Drone Strikes and the Definition of War

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict.

Marines are trained to fire in unison at the enemy. It erases individual culpability by establishing a psychological barrier between the shooter and the target. Sharing the responsibility for a “kill” assuages personal guilt and allows soldiers to better compartmentalize traumatic events, or so the theory goes.

 This type of rationalization is made even more powerful (or palatable) by the remoteness that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” provide. For most of the past decade UAVs have hammered away at al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents hiding in the mountainous terrain of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. And though there was little, if any, talk of controversial drone strikes during the presidential election, the use of UAVs has reached a tipping point in global politics.

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict. The struggle to define this type of faceless modern warfare suggests that we are moving away from a discussion of immorality and toward amorality; exactly the point our democratic ideals of “purposeful” and defensive war devolves into outright nihilism.

The anonymity and precision of drone strikes uses our military resources efficiently while wreaking havoc on our enemies abroad. They also enable the United States to carry out an offensive in a country like Pakistan when we are technically not at war with its government. In fact, we are operating with its tacit approval. For now. But if every strike was carried out directly by human hands, there would be little doubt we are indeed at war as it is conventionally defined. Now, in its second term, the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to declassify the drone program that everyone already knows about because it would put us firmly at odds with international law.

Unmanned drones were conceived and perfected by the George W. Bush administration but they were used far more sparingly compared to the Obama administration. Terrorism, or the threat of it, continues to be the raison d’etat that justifies our aggression and the use of drones. In this, the administrations are aligned. A terrorist killed with little collateral damage and zero American bloodshed is enticing but illusory because the technology is portable and easily replicable. It will undoubtedly be developed and deployed by other nations free to define targets by their own standards.

The tacit approval of drones by the Pakistani government does not erase the fact that we are threatening our national security in the long run; we are establishing an international precedent that we will someday be forced to confront.

To begin, many of the militants we target abroad have sought refuge in other nations such as Yemen and Somalia. And our drones have followed. Yet if the government of Yemen, were it capable and so inclined, bombed a US-based manufacturing plant that produced parts for UAVs, they would technically be justified in doing so by our own standards. If China decided to send drones into Tibet, or if Russia targeted Georgia, the same logic would hold true.


The New York Times reporter Scott Shane revealed in an article Sunday concerns within the Obama administration over what they call an “amorphous” policy; this worry increased prior to the election for fear of leaving an open-ended policy to an incoming Romney administration. According to Shane, victory has allowed the White House to take its foot off of the accelerator for the moment, but it remains an important part of the president’s agenda.

But this kind of sudden realization that current policy might become permanent and out-of-control has become a troubling hallmark of the Obama presidency. Clear evidence of this is found in Obama’s refusal to fight the “indefinite detention” provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Critics fear that the language of this provision was so murky that it theoretically gives the government license to detain American citizens without due process. Instead of eliminating this verbiage and the conflict that surrounds it, Obama attached a signing statement to the bill that directly addresses the detention provision and essentially says that while he is aware of the fear it engenders, he would never use it to detain a US citizen. The very existence of the signing statement, however, is an admission that it is indeed open to interpretation; future presidents are not bound to Obama’s statement, but the law itself.

Understanding the psychology of the Obama administration or establishing a clear policy regarding drone strikes ultimately does nothing to more clearly delineate the nature of modern, human-less aggression. Carl von Clausewitz, who contributed as much to the understanding of our relationship with war as any writer on the subject, suggests in his defining work, On War, published in 1832, that: “The act of War can only be of two kinds; either the conquest of some small or moderate portion of the enemy’s country, or the defence (sic) of our own until better times.”

This was a practical analysis befitting the times that endured to the end of the last millennium. It defined conflict between nations but not necessarily between enemies as they are presently constituted. Post-9/11 warfare has pitted America, which relies on borders and nationalism, against roving mercenaries whose only allegiance is to a higher authority we cannot overcome. Clausewitz allows for wiggle room in his conventional theory, however.

“The third case, which is probably the most common, is when neither party has anything definite to look for from the future when therefore it furnishes no motive for decision. In this case the offensive War is plainly imperative upon him who is politically the aggressor.”

President Obama appears to be hedging his bet by placing a chip on each of the cases above. Furthermore, his reliance upon UAVs is loosely justified by its purported success thus far. But it also presents a persistent and impossible conundrum that assails our conventional understanding of war.

