Karen J. Greenberg

How the forever war will continue — even after the Afghanistan disaster

It ended in chaos and disaster. Kabul has fallen and Joe Biden is being blamed (by congressional Republicans in particular) for America's now almost-20-year disaster in Afghanistan. But is the war on terror itself over? Apparently not.

It seems like centuries ago, but do you remember when, in May 2003, President George W. Bush declared "Mission accomplished" as he spoke proudly of his invasion of Iraq? Three months later, Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed, "We are winning the war on terror." Despite such declarations and the "corners" endlessly turned as America's military commanders announced impending successes year after year in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terror, abroad and on the home front, has been never-ending, as the now-codified term "forever wars" suggests.

By 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama admitted that the killing of the head of al-Qaeda would not bring that war to a close. In May 2011, he informed the nation that bin Laden's "death does not mark the end of our effort" as "the cause of securing our country is not complete." As President Biden signals his intention to bring the war on terror as we know it to an end, the question is: What will remain of it both abroad and at home, no matter what he tries to do?

The Pivot Abroad

As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looms, the Biden administration is making it crystal clear that it intends to finally bring the most obvious aspects of that war to a close, no matter the consequences. "It is time," Biden, the fourth war-on-terror president, said in April, "to end the Forever War." Although mired in controversy, turmoil, and bloodshed, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan did indeed take place, even if several thousand were then sent back to Kabul Airport to guard the panicky removal of the vast American embassy staff and others from that city. That was, as the administration announced, only a temporary measure as Taliban troops entered the Afghan capital and took over the government there.

Eighteen years after the invasion of Iraq, a shifting definition of the role of the 2,500 or so U.S. troops still stationed there is also underway and should be complete by the end of the year. Instead of more combat missions, the American role will now be logistics and advisory support.

Putting a fine point on both the Afghan withdrawal and the Iraqi change of direction, many in Congress have acknowledged the need to remove the authorizations passed so long ago for those forever wars. In June, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) in Iraq that paved the way for the invasion of that country. And this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee followed suit — 18 years after George W. Bush deposed Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and disaster followed.

The removal of that 2002 AUMF remains, of course, painfully overdue. After all, it has been used through these many years to cover this country's disastrous occupation of and attempts at "nation-building" in Iraq. Eventually, during Donald Trump's last year in office, it was even cited to authorize the drone assassination of a top Iranian general at Baghdad International Airport. Like so many war-on-terror policies, once put in place, successive administrations showed no urge to let that AUMF go. In that way, what had once been a regime-change directive (based on a set of lies about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq) morphed into a long-term nation-building scheme, without any new congressional authorizations at all.

Plans are also now on the table for the repeal of the even more impactful 2001 AUMF, passed by Congress one week after 9/11. Like the Iraq War authorization, its use has been expanded in ways well beyond its original intent — namely, the rooting out of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Under the 2001 AUMF's auspices, in the last nearly two decades, the United States has conducted military operations in ever more countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa. But in Congress, what's now being discussed is not just repealing that act, but replacing it altogether.

Traditionally, when a war ends, there's a resolution, perhaps codified in a treaty or an agreement of some sort acknowledging victory or defeat, and a nod to the peace that will follow. Not so with this war.

However unsuccessful, the war on terror, experts tell us, will instead continue. The only difference: it won't be called a war anymore. Instead, there will be a variety of militarized counterterrorism efforts around the globe. With or without the moniker of "war," the U.S. remains at war in numerous places, only recently, for instance, launching airstrikes on Somalia to counter the terrorist group al-Shabaab.

In Africa, Syria, and Indonesia, experts warn, the continued spread of ISIS, the reinvigoration of al-Qaeda, and the persistence of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah demand a continued American military counterterrorism effort. All of this was, in a strange way, foreseeable in the drafting of the 2001 AUMF in which no enemy was actually named, nor were temporal or geographical limits or conditions laid down for the resolution of the conflict to come. As the war on terror's spread to country after country has demonstrated, once unleashed, such a war paradigm takes on a life of its own.

After 20 years of various kinds of failure in which the goals of the war on terror were never truly attained, the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and the Biden administration are now focused elsewhere. According to the latest government threat assessment issued in April by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), terrorism is far from the most serious threat the nation faces today. As Emily Harding of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sums it up, reflecting on the DNI's report, the intelligence community's priorities "are shifting… from a focus on counterterrorism to addressing near-peer competitors."

"The United States is transitioning," Harding explains, "from mostly low-tech, low-resourced adversaries (e.g., the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their subsidiaries) to a focus on great power competition, in particular with China and Russia, both of whom have invested in sophisticated technical tools and are armed with robust conventional and nuclear forces."

Still, however much the Biden administration may be pivoting to a new cold war with China in particular, just how long such a pivot lasts remains an open question, especially given the recent Afghan disaster. And despite the coming 20th anniversary of 9/11, no matter what Congress does or doesn't rescind when it comes to those AUMFs, the U.S. forever war with terrorism will persist, even if, for a while, the threat of Islamic terrorism takes a back seat to other potential dangers in official Washington.

The Pivot at Home

On the home front, there's a similarly disturbing persistence when it comes to the war on terror. Like that set of conflicts abroad, counterterrorism efforts against Islamist terrorists at home have given way to other issues. Mirroring the reduced importance of international terrorism in the report of the director of national intelligence, for instance, Attorney General Merrick Garland recently highlighted a domestic shift away from Islamic terrorism in a memorandum to Department of Justice (DOJ) personnel.

