Notes From the Margins…

President Kill

  • June 05, 2012
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Last week’s New York Times piece  on Barack Obama’s personal involvement in approving the ‘kill list’ of targets for drone strikes has generated a lot of discussion and attention, and with good reason.

The article shines a grim light on Obama’s fervent commitment to a ‘war on terror’ that appears to have  no strategic logic and no clear objectives beyond the accumulation of body counts, killing for the sake of killing – and enhancing his own election prospects through a demonstration of presidential ‘toughness’.

The decision-making process described by the Times reveals a world in which morality and values are conspicuously absent, and a ‘war’ waged by men who sit in offices and tick off lists of targets from countries across the world based on criteria that is not subjected to any external scrutiny.  Take the low numbers of civilians routinely cited by the administration during drone attacks, which the Times attributes to a ‘counting system’ that

 in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.

Then there is the ‘nominations’ process, ultimately signed off by Obama himself:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.  This secret ‘nominations’ process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda”s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

According to the president’s advisor John O. Brennan, the decision to order a drone strike is determined by the “infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

As the Times observes, however

The administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantanamo.

In the view of some interviewees, Obama’s determination to avoid such ‘complications’ and give his imprimatur to the ‘nominations’ process stems from a strong sense of morality and a determination to apply the ideas of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas  to  a war in which the enemy ‘has no rules’ – as the Times puts it – and also to reduce the damage done to America’s image abroad.

The idea that states must change ‘the rules’ in order to fight an enemy that doesn’t obey them is an old counterterrorism cliché, which has often acted as a pretext and a catalyst for barbarism, and Obama’s ‘nominations process’ is no exception.

Yesterday 17 ‘suspected militants’ were killed in a drone strikein North Waziristan.  On Sunday 10 more ‘suspected militants’ were killed by a drone missile while praying at the funeral of a ‘militant commander’ in South Waziristan.

If the Times is to be believed, these strikes were all approved by Obama, following careful analysis of intelligence data regarding whether these militants were suspicious enough to be killed, and/or whether the targets were significant enough to allow a certain amount of latitude in determining the acceptability of ‘collateral damage’.

Regardless of whether the targets were actual or merely ‘suspected’ militants, it’s difficult to imagine how attacks like these can improve America’s image, in Pakistan or anywhere else, let alone that they can protect ‘mitigate the threat to American lives’, as John O. Brennan puts it.

On the contrary, the outrage at such attacks in Pakistan is well-known, as it is in other countries where drones have been used, such as Yemen and Somalia.   An omnipotent national-security establishment with global technological reach may regard such anger as an acceptable cost of low-intensity warfare, and may even convince itself that such targeted killings are winning the war.

Some will see Obama’s ‘kill-list’ as a confirmation of the lawless violence unleashed by the world’s most powerful democracy since the 9/11 attacks. And some may conclude that Obama’s peace prize was the greatest mistake undertaken by the Nobel Committee since Sadat and Begin, and that behind the sonorous gravitas that enabled Obama to win the last election – any may yet win him this one –  is one of the most effective con-tricks ever played on the American public.

And others may wonder at the startling transformation of a former lawyer and community activist into President Kill,  ticking off hit lists in the Oval Office in a process that he and his colleagues see as new kind of war, but which really looks a lot like shooting fish in a barrel.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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