Lobbing missiles into foreign countries is a lot like a one night stand, says retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden.
“The reliance on air power has all of the attraction of casual sex: It seems to offer gratification but with very little commitment,” Hayden told US News & World Report Thursday.
Hayden – who served as director of the CIA and NSA across three presidents – was commenting on the Obama administration’s new plan to begin lethally targeting members of the Islamic State, the militant group currently holding ground in Iraq and Syria. While he welcomed the strikes, Hayden’s point was that more would need to be done to eliminate the fundamentalist group.
“We need to be wary of a strategy that puts emphasis on air power and air power alone,” Hayden said. The retired general’s comment received little attention until Friday morning when it was repeated on CNN.
Aside from being a creepy comparison of sex and warfare, Hayden’s comment reflects a dangerous tendency in conversations about U.S. counterterrorism operations to embrace the idea that air strikes alone are not profoundly serious for countries on the receiving end. While the Obama administration’s preferred method for dealing with enemies abroad may at times seem detached and convenient, shooting missiles into countries is in fact a big deal even if there aren’t thousands of American troops on the ground.
In the Obama administration’s first air attack in Yemen, for example, nearly a half dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles packed with cluster munitions and launched from a U.S. war ship slammed into a Bedouin village. While a Yemeni government inquiry determined that 14 suspected al Qaeda members died in the attack, 41 innocent people were also killed, including nine women and 21 children. The highest levels of the U.S. and Yemeni governments then collaborated to keep the details of the strike from the public by lying and saying the strike was carried out by Yemeni forces. Since that time, the Obama administration has launched more than 60 strikes in Yemen and killed dozens more civilians. The most recent attack came Thursday, just hours after the White House announced its new war on ISIS.
The “instant gratification” attacks that Hayden referred to have frayed communities. Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni democracy and human rights activist, made this point at a Senate hearing last year, just six days after an American drone attacked his village.
“I believe in America, and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering U.S. airstrikes have caused, and how they are harming U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program,” he said.
In his address this week, President Obama held up U.S. operations Yemen, along with Somalia, as examples of successful counterterrorism strategies, indicating that they will provide the model for future attacks on ISIS. Regardless of whether the war on ISIS will involve large numbers of U.S. troops, these air strikes will have real consequences for innocent people living in Iraq and Syria and that point should not be diminished.
Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP