Obama’s Gift to Trump: Monarchic War Powers

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Senator Rand Paul is to be commended for forcing his colleagues to address the endless wars in the Middle East and proposing that they sunset the 2001 and 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force). This past week, Senator Paul incisively observed in multiple addresses before the Senate body that lawmakers have not debated the topic of war for fifteen years, despite the fact the US constitution vests the war powers of the United States of America not in the president but in the US Congress, the legislative, not the executive branch of government. The Congress may have granted the president permission to take the nation to war in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, but they never explicitly authorized five of the seven wars currently underway.

The 2002 AUMF, which passed in October 2002 and opened the way to a war waged on the false pretense of non-existent WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and an equally nonexistent connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, specifically granted the US president the liberty to take the United States to war in Iraq. Being country specific, the 2002 AUMF cannot be reasonably interpreted to provide authorization for the ongoing US military missions in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan. (Not to mention Nigeria or Cameroon, where US drones hover and Special Forces “advise” as well.)

One might with good reason wonder whether any AUMF should not be specific to the president to whom it was granted, but President Barack Obama repeatedly insisted that the 2001 AUMF provided him with all the authorization he needed to lob missiles where and when he pleased. It was in fact the primary basis for his expansion of the war on terror to include the use of lethal drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), to kill persons suspected of terrorism anywhere on the planet. Here is the text of the 2001 AUMF resolution:

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

This Authorization of Military Force grants the executive the power to pursue anyone associated in any way with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It does not, however, authorize the killing of persons who were small children or, in some cases, not even born at that time. Nonetheless, given how they have been used, the two AUMFs have proven to be tantamount to the relinquishment by lawmakers of any responsibility or duty to decide when and whether the United States should take the extreme measure of warfare, perpetrating acts of state homicide against persons located abroad. Throughout the Obama presidency, from 2009 through 2016, the 2001 AUMF was repeatedly invoked by the administration in defense of its expansion of the war on terror to include the virtually nonstop bombing of several countries and the erection of drone bases in support of a full-fledged drone killing machine used to eliminate thousands of suspects throughout the Middle East and Africa.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were of course started by the Bush administration, but Obama, despite having campaigned on the promise to end the “stupid” war in Iraq, presumed the validity of the AUMF granted to his predecessor as he stepped up the killing of terrorist suspects in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and carried out mass bombing in both Libya and Syria. Obama’s use of military force in Libya in 2011—which he remarkably claimed was not an act of war and therefore did not require congressional approval—effected a regime change no less than had Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

It has been obvious for some time that Obama’s primary legacy would be his ill-fated decision to normalize assassination by drone—rebranding it as an act of war, even outside areas of active hostilities—and opting to kill nearly all terrorist suspects identified as such in the Middle East, rather than throw them into Guantánamo Bay prison, which he promised to close but never did. The practices at GITMO and other prisons (including Abu Ghraib and Bagram) involved atrocious violations of human rights against the mostly innocent suspects, who found themselves in a Kafkaesque, justice-less labyrinth, but surely summary execution by drone of innocent men such as Shaker Aamer would have been even worse. Forty-one of the early GITMO detainees remain locked up without charges today, despite having been cleared for release years ago in some cases. Declining to add further detainees to the tally, Barack Obama opted instead to execute thousands of suspects never indicted or tried with any crimes and identified as suspects using the very same tools used to round up the detainees under Bush: HUMINT, or human intelligence (provided by bribed informants), and SIGINT, or signals intelligence (video footage from drones and metadata derived from cellphone and SIM card analysis).

How are we now, in 2017, to understand what has transmogrified into the perpetual motion US war machine, encompassing not only recognizable acts of war against armed combatants but also acts of assassination against persons outside areas of active hostilities who are not armed and therefore not threatening anyone with harm at the time of their incineration by missile in their own civil societies? Something did change since September 11, 2001, but something even more dramatic took place with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

For Obama was granted an unprecedented amount of interpretive charity by leftists, who wished for various reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, Obama managed to avoid criticism also from many on the right, perhaps because he surprised them with his willingness to kill rather than capture Osama bin Laden in 2011 and proved to be much friendlier toward the military industrial complex (MIC) than anyone might ever have imagined from the eloquent antiwar rhetoric of his 2008 election campaign.

It seems fair to say that Obama’s normalization of assassination by drone was a gift to everyone involved in the killing machine, including the firms privately contracted to produce the analysis used to construct kill lists, such as The Analysis Corporation, whose former president and CEO was none other than John Brennan himself, whom Obama promoted to be the director of the CIA in 2013. Of course the companies who produce the drones and the missiles launched from them against suspects have also been enriched enormously by Obama’s embracement of the drone as a primary counterterrorism tool.

But Obama’s war-friendly policies did not stop with the drone killing machine. Instead, the assassination industry proved to be his first step onto a rather slippery slope, leading ultimately to the mass bombing of seven different countries simultaneously, only two of which, Afghanistan and Iraq, were wars instigated by George W. Bush. Under Obama’s authority (again, he presumed with no effective protest from Congress the validity of the AUMF), more than 23K US bombs were dropped on the Middle East in 2015, and more than 26K in 2016.

