And now We Killed Awlaki’s Son, again a US Citizen, again without Due Process…


In the last two weeks, I got pulled into another round of the endless debate on the role of US forces in Korea, so I missed this yet further depressing story of the US government flirting with extra-judicial, not-really-very-oversighted killings in the field of Americans.

I worried a few weeks ago that the killing over Alwaki, a US citizen, without due process, had crossed yet another, and to my mind, major civil liberties threshold in the history of the war on terror.

And here we are again. As usual, Greenwald has all the depressing details that we would all rather not discuss. Among other things, he was an American. He was only 16. He was killed by accident. The government first tried to spin the boy as an older AQ fighter, but the most basic journalistic digging uncovered that as bogus. Wow. This is just appalling.

We really need to have the moral courage to say this to our own government. (I thought this is why we voted for Obama?) I used to really support the GWoT, and I concur that Islamism is clear challenge to Western liberalism that we must defeat, but this is just awful. If the government can just do this to multiple US citizens abroad, then doesn’t that set a terrible, terrible precedent? So who is beyond the pale, and what is the process (please tell us!) for making these sort of ‘hit-list’ determinations? The government didn’t even apologize or admit any regret as far as I know – for an accidental killing of a US, teenaged citizen. This can’t just go on and on like this. There must be some limit.

Note the problem is not the use of drones per se. Drones are simply a tool, and to the extent they limit the personal exposure of US forces, that is a good thing. However, it seem increasingly likely that, because drones limit US ‘transaction costs’ (i.e., the likelihood of US combat fatalities), drones tempt the administration to use forces in ways and places that would otherwise be politically impossible because of the possibility of US casualties. Unfortunately, this just reinforces the instincts of the imperial presidency unleashed by the war on terrorism. Certainly, the unregretted, accidental killing of a 16-year American should be proof of that.

US Decline & Korea (2): What is US National Interest in Korea? UPDATE – Poll: only 40% of Americans want to defend SK, even it is attacked

Here is a bit of President Lee of Korea’s speech to the US Congress

Here is part one of my thoughts on the US-Korea alliance after President Lee’s visit last week.

First, despite the invitation from Congress, Americans know very little about Korea compared to allies like Canada, Britain, or Israel. Americans usually see Korea’s geopolitics through the prism of North Korea and the ‘axis of evil.’ The Tea Party movement especially takes a rigidly ideological-neoconservative view of Korea as the ‘frontline of freedom,’ and Sarah Palin notoriously needed to be taught, as vice-presidential candidate, why there are two Koreas. While this doctrinaire view of Korea as a black-white, good-evil contest may suit South Korean conservatives, a neocon-ideological reflex should not be mistaken for deep local or cultural knowledge of Korea. Far more US congressmen have visited Israel than Korea, and how many Americans have you met who can speak Korean? Previous liberal governments of Korea kept some distance from the US for fear that American neo-cons would instrumentalize South Korea to the ‘freedom agenda,’ pull SK into ideologically-driven conflicts like Iraq, and unnecessarily raise tension with the North. Binding oneself too close to the US in foreign policy carries the risk of getting ‘chain-ganged’ into America’s periodic bouts of ‘democratic imperialism.’

Second, the US is flirting with national bankruptcy. This will have dramatic impacts on all its alliances, not just in Korea. In my teaching and public speaking in Korea, I find Koreans disturbingly unaware of just how bad America’s financial situation really is. The US is now borrowing 40¢ of every dollar it spends. The deficit is $1.5 trillion (160% of SK’s entire GDP); the debt is almost $10 trillion; the IMF predicts America’s debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 100% by the end of the decade; China owns 1/3 of the US debt; US national security spending tops $1.2 trillion, 25% of the budget and 7% of GDP. These are mind-boggling figures that all but mandate at least some US retrenchment from its current global footprint, including perhaps, by not necessarily limited, to Korea.

