The Lethal Foreign Policy of Military Experts


Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.

I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:

Should generals be diplomats?

ColinPowellRetired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.

The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.

People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.

Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?

Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).

It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.

Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.

The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.

You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)

Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.

The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.

The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.

In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Nora al-Awlaki



No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.

Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.


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?



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.


“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.


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.

Calhoun (b-format)_FINAL-1
2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon:


Lessons from Tina, RAF Reaper Drone Operator Who Likens ISIS to the Nazis

I have been meaning to discuss an article from the 4 May 2016 edition of The Sun for almost a month, but I have put it off in part because the whole issue is so utterly depressing. There have been a few different short pieces in mainstream media outlets featuring the perspectives of drone operators, some of whom are females. Yes, for the first time in history, women can hope to achieve full equality in the military realm, because physical strength is no longer a requirement for active combat duty. Pushing buttons and manipulating joysticks to annihilate human beings is an equal opportunity vocation.

In the article in The Sun, a female Royal Air Force Reaper drone operator shares her view of what she is doing as she facilitates the execution of persons located thousands of miles away. When asked to elaborate upon their role, drone operators generally fall into one of two camps: either they have abandoned the profession and now regret what they did, or they are still “lighting up” targets in good conscience and believe themselves to be saving the world from evil. Both Canadians and Americans have expressed reservations about what they were asked to do while serving as drone operators. Unsurprisingly, given the normalization of drone warfare under US President Obama, there are also quite a few targeted killing enthusiasts.

Tina, a British drone operator, certainly falls into the category of enthusiast. For those who fail to grasp the importance of what she is doing in using drones to annihilate suspected members of ISIS, she offers the following explanation:

“I compare these guys to the Nazis, the way they came along and treated people and tried to enforce their beliefs on people. They’ve got to be stopped. If we weren’t doing what we are doing now this could spread across the whole world. We’re here to maintain the freedom of the people and protect the people.”

Well, Tina, I’ve got a nice parcel for you down by Alligator Alley. ISIS is nothing like the Nazis, first and foremost because they have no nation state. As a nonstate organization, ISIS is entirely devoid of a military industry and has depended on weapons supplies from the very countries which claim to be their adversaries. That’s right, Tina: from 2012 to 2013, 600 tons of weapons were provided covertly by the CIA to “appropriately vetted moderate rebels”.  The result of that provision? A massive takeover by ISIS of large swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq.

Now the radical Islamist group has made inroads into Libya as well. How could that be? Because NATO deposed the central government authority of that nation in 2011, leaving a power vacuum behind, just as Western powers had done in Iraq back in 2003. While we’re on the topic, the coalescence of ISIS into an identifiable enemy came about only because of the invasion of Iraq. A short history of ISIS can be found here (for those who missed the most visited page at this blog).

Earlier this year, President Obama identified the poor planning of the Libya intervention—what to do post-Gaddafi—as his biggest foreign policy mistake. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has characterized the Libya intervention as a shining example of “smart power at its best”. But I digress.

The point, dear Tina, is that whatever military power ISIS has managed to use to oppress and kill the people whom you take yourself to be defending was provided to them by the US, UK and other governments. No doubt it may make it easier for you to sleep at night in the belief that your hitman-like role is for the good of humanity, but I regret to inform you that Nazi soldiers believed the very same thing, mutatis mutandis. They, too, were told that they were fighting to save people from The Evil Enemy.

Ironically, if any analogy between Nazi Germany and the drone program holds it is that a bureaucratic institution of homicide is being run by the likes of Adolf Eichmann all over again precisely and only because of the willingness of people like you, Tina, to follow their orders to kill unarmed persons who could not possibly harm you, even in principle, because they have no idea who or where you are.


Drones and Death in the 8th Republican Presidential Debate, February 6, 2016

Lethal drones have come to symbolize “smart power” to Democrats. In the first Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to characterize the “no boots on the ground” 2011 intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best”. Judging by their campaign trail rhetoric, Republican candidates tend to believe the opposite: drones are not a symbol of smartness and savvy, but of weakness. Usually drones are not mentioned at all, but at last night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, they were positively “dissed”.

TedCruzSenator Ted Cruz has enthusiastically proclaimed that he will “carpet bomb” ISIS strongholds and make the sand “glow”, suggesting his readiness even to use nuclear weapons against the latest bearers of the Al Qaeda torch. When asked whether he knows that ISIS is embedded among civilian populations, Cruz did not back down from his hawkish plans, essentially replying to the question that it doesn’t matter where the members of ISIS live. He will crush them, wherever they may be, and whomever they may be with. Cruz’s answer had a familiar ring because whenever Republican candidates are asked about rules of engagement (ROE), they afford themselves of the opportunity to complain that President Barack Obama has diminished the military, not only through budget cuts, but also by “tying their hands”. The explanation for the chaos in the Middle East, according to Republicans, is that Obama has not permitted the US military to do what needs to be done.