In 2012, Obama exported record numbers of weapons to the government of Saudi Arabia, which proceeded to prosecute a horrific war in Yemen, still underway to this day, and has been further aided and abetted by the United States through refuelling and help with analysis. The tons of US weapons furnished to the Saudis have been used to devastate large swaths of Yemen, directly causing a humanitarian crisis including both mass starvation and a cholera epidemic. Interestingly enough, in early 2017, some leftists finally began to complain about US weapons exports when they saw that Trump was selling billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis. Yet the deals he oversaw had been in the works under Obama and likely would have received little criticism from Democrats, had they been completed during his presidency.

This brings us, at last, to a vexing question:

Why did 13 Democratic Senators just grant Donald J. Trump Monarchic War Powers?

Predictably enough, the Senators called to vote on the possibility of debate over the AUMFs rallied to keep the perpetual motion war machine up and running with no pause for reflection about such questions as:

  • Is the war in Afghanistan winnable? What would victory look like?
  • Why are US soldiers still being killed in Iraq? Isn’t it time to let Iraq determine its own destiny?
  • Why is the US government aiding and abetting a vicious civil war in Yemen? What is our national interest in that conflict supposed to be?
  • Should we not reflect upon and learn from the consequences of disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011? Does it make any sense to repeat the same mistake in Syria?
  • Why are there more radical jihadist terrorists, including the ISIS franchise in both Syria and Iraq, than there were in 2001?

In fact, the list of debate questions could go on and on. But instead of addressing these pressing matters of national security, the Senate once again kicked the can down the road, evading responsibility for whatever the president may do by letting him do whatever he wants. I am puzzled, however, as should anyone who has been watching the news since November 2016. I still cannot help wondering what in the world could motivate a group of Democratic senators, who claim vehemently to oppose the Trump agenda, to grant him unlimited, essentially monarchic, war powers.

Perhaps the senators who voted to table Senator Rand’s resolution are on the take. Some Democratic senators, like many of their Republican colleagues, may receive hefty campaign funding from one or more of the many tentacles of the MIC, which in the 21st century has become the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. Many parties today stand to profit from US government-inflicted homicide abroad, so the answer to my question may be as simple as that. In states whose economic well-being derives from companies with military contracts and subcontracts, senators may also fear that they will be electorally ousted if they do not unequivocally support war at every turn.

There is another possibility. Perhaps by acknowledging that the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 do not provide the needed authorization for five of the seven wars currently underway, the Democratic senators fear that they would be admitting, too, that Barack Obama prosecuted illegal wars and assassinated suspects in violation, not only of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, but also the US Constitution. Perhaps the decision to side with most Republicans against Senator Paul and in favor of the assumption of monarchic war powers on the part of the president was their latest unfortunate effort to give Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. For to deny that Trump has the right and authority to bomb Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Somalia, would be to assert that Obama also lacked that right and authority. Would such an admission not immediately open Obama to charges of having committed war crimes?

Whether any of these ideas surfaced to consciousness as the thirteen Democratic senators cast their vote, it cannot be denied that Barack Obama has ended up bestowing upon President Trump the gift that keeps on giving: unlimited, endless, monarchic war powers. Bravo.

Maybe I am overthinking all of this. Perhaps the thirteen Democratic senators who voted not to sunset the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in six months so that Congress could properly debate the seven wars underway—plus whatever wars the Trump administration may decide to add to the list—North Korea, Iran, Venezuela,… the sky is the limit!—did so for the simple reason that they do not believe the anti-Trump media. They do not believe that Trump is Hitler, as antifas have been screaming since the election. They do not believe that Trump is a Russian agent, a theory which Rachel Maddow of MSNBC appears to continue to embrace. They do not believe that Trump is unhinged and ultimately unfit to be the president of the United States. In fact, if actions betray beliefs, then these Democratic senators truly believe that, far from needing to be impeached, Trump should be King!

Whatever their contorted and possibly incoherent rationalizations may have been, the Democratic senators who voted to table Senator Paul’s resolution are simple cowards who doubtless believe that they will escape blame in the event of foreign policy catastrophes authorized not by them but by the president. That certainly seems like a sound explanation for Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s abstention. But if these senators’ vote (or refusal to vote) was a simple matter of shirking responsibility, I am afraid that those who abstained, and the thirteen Democrats who sided with Republicans to defeat Senator Paul’s resolution, are all dead wrong. Refusing to debate war, a Congressional responsibility written into the US Constitution, is the same as tacit assent. The senators who effectively agreed to leave the AUMFs in place will now be directly responsible for every dead US soldier henceforth, and for every terrorist attack instigated in retaliation to US war crimes abroad.