Unless the US citizenry is willing to except a noticeably lower standard of living, including major cuts in popular welfare-state programs like Medicare, then the burden of the necessary cuts to fix America’s finances will eventually include defense. By almost any definition, the US is overstretched – fighting too many wars for too long and borrowing far too much money. ‘Empire’ is very expensive, and soon American voters will be forced to choose between it and the welfare-state, between guns and butter.

In this regard, the recent Libyan conflict should be instructive. It is a good example of what war in the age of austerity and US budget constraints will look like. US public opinion was deeply hesitant for yet another conflict, so Obama could only provide air support and quickly abjured leadership to NATO. Former Secretary of Defense Gates said before he left office that ‘any future secretary of defense who recommends sending a big US army into Asia or Africa again should have his head examined.’ These sorts of hints should tell Koreans (and Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, etc.) that America can’t/won’t fight big land wars in Asia for awhile. Yet NK is a far more capable opponent than Gaddafi or the Taliban; the war on terrorism would pale in comparison to an intra-Korean war. What if America could only provide air power, because US banks are suffering from a slow-motion crisis similar to Europe’s today or the Lehman collapse of 2008? What if China, which funds so much of US borrowing, suddenly pulls the plug as US involvement in a war on its border deepens?

Third, Korea needs the US a lot more than the US needs Korea – which means that resolutely unacknowledged US relative decline is the real backstory to Lee’s triumph in Washington. Unlike the US, middle-power Korea has dismal geopolitics – surrounded by large neighbors who have periodically bullied it, and bordered by an unpredictable rogue. Weak, encircled countries as diverse as Poland, Paraguay, and Zaire have seen themselves plundered and divided, so the US alliance is good way for small Korea to get some leverage in its tight space. But this will fade, not just as American power recedes from Asia under massive budgetary pressure, but because Korea is no longer central to American security. The Cold War is over. Today, a NK defeat of SK, while a local tragedy, would not dramatically impact American security. I don’t mean to sound cold; a NK victory would be a humanitarian catastrophe. But the gap between US and SK security is an important truth not often admitted and behind the deeply disturbing statistic that only 40% of Americans want to fight for SK even if it is attacked by NK (p. 6 here). That number should stop the presses, but everyone ignores it. This ‘asymmetric dependence’ is very obviously the reason behind Lee’s visit, Korea’s willingness to go to Iraq, and the astonishing interest in Korea in English and the US. While American public does in fact obsess over Israeli security, small as it is, the Korean alliance has weaker, more ideological, and less tribal, roots in US popular opinion.

None of this means the alliance will break soon, but the strong elite consensus for it should not be mistaken for a deep American popular commitment (p. 6 here), as there is to, for example, Canada, Britain, or Israel. In the next decade, America’s political and financial dysfunction will force a painful prioritization of US foreign policy. Commitments like Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and others will be deeply scrutinized, and no amount of Korean-American friendship will undo a $10 trillion debt.


NB: Here is the new SecDef saying we won’t pull out of the Pacific. I hope so, but no one seems to want to talk about the money…

NB2: Here is a far more believable account of America’s future troubles projecting force into Asia, with even worse numbers than I present above.

NB3: If you think Korea can/should help the US contain China, try this. More and more I would expect Korea to market itself to the US in this, especially given those poll numbers on NK.

US Relative Decline and the Korean Alliance (1): Cultural Distance


Part two is here.

On Monday, I put up the wisecracking version of the problems in the US-Korean alliance. I took some flak in the comments, and not everything I wrote is necessarily my own opinion. My own sense is that the US-Korean alliance is a net gain for liberalism globally, and I therefore support it. It definitely helps Korean security, although its national security benefit to the US is less clear after the Cold War. The alliance helps stabilize Asia at a time of rapid Chinese growth and NK bad behavior. While that most benefits East Asia, it does have some flow-down benefits for the US. I thought President Lee’s decision to visit Detroit and wear a Tiger’s baseball cap was a great, very sensitive move – an unexpected, heartfelt outreach to the part of American most beaten down by trade with Asia. (I’m from Cleveland, so I was genuinely touched; I wonder if a Chinese or Japanese leader would ever do something like that.) I really like Lee more and more.