The general Republican disdain for military “half-measures” came out explicitly in last night’s exchange among the seven remaining contenders of what once was a slate of seventeen. The word ‘drone’ was uttered during a discussion about the prospect of bringing back waterboarding, which moderator Martha Raddatz creepily enough seemed to be promoting, goading the candidates on to proclaim that they, like George W. Bush, would “do what needs to be done”. None of the waterboarding advocates appears to have any recollection of the case of Ibn al Shiekh al-Libbi, who confessed under torture that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, thus providing a pretext for the war on Iraq.

JebBushFormer Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and brother of W, “The Decider” who embroiled the United States in what has become never-ending war in the Middle East) criticized drones as not being sufficient to win the war against ISIS, and in fact not a “smart” strategy at all. Jeb suggested that suspects should be captured and made to give up information. Other candidates then chimed in, including Senator Marco Rubio, who recited his familiar refrain that he would not only keep Guantánamo Bay open, but send more terrorists there! Granted, the fact that 86% of the men detained at the prison were cleared of any terrorist connections whatsoever is not the greatest talking point for wooing voters. Marco Rubio, however, appears to believe, like W, that all terrorist suspects are by definition terrorists.

MarcoRubioIt is abundantly clear that if one of the more bellicose candidates is elected, he or she will not hesitate to unleash massive air power on the Middle East, the effect of which will be to make Barack Obama look like the Peace President many voters in 2008 were hoping for. This would be highly ironic, for Obama’s secret drone campaigns and JSOC assassination missions, his removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power, and his provision of hundreds of tons of weapons to the rebels in Syria, all undeniably contributed to the massive increase in the strength and reach of ISIS. Obama’s “smart warrior” façade, his refusal to put “boots on the ground” while running non-stop covert ops, has served only to provoke more murder and mayhem in the Middle East and to galvanize support for violent radical Islamist groups.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who campaigns on a socialist platform of domestic political and economic revolution, has repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would follow Obama’s foreign policy example by continuing drone assassination as the primary means of military intervention abroad. Unbeknownst to Sanders, the revolution that is really needed is a commitment to halt US military intervention and greatly reduce military spending, beginning with a full line-item audit of the profligate Pentagon. If only Bernie understood that all of his big-ticket items—universal health care, free college, rebuilt infrastructure, and energy independence leading to massive job production—could be paid for with a tiny fraction of the military budget. What needs to be done to save what remains of the US republic is drastically to slash the bloated military budget, rein in executive power, and resolve never again to serve as the world’s biggest bully. Sanders opposes capital punishment, but his focus on an ambitious domestic program has clouded his judgment about Obama’s use of deadly force abroad.

What is most striking about the way in which the 2016 candidates for the presidency all talk about foreign policy is that they ignore the true causes of the mess in the Middle East: US intervention. It’s as though the candidates have all conspired in a secret pact to pretend that the facts are not the facts. The 9/11 attacks were retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. To his credit, Bernie Sanders opposed the First Gulf War, but even he does not see fit to connect the dots for prospective voters. Instead, he politely acquiesces to the mainstream media’s preposterous insistence on painting Hillary Clinton as an accomplished foreign policymaker with the experience needed to serve as commander in chief.

As sad as it may be to admit, Obama’s foreign policy appears always to have been focused on securing his legacy. Despite the fact that his ghastly “kill don’t capture” policy has normalized assassination all over the globe, Obama will end up looking pacific next to anyone who comes after him, including Hillary Clinton, who remarkably vaunts endorsements from Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. Most, if not all, of the Republican candidates have gone on record to say that they will immediately shred the negotiated deal with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear capacity.

What will remain of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, once he has left the White House? Renewed and emboldened intervention in the Middle East, along with the image of the 44th president as a peace maker etched into history. Surely he will look better than his successor in body count tallies, and few people will view Obama as the proximate cause of what he in fact wrought.

Is “Humanitarian Intervention” a Good Idea? Tom Woods Show Episode 569

In this 37 minute interview, Tom Woods and Laurie Calhoun discuss a relatively new phenomenon in the history of warfare, what has been christened “humanitarian intervention” by its advocates.