Outlining the "broad scope" of the Department's responsibilities, his priorities couldn't have been clearer. His first commitment, he insisted, was to restoring the integrity of the Department, a clear reference to the DOJ's rejection of independence from the White House during the Trump years. Meanwhile, he explained, the Justice Department will focus on its primary mission — protecting Americans "from environmental degradation and the abuse of market power, from fraud and corruption, from violent crime and cyber-crime, and from drug trafficking and child exploitation." Only as a seeming afterthought did he add, "And it must do all of this without ever taking its eye off of the risk of another devastating attack by foreign terrorists."

But his words hid a more subtle reality. Much of the domestic architecture created in the name of the war on terror persists at home as well as abroad. At its height, the counterterrorism movement at home involved an expansive and aggressive use of law enforcement and intelligence tools that readily — often with the assent of Congress and the courts — tossed aside constitutional protections and reinterpreted laws in ways that privileged American security over rights.

Passed in October 2001, the Patriot Act, for example, downgraded Fourth Amendment protections, enabling law enforcement to conduct mass warrantless surveillance on Americans. Muslims as a group — rather than based on individual suspicion — were detained without charge, targeted in stings and terror investigations, and threatened with imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.

During President Obama's term in office, some of these measures were revised for the better in the Freedom Act. Meant to replace the Patriot Act, while leaving many broad authorities in place, it banned the bulk intelligence collection of American telephone records and Internet metadata. For the most part, however, law enforcement's counterterrorism powers, created to defeat al-Qaeda, have remained robust and are there for use against others.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in the wake of 9/11, has also turned its attention elsewhere. Almost from its inception, the agency used the powers granted to it in the name of counterterrorism in other ways entirely. It soon turned its attention to dealing with drug crimes, the control of the border, and immigration matters, all outside the realm of post-9/11 terrorist threats.

Under President Trump, in particular, DHS (by then, remarkably enough, the country's largest law enforcement agency) refocused its resources on matters that had little or nothing to do with counterterrorism. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, for instance, its officials deployed helicopters, drones, and other forms of group surveillance to monitor protests and, in Portland, Oregon, even to quell them with force. In other words, the agency built for counterterrorism had, by then, become whatever a president wanted it to be.

A Call for Review

The future of such powers and policies at home and abroad is now in a strange kind of limbo. Addressing the Trump administration's misuse of the Department of Justice, for instance, Attorney General Garland did indeed signal his intent to limit any use of it for political purposes. In the process, he issued a clear directive against any possible White House politicization of the department. But not a mention has yet been made of authorizing a much-needed thorough review of the powers the DOJ gained in the forever-war years in the name of counterterrorism.

When it comes to the Department of Homeland Security, the path to reform is even less clear as, in its repurposed mission, counterterrorism aimed at foreign groups may be among the least of its tasks. As a recent report from the Center for American Progress points out "What America needs from DHS today… is different from when it was founded… [W]e need a DHS that prioritizes the rule of law, and one that protects all Americans as well as everyone who comes to live, study, work, travel, and seek safety here."

In fact, in these years, both at home and abroad, counterterrorism agencies and the military were granted vast new powers. While they may now all be pivoting elsewhere in the name of new threats, they are certainly not focused on limiting those powers in any significant way.

And yet such limits couldn't be more important. It would, in fact, be wise for this country to pause, review the uses of the post-9/11 powers granted to such domestic institutions, and revise the policies that allowed for their seemingly endless expansion at home and abroad in the name of the war on terror. It would be no less wise to place more confidence in the country's ability to keep itself safe by embracing its foundational principles. At home, that would mean honoring fairness and restraint in the application of the law, while insisting on limits to the use of force abroad.

If only.

At present, it looks as if those forever wars have created a new form of forever law, forever policy, forever power, and a forever-changed America. And count on one thing: if changes aren't made, we in this country will find ourselves living forever in the shadow of those forever wars.

Copyright 2021 Karen J. Greenberg

Featured image: iraq by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the newly published Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.

The Biden era is on course to repeat one of Obama's greatest mistakes

America has an accountability problem. In fact, if the Covid-19 disaster, the January 6th Capitol attack, and the Trump years are any indication, the American lexicon has essentially dispensed with the term "accountability."

This should come as no surprise. After all, there's nothing particularly new about this. In the Bush years, those who created a system of indefinite offshore detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, those who implemented a CIA global torture program and the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance policy, not to mention those who purposely took us to war based on lies about nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, were neither dismissed, sanctioned, nor punished in any way for obvious violations of the law. Nor has Congress passed significant legislation of any kind to ensure that all-encompassing abuses like these will not happen again.

Now, early in the Biden era, any determination to hold American officials responsible for such past wrongdoing, even the president who helped launch an assault on the Capitol, seems little more than a fantasy. It may be something to discuss, rail against, or even make promises about, but not actually reckon with — not if you're either a deeply divided Congress or a Department of Justice that has compromised itself repeatedly in recent years. Under other circumstances, of course, those would be the two primary institutions with the power to pursue genuine accountability in any meaningful way for extreme and potentially illegal government acts.

