Being a teenager during the hottest parts of the Vietnam War left me convinced that the government did not always tell the truth and that our reasons for having troops on foreign land and involvement was generally not a wise course.
This week we learned about a 16-page memo about the legality of drones targeting U.S. citizens for assassination, the lack of even secret judicial oversight on the use of these drones and how much of our policy can be decided in secret. It was a quick throwback to the Vietnam War for many of the older baby boomers.
It was quite shocking. Yes, the Vietnam War was escalated by Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat president who developed many social programs labeled by him as “The Great Society.” But, we also protested President George Bush’s March 2003 war in Iraq and questioned not only that the U.S. went to Iraq but why we went there.
Not only was the 16-page memo made public this week, but so was the fact that the U.S. has been operating a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia! News organizations have kept the knowledge of that base secret. It was a secret to the American public, but anyone who has a smidgen of knowledge about Saudi Arabia will tell you that many Saudi citizens clearly knew about it. The grapevine is active there, even if it is not in print or on the Internet.
The drone secrets are quite disturbing, and having a base for them in Saudi Arabia is even more so. There is some evidence that the 9/11 terrorists used the fact that Saudis allowed the U.S. to have military bases as a reason to attack us. Of course, there is a need for information to be classified. No one suggests that we leave ourselves open to individuals and countries that would do us harm. However, policy issues such as what countries we choose to have a base and the use of drones deserve some national, as well as congressional, dialog.
In times of relative peace when we haven’t had debate and dialog, we’ve had some officials make some really bad decisions. These decisions have often been made by advisers to the sitting president.
Two spectacular failures in national security tactics were made in the 1950s and early 1960s. One was President Eisenhower’s decision to plan a coup in Iran in the early part of his presidency. He knew enough to keep us from supporting the French in Vietnam but took the bait from his military advisers and worked with the British to install the Shah. The British “got to” Eisenhower and convinced him that, without getting rid of the elected government, communism would take hold. The CIA paid demonstrators, and then the argument was made that the government was unstable. Communism was the reason the British gave to the U.S. for help with an intervention in Iran, but the real reason was that the British regarded Iranian oil as their own and refused to negotiate with the Iranians. We made the Shah our puppet, and that led to the Iranian government we are now dealing with. Too bad we intervened. The world would be a safer place had we minded our own business.
Wisely, according to Eisenhower biographer Jean Smith, the United States did not provide air support or use atomic bombs in Vietnam during his administration. Obviously that was changed later on under Democratic administrations in the 1960s, but Eisenhower disregarded the advice of his generals and military advisers and realized that American cannot police the world nor engage in supporting colonialism. American opinion at the time would not have been supportive of any kind of Vietnam intervention, and President Eisenhower understood that, at least with Vietnam.
Given our lousy experience in Vietnam and with the coup in Iran, why is it that our government has not learned that secretive operations on a grand scale (renditions and having bases in foreign lands) are always discovered and the issue warrants a dialog with the American people? Why is it that only by digging do we find out that “insurgents” killed by drones are classified as “insurgents” if they are males of military age? Don’t citizens of the United States deserve to know that some of these young people killed as “collateral damage” are not insurgents but young men at the prime of their life killed when a drone came zipping by looking for someone else?
I never liked nor thought effective the secrecy of any large U.S. government operation, from CIA-sponsored coups to keeping military bases secret. Those secrets don’t belong in a real democracy, and they don’t belong in the United States’ policy. It is time for Congress to understand that government secrets have consequences.
With secret decisions, we risk the buildup of another country like Iran. We risk buying into the notion that safety comes from taking out some real bad actors. It is shortsighted, and the local anger from “collateral” damage (e.g. civilians killed) may cause more instability than the supposed safety they bring.
Decisions that involve our resources as a country need to be made in the light – not in the darkness by a few folks who have lost the awareness of the long term consequences of their actions.