With the advent of lethal drones, the political costs of waging war abroad have diminished because soldiers’ lives need not be sacrificed in wielding military force. At the same time, the power of the executive to wage wars has been augmented. This suggests that interventions such as the one carried out in Libya in 2011 will become more frequent in the Drone Age. The bombing of Libya, like NATO’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, was characterized by its proponents as an instance of “humanitarian intervention”, the use of military force to prevent an imminent “genocide”.

Self-styled humanitarian interventionists are deft at making emotional appeals for the use of military force. They often succeed at persuading people ordinarily disposed to oppose war to support bombing abroad. Setting aside purely emotional appeals, what is the intellectual substance of the humanitarian interventionist position? What are the principles in play?



Interview transcript (courtesy of The Tom Woods Show):

WOODS: We generate a lot of controversy when you and I talk, and last time we talked about just war theory, and boy, did we make some people angry. We said that just war theory has been a failure, and people were very, very unhappy with that, kind of along the lines of telling people — and I don’t want to implicate you in this view, but my own view — that the Constitution has been a failure. People say, oh no, no, no. Why, Woods, you are being impertinent to say that. The problem is that people have interpreted it wrong. Okay, but if it can be so easily misinterpreted, then it ain’t so good. If we’re resting our liberties on people’s interpretations, those interpretations are going to be tendentious, and it’s not going to work out.

Whereas, as I was mentioning to you before we went on, chess has not been a failure. The rules of chess are set in stone. You don’t have 12 different schools of thought on it. You don’t have major challenges to it. You don’t have people who say, well, I think you should be able to move the pieces according to whatever you think is best for the general welfare, and whatever’s best for the general welfare winds up being whatever’s good for the white player. You know, it doesn’t work that way. People just obey the rules of chess, and they’re constant and consistent. So I would not say chess has failed, but I would say these other things haven’t worked out particularly well.

Before we get into our topic for today, is there anything you want to say on that subject that you feel was maybe unsaid or that might be a response to some of these critics? Let me give you a chance to do that.

CALHOUN: Sure. One thing I would say is that the burden of proof about killing I think lies with the person who is going to kill. So if you want to say that just war theory is a sound framework, the burden is on you to explain why that is the case. And I don’t see where that comes from. I mean, we talked about this at length before.

And I also believe that the premises that were held by Augustine and Aquinas and the other fathers of just war theory are no longer valid in the modern world. I respect those thinkers very much. I think they were excellent intellectuals for their day. I actually believe that they might agree with me if they were alive today, given the changes in the world and the way warfare is carried out. So I don’t think — I think some of the people were angry because they thought we were disrespecting these honorable thinkers from history, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that given — if I believed what those men believed, I might have agreed with them, but I don’t believe what those men believed, and I don’t believe that most modern people do.

So that’s one thing I would say to hopefully respond to some of the anger. I also think that it’s natural to be angry when someone steps forward and criticizes a framework which has dominated normative thought about war for centuries. It’s a natural response. You yourself had that response when you first heard about my —

WOODS: Oh yeah, I wanted to throw it on the floor. I was so angry. I just couldn’t believe — the nerve of some people, was the way I thought at that time.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: All right, let’s talk about humanitarian intervention. As soon as you suggested this, without even reading your article I said yes, and then I read it, so we’ll talk about it, and we’re going to link to it at I wanted to talk about this, because this is of course probably the case of the hard cases. This is the issue that I think people who are inclined to be against war have to address. It’s easy to say you shouldn’t fight a war for oil or you shouldn’t fight a war for this or that imperial advantage. But when there are people being killed under some terrible circumstances, it’s much harder to make the case that we shouldn’t do it, because you find yourself saying, well, you know, it could become worse if we get involved, and a lot of these arguments seem not that persuasive, so we have to face this head on.

Let’s start from the very beginning. When we deal with humanitarian intervention, what are the different — basically I’m not sure there is a well thought out — if there is a book or a school of thought that just takes a flat out, opposing view. I mean, libertarians take an opposing view of it, but I don’t see like a full-scale moral evaluation of why it’s good to stay out, even when there are cases — you cite the Rwanda case as an example — of just horrifying human carnage. Whereas I can think of schools of thought that say you do need to intervene. Utilitarians might say that, for example. I can think of people who would say that whatever losses you and your people might suffer in trying to intervene are surely pale in comparison to the good that we might be able to bring to a terrible situation.

