It’s Not “Awesome” That Americans Are Assassinating People in Yemen

BuzzFeed News published a troubling article Tuesday about an American company named Spear Operations Group that is run by Abraham Golan, “a charismatic Hungarian-Israeli security contractor who lives outside of Pittsburgh.” Mr. Golan openly admits that he ran a targeted assassination program in Yemen on behalf of the government of the United Arab Emirates:

“There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition.”

The article begins with an operation that went haywire back in 2015, while President Obama was our commander in chief. Mr. Golan’s mission was to kill a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is a whole lot more socially and politically complex than is commonly understood in the United States. To the Saudi regime and their Gulf allies, the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. Yet, in 2012, Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, as their president.

There is no simple way to explain the development and role of the Brotherhood. Its complexity is demonstrated through its leaders’ professed beliefs. On the one hand, it would be accurate to say that they’re religious fundamentalists who believe the Quran should be the central organizing basis of political society. On the other, they’ve become fairly consistent in expressing rhetorical support (at least when out of power) for many core American principles.

According to a spokesman on its English-language website, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in reform, democracy, freedom of assembly, press, etc.

“We believe that the political reform is the true and natural gateway for all other kinds of reform. We have announced our acceptance of democracy that acknowledges political pluralism, the peaceful rotation of power and the fact that the nation is the source of all powers. As we see it, political reform includes the termination of the state of emergency, restoring public freedoms, including the right to establish political parties, whatever their tendencies may be, and the freedom of the press, freedom of criticism and thought, freedom of peaceful demonstrations, freedom of assembly, etc. It also includes the dismantling of all exceptional courts and the annulment of all exceptional laws, establishing the independence of the judiciary, enabling the judiciary to fully and truly supervise general elections so as to ensure that they authentically express people’s will, removing all obstacles that restrict the functioning of civil society organizations, etc.”

As a political opposition party in a region where basic freedoms are lacking, suppressed, or indefinitely suspended, the Brotherhood has learned the language of civil and human rights, and their political critiques can sound like they’re coming from Amnesty International or the ACLU. That may be more expedient than sincere in some respects, but it’s not the language of terrorism. That’s not to say that the Brotherhood has not ever been responsible for terrorism and violence, it most certainly has, but that’s mostly been directed at toppling or undermining regimes like Anwar Sadat’s government, which was a hardly a beacon of political legitimacy.

Americans may not have a whole lot in common with the Brotherhood but we should recognize a shared loathing of monarchs and dictators. If the kings, princes, and emirs of the Arabian peninsula don’t like anti-monarchial organizations, that’s to be expected and it doesn’t make them credible when they term all of their political opponents as “terrorists.”

Of course, American interests in the Middle East are complicated and it’s not possible to consistently hold true to the purest version of our principles when we’re seeking to make military alliances, secure the global energy supply, and engage in commerce with a grouping of despots. In some cases, the enemies of our allies are still enemies even if they have a damn good point about the inadequacies, corruption, and cruelty of their leaders.

Yet, even if we acknowledge this, it’s still quite possible to be a geopolitical realist and at the same time consider it completely wrong for American companies to form mercenary units for the purpose of wiping out the political opposition of kleptocratic royal families.

To the extent that President Obama was aware of this arrangement and may have signed off on it, I think he’s subject to legitimate criticism. In truth, I don’t know what his knowledge or involvement might have been, but this program did start on his watch.

If you go to the National Review, however, you’ll see Jim Geraghty explaining that there are only two probable reactions to learning about the targeted assassination program. If you’re a Democrat, you probably hate it but are conflicted because you don’t want to tarnish Obama’s reputation. If you’re a Republican, you obviously think it’s “awesome.”

You probably have one of two reactions to a story like this.

One: “This is awesome. I want every anti-American extremist in the world looking over his shoulder and hiding in fear, and if this is the sort of thing that gets a person afraid to join an Islamist group, or that will cut down the next Osama bin Laden early in his career instead of late in it, God bless them.”

Two: “Dear God, this is horrifying. This is an assassination program that is staffed by Americans, targeting and executing foreign political leaders without any charges or trial, and our government is, if not explicitly endorsing these actions, giving these actions a tacit blessing.”

One complicating wrinkle for those who have the second reaction: The BuzzFeed story begins by describing an attempted assassination on December 29, 2015, and discusses the campaign of covert strikes in Yemen progressing throughout 2016. In other words, this isn’t some horrific, brutal Trump-administration policy that enables these actions; all of this started on the Obama administration’s watch.

What’s telling is that Geraghty says that “those who who have the second reaction” of horror are necessarily supporters of Barack Obama. Barack Obama critics are almost uniformly in the other camp, casting every member of the Muslim Brotherhood as anti-American and a potential future terrorist who should be slaughtered by American mercenaries, with the backing of Arab monarchs.

Unfortunately, Gerhaghty’s stereotypes of American reactions are probably more accurate than we might wish. But I don’t see how that speaks well of the right.

It’s not a good thing to be incapable of complex or nuanced thought. If you can’t tell the difference between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s not a point in your favor. It’s not a good thing to take the side of cruel and corrupt monarchs against people who are advocating for free elections and common sense political reforms. It’s not a good thing to advocate the killing of anyone who makes you the tiniest bit uncomfortable, let alone to cheerlead when your countrymen do the killing for money.

I do not intend to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as some uncomplicated and laudable organization. It is, in many ways, contemptible. But it’s a sad statement about where the Republican Party stands today that you can’t find more than a tiny handful of people with the knowledge and sophistication and moral compass to have any other reaction to this program than “it’s awesome.”

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.