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Obama May Be in Office, but It's Still a Bush World

The Patriot Act? Secret CIA drone strikes? Guantanamo Bay? We've still got 'em all, but this time, no one's paying attention.

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 4:33 PM EDT

CT to the Horizon

That CIA strike launched the drone wars, which are now a perfectly humdrum part of our American world of war. Only recently, the Obama administration leaked news that it was intensifying its military-run war against al-Qaeda in Yemen by bringing the CIA into the action. The Agency is now to build a base for its drone air wing somewhere in the Middle East to hunt Yemeni terrorists (and assumedly those elsewhere in the region as well). Yemen functionally has no government to cooperate with, but in pure Bushian fashion, who cares?

Similarly, as June ended, unnamed American officials leaked the news that, for the first time, a US military drone had conducted a strike against al-Shabab militants in Somalia, with the implication that this was a "war" that would also be intensifying. At about the same time, curious reports emerged from Pakistan, where the CIA has been conducting an escalating drone war since 2004 (strikes viewed "negatively" by 97% of Pakistanis, according to a recent Pew poll). Top Pakistani officials were threatening to shut down the Agency's drone operations at Shamsi air base in Baluchistan. Shamsi is the biggest of the three borrowed Pakistani bases from which the CIA secretly launches its drones. The Obama administration responded bluntly. White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan insisted that, whatever happened, the US would continue to "deliver precise and overwhelming force against al-Qaida" in the Pakistani tribal areas.

As Spencer Ackerman of Wired's Danger Room blog summed things up, "The harsh truth is that the Pakistanis can't stop the drone war on their soil. But they can shift its launching points over the Afghan border. And the United States is already working on a backup plan for a long-term drone war, all without the Pakistanis' help." In other words, permission from a beleaguered local ally might be nice, but it isn't a conceptual necessity. (And in any case, CIA flights from Shamsi still evidently continue uninterrupted.)

In other words, if Bush's crew is long gone, the world they willed us is alive and well. After all, there are reasonable odds that, on the day you read this piece, somewhere in the free-fire zone of the Greater Middle East, a drone "piloted" from an air base in the western United States or perhaps a secret "suburban facility" near Langley, Virginia, will act as judge, jury, and executioner somewhere in the "arc of instability." It will take out a terrorist suspect or suspects, or a set of civilians mistaken for terrorists, or a "target" someone in Washington didn't like, or that one of our allies-cum-intelligence-assets had it in for, or perhaps a mix of all of the above. We can't be sure how many countries American drones, military or CIA, are patrolling, but in at least six of them—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq—they have launched strikes in recent years that have killed more "suspects" than ever died in the 9/11 attacks.

And there is more—possibly much more—to come. In late June, the Obama administration posted that unclassified summary of its 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism at the White House website. It's a document that carefully avoids using the the term "war on terror," even though counterterrorism advisor Brennan did admit that the document "tracked closely with the goals" of the Bush administration.

The document tries to argue that, when it comes to counterterrorism (or CT), the Obama administration has actually pulled back somewhat from the expansiveness of Bush-era GWOT thinking. We are now, it insists, only going after "al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents," not every "terror group" on the planet. But here's the curious thing: when you check out its "areas of focus," other than "the Homeland" (always capitalized as if our country were the United States of Homeland), what you find is an expanded version of the Bush global target zone, including the Maghreb and Sahel (northern Africa), East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, South Asia, Central Asia, and—thrown in for good measure—Southeast Asia. In most of those areas, Bush-style hunting season is evidently still open.

If you consider deeds, not words, when it comes to drones the arc of instability is expanding; and based on the new counterterrorism document, the next place for our robotic assassins to cross borders in search of targets could be the Maghreb and Sahel. There, we're told, al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with roots in Algeria, but operatives in northern Mali, among other places, potentially threatens "US citizens and interests in the region."

Here's how the document puts the matter in its classically bureaucratese version of English:

"[W]e must therefore pursue near-term efforts and at times more targeted approaches that directly counter AQIM and its enabling elements. We must work actively to contain, disrupt, degrade, and dismantle AQIM as logical steps on the path to defeating the group. As appropriate, the United States will use its CT tools, weighing the costs and benefits of its approach in the context of regional dynamics and perceptions and the actions and capabilities of its partners in the region..."

That may not sound so ominous, but best guess: the Global War on Terror is soon likely to be on the march across North Africa, heading south. And recent Obama national security appointments only emphasize how much the drone wars are on Washington's future agenda. After all, Leon Panetta, the man who, since 2009, ran the CIA's drone wars, has moved over to the Pentagon as secretary of defense; while Bush's favorite general, David Petraeus, the war commander who loosed American air power (including drone power) in a massive way in Afghanistan, is moving on to the CIA.

On his first visit to South Asia as secretary of defense, Panetta made the claim that Washington was "within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda." Perhaps it won't surprise you that such news signals not a winding down, but a ratcheting up, of the Global War on Terror. Panetta, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported, "hinted of more to come, saying he would redouble efforts by the military and the spy agency to work together on counterterrorism missions outside the traditional war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq."

More to come, as two men switching their "civilian" and military roles partner up. Count on drone-factory assembly lines to rev up as well, and the military's special operations forces to be in expansion mode. And note that by the penultimate page of that CT strategy summary, the administration has left al-Qaeda behind and is muttering in bureau-speak about Hizballah and Hamas, Iran and Syria ("active sponsors of terrorism"), and even the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

On the Bush administration's watch, the US blew a gasket, American power went into decline, and the everyday security of everyday Americans took a major hit. Still, give them credit. They were successful on at least one count: they made sure that we'd never stop fighting their war on terror. In this sense, Obama and his top officials are a drone national security team, carrying out the dreams and fantasies of their predecessors, while Bush and his men (and woman) give lucrative speeches and write books, hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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