 

The Vote Breakdown on the Motion to Table Senator Rand’s Amendment

YEAs —61: These senators voted to table Senator Paul’s amendment, in other words, not to debate the AUMFs during a six-month period before they would expire without positive Congressional action
Alexander (R-TN)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Blunt (R-MO)
Boozman (R-AR)
Burr (R-NC)
Capito (R-WV)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Cassidy (R-LA)
Cochran (R-MS)
Collins (R-ME)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Cortez Masto (D-NV)
Cotton (R-AR)
Crapo (R-ID)
Cruz (R-TX)
Daines (R-MT)
Donnelly (D-IN)
Enzi (R-WY)
Ernst (R-IA)
Fischer (R-NE)
Flake (R-AZ)
Gardner (R-CO)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hassan (D-NH)
Hatch (R-UT)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johnson (R-WI)
Kennedy (R-LA)
Lankford (R-OK)
Manchin (D-WV)
McCain (R-AZ)
McCaskill (D-MO)
McConnell (R-KY)
Moran (R-KS)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Perdue (R-GA)
Portman (R-OH)
Reed (D-RI)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Rounds (R-SD)
Sasse (R-NE)
Schatz (D-HI)
Scott (R-SC)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Shelby (R-AL)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Strange (R-AL)
Sullivan (R-AK)
Thune (R-SD)
Tillis (R-NC)
Toomey (R-PA)
Warner (D-VA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wicker (R-MS)
Young (R-IN)

NAYs —36: These senators voted with Senator Paul not to table his amendment 
Baldwin (D-WI)
Bennet (D-CO)
Blumenthal (D-CT)
Booker (D-NJ)
Brown (D-OH)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Coons (D-DE)
Duckworth (D-IL)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Franken (D-MN)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Harris (D-CA)
Heinrich (D-NM)
Heitkamp (D-ND)
Heller (R-NV)
Hirono (D-HI)
Kaine (D-VA)
King (I-ME)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Leahy (D-VT)
Lee (R-UT)
Markey (D-MA)
Merkley (D-OR)
Murphy (D-CT)
Murray (D-WA)
Paul (R-KY)
Peters (D-MI)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Tester (D-MT)
Udall (D-NM)
Van Hollen (D-MD)
Warren (D-MA)
Wyden (D-OR)

Not Voting – 3
Menendez (D-NJ)
Nelson (D-FL)
Rubio (R-FL)

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Eye in the Sky: Where Nihilism and Hegemony Coincide

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Eye in the Sky (2015) is the first feature-length film about drone warfare to have received a decent amount of mainstream attention. This no doubt has something to do with the high-caliber cast, including lead roles by Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Big names imply big budgets. But there’s another reason why this movie, directed by Gavin Hood, has been discussed more than National Bird (2016), Good Kill (2015), Drone (2014), Drones (2013), Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), or Dirty Wars (2013).

None of these films is entertaining. Eye in the Sky, like some of the others in this growing genre, presents itself as a work of historical fiction, grounded in what is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of the contemporary practice of drone warfare against persons suspected of association with radical jihadist groups. But rather than condemning the remote-control killers, as the other films unequivocally do, Eye in the Sky portrays the protagonists wrestling with the complexities of morality before launching missiles and then congratulating one another on their success.

The “evil enemy” here, in Nairobi, Kenya, is Al Shabaab, and the fate of one of their cells is the subject of lengthy and sophistic “just war” debate among the drone warriors. A contingent of US and British military and civilian officials communicate with one another from different parts of the world over Skype-like video feed, and after arguing over the course of the workday, they ultimately decide to execute the suspects, who appear to be preparing to carry out a suicide attack in the proximate future or, as the drone warriors would say, “imminently”.

One of the suspects is a US citizen, recently recruited from Minnesota, and two are British nationals. The white woman, Susan Danford—nom de guerre Ayesha Al Hady—has been tracked by Colonel Powell for a remarkable six years. Powell is keen to kill Danford, even after having summarized her life’s story as that of a person who came from a troubled household, married a terrorist, and was converted to the jihadist cause as a result of her vulnerability.

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The mission is supposed to culminate in capture, not killing, but when the group of suspects convenes at a house where a suicide vest is being assembled and a video message filmed, the military officials immediately call for a missile strike, to the initial protests of the civilian political officials in attendance, who insist that they are there to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.

The rest of the film is essentially an extended consideration of a version of what professional analytic philosophers call “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment wherein people are persuaded that they must kill some people in order to save others. Such hypothetical scenarios—like the proverbial ticking bomb, which is said by some to illustrate the necessity of torture under certain circumstances—involve an eerie desire on the part of some thinkers to persuade others to condone what, left to their own devices, they would never have agreed to do. As David Swanson has correctly observed, there is no known case in reality of drone warriors who kill a person and his entourage as they strap a suicide vest onto the martyr’s chest. That is why singling out this wildly implausible and entirely hypothetical scenario as representative of drone warfare in general is a consummate expression of pro-military propaganda.

eyeintheskydroneoperatorsEye in the Sky attempts to portray the dilemmas involved in drone warfare but ultimately serves to promote the drone warriors’ all-too-sophistic modes of reasoning. Rather than ask deep and important questions such as how Al-Shabaab became such a powerful force in, first, Somalia and, later, places such as Kenya, the film allows the viewer steeped in New York Times headlines touting “Six Suspected Militants Slain” to float along blissfully in his or her state of ignorance regarding what precisely the US and British governments have been doing in the Middle East for the past sixteen years.

No indication is made of the fact—and frankly I’d be surprised if Director Hood himself were aware—that the US-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led directly to a massive increase in local support for Al-Shabaab. It’s all-too-easy and comforting to swallow the official line that the members of local militias being targeted by drone strikes are “bad guys” who need to be extirpated from the face of the earth, even when it is likely that many of the people intentionally destroyed have been dissidents (or their “associates”) seeking to challenge the central government authority. (See Yemen for another example.)

