Phyllis Bennis: As Obama Hails "Turning Page" on Wars, U.S. Drone Strikes Continue Across Globe

January 21, 2015


Phyllis Bennis

fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written several books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s United Nations.

On the foreign policy front, President Obama used his State of the Union to defend his decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, to pledge again to close Guantánamo and to call for authorization to expand war against the Islamic State. He mentioned the words "drones" and "torture" once each. We get reaction from Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at President Obama’s State of the Union.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans, we are 15 years into this new century, 15 years that dawned with terror touching our shores, that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars, that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight we turn the page. ... America, for all that we have endured, for all the grit and hard work required to come back, for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking at last night’s State of the Union. Today we spend the rest of the hour analyzing President Obama’s speech. We begin on the foreign policy front. On Tuesday night, President Obama defended his decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. He vowed again to close Guantánamo. For the first time since 2001, there was no mention of al-Qaeda in the State of the Union address. He called for lawmakers to pass a new authorization of military force against Islamic State militants.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.

AMY GOODMAN: Authorizing the use of force against ISIL. That’s President Obama speaking at last night’s State of the Union address. Phyllis Bennis joins us, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who’s written a number of books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s United Nations. What about this authorization, Phyllis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, for the last several years, President Obama has been relying on earlier authorizations, those that followed the 9/11 attacks back in 2002, and then in—sorry, in 2001, and then in 2002, the authorization for the war in Iraq. He’s been relying on those decades-old authorizations to say, "I can go to war without anything else. But I would like it if Congress would pass a new authorization." Congress seems eager to pass it. The issue that’s being debated is: Will there be any restrictions? Will there be a sunset clause? Or will these be the kind that we saw that was—where we had everyone in Congress, except for the heroic Barbara Lee, stood up and voted for an authorization that had no restrictions against whom were we going to war, no restrictions on geography, no restrictions on time, no restrictions on weapons, no restrictions on anything? It was a rather shocking level of authorization to go to war anywhere in the world for as long as you want against whoever you say, without any checks and balances. And what President Obama is saying now is, "I’m waiting for Congress to bring me the language." Congress—and some members of Congress are saying, "We want you to draft the language, and then we’ll approve it." So there’s a little bit of back-and-forth.

But what it makes clear is that despite this language we just heard in President Obama’s speech, that we are not at ground war in the Middle East, instead of that—yeah, instead of that, we’re in at least five or six separate wars that may not involve large numbers of ground troops. There are ground troops on the ground. There are boots on the ground, and there are more going, not fewer. But they are primarily air wars. You know, closing Guantánamo is easier if you just kill all the people that your predecessor arrested. So there’s something very disturbing about this framework in his speech where he spoke so much of values. This is about the values of our country. Well, what values are we talking about here? What does the rest of the world—what do people in Iraq, people in Syria, people in Gaza—what are they seeing of our values as they watched the speech last night?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in that vein, Phyllis, he barely mentioned two issues that have raised much international uproar, when he said, "As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I have prohibited torture and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained." And that’s about the only mention he made of all of these drone strikes.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It was extraordinary. I mean, this notion of constraining drone strikes, which means that we only have a kill meeting at the White House once a week, not every day. Only on Tuesdays does the White House staff meet, literally, to decide who should be on the so-called kill list. When I said earlier that this is a scenario where closing Guantánamo becomes easier if you have fewer people, it’s not because they’re not going after people. They are simply assassinating people with—at far higher numbers. There has been a serious escalation in the drone war. And to say that instead of going to war, we are pulling back, we are doing something else, really belies the reality of what the drone war looks like on the ground.

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