Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama

By Tom Junod

Sure, we as a nation have always killed people. A lot of people. But no president has ever waged war by killing enemies one by one, targeting them individually for execution, wherever they are. The Obama administration has taken pains to tell us, over and over again, that they are careful, scrupulous of our laws, and determined to avoid the loss of collateral, innocent lives. They’re careful because when it comes to waging war on individuals, the distinction between war and murder becomes a fine one. Especially when, on occasion, the individuals we target are Americans and when, in one instance, the collateral damage was an American boy.

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Published in the August 2012 issue

You are a good man. You are an honorable man. You are both president of the United States and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. You are both the most powerful man in the world and an unimpeachably upstanding citizen. You place a large premium on being beyond reproach. You have become your own deliberative body, standing not so much by your decisions as by the process by which you make them. You are not only rational; you are a rationalist. You think everything through, as though it is within your power to find the point where what is moral meets what is necessary.

You love two things, your family and the law, and you have surrounded yourself with those who are similarly inclined. To make sure that you obey the law, you have hired lawyers prominent for accusing your predecessor of flouting it; to make sure that you don’t fall prey to the inevitable corruption of secrecy, you have hired lawyers on record for being committed to transparency. Unlike George W. Bush, you have never held yourself above the law by virtue of being commander in chief; indeed, you have spent part of your political capital trying to prove civilian justice adequate to our security needs. You prize both discipline and deliberation; you insist that those around you possess a personal integrity that matches their political ideals and your own; and it is out of these unlikely ingredients that you have created the Lethal Presidency.

You are a historic figure, Mr. President. You are not only the first African-American president; you are the first who has made use of your power to target and kill individuals identified as a threat to the United States throughout your entire term. You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy. You have authorized kill teams comprised of both soldiers from Special Forces and civilians from the CIA, and you have coordinated their efforts through the Departments of Justice and State. You have gradually withdrawn from the nation building required by “counterinsurgency” and poured resources into the covert operations that form the basis of “counter-terrorism.” More than any other president you have made the killing rather than the capture of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky, with drones, and on the ground, with “nighttime” raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden. You have killed individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are making provisions to expand the presence of American Special Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Pakistan and other places where the United States has not committed troops, you are estimated to have killed at least two thousand by drone. You have formalized what is known as “the program,” and at the height of its activity it was reported to be launching drone strikes in Pakistan every three days. Your lethality is expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting terrorism with a policy of preemptive execution, and claiming not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so in secret. The American people, for the most part, have no idea who has been killed, and why; the American people — and for that matter, most of their representatives in Congress — have no idea what crimes those killed in their name are supposed to have committed, and have been told that they are not entitled to know.

This is not to say that the American people don’t know about the Lethal Presidency, and that they don’t support its aims. They do. They know about the killing because you have celebrated — with appropriate sobriety — the most notable kills, specifically those of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki; they support it because you have asked for their trust as a good and honorable man surrounded by good and honorable men and women and they have given it to you. In so doing, you have changed a technological capability into a moral imperative and have convinced your countrymen to see the necessity without seeing the downside. Politically, there is no downside. Historically, there is only the irony of the upside — that you, of all presidents, have become the lethal one; that you, of all people, have turned out to be a man of proven integrity whose foreign and domestic policies are less popular than your proven willingness to kill, in defense of your country, even your own countrymen … indeed, to kill even a sixteen-year-old American boy accused of no crime at all.

(ON THE POLITICS BLOG: Tom Junod Considers the Implications)

It’s an American story. A promising student from a poor country is selected to go to America on a Fulbright scholarship. His country is an agricultural one — an agricultural country simmering in the desert — so he goes off to study agricultural economics. He enters New Mexico State University in 1966, gets his business degree three years later, and he’s studying for his master’s when his first son is born. “I remember the name of the gynecologist!” he says. “I remember the name of the hospital — Las Cruces General! The next day I went to school and was very pleased. At the time in America, they distributed cigars if it was a boy. So that’s what I did — I distributed cigars. It was a fantastic thing, to have my firstborn son be born in the United States.”

It was 1971, and Nasser al-Awlaki named his American son Anwar. He got his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln — “The year I got there, they took the national college football championship! They beat Oklahoma in the Game of the Century!” — and then got an offer to teach at the University of Minnesota. “We took Anwar to nursery school there. He was a very brilliant boy. His nursery-school teacher wrote him every year, even when he came back to Yemen. I joined the University of Sanaa and took Anwar to bilingual school. In three months he was speaking and writing Arabic!”

Anwar al-Awlaki, firstborn son of Nasser, never lost his American citizenship, though he eventually gained his Yemeni one. In 1991, he got his own scholarship to Colorado State University, and the American story — the story of the American al-Awlakis — was told a second time. “He studied civil engineering,” his father says. “After he got his degree, he came back to Yemen in 1994 in order to get married. He married his second cousin and then took his wife back to America, to Denver. His first son was born in August 1995, in Denver, Colorado. My wife and my mother went to Colorado for the birth and stayed six months. He was a beautiful, lovable little boy — and of course we were all very happy that he was born in America.”

You must know the boy, Mr. President. Though you’ve never spoken a word about him, you must know his name, who and what he was. He was, after all, one of yours. He was a citizen. He had certain inalienable rights. He moved away when he was seven, but in that way he was not so different from you. He moved around a lot when he was growing up, because his father did. He went from Denver to San Diego, and from San Diego to a suburb of Washington, D. C. Then he went to Yemen. He was an American boy, but his father came to feel that America was attacking him, and he took his wife and son back to Yemen and began preaching hatred against Americans. Anwar al-Awlaki took it as his constitutionally guaranteed right to do so. When you decided that you had to do something about him, you also had to decide whether his citizenship stood in the way. You decided that it didn’t.

Anwar al-Awlaki fled into the mountains of Yemen. The boy lived with his grandfather Nasser in the capital city of Sanaa. He didn’t see his father for two years. He loved his father and missed him. He was sixteen. One morning last September, he didn’t show up for breakfast. His mother went to find him and instead she found a note. He had climbed out the window of the apartment building where he lived. He had gone in search of his father. You might not have known him then — you might not have had cause to know his name. But his name was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and he knew you as both the president of the United States and as the man trying to kill his father.

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