It is abundantly clear from the very fact that new recruits from the United States and Britain—indeed, the very targets of the mission in this story—have been primarily either troubled youths or persons outraged at the Western devastation of the Middle East, and now Africa. Yet the film blithely allows the viewer to persist in puzzlement over the perennial question: Why do they hate us?

eyeintheskyhouseColonel Powell wants to kill people, as is obvious by her calling for a missile strike even before explosives are seen at the meeting place. (Do the director and screenwriter win points from feminists for making the most ruthless military killer and her radical jihadist quarry both women? Or from progressives for making them white?)

Both Colonel Powell and General Benson consider Susan Danford’s allegiance with Al-Shabaab to be, essentially, a capital offense. They don’t bother with niceties such as the fact that capital punishment has been outlawed in the United Kingdom. Instead, the military personnel seek refuge in and parrot the simpleminded terms of just war theory which they learned in first-year ethics class at the military academy.

The missile strike is said to be a military necessity, proportional, and a last resort. It has furthermore been authorized by the legitimate authority, aka the US president, to whom the British continue to defer, even after the scathing Chilcot report in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was taken to task for embroiling Britain in the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq. As though none of that ever happened, when President Barack Obama normalized the targeted assassination of anyone in any place on the planet where radical jihadist terrorists are said by some anonymous analyst to reside, Prime Minister David Cameron, too, followed suit. In August 2015, he authorized missile strikes from drones against British nationals in Syria, despite the Parliament’s having voted down his call for war in 2013.

Perhaps Cameron was impressed by Barack Obama and drone killing czar John Brennan’s oft-flaunted fluency in just war rhetoric. Unfortunately, in Eye in the Sky, the sophomoric facility of the assassins with the terms of just war theory may, too, be taken as evidence to ignorant viewers that these people in uniform know what they are talking about and should be trusted with the delicate decision of where, when, and why to summarily execute human beings who have not been charged with crimes, much less permitted to stand trial.

The question how a missile strike in a country not at war can be conceived of as a military necessity is altogether ignored in this film, as though it were already a settled matter. Someone in the US government (President Obama under the advisement of John Brennan, former president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the business of which is terrorist targeting analysis) decreed that the entire world was a battlefield, and this opened up every place and other governments to the delusive casuistry of just war theorists, including their most strident advocates for war, the self-styled “humanitarian hawks”.

eyeintheskylocalNo matter that in this case there are no military soldiers from either the United States or Britain on the ground to be harmed. No matter that their collaborators are local spies who do in fact commit acts of treachery against their compatriots and are indeed brutally executed when this is discovered. Despite the complete absence of any of the aspects of a war which might warrant a missile strike as a military necessity—above all, that soldiers on the ground will otherwise die—the itchy trigger drone warriors point to their version of the dreaded Trolley Problem and a false and misleading application of utilitarianism to convince the naysayers that they must approve the launch of a missile in order to avert an even worse tragedy.

The military personnel are more persuasive than the sole civilian dissenter, and no one seems to be bothered in the least by questions of strategy. The word ‘blowback’ is never even mentioned in this film. But judging by the growth of ISIS and Al-Shabaab over the past decade, and the testimony of suicide bombers such as Humam Al-Balawi (the Jordanian doctor who blew up a group of CIA personnel at Camp Chapman in 2009—in direct retaliation to US missile strikes on Pakistan), the tactic of drone assassination can reasonably be expected to cause the ranks of jihadists to continue to swell. No one denies that during the occupation of Iraq, an effective recruiting tactic of factional groups was to point to the civilians harmed by the Western infidels as confirmation that they were indeed the evil enemy. Knowing all of this, it does not seem unfair to ask: Is “military necessity” now conceived by the remote-control killers as whatever will ensure the continuation of a war?

eyeintheskybreadIn Eye in the Sky, the drone warriors are more than willing to risk the life of a little girl who has set up a table where she is selling loaves of bread because, they say, if they do not act immediately then perhaps eighty little children just like her will be killed instead. No mention is made of the psychological trauma suffered by the people who do not die in drone strikes, but witness what has transpired. (When was the last time one of your neighbors’ houses was cratered by a Hellfire missile?) Instead, the collateral damage estimate (CDE) so conscientiously calculated by a hapless soldier pressured by Colonel Powell to produce an estimated likelihood of the girl’s death at less than 50% altogether ignores the 100% probability that she and everyone in the neighborhood will be terrorized.

But even focusing solely on the likely lethality of the strike, the drone warriors in Eye in the Sky display what is in reality a lethal lack of imagination, an utter failure to conceive of counter measures such as warning the people in nearby markets and public places of the impending danger. That is because, in the minds of the drone warriors, if one terrorist attack is thwarted, then another will surely be carried out later on down the line. By this mode of reasoning, they have arrived at the depressing and nihilistic conclusion that they must kill all of the suspects. What would be the point of doing anything else?