Broadly speaking, I hope the US can help Korea in its tough security dilemma, while I do think Korea needs to spend a lot more on defense and carry more of the load. (America’s too broke, and it is firstly their war.) I don’t think Koreans realize (or don’t want to realize) though, that Korea is and probably always will be a middle power, that Korean security is not as central to the US as it once was, and that a lot of America’s commitment to Korea is ideological, not substantive or tribal. America’s commitment to Britain, Canada, or Israel is informed not just by national interest, but by a genuinely tribal sense of ‘we-ness.’ We look at them, and we see ourselves in religion, language, history, and race. This is most evident among the tea-partiers; just watch the GOP debates, where fealty to Israel is practically an ideological requirement, because so much of the US Right sees as Israel as a ‘Judeo-Christian’ extension of the US in the struggle against Islamism. I don’t think such a cultural bond exists between the US and Korea. Americans just don’t know that much about Korea (again, language acquisition is a good marker) and don’t obsess about it the way we do the Middle East. Instead, we look at Korea, and we see ideology – a democracy battling the axis of evil. This is why neocons who don’t know anything about Korea or Asia are nonetheless super-hawks on NK. Any US interest in provoking and defeating NK is more about right-wing ideology than any on-the-ground knowledge of Korea; how many Americans do a junior-year aboard here? Again, just listen to the GOP presidential debates. That may conveniently overlap the preferences of the SK right, but that is not cultural knowledge. It is post-9/11 semi-imperial, neocon ideology.

So the original faux-essay was trying to think of what a Korean foreign policy-type might really like to tell the Americans. In my experience here, Koreans, broadly speaking, are quite disappointed at how little the US knows and cares about Korea (neocon ideological commitment to SK is not the same as cultural knowledge), are increasingly worried about US relative decline, convinced the war on terror was a quixotic catastrophe, and crave global respect and attention as a G-20 member. I was trying to capture that.

In passing I would like thank Marmot’s Hole, Koreabridge, BusanHaps, and Ask a Korean for linking/reposting that post. My traffic exploded, and I learned that this essay was “quite possibly the most ridiculous, least informed, and mind-bogglingly ignorant claim ever typed on his hopelessly silly little blog.” Got it, W. So here is a more serious version. In short, while Koreans remain strongly committed, the US ‘pillar’ is showing cracks because the US is so overextended now.

President Lee’s speech before the US Congress represents a high point in the Korean relationship with the US. Foreign heads of state rarely address the US legislature, and a strong bond with the US is an important benchmark in the ‘global Korea’ campaign of the Lee administration. Lee and Obama enjoy a good personal rapport, and Americans appreciate Korean fealty after a decade of turbulence with European and Middle Eastern allies. But there are cracks, primarily on the American side, of which Korea should be aware. Last month, Chung-in Moon aptly lamented “our (Korea’s) cash strapped ally”: Koreans, enamored with learning English and studying in the US, are missing the gradual decline of US power and the debilitating turbulence of its domestic politics.

The remainder will be posted on Tuesday.


NB: Here is some further response to BusanHaps:

Thank you all for reading. I should note that the essay
above was intended to be as satiric as well as substantive. I was trying to put
myself in the shoes of a Korean policy-maker being very honest with the US
Congress, but these are not all necessarily my own opinion. Instead I tried to
distill what I have heard and learned here teaching students and attending
conferences for a few years. For example, I don’t actually think the GWoT was
about chasing ghosts around the ME, but I’ve heard that critique from Koreans
worried that the US is missing the rise of Asia.