Today, if thought about at all, accountability — whether in the form of punishment for misdeeds or meaningful reform — has been reduced to a talking point. With that in mind, let's take a moment to consider the Biden administration's approach to accountability so far.

How We Got Here

Even before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, the country was already genuinely averse to accountability. When President Obama took office in January 2009, he faced the legacy of the George W. Bush administration's egregious disregard for laws and norms in its extralegal post-9/11 war on terror. From day one of his presidency, Obama made clear that he found his predecessor's policies unacceptable by both acknowledging and denouncing those crimes. But he insisted that they belonged to the past.

Fearing that the pursuit of punishment would involve potentially ugly encounters with former officials and would seem like political retribution in a country increasingly divided and on edge, he clearly decided that it wouldn't be worth the effort. Ultimately, as he said about "interrogations, detentions, and so forth," it was best for the nation to "look forward, as opposed to looking backward."

True to the president's word, the Obama administration refused to hold former officials responsible for violations of fundamental constitutional and legal issues. Among those who escaped retrospective accountability were Vice President Dick Cheney, who orchestrated the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq based on lies; the lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo, who, in his infamous "Torture Memos," justified the "enhanced interrogation" of war-on-terror prisoners; and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who created a Bermuda triangle of injustice at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In terms of reform, Obama did ensure a degree of meaningful change, including decreeing an official end to the CIA torture of prisoners of war. But too much of what had happened remained unaddressed and lay in wait for abuse at the hands of some irresponsible future president.

As a result, many of the sins that were at the heart of the never-ending response to the 9/11 attacks have become largely forgotten history, leaving many potential crimes unaddressed. And even more sadly, the legacy of accountability's demise only continues. Biden and his team entered office facing a brand-new list of irregularities and abuses by high-ranking officials, including President Trump.

In this case, the main events demanding accountability had occurred on the domestic front. The January 6th insurrection, the egregious mishandling of the pandemic, the interference in the 2020 presidential election, and the use of the Department of Justice for political ends all awaited investigation after inauguration day. At the outset, the new government dutifully promised that some form of accountability would indeed be forthcoming. On January 15th, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she planned to convene an independent commission to thoroughly investigate the Capitol riots, later pledging to look into the "facts and causes" of that assault on Congress.

Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland similarly promised, "If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6th." Meanwhile, signaling some appetite for holding his predecessor accountable, during the presidential campaign, Joe Biden had already ruled out the possibility of extending a pardon to Donald Trump. In that way, he ensured that, were he elected, numerous court cases against the president and his Trump Organization would be open to prosecution — even as Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, recently suggested, reviving of the obstruction of justice charges that had been central to the Mueller investigation of the 2016 presidential election.

Reluctance in the Halls of Accountability

Six months after Joe Biden took office, there has been no firm movement toward accountability by his administration. On the question of making Donald Trump and his allies answer for their misdeeds, the appetite of this administration so far seems wanting, notably, for example, when it comes to the role the president may have played in instigating the Capitol attack. Sadly, Pelosi's call for an independent commission to investigate that insurrectionary moment passed the House, but fell victim last month to the threat of a filibuster and was blocked in the Senate. (Last week, largely along party lines, the House passed a select committee to investigate the insurrection.)

Trump's disastrous mishandling of the pandemic, potentially responsible for staggering numbers of American deaths, similarly seems to have fallen into the territory of unaccountability. The partisan divisions of Congress continue to stall a Covid-19 investigation. National security expert and journalist Peter Bergen, for instance, called for a commission to address the irresponsible way the highest levels of government dealt with the pandemic, but the idea failed to gain traction. Instead, the focus has turned to the question of whether or not there was malfeasance at a Chinese government lab in Wuhan.

It matters not at all that numerous journalists, including Lawrence Wright, Michael Lewis, and Nicholson Baker, have impressively documented the mishandling of the pandemic here. Such disastrous acts included early denials of the lethality of the disease, the disavowal of pandemic preparedness plans, the dismantling of the very government office meant to respond to pandemics, the presidential promotion of quack cures, a disregard for wearing masks early on, and so much else, all of which contributed to a generally chaotic governmental response, which ultimately cost tens of thousands of lives.

In truth, a congressional investigation into either the Capitol riots or the Trump administration's mishandling of the pandemic might never have led to actual punitive accountability. After all, the 9/11 Commission, touted as the gold standard for such investigations, did nothing of the sort. While offering a reputable history of the terrorist threat that resulted in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and a full-scale summary of government missteps and lapses that led up to that moment, the 9/11 report did not take on the mission of pointing fingers and demanding accountability.

In a recent interview with former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, whose 2008 book The Commission punctured that group's otherwise stellar reputation, Just Security editor Ryan Goodman offered this observation: "[An] important lesson from your book is the conscious tradeoff that the 9/11 Commission members made in prioritizing having a unanimous final report which sacrificed their ability to promote the interests of accountability (such as identifying and naming senior government officials whose acts or omissions were responsible for lapses in U.S. national security before the attack)."

Shenon added that the tradeoff between accountability and unanimity was acknowledged by commission staff members frustrated by the absence of what they thought should have been the report's "most important and controversial" conclusions. In other words, when it came to accountability, the 9/11 Report proved an inadequate model at best. Still, even its version of truth-telling proved too much for congressional Republicans facing a similar commission on the events of January 6th.