Recruits from Western societies, young people such as Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, are assumed to be beyond the reach of reason, despite the glaring fact that their recent conversion to the jihadist cause itself reveals that they have changed their view before and could, in principle, change it again. Nonetheless, the drone warriors persist in their worship of death as the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. They are literally trapped in the lethality box, because they cannot conceive of any other way of dealing with factional terrorism than by killing people. When obviously innocent persons are destroyed, maimed, terrorized and left bereft by Western missiles, these acts of so-called military necessity end by galvanizing support for the Anti-Western jihadist cause, both near the strike site and in lands far away.

Realistically, what self-respecting father would not wish to avenge the death of his young child at the hands of the murderous drone warriors who are so despicable as to kill without risking any danger to themselves? Instead of thinking through the likely implications of what they are doing, the drone warriors persist in invoking delusive just war rhetoric to promote what they want to do: kill the evil enemy. But the use of lethal drones in what has been successfully marketed to taxpayers as “smart war”, eliminates soldierly risk only by transferring it to civilians on the ground. No matter that new recruits continue to flock to the jihadist cause, seems to be the thinking of our great military minds, missiles are in ample supply.

It is a depressing view of humanity indeed which sees homicide as the solution to conflict when in fact it is its primary cause. But the delusion of the drone assassins is even worse than the corruption of criminal contract killers because they emetically congratulate each other, as in this film, for pushing buttons to eliminate their fellow human beings from the face of the earth, as though this were some kind of accomplishment, rather than the worst of all possible crimes.

New recruits such as Susan Danford will never stop arising from the ashes of drone strike sites until the drone strikes have come to a halt. Indulging in a false and Manichean division of people into black and white categories of good and evil, the killers corrupt more and more young people to collaborate with them, both informants and drone operators. Those who perform well in their jobs rise in the ranks to become the commanders of future killers, until at last the entire society is filled with people who upon watching a film such as Eye in the Sky end by sympathizing not with the victims but with those who destroyed them.

eyeintheskybeetledroneFocused as they will be upon this simpleminded “Trolley Problem” portrayal of drone warfare, Western viewers will likely miss altogether the obscene hegemonic presumptions of the killers who use beetle- and bird-sized drones to penetrate the private homes of people in order to stop them from wreaking havoc in countries where there are no US or British soldiers on the ground to harm. To pretend that all of this killing is for the benefit of the locals is delusional to the point of insanity.

If serial Western military interventions had not destroyed country after country across the Middle East, beginning with Iraq in 1991, then there would be no “evil enemy” to confront in the first place. To continue to ignore the words of jihadists themselves when they rail against the savage butchery of millions of Muslim people by the US military and its poodles is but the most flagrant expression of this smug hegemony. No, I am afraid, they do not hate us for our freedom.

In Eye in the Sky, anyone who opposes the use of military weapons against people living in their own civil society thousands of miles away is painted as a coward and a fool, as though there were some sort of moral obligation to launch missiles to save a hypothetical group of eighty people. The very same killers do not feel any obligation whatsoever to provide food, shelter, and potable water to the people living in such societies, even when the $70K cost of a single missile could be repurposed to save many more than eighty lives, in addition to winning over “hearts and minds”.

Here is the ugly truth shining through the willingness to kill but not to save lives in nonhomicidal ways: Peace does not pay. The drone killing machine is the latest and most lucrative instantiation of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. That Westerners continue to be taken in by this hoax is tragic for the people of Africa and the Middle East mercilessly terrorized (when they are not maimed or incinerated) while the killers gloat over what they take to be their moral courage.

eyeintheskybensonNear the end of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Benson sanctimoniously admonishes the sole remaining dissenter among the witnesses to the mission, which she has denounced as “disgraceful”. He smugly retorts to her suggestion that he is a coward: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” But the cost of the remote-control elimination of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism is not merely the tragic loss of human life. It is the destruction of such killers’ souls and the concomitant creation of even more killers who feel the need to retaliate in turn. It is the fact that they have rolled back all of the moral progress in procedural justice made by human societies since the 1215 Magna Carta. It is the fact that their dogged insistence on perpetuating and spreading this practice to the darkest and least democratic corners of the planet represents a categorical denial of human rights.

US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.

It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.

It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.

Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.

As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.

At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.

Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.

Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.

The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.

Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com

Interview: Brexit/Trump, Neocon/Clinton, Lethal Drones & Free Speech

On Wednesday, November 2, 2016, I had an interesting midday conversation with Sean Sullivan of FMTalkRadio 106.5 in Mobile, Alabama. We discussed:

–parallels between the Brexit vote in the UK and the Trump movement in the US;

–Hillary Clinton’s disastrous Libya intervention and foreign policy plans for the future;

–arguments against the use of lethal drones outside war zones;

–what I mean by “We Kill Because We Can” (the title of my book on drone killing);

–a few words about the importance of free speech to a flourishing democracy.

Here’s a link to the podcast:

 

 

 

 

$100 a day as a retainer fee to serve as an assassin for President Clinton or President Trump?