CALHOUN: Well, that’s the line of the humanitarian interventionist. But the first point I would like to make is that the very expression “humanitarian intervention” is misleading, because it sounds as though what you want to do is intervene in a humane manner. In reality, as it’s been carried out so far in history, and it is a new development in the history of warfare, it means military bombing carried out on behalf of people who appear to be victimized.

So why don’t we just call it humanitarian bombing? Well, that sounds like a contradiction in terms, because bombing harms the people under bombing. It terrorizes them even if they’re not going to be killed, but it also can exacerbate an already bad situation, galvanizing the enemy soldiers to fight even more viciously than they were fighting before, as it did in 1999, when more Kosovars were killed by Serbian soldiers after the NATO bombing had commenced than before.

So it’s, as I said, a new development in history. There are people, such as Samantha Power, who call themselves humanitarian hawks, and in a way they’re acknowledging that what they advocate is bombing, but it’s new in that we’re not defending war on the grounds that we need to protect ourselves, as you said, and so it’s very seductive to liberals in particular. So many people who opposed the 1991 Gulf War because they thought, oh, you know, it’s blood for oil, actually lined up behind Clinton to support the 1999 bombing of NATO.

WOODS: Yeah, let’s talk about the Kosovo case for a minute. And for listeners, FYI, I have a chapter on the Kosovo matter in my 33 Questions book, so I’ll link to that also at But there was a case in which — well, first of all, Bill Clinton is president, so he’s a Democrat, that made it easier for liberals to support that intervention. And oddly, there were some conservatives who were against it on the grounds that it wasn’t part of our national interest. I mean, you do still have conservatives who talk that way. Even Sean Hannity to my recollection was against that intervention. I don’t look for consistency in the thought of Sean Hannity, but I’m just saying that’s an interesting point.


WOODS: But there were certainly — I would be willing to stake my reputation on the idea that John McCain favored it, because, can I even say the words, “John McCain opposed the bombing of X?” I don’t think those words fit together. It’s like oil and water. So there certainly were — and there were neoconservatives who favored that intervention. And in that case, you had, unlike Rwanda, where the reality was just appallingly bad, here the reality was bad, but it was grossly exaggerated by propaganda, and only afterward did we find out, oh, the situation was not nearly as bad and was much more complicated than we were led to believe, but now we’ve already destroyed all their infrastructure and we’re on to the next thing now.

CALHOUN: That’s right. In fact, in all of these cases, the scenarios are much more complex than they’re painted to be. The calls for humanitarian intervention invariably involve contexts where it’s really false and misleading to suggest that these are Manichaean battles between good and evil. But what happens is humanitarian interventionists and warmongers more generally play the Hitler card, and so then suddenly it seems like it’s a battle between good and evil. So Slobodan Milošević is compared to Hitler; therefore, we have to save the people whom he is victimizing.

In reality, these conflicts are always a part of lengthy chronologies through which all sides have been victimizing all sides, and to pretend that time begins at the moment of the latest atrocity is to wrong the people previously wronged, who, albeit misguided in their tactics, are often acting in what they take to be just retribution. So it’s very complicated. We could compare the case in Syria as well. Super complicated. I mean, that’s basically the definition of a quagmire. Or in Libya, also.

WOODS: But in some cases — okay, but let’s take the Rwanda case, because there you have just — because it’s such a hard case. And you see it, by the way — did you see that movie, Hotel Rwanda? Did you see that movie?

CALHOUN: I did, yes.

WOODS: I mean, that’s a very interesting movie. It’s very interesting the way that hotel manager is basically trying to hang on to some semblance of normal, you know, human interaction while this horrifying situation is unfolding. But there was a case where, in that movie, the main character is holding out hope that there will be some international intervention that will put a stop to that. Couldn’t people say to you, okay, you’re a moral philosopher of war, and it’s wonderful that we have people who think through the moral implications of all this stuff, but let’s face squarely the fact that you had mass slaughter going on, and it seems highly unlikely that military intervention would make that worse. At the very least, there’s at least a chance, a roll of the dice, that it could improve things, given that sitting back and doing nothing is not improving things, so how can you sit back and say let’s not even try, because in the past military solutions haven’t always been effective. Well, sitting here obviously isn’t effective, so why not try?

CALHOUN: Well, I think that in the case of Rwanda, bombing would not have improved the situation. It probably would have exacerbated the situation as much as it could have been exacerbated, I suppose. But the — you know, they were killing people with machetes. They were individual people out there slaughtering people one-on-one, and it was a very complicated situation. You’re right that in Hotel Rwanda they depict some of the dilemmas. One thing that happened is that the white people were escorted out of the country, and the black Africans, begging to be taken along, were left behind. So that’s one way where intervention could have involved transporting these people out of harm’s way, and that was not done. I would have favored something like that. I would not have favored the bombing, because I don’t think it would have been effective. I mean, you can’t bomb every single person with a machete, and when you do, you’re going to kill their prospective victims anyway. So I don’t think bombing would have been effective.