In response to the comments here:

I do think the Tea Party is a global
embarrassment. If you were a non-white, non-Christian ally of the US (Pakistan,
Afghanistan, Korea) and you saw a good chunk of white, Christian middle-America
deride the first black president as a foreign imposter, Muslim, socialist, non-citizen
usurper, etc., what would you think? Please recall just how extreme the
language was – Beck claimed that ObamaCare was the beginning of the Fourth
Reich. And I did in fact have students asking me about this in fairly
incredulous tones.

I don’t think America’s relationship with Israel
is about oil. Our relationship with the GCC and Iraq is, but the tight bond with
Israel is more about the cultural panic on the US right over Islam. Israel has
no oil, and I see no leverage for the US over GCC/OPEC exporters coming from
the alliance. In fact, probably the opposite. Instead, watch the current GOP
debates where any criticism of Israel is simply taboo, and once again the
Middle East and Islamism dominate what little discussion of foreign policy
there is. The relationship with Israel is far beyond interest (oil) or even
values (liberal democracy). It is tribal (religion and fear of Islam).

Finally there is a lot of evidence that the US
in decline, and empirically, it is indisputable that the US is in relative
decline. America’s share of global GDP in 1945 was 52%; today it is 25%. The
data in the essay above still stands: continuous war for a decade, $1.5T budget
deficit, $10T in debt, rapid Chinese growth. I don’t think this means the US is
going to implode, or that the alliance with Korea will break, but it clearly
raises the pressure and reduces America’s ability to dictate terms. At some
point, the US will almost certainly have to cut defense, and commitments to
wealthy allies, like Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy will be tempting choices.

Thank you again for reading.

What SK President Lee should have said to the US Congress – UPDATED: A Response to my Critics this Friday

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak Apologies PQZbJ4V5Fo8l

UPDATE: This post got a mountain of traffic and commentary. The good people at Marmot, Busan Haps, KoreaBridge, and Ask a Korean all linked/reposted it. The post was meant half in jest, half seriously, not so much a “rant” (which I comment I found bizarre), but a psychological displacement into Korean shoes with some wisecracks. I was trying to capture what a Korean policy-maker might really like to say to the Americans. Not everything is my own thinking. Yet, one commenter told me my PhD was bogus, another that I hate America. Yikes. I have to say I am surprised at the explosion of interest, when I feel like a lot of my other posts are richer. Much in this post only tells you what you already know if you’ve been here for awhile. In any case, given the response, I’ll post a more serious take on the US-Korean alliance on Friday and Monday. Blogging is time-consuming. Thank you for reading and for those commenters who were polite.



Regular readers will know that I like President Lee, even if he has a taste for hyper-presidentialization. On October 13 he spoke before the US Congress. It was a good speech that didn’t actually tell you much that you didn’t already know. Because Korea is asymmetrically dependent on the US for exports (Korea’s third biggest market) and for security (the US alliance), Lee couldn’t really level any necessary criticisms.

So here is the speech Lee should have given:

“Thank you for inviting me, but honestly how many of you congressmen know anything about my country? How many of you could name a city in Korea besides Seoul? How many of you recognize Kim Jong-Il’s name but not mine? How many of you think the Choseon Dynasty is the name of a Chinese restaurant in Union Station? So let’s drop the insipid, hollow bonhomie about how this ‘visit will also celebrate the strong bonds of friendship between the American and Korean people.’ Koreans most definitely want that, but for most of you untraveled, monolinguistic congressmen, this relationship is ideological more than real: SK confronts a stalinist rogue onto which Americans project an idealization of democracy vs. the axis of evil. But how many of you congressman have ever travelled to Asia (much less Korea), especially you neo-con hawks who want me to risk nuclear brinksmanship with the North? You’re too busy visiting Israel, and if you learn foreign languages, you bone-headed Americans still go for Spanish or French, because they’re easy with lots of cognates. We learn English like mad, but you couldn’t care less about our languageLots of Koreans resent your projection of the US values and foreign policy preferences onto a country you are startling ignorant about. We are just too polite to tell you, and we really need your markets and military help so we don’t say it.