Somehow in this mess, this fog of invisible war, we must extricate ourselves from establishing precedent before it hardens into accepted global policy. If not, this dangerous game of cat and mouse will haunt us as it disperses our enemies while strengthening their resolve. Only by bolstering ties and intelligence in this region through financial support and diplomatic incentives will we assemble a righteous strategy for the future. Moreover, a retreat from this policy preserves our right to punish our enemies authoritatively with the support of our allies, while regaining the moral high ground. 

To walk softly and carry a big stick implies restraint, and restraint implies strength and confidence. These are characteristics closer to what the president exudes, which begs the question as to why he has tethered himself to policies that are so cowardly.

Leader of the “Free” World

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai.

 

LEADERSHIP

Part 3 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

Vice President-elect Joseph Biden traveled to Afghanistan during the transition to the Obama presidency to gauge the war effort on the ground. After meeting with Afghan leaders, American field generals and soldiers who had served multiple deployments, he returned home to report his findings to the incoming president. His synopsis confirmed what most suspected about America’s forgotten war; there was no good news. We were losing the war.

More troubling, according to Biden, was that nearly everyone he spoke with had a different impression of what our mission was. Intelligence confirmed that al-Qaeda hadn’t operated in Afghanistan in more than two years, perhaps longer. The Taliban was prepared to return at a moment’s notice, having found safe harbor in neighboring Pakistan. The Afghan economy was devastated and any efforts to train Afghani-led forces were futile due to the overwhelming rate of illiteracy among the population and the underwhelming amount of resources being given to our troops on the ground.

The provisional government under Hamid Karzai’s tepid and erratic leadership had not yet been affirmed by a national election and his administration was becoming increasingly corrupt. A combination of protracted war and drought had shattered the local economy and secular tensions and age-old blood feuds among various ethnic groups made the politics impossible to navigate, particularly with no clear objective as to why and whom we were still fighting. These factors, along with an impossible terrain, made an Iraq-style surge improbable and unnecessary in the eyes of many advisors. Nevertheless, in 2009 Obama was now Commander in Chief and it was time to make good on some campaign promises.

For months, Obama frustrated generals, media outlets, Democrats and Republicans—anyone with a stake in the outcome of the war. Even his most ardent supporters derided his Vulcan-like demeanor and refusal to commit to a plan of action. Not only had Obama received full cooperation from the Bush administration during the transition, he possessed a surfeit of intelligence information, an experienced team of advisors, and the support of the American public. And yet, days turned to weeks, which turned to months.

None of the options before him were good. All carried risk. But in order to place the risk in its proper context, there was one piece of critical information that the president was missing—something that no briefing could possibly clarify.
Shortly before midnight on Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base. As midnight passed and the calendar turned a page, he stood in the darkness flanked by military personnel as the bodies of 18 dead soldiers whose calendars ceased turning somewhere on the desert battlefield were carried from a military cargo plane. In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward describes how after saluting the fallen and meeting privately with the families for the next four hours, the president of the United States “slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.”

No fanfare. No flight suit. Just a solemn acknowledgement that this mission was far from accomplished and that there were human beings beneath those fatigues.

Shortly after this trip, Obama would reveal the strategy for the war in Afghanistan under his presidency. One by one, he delivered his orders to his senior officials, including Gen. David Petraeus. According to Woodward, “When [Petraeus] later learned the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it. ‘There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life.’”

THE “FREE WORLD”

The world is a big place and Afghanistan occupies only a tiny sliver of it. What I appreciate about the president’s thought process is the scope of it, which stands in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the Bush administration. We are still losing the war in Afghanistan, but our troops are withdrawing. Our operation in Iraq is finally coming to a close. And despite the most recent wave of anti-American sentiment fueled by an inflammatory film about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, we are balancing foreign affairs. While Obama’s nuanced approach has been marked by miscalculations, it takes into account the whole field of battle, which may not always include armed conflict.

The ground is shifting beneath us. African nations are beginning to subdivide like cancer cells and we may even witness the reconciliation of North and South Korea in our lifetime. In surveying Afghanistan, Obama understood that the real war was with Pakistan. Moreover, our relationship with Pakistan has always been built on half-truths and double-dealing. The Pakistani secret police, the ISI, serves up lies to our operatives half of the time; the trick is to figure out which half. Obama also knows that our presence is virtually meaningless to Pakistan compared to its long-standing feud with India. Deftly managing this dynamic results in better intelligence on al-Qaeda members who move between Pakistan and Afghanistan and as far as Yemen and Somalia with impunity; just as breaking the back of the Assad regime in Syria is more devastating to Iran than drawing artificial lines in the sand.