But Rwanda was definitely the case that led to the momentum for the whole “responsibility to protect” movement. They even abbreviated this as R2P, which I guess is hashtag ready now. So the idea was that we have a responsibility to protect, and these people, the humanitarian interventionists, very popular among academics, wanted to say that the UN Charter is somewhat faulty in its focus on the power of authority of war making belonging only to sovereign leaders. So they wanted to say that we need to have a system where states are actually required to intervene when people are being victimized by their own leader. So they wanted to actually expand the horizons for war, rather than just being limited by the UN Charter and the provision of the right to wage war to leaders. They wanted to say there are cases where we need to intervene on behalf of these people who are being victimized.

WOODS: Let’s take a — I’m going to give you an example that you use in the article, the case of Truman’s dropping of the atomic bombs. Now, I would prefer to just do a whole episode on that with somebody at some point, and every August I mean to do it, and then the date creeps up on me, and I don’t get it done. But I want to cover that, because it’s the classic case of utilitarian theorizing, because — and let’s not even go into is it really true that he saved a million lives and whatever, because that number has been disputed. But what people say is that it ended the war, and we all know the war was a terrible thing, and he ended the war by doing this. And if you say but all these children died in horrific ways, people look at you like you’re a moral reprobate. Look, it ended the war, and so far more children would have died. “What, do you want more children or fewer to die?” would be the way they would put it. And it’s not like that’s not at all compelling, so how do you wrestle with that?

CALHOUN: Well, I think that utilitarianism is very relevant to the issue of humanitarian intervention, because just war theory alone does not suffice for what the humanitarian interventionists want. They want to say that we have a duty to intervene. Just war theory specifies conditions on the permissibility to wage war. So the humanitarian intervention position is actually much more hawkish than the just war theory position, and it needs something else, and that other thing is a utilitarian idea.

Utilitarianism, as you know, was authored by Jeremy Bentham and developed further by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, and it specifies that the right action is the one which maximizes the utility of the greatest number. It’s a very demanding normative theory, because only one action can maximize the outcomes. So according to utilitarianism, there’s only one right action. All of the rest are wrong. This means that going to war is either prohibited or it’s obligatory, and that’s exactly what the humanitarian interventionists want to say. They want to say that war is obligatory. It’s not a choice. You actually must go to war, according to them.

But at the same time, the interventionists want to embrace the just war theorists’ view on intention. Intentions matter, according to just war theory, one of the requirements of which is that war be waged with right intention and for a just cause. Presumably, for example, waging a war to distract attention from a domestic political scandal would not qualify as right intention. But the humanitarian interventionists were standing by Clinton with a ready-made cause, a noble intention to save people from their evil dictator.

What is really curious about humanitarian interventionists is that they only seem intent on the obligatory and very demanding prescriptions of utilitarianism in the build up to a bombing campaign. Once the bombing has come to an end, they go back to whatever they were doing and forget all about the mess left behind. So a very good recent example of this was the 2011 bombing of Libya. Okay, Obama was persuaded to hit Libya with hundreds of missiles by a group of, I suppose it was three or four women — Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, possibly Anne-Marie Slaughter — who claimed that if he failed to bomb Libya, then there would be a genocide — so a utilitarian argument. So all that it took was whipping out the “g” word for Obama to sign off on military action, while claiming at the same time to the public that it was not really a war since he was not sending any soldiers into harm’s way, and so he did not need the permission of Congress.

So the results were, as we know, Muammar Gaddafi was dead; Libya was in disarray. And what did the humanitarian interventionists say about the hundreds of refugees who drowned while attempting to escape the chaos and insecurity directly caused by the U.S. intervention and removal of the Libyan leader? Nothing. Remarkably, once the bombs have been dropped, these self-styled humanitarians go back to what they were doing and basically adduce the tried and true Rumsfeldian response: “Stuff happens.” So they don’t take any responsibility for what happens after the intervention. They drop all of their apparent commitment to the high-minded utilitarian principles after the bombing. So I find this all very suspicious. I mean, you can’t say, both, I’m a utilitarian and I’m not a utilitarian. I’m only a utilitarian in the run up to the war, and then afterwards I’m just going to forget about what happened.