Note, however, that the 9/11 Commission did lead to movement along another path of accountability: reform. In its wake came certain structural changes, including a bolstering of the interagency process for sharing information and the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

No such luck today. And signs of the difficulty of facing any kind of accountability are now evident inside the Department of Justice (DOJ), too. Despite initial rhetoric to the contrary from Attorney General Merrick Garland, the department has shown little appetite for redress when it comes to those formerly in the highest posts. And that reality should bring to mind the similar reluctance of Barack Obama, the president who originally nominated Garland unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court.

For anyone keeping a scorecard of DOJ actions regarding Trump-era excesses, the record is slim indeed. While the department did, at least, abandon any possible prosecution of former National Security Advisor John Bolton for supposedly disclosing classified information in his memoir on his time in the Trump administration, Garland also announced that he would not pursue several matters that could have brought to light information about President Trump's abuse of power.

In May, for instance, the department appealed a court-ordered call for the release of the full version of a previously heavily redacted DOJ memo advising then-Attorney General Bill Barr that the evidence in the Mueller Report was "not sufficient to support a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt that the President violated the obstruction-of-justice statutes." In fact, the Mueller Report did not exonerate Trump, as Mueller himself would later testify in Congress and as hundreds of federal prosecutors would argue in a letter written in the wake of the report's publication, saying, "Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report would… result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice."

Adding fuel to the fire of disappointment, Garland pulled back from directly assessing fault lines inside the Department of Justice when it came to its independence from partisan politics. Instead, he turned over to the DOJ inspector general any further investigation into Trump's politicization of the department.

The Path Forward — or Not?

These are all discouraging signs, yet there's still time to strengthen our faltering democracy by reinstating the idea that abuses of power and violations of the law — from inside the White House, no less — are not to be tolerated. Even without an independent commission looking into January 6th or the DOJ prosecuting anyone, some accountability should still be possible. (After all, it was a New York State court that recently suspended Rudy Giuliani's license to practice law.)

On June 24th, Nancy Pelosi announced at a news conference that a select Congressional committee, even if not an independent 9/11-style commission, would look into the Capitol attack. That committee, she added, will "establish the truth of that day and ensure that an attack of that kind cannot happen and that we root out the causes of it all." True, she didn't specify whether accountability and reform would be part of that committee's responsibilities, but neither goal is off the table.

And Pelosi's fallback plan to convene a House select committee could still have an impact. After all, remember the Watergate committee in the Nixon era. It, too, was a select committee and it launched an investigation into abuses of power in the Watergate affair that helped bring about President Nixon's resignation from office and helped spark or support court cases against many of his partners in crime. Similarly, the 1975 Church Commission investigation into the abuses of the intelligence community, among them the FBI's notorious counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, was also a select committee project. It led to significant barriers against future abuses — including a ban on assassinations and a host of "good government" bills.

Pelosi rightly insists that she's intent on pursuing an investigation into the Capitol attack. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler are similarly determined to investigate the government seizure of Internet communications. Local court cases against Trump, Giuliani, and others will, it appears, continue apace.

Through such efforts, perhaps the potentially shocking facts could see the light of day. Continuing such quests may lead to anything but perfect accountability, particularly in a country growing ever more partisan. Above and beyond the immediate importance of giving the public — and history — a reliable narrative of recent events, it's important to let Americans know that accountability is still a crucial part of our democracy as are the laws and norms accountability aims to protect. Otherwise, this country will have to face a new reality: that we are now living in the age of impunity.

Copyright 2021 Karen J. Greenberg

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the forthcoming Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press, August). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.

Three ways for Biden to finally begin an end of the War on Terror

In the first two months of Joe Biden's presidency, you could feel the country holding its breath. Sheltered in place, hidden behind masks, unsure about whether to trust in a safe-from-pandemic future, we are nonetheless beginning to open our eyes collectively. As part of this reemergence, a wider array of issues — those beyond Covid-19 — are once again starting to enter public consciousness. Domestically, attempts to repress (or preserve) voting rights have been consuming activists and dominating headlines, along with this country's missing infrastructure and a need to raise the minimum wage. The foreign affairs agenda isn't far behind. From rising great-power rivalries, notably with China and Russia, to cyberattacks like the Solarwinds hack that affected agencies across the government, to the question of whether American troops will leave Afghanistan, a growing number of issues loom for the administration, Congress, and the public in the months to come.

On the domestic front, the response to the new administration (and especially its $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill) has been a collective sigh of relief — as well as much praise, as well as fierce partisan Republican attacks — when it comes to the reform agenda being put in place domestically. In the realm of foreign affairs, however, criticism has been swift and harsh, owing to several early administration actions.

On February 25, at the president's order, the U.S. launched an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in Syria, killing 22. On February 26, the administration released an intelligence report pointing the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, only to follow up with an announcement that, while there would be sanctions against individuals close to the prince, no retaliation against him would follow. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the absence of strong retribution against MBS akin to letting "the murderer walk," setting an example for other "thuggish dictators" in the years to come.

Meanwhile, there is still, at best, indecision about whether or not the U.S. will pull its last troops out of Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set during the Trump administration as part of a deal with the Taliban. President Biden recently termed meeting that date "tough." Others have called hesitancy about the May 1st deadline a step towards an escalation in violence and "even more deaths" in a nearly 20-year-old "unwinnable war." November has now been floated by the Biden administration as a more "reasonable" deadline.

