Eight years ago, Barack Obama was elected as president on the back of a campaign driven by the principle of change. Obama positioned himself as the antithesis to George Bush. In particular, he stressed the need for changes to the war on terror; vehemently objecting to the illegality and immorality of the Bush administration’s current strategies. Eight years on however, and one of the notable transformations under Obama has been a rapid increase in the number of targeted killings of suspected terrorists; executed without due process and with little public awareness or scrutiny. This is a fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of Obama’s presidential legacy.
Obama has rarely spoken about his administration’s drone strike programme. Until 2013, his administration had not even publicly recognised the programme’s existence. But last week, in the winter of his presidency, Obama addressed his administration’s use of targeted killings in a conversation with New York Magazine. Obama admitted that:
“The way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD [Department of Defence] and CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and our intelligence teams think about this. And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.”
Shortly after his comments, his press secretary Josh Earnest explained that he was “talking about the situation he inherited” and that Obama and his team “have steadily worked to do is to try to impose greater transparency and to impose constraints that would address those concerns that the president had from his earliest days in office”. The old line was again being peddled: under Obama the United States government is more, not less accountable, and no longer practicing ‘American exceptionalism’ which saw the Bush administration abide by a different set of rules to the rest of the world.
Obama’s remarkably candid comments were certainly a departure from the view he has espoused consistently — albeit rarely — during his presidency. His comments, in fact., mirrored the scrutiny and criticism his drone strike programme has often invited from thinkers on the left during its steady expansion. Momentarily, Obama let the mask slip and he himself exposed some of the true qualities of his so-called ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’. But if these are accusations with which Obama is often charged, why does it matter that he himself recognised them? It certainly raises several questions: if Obama does indeed recognise the moral, ethical and legal wrongs of his targeted killing regime, what does it tell us about a president who recognises such deep-rooted faults in his own policies yet continues to enforce them? Looking forward, what should we expect from the next president, who may not have such reservations but who will still have the same powers to wage war “all over the world” with routinised means and without “any accountability”?
These questions are certainly important in order to appropriately critique such practices. However, what is perhaps most poignant and what this episode illustrates best is that political communications have profound implications for the lifespan and legitimacy of an administration’s policies. Obama’s has delivered a masterclass in rhetoric, oration and an expert blend of statecraft and stagecraft. It is these skills, rather than substantive qualities of the targeted killing regime, that have enabled the expansion of American exceptionalism and dominance on a global scale over the past eight years.
Obama has embellished his targeted killing policy with moral and legal principles; asserting that “we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces”, and that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set”. But according to investigations carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the Intercept, these assertions are fundamentally bereft of truth. Yet Obama’s representation of his drone programme is effective. It is harmonious with the broader image he has successfully cultivated — bolstered by a lack of real scrutiny from mainstream media organisations — of a leader defined by modern liberal principles.
In fact, Obama’s recent claim that drone strikes have killed up to 116 civilians, similar to his acceptance of fault when an American and an Italian were killed by a drone strike, does not necessarily take away from this liberal, humanitarian image. Rather, this suggests transparency; that his foreign policy is not covert and is in fact kept in full view of the public’s gaze. Besides the serious questions over the veracity of the number of civilians killed against reports by other organisations, this ‘release’ tells us very little.
As Human Rights First recognise this information still fails “to provide enough information to allow the public to assess the harm to civilians, the legality of individual strikes, and the overall effectiveness of the targeted killing program”. The public is simply viewing the surface of a well-glazed veneer rather than the reality of its underside.
This epitomises the seeing/knowing dichotomy that defines the modern relationship between the public spectator and the state’s practices, particularly US foreign policy under Obama. The public is given a constructed vision of the newly packaged war on terror, but instead of exposing, this view closes up access to the true effects of such policy.
Obama has normalised a secret and unaccountable system of killing suspected terrorists without due process. As the US election looms large, such powers are perhaps more dangerous now more than ever. This demands our critical attention to look beyond the rhetoric and expose the true qualities of the US government’s use of force.