WOODS: All right, that leads me to — I do want to ask the genocide question in general, because that comes up all the time.


WOODS: The way genocide is used to justify intervention, or just to make a generic moral case for humanitarian intervention, genocide is mentioned. Let’s just pause for a quick message, and then we’re going to ask you that question.

[Sponsored content]

All right, so the genocide question comes up a lot. It certainly comes up in my circles, and I get emails all the time of people saying what would you say about intervening. We all know that it’s dumb to intervene to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators. Every single time we do it, it winds up terrible. We get a worse guy or the situation is worse or whatever. And they’ll say, look, we know the U.S. government lies about genocide. They use this word constantly, and it always turns out to be phony-baloney, but let’s just imagine just for the sake of argument that one time in their lives they’re telling us the truth, that there really is an ongoing case of genocide. How could you possibly say that intervening to at least try to stop a genocide would be worse than the genocide itself? How could it be worse?

CALHOUN: Well, that’s how it’s always painted. It’s always doom and gloom. Things are going to be worse if you don’t do something. You will have blood on your hands if you don’t go stop this dictator. In fact, this position violates all sorts of principles we cling to in civil society.

One of those is killing versus letting die. We uphold this distinction in civil society. In consistency, we should uphold the same distinction abroad, which implies that we are never responsible for the acts of murder committed by other agents. We are, however, responsible for the direct consequences of our own actions. It does not matter if our military intends only to kill bad guys. They are equally responsible for the innocent people whom they kill whenever and wherever they fire deadly weapons. But what happens during the run up to a war is people want to just relax this and say suddenly, oh, we don’t hold on to this principle anymore, killing versus letting die; we now think letting die is just as bad as killing.

And closely related to that is the distinction between negative versus positive rights. Again, this is a distinction we uphold within civil society. We deem it wrong to directly cause harm to another person. We do not, however, hold ourselves responsible for the misery of other people caused by themselves or by other agents. Humanitarian interventionists want to say we have a duty to intervene, which arises out of a positive right of the victims to be saved. But such a duty and correlative right cannot be generalized, because, in a phrase — and this is the most fundamental principle of all — ought implies can. It cannot be the case that we are morally required to do what it is impossible to do. It would be impossible for us to save all of the people of the world currently being victimized, so it cannot be the case that we are morally obligated to do so.

And I believe that when humanitarian interventionists start talking in terms of genocide, it’s very persuasive, because people are easily swayed to believe that they must join the war effort; otherwise they will somehow be responsible for what happens. In fact, it’s not true. Even if you accept the just war theorists’ doctrine of double effect, you are never obligated to go kill people to prevent them from being killed by other people.

And the best way of understanding this I’ve found is that if you think about the intention of the war opponent or the pacifist, the intention of the pacifist who says I will not support bombing is to not kill people. The intention of the pacifist is not to allow a murderous dictator to kill people; it’s to not kill people. So the very framework that these people base their calls to war on, usually just war theory amalgamated with some temporary principle of utilitarianism, implies that you do not have a moral obligation to carry out war or to bomb other lands. It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the ground, because it conflicts with all these other principles that we uphold within civil society.

WOODS: Well, they say that when they are — okay, so in other words, with double effect they would say it’s true that civilians are going to die in these campaigns, but we have a good moral intention, and we are not directly intending this unfortunate outcome, so the morality of what we’re doing is thereby vindicated. And so in other words, you’re saying that there is an analog to this on the anti-war side, which is that I’m not intending any bad thing either.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: I’m simply intending the not direct killing of anybody and my involvement in the direct killing of anybody.

CALHOUN: That’s correct, and I think if you want to gauge the sincerity of these various calls to war, for example, the 1999 bombing of NATO, you have to look at the bombers’ views on other matters — for example, weapons exports. So if you really are concerned to prevent the murder of people in these countries, then what you really should support is withholding weapons from them. So don’t provide them with weapons. Don’t arm dictators.

But of course the same people who call for bombing in these cases are the ones who are ready and willing to arm everyone. John McCain’s a good example. Let’s just give them all weapons, even though we know from cases such as Saddam Hussein that there’s a really good chance that once these people are in power, they’re going to become murderous dictators. But the weapons keep flowing out to these places, which do not have the industrial capacity in most cases to produce their own weapons of war.

