initiative, it is potentially much more than that. According to the same officials, unidentified “moderate” Syrian rebels would be inserted into an area that is close to Syrian government operations in and around the contested city of Aleppo and would receive continuous air protection. That would create a combustible situation that could produce an accidental or purposeful confrontation between the rebels and their supporters and Assad’s forces. Another provocative possibility, long contemplated by U.S. and Turkish officials, is that the safe zone will harbor a rebel government on Syrian territory.

What appears then to be a stealthy expansion of the anti-Islamic State “train-and-equip” mission could have major consequences for U.S. policy in the Middle East, which the administration has not discussed publicly. An increased U.S. military commitment to anti-Assad rebels on the ground could produce military responses by Syria’s allies—Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. As in Iraq today, it could result in pressures to introduce U.S. combat forces to bolster the rebels. And, as in post-invasion Iraq, the U.S. could become enmeshed in a fratricidal conflict it has no real plan to resolve.

These are the very consequences that the public feared when it demanded that Congress pull the plug on the administration’s plan to bomb Syria in September 2013.

During this presidential election year, voters need to communicate to the candidates that they will hold them accountable for telling the truth about the purposes of American military missions and their potential consequences.

This article was originally published at Stars and Stripes.

Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, is the author of two books on U.S. foreign policy, including A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy. Weissman has been a Political Science Professor at Fordham University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the Universite Libre du Congo.

US frets over its sole base in Africa

US frets over its sole base in Africa

mail and guardian

Cormac Erikson

Djibouti is a springboard into a troubled region and home to a squadron of American drones.

Exception: President Omar Guelleh is only the second president Djibouti has known since independence in 1977. And he may alter the Constitution to stand for a fourth term. (AFP)


At first glance, United States President Barack Obama in Kenya was a man in search of his roots. His father was born near Lake Victoria, and his extended family welcomed him to Nairobi, hosting a private family dinner on the first night.

But the visit also showed a shift in concern from building democracy in places such as Zimbabwe and Swaziland to shoring up the US’s interest in a region where China leads the way.

Ironically, for all Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s pledge to “look east”, and Zanu-PF’s anger about US “sanctions” or travel bans on the regime, Zimbabwe is one of the few countries that still buys more from the US than it does from China.

By contrast, for every dollar of products Kenyans buy from the US, they spend $10 with Beijing.

Add the ongoing problems of Somalia, human rights in Eritrea, violence in Burundi, piracy, terror strikes by al-Shabab, and long-term rulers trying for yet another term in Uganda and Rwanda, and it’s clear why Washington’s focus has moved to East Africa.

And the poster boy for these woes is Djibouti, where Americans fear their once-staunchest ally, President Omar Guelleh, may have lost the plot.

In Africa, Washington has just one military presence, with a base at Camp Lemonnier a short way from Djibouti airport, and a small number of troops in the northern town of Obock. But, in May, Guelleh ordered them out, saying he planned to hand the site to China, which will send up to 10 000 soldiers, dwarfing the Pentagon’s total force of about 4 000.

In this tiny country – roughly the size of the Kruger National Park – China is building a new airport, expanding the harbour and restoring a railway line into landlocked Ethiopia. Chinese exports to Djibouti are already nine times higher than those from the US. Now, like the troublesome President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Guelleh looks set to change the Constitution and allow himself a fourth term. He did the same thing to gain a third in 2010, pledging it would be his last. His People’s Rally for Progress party holds all 65 seats in Parliament.

Restrictive regime

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) rates Guelleh’s regime as among the most restrictive in the world.

In Nairobi, Tom Rhodes, who oversees the CPJ’s work in Africa, told the Mail & Guardian there were few alternatives to state propaganda in Djibouti. “With virtually no independent media and consistent oppression of the opposition, the public have no outlets for critical debate,” he said.

“As a key regional and Western ally, virtually no one opposes President Guelleh’s abysmal record,” Rhodes said, adding that Djibouti was “comparable with other small despotic countries such as Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea”.

Despite Chinese aid and investment, and the US paying $63-million a year for their base, more than half the population struggle with basics such as water, food and healthcare. The United Nations index on human development places Djibouti in a band near the bottom, with Haiti and Afghanistan.

But Djibouti dominates the only entry and exit point between the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal. And, since independence in 1977, the former French Somaliland has had only two presidents: Guelleh and his uncle, who died in 1999.

Although much of the population are ethnic Somalis, Guelleh gives no succour to pirates and terror groups such as al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, which attacked Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013 and, this year, murdered 147 teachers and students at the university in Garissa.

US, Africa and defence
After Afghanistan, Djibouti is home to the world’s largest squadron of drones and from here the US can strike across the Horn of Africa and over the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait into the Middle East.

Obama came to charm the continent and mend fences with what the White House still hopes are its allies. Although he had some harsh words on human rights, he talked mostly about “shared values and trust”, telling the BBC that China’s policy was merely to “funnel an awful lot of money into Africa in exchange for raw materials”.

Documents obtained this week by the M&G show just how anxious some members of the US Congress have become about Guelleh and his efforts to uncouple himself from Washington.

When it comes to Africa and defence, few US lawmakers have as much clout as Tom Marino of Pennsylvania and California’s Duncan Hunter.

Marino, a former lawyer, is among the most active members of Congress, advising the house on foreign affairs, homeland security and the judiciary.

