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Law-Abiding Murder: How the Obama Administration Uses 'Just War' Theory to Rationalize 'Kill Lists'

It is a moral and legal impossibility to square “kill lists” for extrajudicial murders with traditional legal and moral American values.
 
 
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In an extraordinary article in Tuesday’s New York Times, “ Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” authors Jo Becker and Scott Shane throw macabre light on the consigliere-cum-priestly role that counterterrorist adviser John Brennan provides President Barack Obama.

At the outset, Becker and Shane note that, although Obama vowed to “align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values,” he has now ordered the obedient Brennan to prepare a top secret “nominations” list of people whom the President may decide to order killed, without charge or trial, including American citizens.

The authors understate this as “a moral and legal conundrum.” It is, in fact, a moral and legal impossibility to square “kill lists” for extrajudicial murders with traditional legal and moral American values.

Enter the legal consiglieres. Attorney General Eric Holder and Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer, seem to have adopted the retro (pre-1215) practices of their immediate predecessors (think Ashcroft, Gonzales, Mukasey) with their extraordinary ability to make just about anything “legal.”

Even torture? No problem for the earlier trio. Was not George W. Bush well-armed with the perfect squelch, when NBC’s Matt Lauer asked him about waterboarding in November 2010?

Lauer: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?

Bush: Because the lawyer said it was legal. He said it did not fall within the anti-torture act. I’m not a lawyer. But you gotta trust the judgment of the people around you, and I do.

So there! You gotta trust those lawyers. The legal issue taken care of – though early in his presidency, Bush had ridiculed other lawyers who thought international law should apply to him. “International law?” he asked in mock fear. “I better call my lawyer.” He surely knew his lawyer would tell him what he wanted to hear.

The Moral

President Obama has adopted a similar attitude toward the moral conundrum of targeted killings around the world. Just turn to Consigliere John Brennan for some “just war” theorizing. We have it from Harold Koh that Brennan is “a person of genuine moral rectitude. … It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

So, like the Caesars of old or the generals of World War I, Obama consults a priest or minister before having folks killed. And in this case the “priest” is Brennan, “whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the President’s attempt to apply the ‘just war’ theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict,” write Becker and Shane.

If, as the New York Times writers claim, President Obama is a student of the writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he seems to be getting very warped exegesis from Brennan.

Cameron Munter, Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, is just one who seems inadequately schooled in those theories. According to Becker and Shane, Munter has complained to his colleagues that the CIA’s strikes are driving American policy in Pakistan, saying, “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people.”

Western news reports have Munter leaving his post this summer, after less than two years — an ambassador’s typical tenure.

Bellying-Up

Now, don’t “mis-underestimate” John Brennan. His heart is in the right place, we’re told. The authors quote him as insisting, “The President, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die.” Yes, it really is too bad, don’t you know; but, hey, sometimes you just have to belly-up to the really tough decisions.

 
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