“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
–Lord Acton (1834-1902)
Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012.
Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Assessing Obama’s Counterterrorism Record, New York Times,” May 29, 2012.
Marc A. Thiessen, “The Obama-Bush doctrine”, The Washington Post, May 31, 2012 (opinion).
Tara McKelvey, “Covering Obama’s Secret War; When drones strike, key questions go unasked and unanswered,”Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2012.
Andrew Rosenthal, “President Obama’s Kill List,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012 (Taking Note: The Ediorial Page Editor’s Blog).
Editorial, “Too Much Power for a President,” New York Times, May 30, 2012.
William Saletan, “Beyond the Kill List; On the dark side of the drone war, Obama’s rules don’t apply,” Slate, May 30, 2012
Amy Davidson, “The President’s Kill List,” The New Yorker (Daily Online Comment), May 30, 2012.
Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “Inside the CIA’s ‘Kill List':
An excerpt from Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” September 6, 2011, Frontline, September 6, 2011.
Jonathan Miller, “Obama’s Secret Terrorism ‘Kill List’,” National Journal,
May 29, 2012.
David S. Cloud, “CIA drones have broader list of targets; The agency since 2008 has been secretly allowed to kill unnamed suspects in Pakistan.” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2010.
Kevin Gosztola, “Obama’s Personal Role in Drone Executions,” The Dissenter (Firedoglake.com), May 29, 2012.
Is Obama incompetent as a foreign policy leader?
Perhaps it is a blessing for President Barack Obama that he is not too impressed by or attracted to the countries of Europe, for in five, 10 or 15 years he is not likely to be spending much vacation time there.
The charge that he is an incompetent leader when it comes to foreign policy, and is the head of a foreign policy team that could be characterized as “the gang who couldn’t shoot strait”, received significant support this week when the President, acting through leaks to the New York Times, revealed that he personally directs and authorizes the targeted executions by predator strikes in Yemen and Somalia, and about a third of the strikes in Pakistan (the more difficult and complex ones).
In addition to blowing the cover, sources and methods of the CIA agent in Abbottabad (Pakistan) who helped find Osama Bin Laden (by misleadingly posing as a doctor sponsoring an immunization campaign), the President has revealed a great number of operational details about the secret operation that led to the killing of Bin Laden in his bedroom.
Obama is obviously leaking details of hitherto covert actions in order to enhance his standing on foreign policy issues, for political purposes.
Moreover, “to spike the football”, to brag to the country and the world about his achievement, he made it plain that the Pakistani government had not known of the Abbottabad operation. He left no room for ambiguity, which might have served to help avoid the government’s and the military’s humiliation, and also to obfuscate a little what was a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s soverignty.
As a result, U.S. relations with Pakistan are at a nadir, with no signs of improving significantly soon. Unless they do, the whole future of the Afghanistan venture will be placed gravely in doubt.
The Nation’s “Executioner in Chief”
But the above is mere background for the revelations this week, which raise far deeper issues of character, issues which go far beyond competency.
The Observer will never think of Barack Obama in the same way in the future, now that he has revealed through anonymous government sources that he has become the nation’s “Executioner in Chief”. To the extent these actions cannot be justified under international law–and a great number clearly cannot be, he could of course be termed the nation’s “Assassin in Chief”. This is the reason he may have to choose his travel plans carefully in five, 10 or 15 years.
Assuming the power and moral authority of a god, Obama, the leader of the nation’s foreign policy “juggernaut”, has decided that he will be the person who decides who will live or die, which members on the “kill list” will die today, as a result of his pulling the trigger on the drone and special operations killing machine of the United States. The list is updated at a weekly government meeting by teleconference, with a hundred participants, who add and subtract names, and then pass the “nominations” list to the Oval Office.
Obama has become like a vengeful god who willingly kills people when he doesn’t even know their names, on the basis of their bad associations (e.g., membership in a bad or “terrorist” organization), their bad social profile (e.g., males over 14 years old, acting in “signature” bad patterns), or simply the fact they may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama has taken “guilt by association” to an entirely new level, that of “execution for association”.
The news, while not entirely new, is incredibly shocking. The president assassinates people every day, or almost every day. Without judicial process. Without any accountability under either domestic or international law.
Justification in accordance with a legal memorandum which is itself classified is no legal justification at all, at least not in a democratic state governed by law. The duty of public legal justification of government actions is an absolute and bedrock principle of the rule of law, on both the domestic and the international levels.
His Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, performed a similar function authorizing CIA drone strikes when he was Director of Central Intelligence. As Secretary of Defense, he may now be approving similar strikes by the military when they are not referred to Obama to pull the trigger.
Let us stop and think for a minute.
What does it mean when our President, on a daily or almost daily basis, from the Oval Office or from wherever he may be, personally decides to kill one or a number of people, and in effect pulls the trigger, perhaps watching on a live video feed the execution of his order?