And then what happens is predictably they use the weapons. They have the weapons, then they use the weapons, and then suddenly the humanitarian interventionists clamor for war again. They say we have to stop these people from using the weapons which were provided to them by the international community. My answer is stop spreading these weapons around. You know, if you want to have weapons to defend your own borders, fine, but shipping weapons to Bahrain, where the people are trying to democratize their land, shipping weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is now laying to waste Yemen, that’s where the humanitarian interventionists, if genuinely concerned with humanity, should be working in my view.

WOODS: You have a section at the very end of the paper called “War Opponents as Long-Range Utilitarians.” Can you elaborate on that?

CALHOUN: Sure. Every time you bomb some place you are saying that bombing is a sound means to resolve conflict. Every time you intervene militarily you are serving as an example for smaller groups and other nations to do the same.

Good example here, again, is Libya. You may have noticed that the situation in Syria became much, much worse after the 2011 intervention in Libya, and one reason for that may have been that the rebels on the ground said, hey, maybe we can get the United States to help us out here too, just as they did in Libya. So what happens is you get all sorts of reactions whenever you bomb, of people who are motivated to kill more people faster, because they don’t know what the future will bring, and also to play this sort of game where you provoke intervention.

So it’s arguable that the KLA in 1999 provoked — must have been 1998 — provoked intervention by acting in a way that caused Slobodan Milošević to clamp down and look like this evil dictator at that moment in time, and of course the international community responded.

Some people have argued that the same thing happened in Syria, that it’s possible that the chemical weapons were used by some of the rebels who were hoping that the United States would come to their rescue. More detailed investigations into what happened in the chemical bombing suggest that both sides may have used chemical weapons, but in any event, this situation has worked many times throughout history.

It also worked in Britain, when the IRA provoked the Black and Tans to go on a killing spree, and the reaction was — well, they killed innocent people then, and that galvanized support for the IRA cause. So this provocation strategy works all the time.

In terms of the long-range utilitarian argument, once again, it’s just that once you start bombing you are saying that this is a way to resolve conflict, and we see this with the United States all the time. I mean, Obama expresses concern about these mass shootings in the homeland. I want to say that some of these people are probably following his example. He is saying with his drone campaign, for example, that this is how you resolve conflict: you go out and kill people. And so from the perspective of long-range utilitarianism, it actually would be much better for humanity for us to stop these interventions, because then other countries and other groups and other factions would not follow our example.

WOODS: Before I let you go, what did I not get to that’s central to the argument? This isn’t a riddle, by the way; maybe we did cover everything.

CALHOUN: Uh, let’s see. I do think that the Libyan example involved Hillary Clinton’s support for intervention, and her husband was probably the first one to have supported humanitarian intervention in 1999, so I find that a little bit interesting, and I also think that it gives us some grounds for hypothesizing what another Clinton administration would be like, especially since she is very fond of saying that you get two for the price of one if you elect me, so we may have more intervention if Clinton is elected as president.

WOODS: Yeah, it’s a very unfortunate situation that’s unfolding before us, but on the other hand — and by the way, even if we had Bernie Sanders, he’s been in favor of humanitarian intervention. He voted for the intervention back in 1999. I just saw some polling data for Hillary that is very, very bad in both New Hampshire and Iowa, and as a matter of fact, nationally her numbers are way down and his are shooting up.

CALHOUN: Mm hmm.

WOODS: I think she’ll still hold onto it, but I think she’s going to be really battered. At the same time, it’s hard to know — it’s just hard to predict these things. But even a battered Hillary, gosh, she and her husband, they are a vicious team, and even if I had a really, really strong platform and candidate, I would be intimidated going up against them.

CALHOUN: Yeah, they are a political force to be reckoned with, no doubt about it. I’m glad you brought up Bernie Sanders, because he’s an example of one of these people who opposed the 1991 Gulf War but supported the 1999 NATO bombing, because, you know, they played the Hitler card. Oh, Hitler must be stopped. And so all of these liberals came forward. Bernie Sanders I think is gaining favor now because he seems to be more principled than Hillary. Hillary looks like a flip-flopper. She’s changing her view on everything depending on the opinion polls. But you’re right, people are afraid of something worse than Hillary (laughing), so she’s very strengthened by the weak slate on the Republican side.

I did recently read that in Hillary’s emails, there’s some indication that there were these ulterior motives for bombing in Libya having to do with currency, and I haven’t looked into that more deeply yet, but it’s an interesting case, because it just illustrates what we all know, that when people go to war, there are many different reasons for going to war and many different parties are involved and many different rationales. Only some of them look to be morally upright.