Next, WTH is wrong with your political system? The world used to look at you as model. Remember the Washington Consensus? Now the rest of the world thinks you are bonkers. The Tea Party particularly has become a global embarrassment. The same Republicans in this chamber who so desperately want me to pick fight with North Korea also think your president is a Muslim socialist. You run a budget deficit in excess of 10% of GDP; your unemployment rate would generate street riots in my country, and the IMF thinks your debt-to-GDP ratio will top 100% by the end of the decade. Koreans are starting to realize that your politics are astonishingly dysfunctional and that we can’t count on you the way we used to. We want you to be an Asia-Pacific power, but we also know you are broke and that you lost your mind over Islamism in the last decade. Now we are all wondering if you are in decline or not. Just telling us that America is ‘exceptional,’ or that declinism is an overhyped myth is not enough. We live next to China (and Russia, and NK) not you. So get your act together, or we’ll start looking elsewhere soon, and if really pressed we might have to go nuclear.

Next, you better get used to Asia. The war on terror was a big mistake, even if a lot of Korean Christians supported if for the same tribal reasons the Tea party does. For a decade you chased around ghosts, built a fearsome national security state that makes it hard for my citizens to get visa into your country (even though the ‘American and South Korean peoples share deep ties rooted in history’), and convinced my fellow citizens that you are a global bully. Instead of focusing on China with a billion-plus people engaged in the fastest, widest modernization in history, you obsessed over the Middle East to the expense of other areas of interest. We even went to Iraq with you to show our goodwill and commitment.

But there’s no way my electorate will let us pull that stunt again. It’s time for you to think a lot more about how you really want to participate in the world’s fastest growing region. Remember, we Asians buy about half your Treasury bonds. You need us a lot more than you think. You think you have social discontent in the US now? Just wait until all those cheap Asian products your voters have come to expect in Walmart jump in price because you congressmen pick trade wars with a region you know almost nothing about. Bluster about ‘America is an Asian power’ is not enough. You people need to start learning Asian languages, sending your students here for junior years abroad, get your trade policy in order, and generally realize that trouble in places like Israel, NATO, and Pakistan pale in importance to the monumental rise of China and India. In security, the world may be unipolar, but in economics it is multipolar.

Finally, thank you for helping Korean security. Most Koreans are genuinely aware of the US commitment and are grateful for it. (We just wish you weren’t so d— arrogant and condescending about it.) Indeed, you should contrast us with your other allies. We are not insolent trouble-makers like Israel, Turkey, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, or Pakistan. Nor are gleefully exploitative free-riders like Germany, Japan, and Italy. We carry our weight pretty well. What other medium power allies went to Iraq or fights the Somali pirates?

So yes, we are grateful for the alliance. We like America generally, and we all learn English because of that. But we also wonder why you don’t seem to know anything about our country, even though we are 50 million people, in the G-20, and a far more capable yet loyal ally than almost any other you have. Israel has only 7 million people and they live in a lot less danger than we do, but you obsess about them in a way you never have about us. Given that Asia is rising, while the Middle East has a become a sink-hole of American power, we understand your disinterest in Asia even less. How many more books with titles like ‘when China rules the world’ do you need to read before you realize that your Middle East obsession is ridiculously overwrought? We look forward to the day your English teachers, soldiers, and other expats can speak a little Korean, behave better, and know what the Choseon Dynasty was.’

Syria Sanctions failed b/c of R2P Overreach in Libya – get out Nato

In the last 6 weeks, I warned that if NATO kept the operation in Libya rolling, it would tarnish the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P). R2P says external military force can be used to prevent massive human rights abuses, like Srebrenica or Rwanda. In Libya, an R2P intervention was justified, because Gaddafi and his sons talked about ‘rivers of blood in the streets’ and hunting the rebels ‘like rats, allay by alley.’

