When the "Why" Doesn't Matter

Our weekly Discontents, 8/9/2021

Although it received only a smattering of attention at the time, the Biden administration achieved what has unfortunately become a US presidential milestone last month—it conducted its first airstrike on Somalia on July 20. Perhaps making up for a late start—Donald Trump got his first Somali operation out of the way in May 2017—the US military carried another Somali airstrike three days later and yet another nine days after that. No civilians were harmed in these strikes, at least as far as the Pentagon has acknowledged. The thing is, though, the Pentagon invariably says that its airstrikes in Somalia do not harm civilians, even when we know they do.

If these incidents involved something other than military violence they might almost be considered a quaint rite of passage, seeing as how every US president since George Bush the Elder has intervened in Somalia in one way or another. We could go all the way back to Ronald Reagan if you want to include the aid his administration provided to then-Somali dictator Siad Barre in the 1980s. American presidents have been regularly bombarding Somalia from the air—generally via drone—since 2007, when the “War on Terror” was still in its prime. Trump made blowing up parts of Somalia a special focus of his administration, but he was only building upon the work his two predecessors had begun and continued.

There is of course nothing quaint about airstrikes. Nor is there anything particularly redeeming about how US media covers—or fails to cover—the Pentagon’s lingering obsession with bombing Somalia.

I am no journalist, but from my brief time working on the high school newspaper I do remember being told to emphasize the “five Ws (and one H)”—who, what, when, where, why, and how. Contained in those six single-word questions are the basic elements of just about any story. When it comes to these recent airstrikes, most of them are readily answered. We know the who (the US military), the what (airstrikes), the where (Somalia), the when (over the last few weeks), and the how (at least at the mechanical level, American warplanes). But we really don’t know the “why,” do we? Why, in the year 2021, is the US military still bombing Somalia? On a more normative level, why is it allowed to bomb Somalia? Based on the coverage of these three most recent strikes, it’s not even clear whether anybody cares enough to ask anymore.

For the Pentagon, the “why” is straightforward. The US military conducted these airstrikes in support of Somalia federal forces, including the US-trained Danab special forces unit, engaged in combat with the jihadist group al-Shabab. It’s necessary for the US military to support Somali forces against al-Shabab because, as an affiliate of al-Qaeda, al-Shabab is defined as an enemy threat under the terms of the “War on Terror.” The United States is allowed to bomb Somalia because al-Shabab, again due to its al-Qaeda ties, is a lawful target under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed following the September 11, 2001 attacks, and also under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, the “self-defense” clause. Indeed, the rationale for these strikes was so straightforward, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, that it didn’t even seek approval from the White House before conducting them. The operational decision to strike was made by US Africa Command leadership.

These sorts of answers can only satisfy military planners and denizens of America’s more hawkish think tanks, folks for whom the logic of permanent war is so ingrained that it scarcely occurs to them that it could be questioned. There’s no questioning why al-Shabab, whose current ambitions don’t extend beyond Somalia and whose reach extends no further afield than neighboring Kenya, should be regarded as a threat to the United States. There’s no questioning why the 2001 AUMF is still on the books at all some 20 years later, when everyone involved in planning and carrying out the September 11 attacks is either dead or in hiding. There’s no questioning the absurdity of claiming the right of “self-defense” in reference to another country’s military in a battle in which no American personnel were at risk. All of that is just How It Is, apparently, and there’s no sense wasting our beautiful minds on the subject.

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance to the full Senate a bill that would repeal the 2002 AUMF that authorized the invasion of Iraq and the 1991 AUMF that authorized the Gulf War. Yes, 30 years after the fact the authorization for the Gulf War is still on the books. Not only does Congress not vote to declare war anymore, it almost never votes to rein in the Pentagon once the wars are over. The measure appears to stand a reasonable chance of passing the full Senate, and the House of Representatives has already voted to repeal both AUMFs separately.

The 2002 AUMF must be repealed if the United States is really going to pull back from its 20 year military frenzy, but it’s absolutely the lowest-hanging fruit on the “War on Terror” tree (the 1991 AUMF has already rotted and dropped to the ground in this analogy). There’s nothing the US military does in the world, here in 2021, that cannot be justified through other means. Repealing the broadly-interpreted 2001 AUMF would matter more, though that resolution remains useful enough to Washington policymakers that Joe Biden only talks of replacing it, not repealing it.

In truth, even repealing the 2001 AUMF wouldn’t be enough to bring the excesses of the “War on Terror” to an end. As long as the United States is able to bend the definition of terms like “self defense” beyond recognition—or, in other words, as long as the United States remains entirely exempt from international law—its military footprint will remain limitless. And the people of Somalia can expect many more airstrikes to come.

Before I turn things over to the rest of the Discontents crew for this week’s updates, can I ask you to do something? If you’re not already subscribed to our free email list, please enter your email below and subscribe today:

And if you already are a subscriber, please help us spread the word about Discontents! In this case the “why” is pretty simple: we need your help to keep this collective growing and to support the work all of us are doing at our own outlets. Thanks!

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Nothing about Verdun was inevitable. The 1916 battle in France, which ran from February through December of that year, hurled millions of people into combat, with deaths in the hundreds of thousands and injuries likely at least double that. There’s the specifics of the lead-up to and planning of World War I that could all have been steered differently, preventing this specific battle or at a minimum bestowing a different stretch of field with its tragic harvest.