While each of these acts (or the lack of them) should be scrutinized in light of the lessons of the past, a rush to condemn could prove too quick to be helpful. Yes, it would have been more satisfying if the administration had said, "We will respond in our own time and in our own way," when it came to the murder of Khashoggi. Yes, it would have been good to see a full-scale new drone policy in place prior to any future strikes. It will, however, take some time for the new administration to sort out the issues involved, to unearth what promises, deals, and threats were imposed by predecessors and to assess the meaningfulness of plans for a new agenda. My own suggestion: Why not set an agenda of expectations and goals — a list of imperatives if you will — and then check back in a relatively short time, perhaps six months from the January 20th inauguration of President Biden, to assess what's truly developed?

Given our chaotic and troubled world, the list of must-dos is already long indeed, but here's my own personal list of three, all tied to an issue I've followed closely for nearly the last two decades: the war on terror and how to end it.

Three Ways to Begin to End the War on Terror

The Biden administration has offered up its own list of priorities and challenges. Setting out its national security agenda, the president has committed his administration "to engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's." In a new strategy paper, "Renewing America's Advantages: Interim National Security Strategic Guidance," his administration has made its priorities reasonably clear: the development of a multidimensional strategy, led by diplomacy and multilateralism (though not averse to the "disciplined" use of force if necessary) with an overriding commitment to strengthening democracy at home and abroad.

Among the priorities set out in that strategy is one that should — if carried out successfully — be a relief to us all: moving beyond the global war on terror. "The United States should not, and will not, engage in 'forever wars' that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars," the paper states, pointing to ending "America's longest war in Afghanistan," as well as the war in Yemen, and helping to end Africa's "deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones."These war-on-terror-related goals are not only upbeat but distinctly achievable, if kept at the forefront of the American foreign-policy agenda. To achieve them, however, the institutional remnants of the war on terror would have to be eradicated. And at the top of any list when it comes to that are the lingering war powers granted the president; the authority to commit "targeted killings" via drones in more and more places around the globe; and the existence of that symbol of injustice, the prison established by the Bush administration in 2002 at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Eliminating such foundational war-on-terror policies is essential, if we are to move into an era in which national security exists in tandem with the rule of law and adherence to constitutional norms.

So here, on those three issues, are the basics for my six-month check-backs in late June 2021.

The AUMFs

As far as I'm concerned, the first six-month marker for the Biden administration should be the repeal of the 2001 and 2002 congressional Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) that granted the president the right to continue to pursue conflicts in the name of the war against terror without further recourse to Congress. Three presidents over the last nearly 20 years relied in ever-expanding ways on just that supposed authority to expand the war on terror any way they saw fit.

The first of those AUMFs, passed in Congress with a staggering unanimity (lacking only the brave "no" vote of California Representative Barbara Lee just days after September 11, 2001), authorized the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." The second authorized the president to use force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" to counter the (supposed) threat posed by Iraq to the "national security of the United States" and "to enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq," a reference to weapons of mass destruction monitoring and compliance. Both AUMFs provided a basis for future unilateral war-making decisions that excluded Congress and, as such, superseded its constitutional authorization to declare war.

Those two AUMFs, the first aimed at al-Qaeda, the second at Saddam Hussein's Iraq, have ever since been stretched to provide the president with the power to wage wars and engage in other military interventions across much of the Greater Middle East and increasing parts of Africa — and to focus on targets far removed from the perpetrators of 9/11. The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify military engagements and drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen among other places. And Donald Trump referred in part to the 2002 AUMF to justify the drone assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport in January 2020.

"Woefully outdated," those AUMFs have provided what one critic recently called "a blank check to wage war on virtually anyone at the president's discretion." In 2013, President Obama acknowledged that ever-expansive first AUMF and expressed his desire to engage

"Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."

Conversely, in May, 2020, Trump vetoed a bill forbidding him to take action against Iran without first obtaining Congressional approval. In sum, neither president stopped using those congressional authorizations.

Repeatedly, since 2001, Representative Barbara Lee and others in Congress have called for the repeal of the 2001 AUMF to no avail. In March 2019, Senators Tim Kaine and Todd Young introduced a bipartisan plan to repeal the 2002 AUMF on the grounds that Iraq was no longer an enemy. Lee led a parallel move in the House which voted to repeal the act. Nothing further happened, however.

"It makes no sense that two AUMFs remain in place against a country that is now a close ally. They serve no operational purpose, run the risk of future abuse by the president, and help keep our nation at permanent war," Kaine said. Given the increasing U.S. attacks in Iraq on Iranian-backed militias, this might prove an uphill battle, but it's nonetheless an important one. Kaine and Young have recently reintroduced legislation to repeal the 2002 authorization. Although for Biden's strike in Syria against Iranian-backed militias, the supposed powers of the commander-in-chief were cited rather than the 2002 AUMF, the worry is that, if tensions continue to escalate between Washington and Tehran, it will be cited in future attacks, however unrelated to its original intent.

On March 5th (two days after Kaine and Young introduced their plan), the White House announced through Press Secretary Jen Psaki that it would itself seek to "replace" the two authorizations "with a narrow and specific framework." In a further gesture towards a more constrained use of force, Biden reportedly cancelled a second strike in Syria after finding out that civilian casualties might result.

