Barack Obama has changed. About six years ago I stood two feet away from him in the St. Peter’s College, Jersey City Gym, which he had rented for a campaign rally, and watched him deal one by one with the crowd that squeezed around him and told myself that maybe this was the one we had been waiting for who might restore to America the character that George W. Bush had drained away.
In his major speeches — Inaugural Addresses, State of the Union, etc. and in his heart-felt campaign for gun control— he has come across as a Christian humanist, a man of compassion, deep feeling, high democratic ideals. But recently as the “war” president he has morphed into an indifferent, pragmatic utilitarian. The man who once taught Constitutional law seems to have forgotten the relationship between law and morality. He seems to have shelved the basic Christian principle of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which in philosophy resembles a rule from Immanuel Kant’s ethics, known as the categorical imperative: a valid moral principle is an unconditional law which applies to all human beings.
A number of articles, as well as two recent books, have called attention to this phenomenon. In The New Republic (May 13, reviewing Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (Penguin), Jack Goldsmith describes the transformation of the CIA since 9/11, especially during the Obama administration, into “a killing machine, an organization consumed with man-hunting.” The CIA, says, Goldsmith, started using drones to kill the enemy because the Department of Defense was too slow, and the weapon they found was the Hellfire missile. Combined they could kill a target within seconds of spotting him. In Pakistan and Yemen the Obama administration has conducted almost 9 times more drone strikes since 9/11 than its predecessor.
But doubts are growing about both the tactics and the wisdom of this kind of war. General Stanley McCrystal recently told Foreign Affairs that this kind of covert operation-war seems “satisfying, clean, low risk.” But history provides no example of “a covert fix that solved a complex problem.” Pew Research studies show that “nearly all countries” oppose Obama’s drone policy. Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan now have a lower opinion of the United States than at the end of the Bush administration.
To an almost odd degree, President Obama has assumed responsibility for every drone assassination. I was personally appalled as it became clear that no attempt was made to arrest Osama bin Laden and bring him to trial. Even the Navy Seal who personally shot the unarmed Osama again and again told Esquire magazine this was either the greatest or worst moment of his life. In the aftermath the fact that Obama had killed bin Laden was touted as proof that Obama was a strong leader.
Combine this with the publication in The Nation (May 13) of an excerpt from Jeremy Scahill’s new book, The Dirty Wars, The World is a Battlefield, about how the United States killed three U.S. citizens in Yemen within one month in 2011.
Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, the White House proceeded down its list of “High Value Targets” to Anmar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico born American, Al Queda propagandist living in Yemen, sentenced to death without trial by President Obama. The president was so anxious to kill— not arrest— him that he would not let “collateral damage” interfere. So on the morning of September 30, as Awlaki and American Pakistani journalist Samir Khan, and cohorts piled into cars and drove out, drones with Hellfire missiles, with other aircraft and helicopters standing by, fired one into Awlaki’s car and a fireball burned their bodies beyond recognition.
Two weeks later, his American-born 16-year-old son Abulrahman, who had left his grandparents’ home without permission because he wanted to see his father, was, with a group of teen-agers having a barbeque, blasted to bits by drones. The U.S. offered no evidence to justify killing them.
Perhaps a year from now Al Queda will have drones that can zero in on prominent or just ordinary Americans. Operated from secret command posts abroad, they will hover over baseball fields, universities, shopping malls, and churches with Hellfire missiles of their own. The moral authority we think we once had as a democratic “City on the Hill” will have been compromised perhaps beyond recall. After all, when we kill the enemy’s innocent children, we have invited the enemy to do the same.