Obama Thinks We’re All Rubes

Obama Thinks We’re All Rubes

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.

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Foreign Relations Law, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, Middle East, National Security Law, North America, Organizations
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Robert Clarke

Personally I don’t think the speech, read as a whole, purports to set out a standard any higher than proportionality. The risk of civilian casualties – and acceptance of that risk – is expressly acknowledged at several junctures. For example (in relation to the bin Laden operation):   The fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces, but it also depended on some luck.  And it was supported by massive infrastructure in Afghanistan.   And, in relation to the use of drones themselves:    it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war.   The speech also states fairly clearly that the decision to use drones in spite of that risk involves Obama weighing the options of alternative means of attack and doing nothing. That discussion is capped off with the not particularly salutary claim that drones are merely the:   course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.   So, that’s a much lower level of caution than ‘near-certainty’, at least as that… Read more »

Jens David Ohlin

As to “near-certainty,” do you think Obama was referring to the existing standard that governed prior strikes in his administration, or to a new standard going forward that he was now implementing in order to reduce the number of strikes approved?  The statement was a bit ambiguous in this regard.

Dawood I. Ahmed
Dawood I. Ahmed

It could be a true and accurate statement, depending on how one defines “civilian”.
That is, you could commit to avoid hitting civilians – if your definition of civilian is so broad that expressing such a limitation is in practice, effectively of very limited constraint really – such as “all military age males are presumed combatants unless posthumously proven innocent”