On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take US foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending”, Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Much of the media focus that day was on the new hairstyle of First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared on the dais sporting freshly trimmed bangs, and on the celebrities in attendance, including hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, who performed the national anthem. But the day Obama was sworn in, a US drone strike hit Yemen. It was the third such attack in that country in as many days. Despite the rhetoric from the president on the Capitol steps, there was abundant evidence that he would continue to preside over a country that is in a state of perpetual war.

In the year leading up to the inauguration, more people had been killed in US drone strikes across the globe than were imprisoned at Guantanamo. As Obama was sworn in for his second term, his counterterrorism team was finishing up the task of systematising the kill list, including developing rules for when US citizens could be targeted. Admiral William McRaven had been promoted to the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and his Special Ops forces were operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.

After General David Petraeus’s career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill programme. After four years as Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the “assassination czar” for his role in US drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.

When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan’s role in the Bush-era detainee programme. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a “playbook” for crossing names off the kill list. “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it,” noted the Washington Post.

Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by “seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced,” the paper added. “The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president.”

Obama’s counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the “Disposition Matrix,” a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing programme would persist for “at least another decade.” During his first term in office, the Washington Post concluded, “Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.”

Redefining “imminent threat”

In early 2013, a Department of Justice “White Paper” surfaced that laid out the “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen.” The government lawyers who wrote the 16-page document asserted that the government need not possess specific intelligence indicating that an American citizen is actively engaged in a particular or active terror plot in order to be cleared for targeted killing. Instead, the paper argued that a determination from a “well-informed high level administration official” that a target represents an “imminent threat” to the United States is a sufficient basis to order the killing of an American citizen. But the Justice Department’s lawyers sought to alter the definition of “imminent”, advocating what they called a “broader concept of imminence”.

As the war on terror entered a second decade, the fantasy of a clean war took hold. It was a myth fostered by the Obama administration, and it found a ready audience. All polls indicated that Americans were tired of large military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mounting US troop casualties that came with them. A 2012 poll found that 83pc of Americans supported Obama’s drone programme, with 77pc of self-identified liberal Democrats supporting such strikes. The Washington Post- ABC News poll determined that support for drone strikes declined “only somewhat” in cases where a US citizen was the target.

President Obama and his advisers seldom mentioned the drone programme publicly. In fact, the first known confirmation of the use of armed drones by the president came several years into Obama’s first term. It was not in the form of a legal brief or a press conference, but rather on a Google+ “Hangout” as the president took questions from the public. Obama was asked about his use of drones. “I want to make sure that people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama said. “For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”

Michael Boyle, a former adviser in the Obama campaign’s counterterrorism experts group and a professor at LaSalle University, said that one of the reasons the administration was “so successful in spinning the number of civilian casualties” was the use of signature strikes and other systems for categorizing military-aged males as legitimate targets, even if their specific identities were unknown.

Using drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory. The war on terror, launched under a Republican administration, was ultimately legitimized and expanded by a popular Democratic president. Although Barack Obama’s ascent to the most powerful office on Earth was the result of myriad factors, it was largely due to the desire of millions of Americans to shift course from the excesses of the Bush era.

Had John McCain won the election, it is difficult to imagine such widespread support, particularly among liberal Democrats, for some of the very counterterrorism policies that Obama implemented. As individuals, we must all ask whether we would support the same policies - the expansion of drone strikes, the empowerment of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the use of the State Secrets Privilege, the use of indefinite detention, the denial of habeas corpus rights, the targeting of US citizens without charge or trial - if the commander in chief was not our candidate of choice.

Assassinating enemies

In 2012, a former constitutional law professor was asked about the US drone and targeted killing programme. “It’s very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?’” he responded, warning that it was important for the United States to “avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we’re not being true to who we are”.  That former law professor was Barack Obama. –Asian Times Online