In June, he wrote to colleagues, calling for a joint sitting of all the congressional committees that deal with Africa, human rights and threats to the US, in the wake of “the erratic behaviour of Djibouti’s dictatorial president”.

In a departure from the diplomatic language that usually defines the work of Congress, he said US counterterrorism in the region could not be “hindered by Chinese interference” and “the potential threat this holds for US and regional security”.

Hunter serves on the armed forces committee previously chaired by his father, who was a presidential candidate in 2008. Supporters say he might have defeated Obama if the Republicans had not gone instead with the geriatric John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

Calling for regime change
On June 26, Hunter wrote a letter urging the defence secretary, Ashton Carter, to “insist on an orderly change of Djibouti’s government”. He has made the same call for regime change to the secretary of state, John Kerry, who, on May 6, visited Guelleh for talks. Less than 24 hours after that meeting, Guelleh dropped the bombshell that the US troops were to be evicted from Obock in favour of the Chinese.

Hunter also believes Guelleh is about to renege on his promise to step down before next year’s elections and allow a democratically elected candidate to take his place.

In his letter, Hunter urges the secretary of defence to “pay close attention to Guelleh and his mistreatment of political opposition and journalists, which is well documented”.

He warns that, although the president “has said he will step down when his term expires next year, his previous actions call this into question”. The US, Hunter wrote, “requires reliable allies”.

Djibouti trickier than Harare for Washington
Although Obama had previously said Mugabe was “on the wrong side of history”, this week he made no reference to the 91-year-old who, critics say, has remained in power for the past 35 years by terrorising his opponents and, when that failed, rigging the vote.

But Washington’s policy on Djibouti faces even more problems than it did in Harare. As in Zimbabwe, Djibouti’s neighbours won’t speak out on human rights, the African Union is equally silent, and China will gladly step in if the West cuts off aid.

But Zimbabwe is not on the Horn of Africa, and ships don’t have to sail the Zambezi to enter Suez. The US’s clout in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and, potentially, South Sudan, depends on Camp Lemonnier and the land, air and naval presence in Djibouti.

Guelleh is yet to confirm whether he will alter the Constitution again and stand for a fourth term in 2016, but, whatever he decides, as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in his talks this week with Obama: “Choices have consequences.”

The letters from Hunter and Marino, and concern over the violence spawned by Nkurunziza’s quest for another term in Burundi, suggest Guelleh may have misjudged the mood.

Hiroshima—haunting humanity for 70 years

hiroshima memorialThe Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Hiroshima survivors: haunted 70 years on, determined to remember

asahi shimbun


HIROSHIMA–Hiroshi Harada remembers how his leg sank into one of the bodies blocking a narrow Hiroshima street 70 years ago, as he fled the spreading fire ignited by the atomic bomb.

“My leg slid deep into one of them. Then it was very hard to pull my leg out … To escape, I had no choice,” said Harada, the 75-year-old former head of an atomic bomb museum.

Later that day, a woman grabbed Harada, then just 6 years old, by the leg and asked for water. He stepped back in horror to find a chunk of flesh from her hand sticking to his leg.

As the 70th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear attack approaches, many survivors still find it too painful to talk about. But with their ranks dwindling, others are determined to pass on their experiences to younger generations.

“The number of survivors will be shrinking and their voices getting smaller,” Harada said. “But Hiroshima needs to keep on sending a message to the world that things like this should never happen again.”

Hiroshima survivors often refrain from talking about their experiences even with their own children, some from a feeling that the past is too horrific and others from fear of discrimination against themselves and their offspring.

This year’s anniversary comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to ease the constraints of Japan’s postwar, pacifist constitution on the military.

Critics fear that could lead the nation again down a mistaken path to war, while proponents argue the change is needed to deter growing regional threats.


A U.S. bomber dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, killing about 140,000 by the end of the year, out of the 350,000 who lived in the city. The city still has some 60,000 survivors but their average age is approaching 80.

The United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15.

Shortly after the bombing, 15-year-old Shigeo Ito was hurrying home and was asked by a woman to help rescue a person trapped under a collapsed house. He ignored the plea since fire was approaching the bridge he needed to cross to get home.

“Even long after that, I could not help feeling ashamed of myself every time I saw that bridge,” said the 84-year-old Ito, who now lectures to school children about his experience.

Shuntaro Hida, 98, was an army surgeon at the time of the bombing. When he first went out after the explosion, he saw a woman with what he thought were tattered clothes hanging from her torso. Then he realized he was seeing her sloughed-off skin.

For Hida, however, the real horror of the nuclear attack lay in its often invisible health effects. “The cruelest aspect of a nuclear attack is not the savage destruction of human bodies or visible burns, but its life-destroying after-effects,” said Hida, who treated and advised some 10,000 atomic bomb survivors.

Hiroshima began to see an increased number of leukemia patients five year after the bombing.

Fumiaki Kajiya, 76, lost his sister to the atomic bomb blast. Their parents had moved her to a rural area to keep her safe, but just before the bombing, they brought her back to the city, succumbing to her pleas to stay with the family.

Kajiya’s mother would weep for hours on end in front of the Buddhist alter as Aug. 6 came around every year. Kajiya now performs “picture shows” for children with hand-drawn art to pass on the horror of the atomic bomb.

“If we forget Hiroshima, the world would be a dangerous place,” Kajiya said.