First Six-Month Check-Back: The repeal of those endlessly expansive authorizations is a must and should be a top priority for the Biden administration. Any new AUMFs should include consultations with Congress before any attacks are launched on potential foreign enemies, should limit exactly who those enemies might be, and specify both a time frame and the geographical reach of any authorization.

Targeted Killings

Under President Obama, drone warfare — the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) to target individuals and groups — became a signature tool in Washington's war on terror arsenal. Such "precision" strikes (chosen in "Terror Tuesday" meetings at the White House in the Obama years) were justified because they would reputedly reduce American deaths and, over time, battlefield deaths generally, including the "collateral damage" of civilian casualties. Obama used such drone strikes expansively, even targeting U.S. citizens abroad.

In his second term, Obama did try to put some limits and restrictions on lethal strikes by RPAs, establishing procedures and criteria for them and limiting the grounds for their use. President Trump promptly watered down those stricter guidelines, while expanding the number of drone strikes launched from Afghanistan to Somalia, soon dwarfing Obama's numbers. According to the British-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, Obama carried out a total of 1,878 drone strikes in his eight years in office. In his first two years as president, Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes. When it came to civilian casualties, at first the Trump administration merely ignored a mandated policy from the Obama era whereby a yearly report on civilian drone strike casualties had to be produced and made public. Then, in March 2019, Trump simply cancelled the requirement, consigning the drone killing program to an even deeper kind of secrecy.

On the subject of drones, in the first weeks of the Biden administration, there have been some potentially encouraging signs. His appointees have signaled an intention to revamp and limit drone policy. On Inauguration Day 2021, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan issued an order announcing the administration's intention to review the use of RPAs for targeted-killing missions outside of war zones. While the review takes place, some of the Trump-era freedom of the CIA and the military to decide on drone targets on their own was suspended. According to reporting by Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, "The military and the CIA must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant American ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen."

Second Six-Month Check-Back: The Biden administration minimally needs to revise its use of drones for targeted killings of any sort, anywhere, so that they become a rarity, not the commonplace they've been. The president must further insist on transparency in reporting on the uses of drone warfare and its casualties. He and his key officials must create a policy in accordance with both domestic and international law.

Guantánamo

Last (but very much not least) on my list, it's time to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. This past January was the 19th anniversary of its opening, the moment when the first prisoners from the war on terror were flown to Cuba, offshore from American justice and away from the eyes of the world. In 2008, while George W. Bush was still president, Gitmo received its last inmates. Twelve years ago, Barack Obama pledged to close it within a year.

When Obama left office in January 2017, he had at least made some headway towards its closure, though failing ultimately to shut it down. Gitmo's population had been reduced from 197 prisoners to 41, thanks to the efforts of the Office of the Special Envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, which Obama had set up in 2013, and to its head, Lee Wolosky. He aggressively pursued the mission of transferring detainees out of that facility during the final 18 months of Obama's presidency. One-third of the remaining prisoners were facing charges from, or had already been convicted by, the military commissions that Obama revived in 2009 and that made remarkably little headway towards trials, no less resolutions, during his two terms.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump infamously pontificated that he would "load [Gitmo] up with some bad dudes." In actuality, no new detainees would be transferred to the facility during his time in office. Meanwhile, military commission prosecutors proved unable even to mount what should have been the centerpiece case of the Guantánamo years — the trial of the five men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks.

As with the AUMFs and the drone-strike policy, there are, in the early moments of the Biden years, some encouraging signs that closure could once again become a priority. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, for instance, expressed his thoughts on the subject in questions submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearings. "It is time," he wrote, "that the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay close its doors." Similarly, Dr. Colin Kahl, Biden's nominee for undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, told Congress, "I believe that it is time to close the DoD detention facility at Guantánamo Bay responsibly." President Biden has also signaled his support for closure, claiming that he wants it shut by the end of his presidency. And there has already been an announcement that the National Security Council is looking into plans to do so.

Meanwhile, after years of delays, reversals, governmental misdeeds, and the dark shadow cast over cases in which torture has been an integral part of the evidentiary record, some movement does seem to be underway. The day after Biden's inauguration, for instance, the administration set the date for a trial that has been stalled for years — that of three Southeast Asian men accused of bombings in Indonesia in 2002 and 2003. All three have been in U.S. custody since 2003, first at CIA "black sites" and, from 2006 on, at Guantánamo. However, as of February 2nd, the date for that trial had already been postponed, due to Covid-19.

Third Six-Month Check-Back: It's imperative that the Biden administration shut down Guantánamo — and the sooner the better. The catastrophic cost of that detention facility is hard to overestimate. It continues to stain the American reputation for fairness and justice worldwide and is the ultimate reminder of the trade-off made between security and liberty in the war on terror. Until Guantánamo closes, the door to detention without due process and so to an alternative judicial system outside the law, as well as to unlawful secret interrogations and brutal treatment remains open. And after all these years, six months should be more than long enough to at least put in motion, if not complete, plans for that closure.

It's one thing to have good intentions, and quite another to realize those intentions in policy. While I understand the concerns of the early critics of Biden's developing war-on-terror-related decisions, my own preference is for a modicum of patience — though nothing like an open-ended time frame. After all, it's way beyond time to consign those war on terror deviations from law and from anything like reasonable norms of action to the history books.