 

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The US Air Force has been busy doling out US taxpayer cash, not only for the production of 30 more MQ-9 Reaper (read: death) drones by General Atomics, but also in the hopes of retaining drone operators willing to fly and fire missiles from them. The latest “incentive” being offered to RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operators is $35,000 each year for the next five years. That’s about $100 a day, on top of their current salary. All that they have to do is not quit their job once their first contract term has expired. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Not so good to the drone and sensor operators who have abandoned the profession as a result of their profound regret (in some cases they suffer from PTSD) for having ever agreed to serve as government assassins in the first place. Brandon Bryant was offered more than $100K to continue on, and he declined. Rather than attempt to understand the moral basis for drone operator discontent, the USAF has decided that really what the operators preparing to bolt need is more money. Who could resist?

If $100 a day as a retainer fee seems like enough of a bonus to continue serving as an on-call government assassin, then perhaps some of these people will stay on. But it is extremely important for them to be fully aware of what they are agreeing to do for the next five years of their lives. President Barack Obama, the current commander in chief, will be leaving office soon. In all likelihood either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will assume the presidency and carry on the Obama tradition of dispatching terrorist suspects by drone. It’s much easier, politically, than conventional warfare (no flag-wrapped coffins, no condolence letters to write), and Obama has effectively normalized assassination by rebranding it as “targeted killing”.

In truth, “targeted killing” using Predator or Reaper drones differs from assassination in only two ways. First, missiles are being used to kill targets, rather than other implements of homicide (pistols, poisons, strangulation wires…). Second, unlike most black op assassinations carried out by hit squads in the twentieth century, drone strikes produce collateral damage alongside the obliterated target. Remarkably, many people have not recognized that those are the only two ways in which the stalking, hunting down and execution of human beings by governments has changed in the Drone Age.

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“This is war,” allegedly, because “weapons of war” are used to effect the deaths, and unintended deaths of civilians are caused at the same time. Never mind that, in contrast to regular combat situations, the soldier who pushes the button to launch a missile is not in any direct danger of physical harm, least of all at the hands of his target, who is usually located thousands of miles away and has no idea that he is about to die. Drone operators and sensors might develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but their lives are never on the line when they follow orders to kill.

Given the reality of what they are doing, the drone and sensor operators who accept the latest bribe are in effect agreeing to execute anyone designated by either President Clinton or President Trump as worthy of death. The new US president won’t have to say why, because Barack Obama never did. The drone program has always been secretive and opaque, under cover of national security. The release of the “playbook” (Presidential Policy Guidance or PPG) did nothing to assuage the concerns of critics who have for years been demanding transparency.

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All that we know with certainty now is that President Obama was wrong when he told a group of listeners during a GoogleTalk chat in January 2012 that “it’s not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” That is, indeed, precisely what Barack Obama’s version of “due process” is. A massive, secretive, bureaucratic institution of killing, with no checks and balances and zero provision for revisiting death sentences handed down by anonymous officials (“folks in a room”) from behind closed doors, primarily on the basis of analysis (by “folks in a room”) of signals intelligence (SIGINT): metadata from cellphones and SIM cards, and drone video footage. Looks like a terrorist. Walks like a terrorist. Talks like a terrorist. Guilty as charged: send out the drones.

In some cases, bribed intelligence from informants on the ground (human intelligence or HUMINT) is used to supplement the electronic sources of “evidence” that the people being slaughtered truly deserve to die, along with anyone at their side at the time—the dreaded “associates”: taxi drivers, family members and friends, funeral or wedding attendees, first responders, the list goes on and on…

The problems with bribed intelligence from human sources are just as bad as the racial profiling inherent to SIGINT-based “signature strikes” or “crowd killing” of brown-skinned Muslims wearing turbans and carrying guns—or not. Hundreds of strikes have been carried out “outside areas of active hostilities” under Obama’s authorization. Today we know what happened when HUMINT was used to round up suspects for detention at Guantánamo Bay prison: most of the men incarcerated (86%) were innocent. “The worst of the worst” they were called at the time.

It is therefore very important for any drone operators and sensors considering the possibility of continuing on in their role as a professional assassin to recognize that they are agreeing to kill people who in many cases will be innocent of any wrongdoing—certainly any capital offense. Even worse, they are agreeing to serve as the henchman of a future president whom they may or may not believe to be either moral or good.

DonaldTrumpMany Americans have expressed concern that the Republican and Democratic parties have nominated candidates for the presidency who are wholly ill-suited for the task. In Trump’s case, we really have no idea what he will do. He’s the classic case of a “known unknown”. Some days he sounds like an isolationist ready and willing to put an end to US meddling in the Middle East; other days he sounds like Dr. Strangelove.

HillaryClinton2In Clinton’s case, we know precisely what she will do: send out the drones and expand and multiply the wars already raging in the Middle East. Amazingly, Hillary Clinton appears to believe that “third time’s a charm,” as she is calling for a repetition in Syria of the regime-change policy which failed so miserably in both Iraq and Libya.

On the drone front, Clinton surrogates have suggested that even nonviolent dissidents such as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange should be added to the US government’s hit list. Perhaps Clinton will try to outdo Obama (who executed US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki without trial), and Edward Snowden’s name will be added to the list as well. Not so far-fetched, given her evident antipathy toward technologically savvy whistleblowers…

Trump or Clinton? Who will the next US president be? Once having signed on the dotted line, drone operators and sensors will be expected to follow the orders of the commander in chief, whoever it may be. Maybe $100 a day as a retainer fee to serve as an on-call assassin isn’t such a good deal after all.