But after the fall of Tripoli, it was clear that Gaddafi was not longer a massive human rights threat in Libya. The National Transition Council clearly no longer needed NATO assistance. The NATO mission was no longer necessary in what is now a fairly traditional civil war. A focused, limited, and coherent R2P doctrine is the best antidote to the ‘its an internal affair’ siren song used by oppressive states like China or Sudan to prevent outside scrutiny of their illiberalism. Here was an intellectually defensible wedge against using ‘sovereignty’ as all-purpose excuse to brutalize your own people.

Hence, keeping the NATO mission going past necessity was a sure way to tell everyone that R2P is just another name for “regime change,” Bushism, neoconservatism, etc. R2P would lose its focus and look yet again like western imperialism to non-western states.

And that is what we got this week when the UN Security Council voted against sanctions on Syria. The BRICS explicitly noted that Libya’s R2P vote turned into regime change, and that they didn’t vote for that or want that. The more we stay in Libya, the less it looks like R2P and the more it looks like Iraq-light.

No wonder no one trusts us. Despite all of our angst and hand-wringing about Iraq, as soon as we won another war, our neocon, ‘inside every g—, there is an American struggling to get out (video above)’ instinct came roaring back. But all the western victory laps do is undercut R2P as real human rights-protecting mechanism because no one will vote for it in the future, now that they’ve seen Libya. Another opportunity for better global governance squandered by neocon arrogance…

Awlaki was an American Citizen & Entitled to Some Kind of Due Process – Updated


Everyone has an opinion on this; I thought this, this, this, and this were the best on the debate. It does appear that Awlaki was a genuinely dangerous nut-job, but Greenwald makes the obvious point that the government should demonstrate that. That is the whole point of due process, and no one really has any idea what the process was that allowed the president to unilaterally execute a citizen. As nasty as the guy may have been, he was an American (born in New Mexico in 1971). So this is a yet another civil liberties threshold crossed in the global war on terror (GWoT), and a fairly big one to my mind. (I am an American living abroad too. Have my rights just contracted? Can anyone really say?)

Like everyone, I have mixed feelings, because it does look like Awlaki was a huge threat, moving among openly-declared enemies of the US, and committed to attacking the West violently. I imagine this is why the outcry is so minimal. But he was an American citizen, and I can’t think of anything like this ever. Our government is now performing targeted killings of our own citizens? Wow. Where is the legal authority for that? Doesn’t that violate all sorts of basic protections enshrined in the Amendments to the Constitution? I am not a lawyer, but what possible ‘due process’ is there for this the pre-empts the Constitution? Obama and the National Security Council simply decreed him a threat? At the very least, please tell us how these determinations get made, and what processual checks there are so that this doesn’t devolve into a open-ended kill authority.

But even if we see the case file, I find this genuinely scary. The precedent this lays down, especially as it seems to be going uncontested in the US, is very unnerving. I was willing to swallow that the ‘targeted killing’ of OBL was within the pale, but citizenship is a crucial red-line in a world of states. At this point, who exactly can the president not order terminated? And do the Obama people really want to hand over such power to a possible tea-party president in the future?! Can one imagine Sarah Palin with clandestine, ‘targeted assassination’ authority? Isn’t that terrifying?

I find it a heartbreaking paradox of the GWoT that Awlaki’s father tried to sue the US government to stop it from killing his son. More generally, this whole mess shows how protracted warfare corrodes democracy (a lesson going all the way back to Thucydides) and why it is very important to stop the war on terror. American liberties are eroding under the strain of the 10 years of angry, frustrating conflict, and the reliance on drones, with few rules or agreed norms about their use, show the growing disregard for due process that semi-permanent conflict entrains.

