Obama-speak Drone Warfare Lexicon and the meaning of “near certainty”

For years now, the Obama administration has been following in the grand tradition of the George W. Bush administration by giving old words and expressions new meanings and basing institutional killing policy upon their neologisms and redefinitions. Bush got the ball rolling with offense = defense, but Obama has gone above and beyond the call of propaganda duty:

  1. imminent no longer implies immediacy. Imminent really means potential.
  1. combatants are military-age males located in hostile territories. Combatants need not bear arms, and need not pose any direct threat to the life of any human being when they are killed. They may be killed when the “opportunity” arises, because
  1. last resort now means feasible
  1. hostile territories are places where the US government may kill unarmed persons with impunity because of the infeasibility of capture, which usually translates as “not worth the trouble and expense”. In special cases (Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki), infeasibility of capture really means that “death is the preferred outcome”. Hostile territories need not be declared war zones, but they are the new battlefields.
  1. battlefields are the places at which the US government (CIA or DoD) has decided to launch missiles from weaponized drones lurking and stalking above where suspected militants are said to hide.
  1. suspected militants become terrorists upon their execution by the US government, unless they happen to be Western hostages, in which case the president himself will issue a public apology to the families of the victims and send them a large bag of money so that they will “let bygones be bygones”, in other words: shut up.
  1. acts of war need not be carried out by military personnel. Acts of war may be carried out by intelligence agents or private contractors (formerly known as mercenaries).
  1. All covert actions are now acts of war, but because they are still covert, there is no need to disclose to the public any of the gory details. Three magical words are all that are needed:
  1. State Secrets Privilege, which means that the US government can do whatever it wants to whomever it wants for whatever reasons it deems sufficient. CIA Director John Brennan said it best: “What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues and at the same time optimize secrecy”. So the “transparency” part is where we are (transparently) told that all information is privileged and therefore secret, and need not be shared with any citizen, not even the bereft survivors of tragic targeting errors.

Near certainty is the epistemic standard which must be met before carrying out a drone strike, according to President Obama in a speech delivered on May 23, 2013. There must be near certainty that no civilians are present before a missile is launched at the intended target. One way to achieve that lofty aim is to reason as follows:

  1. All military-age males in hostile territories are unlawful combatants incapable of surrender, because they are metaphysical terrorists who may be dispatched en masse in cost-effective (!) crowd killing.
  2. In a signature strike, a target’s actions reflect a disposition matrix of known terrorist behavior patterns. Every savvy analyst affirms that men who bear arms in remote tribal regions = terrorists. And a fortiori when they are Arabs.

In reality, the US government regularly kills people without having the slightest idea who they are, as was demonstrated in April 2015 when two hostages were slain along with a group of suspected terrorists. Therefore, in Obama-speak:

  1. near certainty means absolute uncertainty.

George Orwell must be turning over in his grave.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (the whole book).

Should the brother of a war criminal be permitted to run for president? The curious case of Jeb Bush

Quite a few people seem to be supporting Jeb Bush’s bid for the US presidency. Oddly enough, they seem to be some of the very people who found nothing wrong with either the JSOC execution of Khalid bin Laden along with his father at the family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, or the drone killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki not long after his father was taken out by a Hellfire missile in Yemen.

Given these data points, we must ask: Are the relatives of alleged terrorists guilty by association or not? When the US government dispatched Khalid bin Laden along with his father, was this not because they regarded him as guilty by association? When the US government killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki shortly after his sixteenth birthday (making him fair game according to the definition of all “military-age males” as combatants), was this not because they found him potentially guilty by association? Was it not because they feared that he might make a good terrorist, given what they took to be the nature of his father?

If the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was actually a mistake, and only coincidentally carried out shortly after his sixteenth birthday—a bizarre shot-in-the-dark missile aiming at someone else entirely—then the perpetrators may write it off as collateral damage. But how else can the intentional, premeditated killing of the unarmed son of Osama bin Laden be understood? This case (or pattern, if Abdulrahman was intentionally slain) suggests that US officials consider blood relations fair game for targeting because of their potential to become active terrorists in the future.

In consistency, should not the brother of a war criminal who actively terrorized millions and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, mostly innocent, at the very least be considered disqualified from being a candidate for the office of US president?

Why is Jeb Bush even a contender?


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing

Is ISIS or Al Qaeda the Greater Threat to Peace and Stability? There is a Third Way.

US officials have been debating the all-important question: ISIS or Al Qaeda? I suggest that the policymakers need to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Before the 1991 Gulf War and the establishment of permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, Al Qaeda did not exist. Before the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, ISIS did not exist. Before 2012-13, when the “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria were furnished with 600 tons of weapons covertly by the caustic incompetence agency, President Obama derided ISIS as “JV”, that is, “junior varsity”. One year later, they had taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. But wait, there’s more.

Before Obama ousted Libyan president Muammar Gaddaffi in 2011, Libya was not democratic, but it was far more stable than it is today. Before Bush ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was being run by a dictator (empowered by the US govt), but it was far more stable than it is today. But wait, there’s more.

From 2002 to 2012, the US government bribed two successive presidents of Yemen to cede their country’s sovereignty, permitting the assassination of persons whose names had been added to hit lists by US analysts. Today Yemen lies in shambles, with security conditions far worse than before its leaders collaborated with the US “killing machine”.

US leaders denounce the “evil enemy” and then implement policies which create even more of them. Debating who is the most nefarious “bogeyman du jour” is a red herring. The sad truth is that US foreign policy is a disastrous Ponzi scheme, and it went from bad to much worse under both Bush and Obama. US interventions abroad now serve only one purpose: to provide politicians with rhetorical fodder, at the expense of the security of millions of people on the other side of the world.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 9: Death and Politics

Is US Counterterrorism policy the definition of insanity?

a couple of other possibilities:

7. Those in charge do not understand the distinction between tactics and strategy.  Targeted killing is all tactic and no strategy.

8. Following in the grand tradition of George W. Bush, the Obama administration’s guiding principle of foreign policy is:

“When in doubt, go kill people.”

U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy Is the Definition of Insanity