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

 

Exception or Precedent? The remote-control killing by police of a suspect on US soil

RobotKilledMicahJohnson

On July 8, 2016, a robot was used for the very first time to blow up a criminal suspect in the United States. Five Dallas city policemen had been slain, and several others injured. The perpetrator, Micah Xavier Johnson, was involved in a conversation with the police for a while, but when he began shooting again, the decision was taken to blow him up. The opportunity was there, the bomb-disposal robot was already in the possession of the police, and who could complain, given what this particular suspect had already done?

The robot used to blow up Micah Johnson was not a lethal drone, but it may as well have been. One might wonder how the police devised the idea of using a bomb-disposal robot to blow up a human being, but certainly the US drone program offers plenty of examples of the use of remote-control technology to incinerate, rather than capture, terrorist suspects.

US citizens have grown accustomed to their government killing people abroad, but the decision to kill by remote control in the homeland was extraordinary in that no attempt was made to incapacitate the suspect instead. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that policemen in dangerous scenarios often opt to shoot to kill, aiming for the heart or head, not the suspect’s foot or hand. However, it is not the role of the police to execute but to take into custody suspects so that their guilt can be determined by a jury of peers and, if convicted, an appropriate penalty applied.

Despite the grisly nature of what was done to Micah Johnson, many commentators have insisted that the police chief made the right call in deciding to blow the man up. But was this in fact his call to make? The precedent set by this action would seem to be yet another step down an ever-more lethal continuum rendered considerably more so by the current US president, Barack Obama, whose policy it is to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists located abroad.

The US administration continues to claim that in all of its thousands of targeted killings, capture has been infeasible and the premeditated, intentional acts of homicide have been necessary in national self-defense, all part of the Global War on Terror. Obama’s authority to kill suspects anywhere he chooses to do so—both inside and outside areas of active hostilities—is said to derive from the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) conferred by the US congress upon President George W. Bush about fifteen years ago.

As technology has become more and more sophisticated, it is highly ironic that the restraints on killing wrought over millennia, and the great advances in institutions of justice, beginning with the 1215 Magna Carta, have been forgotten or set aside. The suspects killed in the Global War on Terror by lethal drone are presumed guilty until proven innocent, but they are denied the right to demonstrate their innocence. They are denied even the right to surrender and usually have no idea that they are about to be killed. They are simply eliminated from the face of the earth at the behest of the US president’s henchmen at a time of their choosing, as the “opportunity” arises.

MicahJohnson

The blowing up of Micah Johnson by the police was triply ironic. Not only was he trained as a sniper by the US military, but the young African American was apparently protesting against police brutality against black men in the homeland. Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” arose out of anger at the police killings of a series of black men brought to the attention of the public by the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. But the response of the police to Johnson’s obviously misguided mission to target policemen was to ratchet up the brutality against black men yet another notch.

Rather than being riddled with bullets, the body of Micah Johnson, a black man, was blown up in a manner befitting a condemned building, not a human being. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that shooting to kill unarmed persons is somehow less objectionable, but only that the degree of sheer violence is much greater and the denial of the victim’s personhood highlighted by the use of a bomb to eliminate him.

After the use of a robotic device to obliterate the suspect, several Dallas officials made public statements to the effect that there was no other way to neutralize the threat posed by Micah Johnson. I can think of several. How about bombing the place where he was located with tear gas? SWAT teams certainly have gas masks in their arsenal of equipment, so the place could have been literally fumigated with gas using the same robot to deliver not explosives but agents of lachrymation. Or how about bombing the place with a gaseous form of sedative to knock him out so that the place could be secured and accessed by a team who would then be able to take the man into custody?

In this regard, the case of Micah Johnson bears comparison to that of Osama bin Laden, who was also executed when in fact he might have been shot with tranquilizer plugs rather than bullets. His unconscious body could have been lifted out of Abbottabad just as his corpse was, but the decision was taken by Obama to kill him instead. Bin Laden was widely reviled as the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and if not the architect, he was at the very least their inspiration, given his enthusiastic exhortations that Al Qaeda members wage jihad against the United States in retaliation to what he regarded as inexcusable war crimes, especially in the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath in Iraq.

The execution of Bin Laden and Micah Johnson are similar in another, even more significant, way. Both acts of killing look like exceptions, which took place in extraordinary circumstances. However, as precedents, both can be seen to set in motion a series of future actions modeled on them, because the exception swiftly transforms into the rule once initial inhibitions against intentional, premeditated homicide have fallen by the wayside. Under Obama’s greatly expanded drone program, which began in January 2009, shortly after the new president assumed his office, assassination of suspects has been rebranded as “targeted killing” and carried out primarily through the use of Hellfire missiles delivered by Predator drones.

The drone program and the execution of Bin Laden were mutually reinforcing. If lower-level “foot soldiers” whose names are not even known may be eliminated by drone, then why wouldn’t Bin Laden be fair game for elimination as well? Both the drone program and the execution of Bin Laden served to inform a further escalation of lethality when US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was executed in Yemen by his own government.

