Revisiting Hamlet
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2020 - 12:00am

George Schultz, Secretary of State to Republican President Ronald W. Reagan in the 1980s, famously lamented:“We may never have the kind of evidence that can stand up in an American court of law, but we cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond.

A great nation with global responsibilities cannot afford to be hamstrung by confusion and indecisiveness. Fighting terrorism will not be a clean or pleasant contest, but we have no choice but to play it.”

America’s top diplomat articulated the tension between the democratic core value of rule of law and the anti-paradigms of terrorist action. His hawkish remarks were atypical, given that he delivered the same at a Synagogue and he headed State and not the Defense department. Caspar Weinberger was US Defense Chief and it was his more dovish views that dominated the Reagan administration’s response to the surge of terrorist violence around the world. Just a year prior, the marine barracks bombing in Beirut had claimed the lives of 254 US servicemen and wounded 125 (there on a peacekeeping mission). It was the largest single day death toll to US armed forces since the Vietnam war. There was no retaliatory strike due to “lack of evidence.”

This was in 1984, long before the cataclysmic events of 9/11 changed the game forever. Since then, the fear of terrorism has drastically eroded our public expectations of the rule of law. Reagan, though, proved to be no Hamlet as he ultimately authorized a military decapitation strike against Col. Qaddafi of Libya in his Tripoli compound in 1986. They used fighter planes and not the half sized unmanned drones of today. In the end, Schultz’s lowered threshold for military response to terrorism prevailed.

To tweet or … It is difficult to envision President Donald Trump uttering the famous Shakesperian soliloquy. Critics of his targetted action against Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani would have had him channel this rather than acting on impulse. The Democrat controlled US House of Representatives has just concluded their vote, 224-194, on a concurrent resolution to terminate the further use of US armed forces against Iran without congressional authorization except when necessary to “defend against an imminent armed attack.”

The US War Powers Act of 1973 forbids the commitment of US forces beyond 30 days without such congressional authorization. The main seed of this check is the Constitutional prescription that only Congress has the power to declare war. Of course, US Presidents have not allowed the strictures of this law to hamper their executive decisions such that the same has consistently been an irritant in Executive - Legislative relations. “As if it weren’t enough that we’re fighting a war abroad – must we be fighting one at home, as well?”

Reckless and imprudent. This House vote is purely symbolic given that Pres. Trump’s Republicans are in firm control of the Senate. But it is a booming voice speaking for a substantial portion of the country he was protecting from “imminent” terrorist activity. Conventional wisdom has a nation uniting solidly behind its leader in times of war. When Republican President Reagan launched on Qaddafi in 1986, Democrat Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neil and his House was in open support from across the aisle. But the USA Today/Gallup poll in the aftermath of President Trump’s mailed fist strike shows that Americans are not galvanized to solidarity behind his tough action. 55 percent as against 24 percent, more than 2 to 1, believe the attack has made them feel less safe. 

Imminence, proportionality, self defense – these are the concepts now dominating the debate on whether Gen. Soleimani’s death was (a) pre-emptive and, arguably, justifiable or if it were (b) a cold blooded assassination, plain and simple. So far, President Trump has not supplied his people adequate basis for his action. The classified, closed-door briefings given Congress by his top national security advisers: Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel has raised more questions. 

But, as we know post 9/11, it’s not that simple anymore. Not even for the US, the universally acknowledged and self proclaimed role model for human rights and the rule of law. The balance between individual rights and state power has been inextricably upset by the question of acceptable responses to terrorist threats. These threats now contemplate warfare that is nuclear, technology/cyber based, biological or whatever latest evolution there is. The rules on these non-conventional types of war and how to counter them have not been written nor might they ever be.

Reprieve. We wished to write of positive things to start the year. There haven’t been much feel good moments of late. It’s either war or off scale environmental destruction/degradation; domestic issues of corruption and onerous provisions in contracts; even wars of statistics (on drug wars). 

But there is good news from the same Iraqi theater. It appears, for the moment, that both nations have walked themselves back from the precipice. Iran did take retaliatory action last Wednesday by firing more than 20 ballistic missiles at the Iraqi military bases where US forces are posted. It was surely a cathartic experience for the Iranians as this was the first time in history that they had directly fired on US positions from Iranian soil. No American casualties were recorded, however. Whether deliberate or propitious, we’ll take it. With this, Iran’s proportionate measures in response to the killing of Gen. Soleimani and his convoy are concluded. 

We are wishing that this momentary peace is more than temporary. But there is still the diplomatic challenge of the Ukranian commercial plane shot down by Iranian missiles; the détente implications of the Soleimani hit on North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and his nuclear arsenal; the prospect of more, covert reprisals from still seething militant Iranian groups; and there still is … who else but the unpredictable anti-Hamlet, Donald Trump.

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