The exact arrangements of power, the sweeping imperial reaches that meant a European conflict in 1914 would have a world-encompassing scale, is downstream of a series of human choices within human systems, all of which shaped an imbalance of power towards such an apocalyptic end. In my upcoming newsletter at Wars of Future Past, I talk about fellow Discontents writer Patrick Wyman’s book “The Verge,” and to what extent a handful of games have been able to capture the forces and results of that sweeping upheaval. There’s not, perhaps, an exact causal relationship between Charles V turning plundered Incan silver into annual wages for a company of German pikemen in the 1520s and the broken bodies of Wehrmacht soldiers in Verdun in 1916, but it is hard to imagine the later without the path dependency of the former.

Discourse Blog

A strange week for us! Let’s go through it. We had some politics blogs: me on Cori Bush’s victory and a new eviction moratorium and Rafi on the Cuomo brothers. Then we had, well, all of this. Rafi on Geena Davis’s shot glass trick, Paul on pushing your hands through a glass door to pay off student loans, Katherine on billionaire pedophiles and their friends, and of course, Bird of the Week. But I think our best and most righteous blog was Sam’s thorough excorciation of Jared Leto’s stupid stunt-acting in a fat suit, a Hollywood trend that really needs to die. That’s it for us this week!

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

It’s been a busy week at the old email factory. First up was a bit of a scoop about the Kimbal Musk-founded (yes of those Musks) nonprofit garden education organization Big Green combatting its workers’ attempts to unionize.

“All we want is to work with them to make the company better, but they’ve just been fighting us since day one.”

Yesterday I published an excerpt from Rax King’s forthcoming book of essays Tacky. It’s about taste and desire and how we formulate taste and desire as young people trying to figure out who we are. Mostly it’s about the band Creed though. Also in that one the Discontents gang had a quick round table talk about nu-metal and why it’s being re-evaluated at this particular moment.

Prior to that around 50 readers wrote in with pictures of and stories about the oldest t-shirt they own. It was a real fun one.

This was my dad's 1997 Roger Clemens Toronto Blue Jays t-shirt. My dad died in 2016. I took care of him for the last 2 1/2 years of his life, and though the overall experience of doing so was transformative — it gave me a chance to work all my shit out with him before he died, which was a gift — the reality of it day to day was brutal. It's not just the dying slowly part, it's things like cleaning up literal shit from the floor when he fell out of bed and having to pick him up like a baby and carry him back to bed and listening to him cry because my brother wouldn't visit him for the last months of his life while confined to a home hospice bed.

Well maybe not all fun.

I also ran an interview with one of the former editors of City Pages about the venerable alt weekly suddenly being shuttered last year and some of the staff’s new effort to relaunch as a worker-owned publication in the model of Defector.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

How long does Andrew Cuomo have left? That's the question on everyone's mind after New York Attorney General Letitia James released her report on August 3 on the governor's harassment and abuse of women working under him for years. 

I talked to New York State Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou about the allegations and whether it's time to impeach (she already had articles drawn up) just after the report came out. 

“It took 179 witnesses and a statewide investigation by the Attorney General to hold one powerful man accountable—tell me again that New York doesn't have a power problem,” Niou told me.

Impeachment proceedings have begun, and Cuomo is trying to negotiate an exit. We'll see how it develops. 

In the meantime, sign up and stay in touch as I look at how Covid affected line cooks and talk to service industry professionals about their plans for an uncertain future.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week, we work through our disappointment at losing the opportunity to link and build in Martha’s Vineyard after being disinvited from Barack Obama’s birthday party, Jordan talks about his own elaborate birthday celebration involving the freestyle soda machine at the gas station, and then we’re joined by Twitch streamer Mike from PA.

Our conversation touches on Nina Turner’s disappointing loss, the role of outside money in determining the outcome of elections, whether progressive members of the Democratic Party are wielding the collective power they have as effectively as they could or should be and much more.


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

We spend a lot of time shitting on Biden’s immigration policy at BORDER/LINES, and with good reason. After promising to undo the horrors of the Trump administration and to put the U.S. on a more modern, inclusive path, Biden has been underwhelming at best and actively harmful at worst. To give Biden some credit, his administration did end policies like Remain in Mexico and the so-called Muslim ban, and the task force put together to reunite families separated at the border under Trump has made considerable progress. But there’s one Trump-era policy the Biden administration can’t seem to get enough of: Title 42.

Title 42 is ostensibly a public health measure; it’s a statute that the Trump administration used to shut down the border to asylum seekers and other unauthorized migrants last March due to the potential “introduction or spread” of a communicable disease—i.e., COVID—at the border. Experts at the CDC urged the Trump administration not to implement Title 42, saying it had little to no public health benefit, but they pushed it through anyway—and Biden has decided to keep it. For months, the Biden administration has waffled on if and when it would get rid of Title 42. They finally settled on the end of summer; the first phase of the Title 42 rollback was supposed to start July 31. Instead, the Biden administration has decided to keep the policy around indefinitely, citing the surge in cases and the highly contagious Delta variant as proof that Title 42 is necessary. Last week’s edition of BORDER/LINES dug into what this means for the tens of thousands of migrants stranded at the border, the legal case against Title 42, and what comes next.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its Sixth Assessment Report earlier today. Obviously with that timing we couldn’t make it the subject of this week’s Discontents, so instead I thought I’d leave us all with a bit of this morning’s New York Times piece on the report:

Nations have delayed curbing their fossil-fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, though there is still a short window to prevent the most harrowing future, a major new United Nations scientific report has concluded.

Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century, largely by burning coal, oil and gas for energy. And the consequences can be felt across the globe: This summer alone, blistering heat waves have killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada, floods have devastated Germany and China, and wildfires have raged out of control in Siberia, Turkey and Greece.

But that’s only the beginning, according to the report, issued on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists convened by the United Nations. Even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, a hotter future that is now essentially locked in.

See you next week, I hope.