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Iraq, Drones & Islam's "Imminent Threat" To America: "Pre-empting" War By Waging It (Again)

In the summer of 1990, my family flew from Kuwait to Berkeley, California for our annual summer vacation. A few weeks later, Saddam Hussein sent his troops across the desert and invaded Kuwait, where much of my family remained, at the epicenter of invasion.

I was six years old at the time and glued to CNN watching as the skies above my school and our home filled with black smoke and fiery explosions, day after day, for months on end. This was my first introduction to war at home - watching it unfold through a TV screen from thousands of miles away.

I could no longer visit my grandparent's house on Fridays for lunch or play with my cousins; instead, I would spend the year in California, enroll in public school and struggle each day to explain to all my curious classmates things like why it was hard to pronounce my name, where Kuwait was and why it mattered at all to America.

All of this was the result of a dictatorial, power-hungry, religious man's decision to violate and attack an oil-rich country's sovereignty, waging war for personal gain.

Fast forward just over a decade and it's Déjà vu. Only this time, inverse the invader and swap some middle initials around. The new war-mongering president is the son of the man that defended Kuwait from Saddam the War Mongerer just ten years earlier.

Fast forward yet another decade to today, and we find that President Obama, who ran on the audacity of hope, has had the audacity to augment George W. Bush's pre-emptive doctrine, doubling down on drones and still using the illusive "imminent threat" as a primary justification for pre-emptive strikes.

Again, we have a secret legal memo authorizing our president to act free from the specific checks and balances that make up the foundation of our American government. Again, our president is undermining our core values in the name of security and defense.

President Bush's war in Iraq was, and remains, a failed war, lacking any meaningful moral or legal basis and leaving Iraq in political and physical tatters. Bush's war was fought under a newly ushered in "pre-emptive" doctrine, which intended to prevent conflict and war by waging it. All evidence connecting Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda was manufactured and manipulated by the Bush administration to force fear into our hearts and minds.

Among the series of fumbling fabrications formed to justify the war was a simple rationale put forth by Vice President Dick Cheney: the war was justified because it eliminated a regime that might have, at some point in the future, posed a threat to the United States. And so the precedent was set: America could and would justify aggressive attacks on sovereign nations with vague and inflated claims about an existential and imminent threat of evil from Al-Qaeda (and, arguably, the Muslim world at large).

Bush laid it out most plainly in his 2003 State Of The Union address: "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option," he said. While discrediting Hussein, Bush asked us to place our trust in his sanity and strategy, which was poorly and inconsistently presented as the only option. The mission? "Ending the most dangerous threat of our time," which we were now repeatedly reminded came from Saddam Hussein.

Nevermind that just months before these fear-mongering claims were made, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded Iraq was "contained," telling reporters after meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister that "[Hussein] threatens not the United States," but "Arab people," specifically citing "the children...of Egypt, the children of Saudi Arabia, the children of Kuwait."

Just ten days after 9/11, President Bush himself was told in a highly classified early-morning briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence tying Iraq or Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was negligible credible evidence linking Iraq with Al-Qaeda.

Those are the facts, but facts didn't seem to matter then. Facts could be fabricated and concealed so long as the "imminent threat" we all faced was perceived to be real enough to scare us into submission.

Still, Bush wanted to connect Iraq and Al-Qaeda, and so he did: in an attempt to maintain support for the war, the Bush administration perpetuated a climate of fear by linking the two through so-called "radical Islam." In doing so, they mobilized millions to buy into an us vs. them paradigm, creating a clash of civilizations that inextricably connected Islam (and Arab people more generally) with the looming threat of radical terror. Fox News ratings climbed as "Orange Alerts" circled and the nation was injected with a dose of poisonous patriotism, the antidote to the "imminent threat" of evil that blinded us from our own impending blunders in Baghdad.

Other phrases were also used: "mortal threat," "urgent threat," "immediate threat," "serious and mounting threat" and "unique threat" were all thrown in amongst the phrases to remind the nation that Iraq intended to "strike the United States with weapons of mass destruction."

Just two weeks after 9/11, John Yoo sketched out the doctrine of pre-emptive war, laying out the argument that Bush could use his war powers to act against groups or individuals, even if it would prove "difficult to establish [that they] have been or may be implicated in attacks." (Of course, the American public wouldn't learn any of this until March 2002.)

Without identifying specific threats to Americans from targets on the other side of the world, the administration was able to define Al-Qaeda members and those within their vicinity as posing a chronic and permanent "imminent threat" to America. It was troubling then; it's even more troubling ten years later as President Obama uses this very same "imminent threat" theory to justify augmenting Bush's controversial drones program.

The White House's rhetoric and framing of the war on terror was supported by law enforcement agencies across the country, in particular the New York Police Department, which began a racial mapping program and would release report after report in support of the Bush administration's counter-terrorism efforts, such as 2007's "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat."

If you read the 99-page report, it would be impossible not to come to the conclusion that I myself was an "imminent threat," what with my language skills, youth, family background and ongoing search for "meaning in life." (I've written about this before.)

As it turns out, we are still fighting this broadly-defined war with justifications that rely on little more than bellicose turns of phrase from politicians quoting department officials who are quoted by The New York Times, anonymously. Whether questions are raised by the killing of American-born U.S. citizen Anwar Al Awlaki or children in Pakistan and Yemen, President Obama has failed to explain either the legal justification of his drones program or its effectiveness.

According to the leaked Justice Department white paper that spells out the legal justification for drone killings, President Obama is now legally authorized to kill someone if the following three conditions are met: (1) the targeted person is "a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al-Qaeda or an associated force or "an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;" (2) the target's "capture is infeasible;" and (3) the operation is conducted in accordance with "fundamental law of war principles."

Two decades after the first Gulf War, America's legacy in Iraq, coupled with the ongoing legal and moral questions around America's drones programs and continuation of the "imminent threat" doctrine, sets a frightening precedent for the future of drone warfare around the globe. Israel and the United States used to maintain a monopoly on drones, but while Israel remains the world's top drones exporter, more than 70 countries now possess the technology, China chief among them.

The efficacy of the Obama Administration's drone wars overseas is still yet to be demonstrated; instead, doubts and questions about the program have multiplied as the administration has remained willfully silent on the matter. As a nation, how can we not be embarrassed by this, which undermines every claim we make of our commitments to justice, human rights and equality around the world? Indeed, those tenets -- and the right of due process promised to American citizens like Al Awlaki -- are at the very heart of our brand of democracy.

In Yemen, for example, drone strikes are causing more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militant groups, driven not by ideology but by a sense of revenge. Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center, warns that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan -- "the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan." Membership of Al-Qaeda in Yemen has reportedly grown to three times the levels seen in 2009. How many times have we killed Al-Qaeda's number two?

This week, as the Iraq War marks its tenth anniversary, the obvious question everyone will be asking is if we - the media, the government, the American people - have learned our lessons from our failures in Iraq. The answer, of course, is just as obvious.

John Brown, a Foreign Service Officer who submitted his resignation letter to Colin Powell because he could not support President Bush's war plans against Iraq in good conscience, joined me at HuffPost Live and had this to say, ten years after his resignation:

"Militarism from Bush, continuing under the current administration, is causing what I fear is an anti-American century," Brown told me (the clip appears below).

But Obama, like Bush, seems to think that by simply not talking about his controversial use of drones, he can remain immune from criticism. After all, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that when he went through the process of becoming Press Secretary, one of the first things he was told was he was "not even to acknowledge the drone program, not even to discuss it exists."

Still, the Obama administration has overseen a sharp increase in the number of people subjected to warrantless electronic surveillance of their phones, email and Facebook accounts. Obama is expanding the drone program with his Disposition Matrix. The Pentagon is now training more drone operators than combat pilots, even if PTSD rates remain as high for drone pilots as they are for combat pilots. Meanwhile the Pentagon claims to be "alarmed" by China's growing fleet of drones, even if we set the irresponsible precedent of using them to attack "enemies" wherever they are, and regardless if they are American citizens or not.

Emma Sky, a political advisor to the U.S. Military In Iraq, summed up the biggest lesson we should take away from our war in Iraq,: "Perhaps [the biggest lesson] is the limitation of our power. We thought we could just come in, nation-build, impose liberal democracy on a country. It is hubris, really," she said.

President Obama is traveling to Israel on Wednesday, where he intends to speak of our shared values of democracy. If democracy means using an "imminent threat" of evil and an inalienable right to self-defense to justify aggressive military policies and violate an entire population's right to sovereignty and self-determination, using drones to indiscriminately assassinate enemy combatants while killing undisclosed numbers of civilians and refusing to answer to international law, then Obama will certainly have a receptive audience in Tel Aviv.

There are many questions we, as Americans, should ask of our leaders until we are provided with meaningful answers rather than rhetorical dances in leaked white papers that ultimately define "imminent threat" as anything but imminent. But without basic knowledge of the facts, it is tough to know which questions we should be asking. So, in that spirit, I'll ask you this:

In your lifetime, as an American, how many Muslim-majority countries has the US attacked with drones? I can't answer that confidently. Can you?

Let's start with, should it matter?

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