And what happens is whenever there’s a group of humanitarian interventionists ready to support the war cause, that’s the pretext that’s offered to the populace. Okay, this is why we’re really going to war. It’s not because NATO needs to have a reason for continuing to exist after the Cold War. It’s not because Bill Clinton wants to divert attention from his sex scandal. No, the reason why we’re going to war is this noble reason to save these people from their evil Hitlerian dictator.

So it’s a very, very seductive line, and people find it nearly irresistible. Of course, some people find it resistible, because they believe in the UN Charter position on the authority of war being accorded only sovereign leaders of nations. But to liberals it’s super seductive, and that’s why you see people who ordinarily oppose war stepping forward to support efforts, such as the 1999 bombing of Kosovo by NATO.

WOODS: All right, well as I said, I’m going to link to the article on which this conversation has been based, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Alleged Necessity of Military Intervention.” That’ll be linked at, as will all your stuff, your Twitter and blog, but for people who are going to break my heart by not visiting, why don’t you tell them the address of your blog?

CALHOUN: Sure, the blog is about the drone book, and it’s Also, I should say that the article that you’re citing is found in an edited version in my book War and Delusion; it’s Chapter [Four]; it’s called “Bombs and Charity.”

WOODS: Okay, we’ll make note of that too. Well, as always, thanks for your time. It’s great fun talking to you and always enlightening.

CALHOUN: Thank you so much, Tom.


a comprehensive critique of the "just war" paradigm which has dominated normative discourse about War for centuries.
First published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. Paperback edition with a new foreword to be published in the fall of 2016.

Drones and Death in the First 2016 Democratic Presidential Debate


Five contenders vying to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee met yesterday in Las Vegas to spar over the issues. They talked a bit about guns, income disparity, racial discrimination, women’s rights, Wall Street, the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, unemployment, social security, and a smidgeon of foreign policy. The word drone did not come up at all. In some ways, that was surprising, given that drones are politically palatable, providing leaders with the ability to intervene abroad to kill without risking the lives of any US soldiers.

In other ways, the omission of any mention of drones was unsurprising, because the US government did not acknowledge its practice of remote-control killing of suspects during the period from November 2002 to January 2012. It was all hush-hush, under cover of State Secrets Privilege. President Obama finally made public in advance of his reelection that he had been killing people with drones in lands far away. He reassured those listening to his Google Talk chat—clearly designed to woo voters—that “drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” and that the process of target selection was “not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” So what is it, then? one has to ask. Does Obama, like George W. Bush before him, perhaps hear voices?

In 2012, Obama prevailed in the contest with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in part because on the campaign trail he succeeded in painting himself as strong for having killed, rather than captured, Osama bin Laden. Maybe that’s why 2016 contender Hillary Clinton went out of her way during the debate yesterday to say that she was “in the room” helping Obama when he “made the call” on May 2, 2011.

JimWebbOne of the more obscure candidates on the debate floor, Jim Webb, also boasted of having a killed a man—in his case in Vietnam. Given the evident interest among the presidential contenders in broadcasting their lethal creds, one can only wonder why such candidates should be at all surprised that so many people in the homeland are killed with guns every year. According to those who pen US foreign policy, homicide is now the “strategy” of choice—in fact, it’s a tactic—and the first, not last, resort, even in the case of unarmed suspects located thousands of miles away and who pose no danger to any other human being, much less a US national, when they are killed. In the drone age, US leaders kill not because they must, but because they can.

BernieHillShow2That using lethal drones to dispatch suspects abroad creates bereft survivors and seething anger among communities some of the members of which vow to seek revenge is never acknowledged by US leaders, who are subject to electoral redress only in the short term. Blowback, in contrast, erupts later on down the line, after the responsible policymakers have retreated from public life.

During last night’s debate, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state infamously pronounced that “Gaddafi must go,” remarkably characterized the US debacle in Libya as “smart power at its best”, clearly indicating that she would continue the Obama “smart wars”, projecting US power abroad through the use of lethal drones. Bernie Sanders, considered by many to be the progressive candidate of the group—although Clinton labeled herself a progressive, too, last night—said that he also agreed with the Obama approach.

BernieHillShowIn a dramatic flourish, Clinton shirked all responsibility for the deaths at Benghazi, making a remark to the effect that US government jobs in other countries can be dangerous. Indeed, and much more so when, as in Libya, the country in question has become chaotic and devoid of security as a direct result of the US government’s decision to remove its leader, which Clinton and others talked Obama into doing.

Is the Democratic slate better than the Republican slate of candidates for the presidency? Yes, but that’s pretty faint praise, at least judging by the Republican debates to date.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; and Chapter 10: Death and Politics