[…] To the delight of his staunchest Republican opponents, Obama’s willingness to target forces “associated” with al Qaeda and the Taliban signals his full approval of the notion that “the battlefield is wherever the enemy chooses to make it.” If we add to this notion the definition of enemy combatants that his administration apparently endorsed last year—“all military age males in a strike zone”—the logic justifying drone attacks comes full circle: we kill them because they are our enemies, and they are our enemies because we kill them.
In the three-page “Presidential Policy Guidance” Obama signed in tandem with this week’s speech, a sole footnote purports to retract this definition of a combatant: “it is not the case,” the footnote ends, “that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” But the previous sentence, through a double negative, does include, in the definition of a combatant, “an individual who is targetable in the exercise of national self-defense.” Rather than reversing the chilling “military-aged males” definition of a combatant, Obama’s new “Policy Guidance” merely reinforces the same circular logic through a still vaguer formulation. Who, once targeted, cannot retrospectively be defined as “targetable”?
To round out this hollow—if not outright deceitful—gesture towards accountability in drone warfare, Wednesday’s “Presidential Policy Guidance” concludes by noting that “These new standards and procedures do not limit the President’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies,” and that a select few members of Congress will be notified—not consulted—when the executive branch is planning to assassinate an enemy abroad. Is this really the bold new framework for accountability that the Obama administration “has worked vigorously” to produce?
The shamelessness of the endeavor is impressive—a far cry, in many ways, from the CIA’s secretive Cold War–era assassination plots. Obama has succeeded in anchoring a legal infrastructure for state-sponsored assassinations on foreign soil while trumpeting it, in broad daylight, as a framework for accountability. Peppered with allusions to the Constitution and to “the law” more generally, the call for transparency instead appears to provide an Orwellian foil for a remarkable expansion of executive powers.
Existing laws, domestic or international, are proving a hopelessly inadequate framework with which to hold the Obama administration accountable for arbitrary assassinations abroad. [++]