Was Al-Awlaki anything like Bin Laden? Of course not. But Al-Awlaki was mythologized as an execrable bogeyman in the mainstream media to the point where most Americans came to believe that he was morally equivalent to Bin Laden. To this day, most people have no idea that Al-Awlaki spoke out against the crimes of 9/11. He was a voice of moderation at the time, calmly counseling the government not to make the mistake of acting in ways which could easily be misconstrued as waging a war on Islam.

That was precisely what the US government proceeded to do. They invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that most of the perpetrators of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia, the government of which was given a free pass. Rather than focusing on those ultimately responsible for 9/11, the US government set out to harass Muslims such as Anwar al-Awlaki to such an extent, using both the FBI and foreign governments (in his case, President Saleh of Yemen), that in some cases the targeted suspects transmogrified into self-avowed enemies.

Was Anwar Al-Awlaki an operational terrorist, or was he a propagandist and cheerleader of sorts for jihad? Whatever source of inspiration some of the apprehended perpetrators of terrorist plots may have drawn from Al-Awlaki’s sermons, the fact remains that they and they alone chose to carry out violent acts. The evidence supposedly convicting Al-Awlaki of the capital crimes allegedly justifying his summary execution without trial continues to be withheld on grounds of State Secrets Privilege under a pretext of national security.

Exceptions quickly transform into rules when more and more agents agree to follow suit. Case in point: only a few years after Obama’s 2011 decision to execute Al-Awlaki by lethal drone, then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron chose in 2015 to eliminate two British nationals located in Syria using lethal drones. Now, apparently, this is what the US government and its allies do. Find people, even fellow citizens, who appear to be up to no good, and if they are located in a Third World country or war zone, then it’s supposed to be perfectly fine to execute them without trial. Just make sure that you use a missile so that you can call it an “act of war”.

In the case of Micah Johnson, the Dallas cop killer who was blown up by a robotic device operated by remote control, people may say that he obviously deserved to die and the police had no intention of risking the lives of any more of their comrades. But there were other “suspects” identified at the time of the crime as well, who might also have been blown up using robots, were they available, and had those suspects been located.

One fellow’s face was spammed all over Twitter. It turned out that he was not involved. What if some vigilante had taken him out, under the assumption that he needed to be neutralized? What if the angry Dallas police force had located that suspect and blown him up for the very reason that he adamantly denied having done anything wrong? He would have become the homeland analogue to collateral damage, now that the weapons of war are being used by law enforcement.

The risk aversion of war makers steadily increased over the course of only a couple of decades to the point where sacrificing the lives of civilians on the ground “outside areas of active hostilities” has come to be considered perfectly acceptable among US leaders. These are places where deadly missiles are being directed toward suspected terrorists even though they are not threatening anyone with death at the time when they are killed, and least of all US citizens. Indeed, the targets are usually unarmed, located as they are “outside areas of active hostilities”.

Given how the drone program inclined administrators toward killing rather than capturing Bin Laden, and given how the killing of Bin Laden then inclined administrators to kill even US citizen suspects by lethal drone, I predict a similar lethal turn in law enforcement in the homeland in the aftermath of the obliteration of Micah Johnson by remote control. It does not matter that his case was exceptional. The case of Bin Laden was exceptional, too.

The same risk aversion seen among the “light footprint” war makers led by Obama will begin to infect police departments all over the United States as the commanders of men in blue become less and less willing to allow them to die, even when the risk of killing innocent bystanders will obviously increase. It is of course rational to attempt to protect soldiers and policemen. But is it not finally time to reconsider the infinite price in innocent life being paid in the quest to kill allegedly evil people, whose importance is given higher priority than anything else? Is this focus on death to the exclusion of all other considerations not the ultimate expression of nihilism?

What is most remarkable of all about the myopic, glaucomic, and amnesiac paradigm of lethal centrism is that given the never-ending series of mass killings being perpetrated all over the place—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Route, Munich—we now have ample evidence that this single-minded focus on lethality is not keeping people in the West safe.

As a matter of fact, “Kill don’t capture” and “Strike first, suppress questions later”, the Obama administration’s signature policy, serves as an incredibly destructive example to lone wolf killers, would-be jihadists, and angry activists alike who emulate governments when they decide to take up arms and perpetrate mass homicide as a way of expressing their grievances.

 

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

 

We Reap What You Sow, Mr. President…

“Vicious, calculated, despicable”–that’s how Obama characterized the Dallas shooting. Those terms apply even more so to Obama’s own drone program, through which thousands of brown-skinned human beings have been summarily executed on suspicion of potential possible complicity in possible future terrorist attacks.

Sad to say, but Obama’s primary legacy is to have normalized assassination and war crimes (drone targets are not warned and are unarmed when outside areas of active hostilities–that is, not in war zones).

Obama has also served as a role model for the mass killers in the United States. The latest disgruntled veteran (probably another PTSD victim on psych meds…) was even “taken out” on US soil using a lethal drone. Yet another ghastly precedent set by Obama when he chose to incinerate Anwar Al-Awlaki and his son in 2011 using Hellfire missiles launched by Predator drones.

We reap what you sow, Mr. President.

 

comment posted on the article “US Central Command: 2 Yemen Strikes Kill 4 al-Qaida Members,” published on July 8, 2016, at the Washington Post