Copyright 2021 Karen J. Greenberg

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and the author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the National Security State, and the forthcoming Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton, 2021). Julia Tedesco provided research for this article along with Jonathan Alegria and Matthew Ruane.

Donald Trump and the American descent toward failed-state status

These past few months, it's grown ever harder to recognize life in America. Thanks to Covid-19, basic day-to-day existence has changed in complicated, often confusing ways. Just putting food on the table has become a challenge for many. Getting doctors' appointments and medical care can take months. Many schools are offering on-line only instruction and good luck trying to get a driver's license or a passport renewed in person or setting up an interview for Social Security benefits. The backlog of appointments is daunting.

Meanwhile, where actual in-person government services are on tap, websites warn you of long lines and advise those with appointments to bring an umbrella, a chair, and something to eat and drink, as the Department of Motor Vehicles in Hudson, New York, instructed me to do over the summer. According to a September 2020 Yelp report, approximately 164,000 businesses have closed nationwide due to the pandemic, an estimated 60% of them for good. CNBC reports that 7.5 million businesses may still be at risk of closing. Meanwhile, more than 225,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus and, as a winter spike begins, it's estimated that up to 410,000 could be dead by year's end.

Then there are the signs of increasing poverty. Food banks have seen vast rises in demand, according to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. According to a study done by Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy, between February and September, the monthly poverty rate increased from 15% to 16.7%, despite cash infusions from Congress's CARES Act. That report also concluded that the CARES program, while putting a lid on the rise in the monthly poverty rate for a time, "was not successful at preventing a rise in deep poverty." And now, of course, Congress seems likely to offer nothing else.

The rate of unemployment is down from a high of 14% in April, but still twice what it was in January 2020 and seemingly stabilizing at a disturbing 8%. Meanwhile, schools and universities are struggling to stay viable. Thirty-four percent of universities are now online and only 4% are conducting fully in-person classes. The policy of stores limiting purchases in the spring and summer is still a fresh memory.

And what about freedom of movement? Dozens of countries, including most of the European Union, Latin America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, have barred entry to American tourists and travelers, given this country's devastatingly high rate of infection. Canada and Mexico just re-upped their bans on U.S. travelers, too. In a sense, the pandemic has indeed helped build a "great, great wall" around America, one that won't let any of us out.

In fact, Americans are not being welcomed, even by one another. Inside our borders, states are requiring those arriving from other states with high percentages of Covid-19 cases to quarantine themselves for 14 days on arrival (though enforcing such mandates is difficult indeed). New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's list of places subject to such a travel advisory now includes 43 of the 49 other states.

And as we are reminded on a daily basis in the run-up to Election Day, early voters, especially in heavily minority districts, are being forced to wait long hours in endless lines in states where the pandemic is beginning to spike. In some places, local officials clearly set up the conditions for this as a deterrent to those they would prefer not to see at the polls. In Georgia, where a governor was intent on reducing the numbers of polling places to reduce turnout in African-American neighborhoods, the waiting time recently was up to 11 hours. Early voting lines in New York City "stretched for blocks" in multiple venues.

To top it all off, political and racial violence in the country is climbing, often thanks to uniformed law enforcement officers. From George Floyd's death to federal officials in unmarked vehicles dragging protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon, to federal law enforcement officers using rubber bullets and tear gas on a gathering crowd of protestors to clear a path to a local church for President Trump, such cases have made the headlines. Meanwhile, officials across the country are ominously preparing to counter violence on Election Day

In the face of such challenges and deprivations, Americans, for the most part, are learning to adapt to the consequences of the pandemic, while just hoping that someday it will pass, that someday things will return to normal. As early as March 2020, a Pew poll had already detected a significant uptick in symptoms of anxiety nationwide. The percentage of such individuals had doubled, with young people and those experiencing financial difficulties driving the rise.

The American Psychological Association (APA) considers the pandemic not just an epidemiological but a "psychological crisis." The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a paper written by two APA authors suggesting that Covid-19 is already taking "a tremendous psychological toll" on the country.

Failing, American-Style

All in all, we find ourselves in a daunting new world, but don't just blame it on the pandemic. This country was living in a state of denial before Covid-19 hit. The truth is that Americans have been in trouble for a surprisingly long time. The pandemic might have swept away that sense of denial and left us facing a new American reality, as that virus exposed previously ignored vulnerabilities for all to see.

So, expect one thing: that the indicators of America's decline will far surpass the problems that can be solved by addressing the pandemic's spread. When Covid-19 is brought under some control, the larger social system may unfortunately remain in tatters, in need of life support, posing new challenges for the country as a whole.

Several observers, witnessing such potentially long-lasting changes to the fabric of American life, have described the United States as resembling a failed state in its reaction to the pandemic. They point not just to the effects of staggering levels of inequality (on the rise for decades) or to a long-term unwillingness to invest in the kind of infrastructure that could keep what's still the wealthiest country on our planet strong, but to entrenched poverty and the fracturing of work life. Long before the pandemic hit, the Trump administration reflected this downhill slope.

As George Packer recently wrote in the Atlantic, the reaction to the coronavirus crisis here has been more "like Pakistan or Belarus -- like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering... Every morning in the endless month of March," he added, "Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state," unable to get the equipment, supplies, tests, or medical help they needed to fight the pandemic.