This is only a fragment of the backdrop against which we are being asked to elect our next Commander in Chief. From dangerous encroachments to our civil liberties at home to the casual over-reliance upon drone strikes abroad, there is plenty of criticism to be hurled Obama’s way. But like so many issues this campaign season, foreign policy is yet another area where Mitt Romney falters.

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, a man whom the CIA admits is a chemically imbalanced, erratic manic-depressive. He lambastes Obama for allegedly refusing to support uprisings in Iran, calling it a “disgraceful abdication of American moral authority,” while at the same time condemning Obama’s support of the uprising in Libya.

Mitt Romney is already promising to write checks we can’t cash. From empty threats of force against Pakistan to declaring he will aggressively “disarm North Korea,” Romney has already displayed a remarkable ignorance. He’s also playing a dangerous game with Benjamin Netanyahu, pitting the Israeli Prime Minister against Obama in an effort to woo the Jewish vote at home. Romney ignores the success both the Bush and Obama administrations have had covertly disrupting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and he underestimates the galvanizing effect a unilateral attack on Iran would have in the Arab world against both Israel and the US.

Even more troubling is the team of foreign policy advisors Romney has assembled, which includes several Bush administration retreads, two members of the Heritage Foundation—the sham conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers—and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an enthusiastic supporter of rendition.

Despite several initial missteps on the world stage by the Obama administration, it is imperative we maintain continuity with a nuanced approach and maneuver to achieve greater stability abroad; if for no other reason than to prevent the catastrophic return of Bush-era foreign policy that a Romney administration would bring. The world has had enough of American bluster, particularly when we no longer have the financial wherewithal or popular support to back it up.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright (r) salute the remains of army sgt. dale r. griffin of terre haute, ind. during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Peter King Video Surfaces

Not only does King represent LI, but he’s also the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. Instead of looking official or important, he looks like a 7-year-old about to take his first ride through Safety Town.

Petey’s Big Adventure
This column is featured in the March 15, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.


Earlier this week House Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) uploaded a video of a ride-along with U.S. Marshals performing raids in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the video King can be seen wearing a police jacket and following marshals who’ve starred in the reality television show Manhunters up the stairs and into a suspect’s apartment. After the bust King is heard joking with them, saying, “I got him,” then listening to an official describe kicking a suspect down a ladder during the raid.

That’s our Pete. Tough on crime. The only problem is that the filming of Petey’s Big Adventure is technically against the law.

The video began circulating on the Web after a story first appeared on the political website Talking Points Memo. According to the story, King’s people took the video down from YouTube, then reposted an edited version later in the day. TPM reports differences between the versions saying, “Clips of an officer kicking in a door, a joke about how King ‘got’ a suspect and an officer describing to King how he kicked someone, perhaps the suspect, off a ladder were cut out.” The edited version was also later taken down.

Considering how many laws and rights we’ve thrown out the window over the last decade, this incident will likely die out in short order. And since the marshals are going after law-breaking reprobates, few will care about the violation of federal protocol. What bothers me is how ridiculous he looks on the video. Not only does King represent Long Island, but he’s also the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. Instead of looking official or important, he looks like a 7-year-old about to take his first ride through Safety Town in Eisenhower Park.

Wearing a police jacket (illegal) when you’re not a cop while taping a bust inside a person’s home (illegal) and filming yourself joking about it (legal but stupid) is just about the last thing we need this guy doing as the head of the Homeland Security committee.

But judging by the plurality of his victories, Long Islanders love Rep. Pete King. Some people can’t seem to get enough of him. The “take no prisoners” attitude exhibited by LI’s full-time congressman and part-time pugilist whips his dedicated base into a frenzy. He is always on hand to offer commentary on global situations—particularly when it comes to military affairs or law enforcement issues.

King never backs down from conflict; if anything, he seems to invite it.  He doesn’t duck reporters or shrink from controversy and has even shown a willingness to publicly battle his own party when he disagrees with its leadership.

These are sentiments that are uttered by King’s proponents and detractors alike. But while many find these qualities appealing, I consider them to be dangerous. Not because these aren’t admirable traits in a person, but because of his position in Congress. Peter King is incapable of nuance and separating his emotion from policy-making and is forever insulting various ethnic groups, sometimes entire nations. Moreover, when he speaks he insults the intelligence community by displaying a remarkable lack of, well, intelligence.