This can be included with all the other GWoT misdeeds like torture, warrantless wiretaps, and indefinite detention. The domestic liberty costs of the GWoT now clearly outweigh the benefits. Killing a US citizen in what is basically an assassination is yet another red-line crossed that shows how we are forgetting ourselves and the whole liberal point of the GWoT to begin with. Why would anyone listen to the ‘freedom agenda’ or take Obama’s Nobel Prize seriously at this point? I wonder if the Nobel Committee would like to retract it now. Why even vote for Obama when he feels he has the authority to do even this? Honestly, I am not even sure McCain would have done this. Targeted  assassination, especially of the citizenry itself, is an astonishingly capacious read of executive power, and clearly not a power ever explicitly delegated by Congress. No wonder Cheney wants an apology. Obama is doing stuff not even W would have done.

The US has banned assassination since the 1970s because of misdeeds during the Vietnam war. So not only did the administration violate constitutional rights of a citizen, it also violated another statue. I saw J Toobin on CNN this week say basically that no administration has followed the assassination ban anyway, so that is not a real violation (!). Then Toobin argued that Obama’s likely defense is authority under the post-9/11 ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force’ (AUMF), but that, with this killing now, no one really knows where that power ends. Toobin, who strikes me as a reasonably serious guy, looked genuinely troubled as he said this. What can a legal correspondent comment if the ‘law’ is this malleable? I had the sense Toobin wanted to protest, but American public opinion is so desensitized to rule-violation in the name of the GWoT, I think Toobin ducked so as not to look like he defended a terrorist. Also, read the AUMF closely; it targets the planners behind 9/11. But Awlaki wasn’t a part of the plot, even though he was sympathetic. If it was just because he was a rabble-rousing anti-American cleric, then a good chunk of clerisy of the Middle East would probably qualify…

So again my question is, what use of force does the Authorization not permit? Can the president order a hit like this on US soil? Bush already detained Jose Padilla unfairly and with no recourse for years. That the Obama administration doesn’t really know how to answer that became very clear in a CNN interview I saw with SecDef Leon Panetta. Asked if he was on firm legal ground, he only repeated, in worst manner of Bush evasiveness, that Awlaki was a threat and we had to take him out. Presumptive threat overthrows process: we’re all Cheneyites now.

Finally, I found it a particularly glaring contrast that Awlaki was assassinated in the same week that the American media got in a terrible huff about due process in Italy (Amanda Knox) and Iran (those two hikers). (Btw, America’s record of giving due process to foreigners arrested in the US is atrocious, so don’t be so indignant.) Knox and the hikers’ experiences were regularly described as brutal ‘ordeals,’ and their homecomings covered in great, chest-thumping detail. Yet here we hellfire our own citizens (another American was killed with Awlaki) without trial or public presentation of a detailed case… and no one says anything. We just believe what the government tells us about him. The government has flim-flammed so much in the GWoT though, that we really should demand more. Congress should lay down a framework as soon as possible for targeted killings in general, and for Americans especially; otherwise this could slide toward widespread, casual use, just as the torture regime spread from Guantanamo initially, into the entire US GWoT-detention system, because no one really knew what the ‘new rules’ were.


Read this on the limits of drone warfare.

Transformers 3 (2): America the Bitter & Vengeful after a Decade of War

“In the name of freedom, we will kill them all” – Yikes!!

Part one is here, where I noted the film’s extraordinarily brutality, including battlefield executions by its American-allied protagonists.

The obvious, if unwanted, parallel to such battlefield cruelty is all those conservatives who complained for years that America’s rules of engagement in the GWoT were too strict, or Limbaugh’s flippant defense of Abu Ghraib brutality as ‘hazing on the nightshift.’ Bay’s childish defense, I’m sure, is the throw-away fig-leaf that the Decepticons are ‘evil,’ so it’s ok to just blow them away, decapitate them when they’re defenseless, or draw-and-quarter them. But I can’t imagine such levels of brutality, including multiple executions (!), making their way into a mainstream blockbuster for tweens, produced by family-friendly Spielberg (!!) no less, before the GWoT. We’ve become a harsher people when liberal restraints on force give way to bloodlust.