Can we speak meaningfully of “civilian control of the military”, when the president himself assumes a wartime combat role, and in effect functions not as a check on the military, but as an enabler, as a killer himself?
What does the daily participation in such activities do to an individual’s mind, and more importantly, to his soul?
We’ve known for some time that the President had a double character, that he was in the classical sense a Doppelgänger, but only now can we begin to appreciate how crooked one of his two characters has become, how warped and twisted it now appears under the examining power of any moral lens.
He exercises now the awesome powers that dictators in the past have ascribed to themselves, men like Stalin and Hitler, and others of more modern vintage.
What does it tell us about a person when we learn he is willing to kill an innocent woman or child, or boy or man for that matter, if it is part of the cost of killing his intended target, or even of killing a group of people who have the characteristics of the enemy, who he would gladly kill by name if only he knew their names?
What does it tell us that he is willing to kill that innocent woman and that child, not as unintended collateral damage but as quite foreseeable results of his pulling the trigger?
In what moral universe does he reside?
His apologists say that in moral terms he lives in the world of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and the latter’s justifications of “just wars” and “unjust wars”–as understood in the thirteenth century. In understanding Aquinas and other moral authorities, interpreted for him by his spiritual guide who is “almost like a priest”, John Brennan, Obama is also relying on a former CIA official who was at the heart of the Bush torture program, and who got comfortable with torture.
“The end justifies the means” seems to be the operative principle here.
This principle, when all the words and moral posturings are parsed, is the principle that is followed, the principle that is operative. This principle operates, in the Oval Office and elsewhere in the government, under the leadership of President Obama, despite the fact that the entire constitutional and legal history of the United States has been founded on a rejection of the pernicious idea it expresses.
How could a president involved on a daily or almost daily basis in such god-like decisions regarding which specific individuals will live or die–based on baseball cards summarizing the pertinent facts in favor of their death or survival, and involved further in the actual conduct of the extrajudicial killing operation, how could such a person dispassionately lead the government in designing its foreign policy and conducting its foreign affairs?
The warrior appears to have been captured by the wrenching emotional experience of war-fighting, of personally fighting the war. In fact, it is quite conceivable that Obama is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In thinking about his daily routines, and the war-fighting component of his life each day, it may be useful to review the DSM-5 criteria–the diagnostic criteria of the current proposed revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the authoritative diagnostic guide for mental conditions developed and used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.
Obama appears to think only in terms of perpetual warfare, like the warfare he is engaged in, personally, on an almost daily basis.
He has no vision of peace, and is unable to use his imagination to explore actions that might lead to peace. Beyond speeches, his foreign policy seems to be primarily reactive in nature. He has led few successful international initiatives. His administration has not secured a single multilateral international convention (treaty) of any great significance.
He has no appreciation of international law, which is a priori a fundamental building block of peace. One cannot imagine nations living together in peace without binding rules governing their behavior, including “rules of recognition” permiting the identification of such rules, and ultimately some kind of third-party judgment or decision as to the validity of conduct alleged to violate the rules. All of these rules, including those establishing an impartial judgment process, are known as rules or norms of international law.
In fact, there has been quite a lot of history since St. Thomas Aquinas. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) led to the founding of international law and the modern system of nation states through the writings of Hugo Grotius and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
That system of international law has developed over a period of more than three and a half centuries, and in particular following the ineffable horrors of World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945).
There is a body of binding international law governing the use of force, which is applicable to drone strikes including the selection of targets. There is also a body of international law that prohibits the use of torture.
Obama, mumbling about Thomas Aquinas and the theoreticians of the “just war”, under the guidance of a high priest who himself became comfortable with torture and violation of the international law prohibiting torture (and U.S. law as well), has in effect turned his back on those three and a half centuries of developments in international law.
In justifying his drone and special operations activities, he has distorted the “law of war” or international humanitarian law, which has developed to mediate the horrors of war and to spare civilians, in order to purportedly justify these activities–without, however, subjecting his legal arguments to impartial international judgment.
The world America’s “Assassin in Chief” envisions is a world where he and John Brennan, and Leon Panetta, or their successors, will still need to meet weekly, or more often, as will a “nominations” group composed of a hundred other government officials, to decide who shall live and who shall die, as a result of their decisions, in the coming week or weeks.
Who, aside from the president himself, is responsible for Obama’s double character dragging him down into a dark and lightless place where even his soul cannot breathe?
Could it be the legions of fellow citizens who couldn’t take the trouble to think seriously about what Bush and then Obama were doing with their drone and special operations programs? Could it be the foreign policy experts, political leaders, and journalists who may have felt uneasy but who did not act, or who even willingly, gladly, drank the cool-aid as we descended into this moral abyss?
The Trenchant Observer
For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here.