A bigger problem is that King’s bellicose nature and incapacity for subtlety makes him walking fodder for terrorists. He routinely offers bulletin board material that stokes anti-American sentiment like some loudmouth running back pumping up the opposition.  Meanwhile, our servicemen and women are cracking under pressure and displaying personal anguish in horrific ways. Recent incidents reported or caught on video of soldiers burning Qorans and urinating on dead Taliban fighters—and the most recent tragedy in Afghanistan when a U.S. soldier reportedly executed 16 unarmed villagers—are overshadowing the positive work being done by our military.

Our mission in Afghanistan was supposed to be to disrupt terrorist cells, not take over the entire country and leave our men and women there to languish in an undefined, unethical and unwinnable war. This was sold as a homeland security mission, not an occupation. This is why watching the head of the House Homeland Security Committee gleefully lumber along behind U.S. Marshals on a raid while a staffer films it for YouTube is so utterly juvenile and ridiculous. Instead of monkey-fucking around in the Bronx living out some sort of unfulfilled cop-fetish-fantasy, I wish this guy would focus on getting our most precious possessions out of Afghanistan.

Tea Partisanship

Entitlement programs don’t imply that people have some childish sense of entitlement as some Republicans would have us all believe; the programs are precisely referred to as such because we are entitled to receive them.

Boehner and ObamaPart IV of The Season of Our Disconnect

Perhaps the best, most succinct commentary I heard regarding the acrimonious debt ceiling debate was during a BBC broadcast this past week. When asked what the sentiment was in Europe regarding the countdown to American debt default that Congress narrowly avoided on Aug. 2, the reporter said there was a sense of bewilderment that the United States would voluntarily default on its obligations when so many countries were struggling against doing so involuntarily. Not only did this highlight how silly the entire debacle really was but there’s something about hearing it delivered in a British accent that makes it sound all the more ridiculous.

The Republican Party, of which I have been affiliated with since coming of voting age, has never behaved so badly. This is a party that touts itself as pro-business and anti-tax, with every member running amok trying to out-Ronald Reagan one another. Yet anyone who runs a business will tell you that cutting costs can only achieve so much and that, at some point, revenue has to increase proportionate to the growth of expenses. Theoretically that means these pro-business Republicans should recognize the need to increase revenue, i.e., taxes, and any increase in revenue should be ascribed to expenditures with no direct, offsetting revenue line.

Since the greatest single unfunded liability in America is defense and military spending, which accounts for 25 percent of the budget, this area seems like the most logical place to cut expenses. Instead, the Republican Party has waged an all-out assault on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which Americans have fully supported for decades. They demonize these programs, sullying them as “entitlements,” and deriding them as welfare-like benefits for ungrateful, undeserving idlers living off the government teat.

Entitlement programs don’t imply that people have some childish sense of entitlement as some Republicans would have us all believe; the programs are precisely referred to as such because we are entitled to receive them. Why? Because we have already paid for them. Check out your pay stub – it’s called FICA. Republicans are trying to terrify Americans with the misleading threats of disappearing future Social Security payments and dwindling Medicare coverage because they’re trying to obfuscate the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the nation nearly $3 trillion between the direct cost of the engagements and subsequent social costs such as veteran care. There’s no pre-tax line item or fee for “Wars We Didn’t Ask For” on your paycheck. We have been giving the government the funding necessary to keep these programs alive for generations and they keep blowing money on conflicts we never wanted. Giving the American government Social Security and Medicare funding is like lending cash to your meth-addict uncle who promises he’s on the wagon and just needs a few bucks to get back on his feet. He’ll disappoint you every time.

And then there’s Reagan. True-blue Republicans who like to evoke imagery of the Gipper could use a refresher course and a reminder that when President Reagan cut taxes in the beginning of his administration, the jobless rate jumped above 10 percent (higher than under Obama) and the federal deficit grew to a then-unprecedented level. Desperate to get things under control he raised taxes seven times during his administration and increased federal spending so much that he left office with a tremendous deficit despite myriad tax hikes. Moreover, total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP was more under Reagan after his initial tax cuts than they are today and we just fought two, decade-long wars. Middle-class Republicans should also recall how Reagan nearly doubled the Social Security withdrawal (your money for “safe keeping” remember) but capped it at a certain income level. Or as Matt Taibbi writes in his recent book Griftopia: “That means that a married couple earning $100,000 total will pay roughly the same amount of Social Security taxes that Lloyd Blankfein or Bill Gates will.” This was nothing short of a heist on the middle-class in America, the memory of which is something today’s Republican leaders have entirely backwards.