Looking beyond Covid-19 to the Trump administration's irresponsible handling of climate change and nuclear weapons, TomDispatch's Tom Engelhardt has also labeled the country a "failed state," one that now occupies a singular category (which he called "Fourth World") among the planet's countries.

There is no codified definition of a failed state, but there is general agreement that such a country has become unable or unwilling to care for its citizens. Safety and sustenance are at risk and stability in multiple sectors of life has become unpredictable. In 2003, future U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice attempted to craft a workable definition of the term in a report for the Brookings Institution, calling on President George W. Bush to address the underlying causes of failed states. "Failed states," she wrote, "are countries in which the central government does not exert effective control over, nor is it able to deliver vital services to significant parts of its own territory due to conflict, ineffective governance, or state collapse."

From the Proud Boys to the Wolverine Watchmen, it has become strikingly clear that, in this pandemic year, the U.S. is indeed becoming an increasingly riven, disturbed land and that nothing, including the election of Joe Biden, will simply make that reality disappear without immense effort.

In the twenty-first century, in fact, the United States has visibly been inching ever closer to failed-state status. In 2006, the Fund for Peace, an organization whose mission is global conflict reduction, human security, and economic development, launched a yearly Failed States Index (FSI), changing its name in 2014 to the Fragile State Index. For the last decade, for instance, Yemen has been among the top 10 most fragile states and, for the last two years, number one. Since 2013, Finland has been at the other end of the scale, number 178, the least failed state on the planet.

What's interesting, however, is the path the United States has travelled over that same decade, dropping a noteworthy 10 places. Until the Trump years, it consistently stood at number 158 or 159 among the 178 nations on the chart. In the 2018 report, however, it took a turn for the worse. In the 2020 report (based on pre-pandemic numbers), it had dropped to 149, reflecting in particular losses in what FSI calls "cohesion," based on rising nationalist rhetoric among increasingly riven elites and unequal access to resources in a country where economic inequality was already at staggering levels.

Just imagine, then, what the 2021 Index will likely report next April. At present, when it comes to FSI's rankings, the United States is in the third of five groupings of countries, behind the Scandinavian countries, most of the other nations of Europe, and Singapore. Given today's realities, it is poised to fall even further.

The Election Moment

Elections are a crucial factor in separating successful from failing states; fair elections, that is, ones that people in a country trust. As Pauline Baker, the director of the Fund for Peace, points out, "Elections are an essential part of democratization, but they can also be conflict-inducing if they are held too soon, are blatantly manipulated, lack transparency, or are marred by violence."

All you have to do is think about Donald Trump's endless claims -- that this year's election will be "rigged," that mail-in ballots will be a fraud, that he won't necessarily leave office even if the tallies are against him, and so on -- to know that a particularly heavy burden has been placed on the results of November 3rd. Add to that burden threats to the election's viability via disinformation from foreign agents and hackers, Republican Party attempts at voter suppression, and threats of violence by so-called poll watchers.

Meanwhile, an embattled Supreme Court has been issuing decisions on matters like "faithless electors," extended voting, and absentee ballots. The record so far has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the justices have voted to keep intact the Electoral College rule that requires electors to honor their pledges to vote according to whatever the voters have decided. They also nixed an attempt by the Republican National Committee to enforce a Rhode Island rule that mail-in voters, under pandemic conditions, must have their ballots signed by either two witnesses or a notary public. And most recently, the Court voted 4-4 to uphold Pennsylvania's decision to extend the absentee ballot deadline.

For the most part, however, its decisions have gone the other way, upholding more restrictive voting policies in 8 out of 11 cases. In July, for example, the court ruled against a decision in Alabama that had eased restrictions on absentee ballot submissions. That same week, it refused to reinstate an order in Texas allowing all voters to cast mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, it seems that Pennsylvania Republicans are again trying to narrow the time frame on absentee ballots, announcing that they have returned to the Court for a further decision on the matter in light of Justice Amy Barrett's certain confirmation.

The point is, this election should matter, both the form it takes and its outcome. If trust in the process of voting goes by the wayside, then the image of the United States as a failing, even a failed state will be hard to dispute. And if there is violence at the polls, or after the vote takes place, then we'll sense an even deeper failure.

While some may view the coming election as a precipitous cliff, with dangers lurking everywhere, I also see it as an opportunity, which is why the tsunami of early voting, often involving hours of waiting, is an encouraging sign. Despite the abyss that we face after four years of chaos and cruelty, this country still has a chance to prove that we are not a failing state and to reclaim our trust in our government, our protections, and one another. Only then will we be able to begin to repair the economic damage, the rank divisiveness, and the unequal allocation of resources that has fueled our disastrous pandemic response and, with it, a further erosion of trust in government.

Maybe we need to accept the challenge of proving in this election that one of the world's longest-standing democracies can rise to the occasion and vote to uphold the foundation of its system, elections themselves. Maybe, using this very election, we can harness the civic pride that could lead to a successful restoration of our basic beliefs in constitutional principles and the rule of law. The chance to vote, no matter how long the lines and the wait, might be just the opportunity we need.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, the host of the Vital Interests Podcast, the editor-in-chief of the CNS Soufan Group Morning Brief, and the author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and editor of Reimagining the National Security State: Liberalism on the Brink. Julia Tedesco helped with research for this article.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Karen J. Greenberg

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