On January 2, 2009, his first day in office, Barack Obama ordered the shutting down of Guantanamo Bay within a year. This pivotal move was long expected by his supporters and marked the beginning of what has been touted as the forthcoming theme of Obama’s nascent presidency: regaining America’s moral stature in the world.
By all accounts, shutting down Guantanamo seems to be a calculated symbolic first move, putting a dramatic and visible end to the kind of flippant rejection of the rule of law so closely associated with the Bush-Cheney Administration.
In addition to the Guantanamo order, another executive order forbade the use of torture in the interrogation of terror suspects in an effort to show, in the president’s own words, “that we are able to follow the core standards of conduct not solely when it is easy but also when it is hard.”
However, the closure of Guantanamo and the official cessation of the use of torture, welcome as it is, puts into focus what will be the Obama administration’s most challenging task in the days ahead: redefining the war on terror as a just war. Inherent in this project is reconfiguring not simply the means and rules by which America conducts warfare but also taking a second look at the strategic goals that Obama has not questioned in his campaign.
One notable example of these is the oft-repeated American aim of catching and imprisoning Osama bin Laden, something Obama has continually recounted during his campaign speeches. The issue of bin Laden’s pursuit and the concomitant portrayal of the Afghan war as the “right” and “just” war by Obama raises the question: can an unmanned drone attack on Pakistani territory in pursuit of this goal, and the killing of innocent civilians that routinely accompanies such attacks, be considered a “just” act equally capable of the moral high ground America achieves to recapture?
The answer from the Pakistani side is no, but will Americans be tempted to believe that all sins of the Bush Administration have been instantly absolved with the closure of Guantanamo and the forbidding of torture?
If they do indulge in such moral compartmentalisation where constitutional flouting in America is considered impermissible but killing civilians abroad is not, then little will have changed in the moral calculus of evaluating America. Americans may indeed believe themselves redeemed by eliminating the visible symbol of Guantanamo, but the rest of the world, most prominently the Muslim world towards which Obama has extended a conciliatory hand, will shake its head with the same disgust and disappointment that has marked its relationship with America in the past eight years.
The juxtaposition of the symbol of Guantanamo and the use of military power against civilians illustrates how both are ultimately symbols of imperial overreach that cannot be reconciled with moral leadership. It also brings forth another crucial dynamic of the war on terror: the gaping economic chasm existing between the countries where it is conceptualised and the countries where it is waged.
Take for example the following scenario: if a future terrorist attack on the United States were traced to a small village on the outskirts of London, how would the United States respond? Would a surgical strike that eliminates the village be an option?
The scenario sounds ludicrous since no one would even consider such a route, but the underlying logic it exposes is integral to understanding the moral dimensions of a war that is waged in a certain way when it involves poor countries and another where rich industrialised nations are involved.
Imagine further if such a strike on an English village is permitted and an unmanned drone kills members of a wedding party. It is undoubted, of course, that the world would be up in arms with moral outrage; there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was an unjust act, despite the presence of possible terrorists.
The purpose of drawing attention to such a hypothetical scenario is not to argue for its plausibility or probability but to emphasise how the Obama’s administration’s strategic military goals may clash with their stated moral goals. This often unaddressed aspect of the war on terror has successfully been used by Islamist groups to cast the struggle as one between the world’s haves and its have-nots. A war where powerful nations can gloss over the sovereignty of poor ones and the lives of the cab drivers in Gaza cannot be equivalent to those of the ones in New York City is thus as much a moral quagmire as Guantanamo and the use of torture.
Recasting the war on terror requires re-evaluating the use of any military options against civilian populations. Support for groups like Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e Taliban in the Muslim world persists because they are unfailingly able to portray themselves as the “little guy”, the weapon-less, ragtag warriors of faith fighting a military behemoth armed with drones and F-16s. The populations where they have taken root are all identify with being the “little guy”, and when a bomb falls on their village, the memory of burned CD shops, destroyed schools and public floggings fades under the deafening onslaught of an enemy that can kill without sending a single soldier.
In other words, the inherent destruction promised by military operations cannot possibly salvage moral standing for a superpower with much blood on its hands.
Undoubtedly, the impending closure of Guantanamo shows that the Obama administration is invested in turning the tide. The precept that insists that the Guantanamo inmates could be held indefinitely, tortured and refused a fair trial is the same doctrine that says civilian populations in areas where Al Qaeda may be hiding are mere collateral damage.
Accepting this fundamental similarity and abandoning both as epithets of the imperial overreach that has so maligned America in the Bush years requires elevating moral leadership not simply as a rhetorical theme but as a priority superseding the nation’s reliance on brute military force. A just war on terror, thus, can only be a war that abandons force and invests faith in the idea that if people are no longer bombed in the name of protecting America, they will themselves join the just fight against terror.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reproduced by permission of the author & DT