Throughout the tenure of the Obama administration, Republicans, who are working to please Tea Party activists−the lowest common ideological denominator in the GOP−have continued to distort Reagan’s legacy and persist in blowing up America’s revenue line while adding unfunded liabilities on the expense line. Now they’re smashing our piggy banks to pay for their transgressions while continuing to extend the most favorable corporate tax environment in the history of the country.

Dig this. According to the Congressional Budget Office, corporate income tax accounts for only 1.3 percent of GDP (compared to individual income taxes, which are 6.2 percent of GDP). The last time it was this low was in 1983 when corporate tax was only 1.1 percent of GDP and the federal deficit was so big Reagan increased taxes every year thereafter. According to the Brookings Institute, the last time corporate income tax receipts were so low was in 1940. In the 1950’s, the golden era that Republicans really love to imagine reliving, the average was 4.76 percent of GDP. That’s quadruple what it is today. Shrinking corporate tax receipts is just one of a host of lopsided tax issues that favor corporations and wealthy Americans and force the government to borrow eye-popping sums of money.

The Democratic Party under the feckless and waffling leadership of Barack Obama has likewise capitulated to the right wing lunatic fringe. Because Democrats aren’t putting up a fight and caving to every unreasonable demand made by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party’s whipping boys, a corrosive new partisanship has emerged in America. Ignorant, ill-informed zealots running a government against the people have officially hijacked Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people and for the people.

 

Life After bin Laden

A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination.

Osama bin Laden's compound in PakistanAs a resident of Manhattan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, both the enormity and the proximity of this tragedy rendered me almost childlike in my response. There was no precedent in my life against which I could benchmark my feelings, nor any reservoir of wisdom wrought from similar circumstances that could place the unthinkable events of that day in any useful emotional context. The initial shock gave way to overwhelming emptiness on a scale wholly unfamiliar to me—feelings that left me bizarrely searching for some sort of parental guidance from our government. In the days, weeks and years that followed, there was plenty on hand.

The Bush administration, unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance, was somehow uniquely suited to administering a punishing response to al-Qaida, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular. One nation, under God.

Now the object of our malevolence is gone. When my wife awoke me on Sunday night to watch as President Obama informed the nation that an elite American force had finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, I was bleary-eyed and confused. This wasn’t at all how I imagined this moment would be. Frankly, I had lost faith that it would ever come. Osama bin Laden had almost ceased to be real, becoming some sort of metaphoric touchstone for the War on Terror. His deeds would always be perpetuated by our inability to capture him and our shame would grow with each passing day. Catching or killing the man that embodied our terror and consumed a nation with fear for the better part of a decade seemed distant and implausible. In many ways, I wasn’t sure it even mattered any longer—because so much had transpired since Sept. 11, 2001 that any sudden manifestation of the man himself would be almost too complicated and painful to contemplate. Osama bin Laden had officially become the bogeyman. His re-emergence or death would inspire too many questions and bring forward too many painful memories buried deep within our subconscious selves.

Americans are hard-wired in such a way that having a villain allows us to compartmentalize our emotions, thereby narrowing our actions and behaviors to a series of Pavlovian responses. A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination. Figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Osama bin Laden were so absolute in their contrast to the American zeitgeist that their very existence allowed America to tacitly define itself as their theoretical opposite. The specter of bin Laden, more than the man, allowed the Bush administration to define itself as the antidote to terror, thereby becoming the natural incarnation of liberty and the ultimate arbiter of any global conflict that challenged our notion of freedom, a right characterized less by what we stood for than by what we fought against.

As we awake, hung over from our 10-year drunken binge of warfare and rage, what are we to make of bin Laden’s death? Our youth has been so inculcated by the steady drumbeat of anti-terrorism messaging that many took to the streets in celebration immediately following the pronouncement of bin Laden’s demise. Inchoate explanations of his whereabouts all these years and our inability to locate him even with the most sophisticated technology and intelligence has left many Americans somewhat wary of the information given to us so abruptly. I believe this is because for the first time in nearly a decade the message was delivered absent the hyperbole that has typically accompanied news of bin Laden and the War on Terror. And so we are left on our own to digest and make sense of not only the news of his death, but the world that he forever altered and has now thankfully left behind.  

