The greatest political conceit held by those in power is that rules only apply to others, not oneself. President Obama, according to the New York Times, embraces this conceit wholly in his administration of the drone program.
Before Obama won reelection, he was nervous Romney might win and continue administering the drone wars just as Obama has done (i.e., without checks, balances, oversight, or legal sanction). “Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term,” reports Scott Shane, “his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.”
This effort “lost some urgency” following Obama’s victory, according to Shane, because, hey, why impose rules and transparency on oneself? They have another four years to run rampant before they do something like that.
According to the Times report, the administration is “still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.”
In order for a President to use force without Congressional approval, the threat he is supposedly extinguishing must be imminent, that is, an overwhelming threat that allows “no moment for deliberation,” according to a legal memo from the Congressional Research Service. Yet here in the Times it is admitted, once again, that this is a requirement routinely ignored by the Obama administration. It therefore runs counter to both domestic and international law.
Officially, the Obama administration claims it launches drones in response to specific imminent threats and to disrupt ongoing terrorist plots against the US.
But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”
The violation of the principle of imminence is demonstrated even more starkly with the example of signature strikes, wherein the administration simply murders young men who happen to look like militants:
Originally that term was used to suggest the specific “signature” of a known high-level terrorist, such as his vehicle parked at a meeting place. But the word evolved to mean the “signature” of militants in general — for instance, young men toting arms in an area controlled by extremist groups. Such strikes have prompted the greatest conflict inside the Obama administration, with some officials questioning whether killing unidentified fighters is legally justified or worth the local backlash.
There you have it: signature strikes, which represent the bulk of the drone war, are legally questionable and generate blowback. But President Obama retains the right to act outside the law and provoke militancy against the US. Don’t you worry though, this philosopher king won’t let the next scoundrel president get away with just anything.