To see Bay’s regression more clearly, note that first film had no executions-as-entertainment, the second ‘only’ had one (in the first China sequence), but there are four in this one. If this seems unfair, recall that this isn’t an R-rated horror movie, with different standards and genre tropes. Also, Bay has always reached for a certain national security credibility; he’s like the Hollywood version of Tom Clancy. He reverentially celebrates the US military. Bay gets uniquely deep access to actual US hardware from the Pentagon. Armageddon lionized NASA. Pearl Harbor told everyone that America is awesome. In this Transformers film, the Autobots even help derail Iran’s nuclear program. In same way that uber-popular, ultra-violent video game franchises like Modern Warfare obviously channel American attitudes about force, the military, and terrorism, so does Bay. So I don’t think it’s too much to notice how Bay turned Transformers from a toy-movie for tweens into Black Hawk Down meets Saw with robots.

I wrote a review of the Transformers 2, where I argued that Bay fetishizes (US) military hardware and glorifies the US military so much, that he is given unparalleled access to display US weaponry. His simplistic good vs. evil storylines and adultatory portrayal of the US military give his films an ‘establishment,’ rah-rah feel that vastly more interesting but subversive war-films like Apocalypse Now or Platoon could never have. The most sycophantic line of the film is when the ridiculously improbable new ‘Bay girl’ is legitimized before no less than the Director of National Intelligence, because ‘she comes from a good military family.’ There is so much elitism and militarism wrapped up in that statement, that it could have been written by Robert Heinlein.

This is entertainment for WR Mead’s Jacksonians, mixing American exceptionalism, self-righteous violent vengeance, and alpha male strut into the modern Republican party. Pandering to these reactionary sentiments is easy: America battles for good, deploys flashy, high-tech hardware, and, most importantly, wins. In the background are waving flags, boyishly shallow speeches about ‘freedom,’ and Pentagon guys barking dialogue like, ‘failure is not an option,’ or ‘roll out strike package dark star whiskey tango foxtrot…’ If you’re not in the military, you’re probably a wimp or a liberal. And if you can throw in a hot babe wandering around in a bikini or something, so much the better to capture the mix of sexual titillation and self-righteous, militaristic posturing that has made Fox News such success. Indeed, I’ve often thought that Fox News models itself on Bay’s flashy, militaristic, sexualized style.

Hollywood is far more nationalistic than American conservatives, wedded to the trope of ‘liberal Hollywood,’ will admit. And Bay is the leading edge of this. He is bombastic, reactionary, and jingoistic, and people love him for it. His films make ridiculous amounts of money, suggesting a far deeper reservoir for a conservative, pro-military Hollywood than the standard Republican interpretation of Hollywood admits. This is entertainment for men of course, but for the sort of anti-feminist, semi-authoritarian Tea Partier who thought W’s landing on the Abraham Lincoln was a milestone in America’s foreign policy history of ‘kicking a—,’ pines for Sarah Palin (a housewife hottie who wants to bomb foreigners and loves America), and doesn’t understand why the greatest country on earth is losing the GWoT and ceding place to China. As no less than Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots says in the clip above, ‘In the name of freedom…we will kill them all.’ That is pretty much all that’s left of the Bush Doctrine for the angry, frustrated, ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn-anymore-about-the-rules-of-engagement,’ tea-partier.

This is where the third Transformers film is revelatory. It is one of the most purposefully, gleefully cruel mainstream geopolitical films I can think of since the Rambo-80s. It displays better than any GWoT-era film the growing American acceptance of war cruelty resultant from ten years of frustrating, inconclusive combat. That normally tempered Spielberg produced the film too shows just how far the bar has fallen. Indeed, Spielberg should be embarrassed after producing morally-nuanced war-films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. This is entertainment for an angry, confused, militarily exhausted electorate looking for decisive outcomes and now willing to tolerate cruelty to get them. When people say that 9/11 and the GWoT have made Americans a nastier, angrier, less pleasant people, this is exactly what they mean.