The innocent victims of 9/11 are avenged, to be sure. If ever there was one seminal event that would resemble closure, this is the moment. But the hardship and grief stemming from the two wars that ensued and the lives that were lost or forever changed cannot be assuaged by any one action. The men and women sickened from working on the “piles” for days and weeks, sifting through the toxic debris, cannot be healed. Our trust in Pakistani leadership has been shattered. Our reason for waging war cannot be easily explained away.

The near-simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were proffered to the American people as a sort of Sophie’s Choice. Osama bin Laden placed us in unforgiving territory where carnage seemed guaranteed by both inaction and war. Now we are faced with the realization that these decisions were made in a world gone mad, ushered in by a true madman who now rests in disgrace somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. And we are left to pick up the pieces, haunted by our actions, unsure of how to feel and forever mourning the victims of 9/11.

Iraq

The Iraq War has officially come to an end with the Iraqis celebrating their independence this past Tuesday. “Shock and Awe” has now faded to fizzle and yawn. Americans, satisfied with what can now be characterized as blanket retribution for 9/11, have moved on. In the end we fought two wars simultaneously and overthrew a regime—a ferocious display of might perhaps no other nation could manage without coming apart at the seams. 

It was one hell of a war, wasn’t it? Or was it?

There are parts of the world where fresh battle lines are continuously drawn over ancient disputes; the impermanence of Western culture allows us to forgive and forget and heal all wounds but not all of the wounded. But as the scene in Iraq fades to black, American media has lapsed back into reporting woes of the pocketbook, Gary Condit-like coverage of our politicians and news of tragic celebrity deaths. No shark attacks at the moment folks—we do have dolphins in the Long Island Sound.

As far as Iraq is concerned we’re left to simply ponder what the hell just happened. So let’s talk about it. What is ultimately in question will be the fate of the Bush Doctrine, the centerpiece of the Bush administration. Some may remember it simply as the question that flummoxed Sarah Palin during the now-infamous Katie Couric interview. It was a serious question that exposed a seriously unqualified candidate and one that will linger for decades.

Is the Bush Doctrine simply veiled imperialism at its worst or the righteous burden of a superpower? Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein? Was it even our fight? Would it have made a difference if we uncovered weapons of mass destruction? Was Saddam with access to nuclear weaponry more of a danger than an unstable nuclear Pakistan or an unpredictable nuclear North Korea?

We now know that this was an unnecessary war as it relates to the proposed reasoning for entering into it. But was it necessarily unjust?

There have been some answers along the way and not all of them tragic. As Americans, we learned how to treat returning soldiers with the respect they deserve while maintaining our right to question their mission. We have learned that conventional warfare is over and that working with civilians is more important than leveling their society and dictating terms. We have also learned that those who run the departments that govern the military cannot necessarily run a war. That exercise is better left to the generals.

For better or for worse, the Bush Doctrine gave America something that it has been missing since the Cuban Missile Crisis—a little touch of crazy. This war proved that you can poke the bear one too many times. It showed that we will throw you out of your house, kill you in front of your friends, marry your wife and rename your kids. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it’s a lousy way to win friends and influence people. 

It will be years before the Iraq puzzle can be assembled objectively with the wisdom that only time can provide. Yet trying to determine whether a war was a “success” may be impossible. Can the lives of American soldiers or innocent foreign civilians really be quantified? Twenty nine soldiers from Long Island gave their lives to free Iraq and overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now consider that 397 Long Islanders have lost their lives to heroin in the same time period.

This correlation isn’t meant to minimize the wartime deaths but to challenge whether or not any war can truly be objectively quantified in terms of battles, casualties and borders. Today, heroin flows cheap and easy across the globe due to the overwhelming productivity of poppy fields in destabilized regions such as Afghanistan. Did our myopia in Iraq cause tributaries to pour dangerously in ways we have yet to contemplate? Will they empty into perilous seas that will someday be too difficult to navigate?

Countless questions. Seldom an absolute answer. And what do we ponder instead? What will become of MJ’s estate? Will Paul McCartney finally get the rights back to the Beatles? Will they freeze Michael next to Walt? Did Farrah get a proper send off? And who the hell is going to pitch OxiClean?

Asking questions is a good thing. Let’s just make them the right ones.