There is a classic jury instruction that reads, “[a] witness who is willfully false in one material part of his or her testimony is to be distrusted in others. You may reject the whole testimony of a witness who willfully has testified falsely as to a material point, unless, from all the evidence, you believe the probability of truth favors his or her testimony in other particulars.” I immediately thought of that instruction when I read Obama’s national-security speech today, because it contains such a blatant lie that it is impossible to take anything else that Obama said seriously:
And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.
The United States, of course, has used drones to attack wedding parties. And funerals. And rescuers. And densely populated villages. Yet Obama has the temerity to claim that the US does not launch attacks unless there is “near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed. Has there been a bigger — and more obvious — lie since John Brennan’s risible claim in 2011 that drone strikes had not caused “a single collateral death”?
What is most perverse about Obama’s purported requirement is that, from a legal standpoint, it is completely unnecessary. International humanitarian law does not demand perfection; it demands proportionality. Innocent civilians die in legitimate military attacks. They always have, and they always will — no matter how “precise” weapons like drones become. Every military commander in every country in the world accepts that basic fact of warfare. But not Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the US is — like every other country — willing to launch attacks that are likely to kill innocent civilians when it believes the targets are important enough. He would rather pretend, in public and seemingly without shame, that the US is more virtuous and has cleaner hands than everyone else, friend and foe alike. Never mind that if the US took his targeting standard seriously, its drone fleet would be gathering dust in a hangar somewhere.
Obama gives a good speech. But, as the jury instruction goes, “[a] witness who is willfully false in one material part of his or her testimony is to be distrusted in others.” I think it is safe to say that we should be deeply distrustful of all the claims Obama made in his speech today, not just the wilfully false one. We simply cannot count on him to tell us the truth about the US’s national-security policy.