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How the US created a world of endless war

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How the US created a world of endless war

On 23 May 2013, the peace activist Medea Benjamin attended a speech by President Barack Obama at Fort McNair in Washington DC, the place he defended his administration’s use of armed drones in counter-terrorism. All thru his speech, Benjamin interrupted the president to criticise him for not having closed Guantánamo Bay and for pursuing military solutions over diplomatic ones. She was hastily ejected by military police and the Secret Provider. The Washington Post later pushed aside her as a “heckler”. Obama himself had been extra reflective at the tournament, engaging along with her criticisms, which resulted in even deeper self-criticism of his have. It was the second of greatest moral clarity about war in the route of a presidency that did extra than any other to carry its endless and humane American net totally into being.

For all its routine violence, the American way of war is extra and extra defined by a near full immunity from harm for the American aspect and exceptional care with regards to killing folks on the other. Today, there are extra and extra legal obligations to make war extra humane – meaning, above all, the aim of minimising collateral harm. Nations care for the US have agreed to obey those obligations, on the other hand permissively they elaborate them and inadequately apply them in the discipline. Absolutely and relatively, fewer captives are mistreated and fewer civilians die than in the past. Yet, at the same time, the US’s military operations have become extra expansive in scope and perpetual in time by advantage of these very facts.

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The very idea of extra humane war may appear a contradiction in phrases. The US’s conflicts abroad remain brutal and deadly, however what’s upsetting about them shouldn’t be suitable the violence they inflict. This new variety of American war is revealing that the most elemental face of war shouldn’t be death. Instead, it is attend watch over by domination and surveillance.

Obama had bustle as a variety of anti-war candidate in his fairytale 2008 campaign, and when it became out that he was a hard-bitten pragmatist, on this and other areas, many of his supporters were taken aback. Obama expanded the “war on fright” to an awesome extent, while making it sustainable for a domestic audience in a way his predecessor by no means did – in part because Obama understood the political makes use of of transforming American warfare in a humane direction.

In exactly the first few months of 2009, after Obama took the oath of office, the initial metamorphosis of American war into humane net was achieved. As the worst sins of the prior administration were disowned, Obama’s lawyers claimed authority to continue war indefinitely across space and time, devising formal legal frameworks for targeted killings. The upward push of the armed drone empire beneath Obama’s watch was merely the symbol of the extension and expansion of endless war.

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“Lawyerliness suffused the Obama administration,” noticed Charlie Savage, the Unusual York Times reporter who broke many explosive national safety reports in the route of the Obama years. Nonetheless that lawyerliness often served as an elaborate rationalisation route of. The president’s males and ladies folks, Savage has written, “were attempting to battle al-Qaida while adhering to what they saw as the rule of law”. Though what they saw as the rule of law meant runt extra than self-regulation, their dedication to humane standards of combating war – while by no means ideal in legal theory or military practice – had rhetorical vitality for some Americans, significant effects on the combating itself, and helped net endless war.

Obama persisted a route of begun in the later Bush years, however he extra credibly advertised the nation’s uprightness as steward of the least-brutal net of war doable. And he transformed the “war on fright” itself. Expansion and humanisation went together, branding Obama’s wars with an ominous trademark.

Medea Benjamin, being ejected from Obama’s talk at the National Defense University, Washington, in 2013.
Medea Benjamin, being ejected from Obama’s talk at the National Defense College, Washington, in 2013. Photograph: Bag McNamee/Getty Images

Beyond its other shortcomings, the transformation of American war incurred a gargantuan threat that its defenders and its opponents largely failed to spy ahead of it was too late. In November 2016, it blindsided them. “He has relentlessly wondered the efficacy of force,” said the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg toward the halt of Obama’s two phrases, “however he has also become the most profitable terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency, one who will hand to his successor a place of instruments an accomplished assassin would envy.” This was scary, no matter how tightly controlled, humanely practised and judiciously ruled – and that was ahead of the fair identity of Obama’s successor became known most productive six months after Goldberg wrote.

It was not as though Obama may have became a blind look to terrorism. He was a politician whose career depended on maintaining the American folks. Nonetheless not most productive did Obama originate a far greater and extra encompassing net of war than necessary, and not most productive did he undermine the US’s earlier commitments to a legal order consecrating peace to carry out so. His policies helped create the stipulations for a gruesome and bad finale.

No dove, Donald Trump nevertheless capitalised on the idea that mainstream politicians were committed to endless wars. And he won. The arc of the moral universe ran thru the humanisation of interminable battle. Nonetheless it absolutely bent toward an ogre. Extra and extra humane varieties of combating abroad had now brought disaster at dwelling, too. Then Trump went on to repeat the very same pirouette from anti-war candidate to endless war president that Obama had carried out. And now Joe Biden dangers doing the same.


In March 2009, a landmark legal short gave clear, jaw-losing spy of how Obama’s wars may perhaps be performed, formalising and globalising the “war on fright” in a way that Bush had by no means carried out officially. There may perhaps be no limitations in space or time on the behavior of counter-terrorism. This is able to matter noteworthy extra than Obama’s extra broadly remarked reforms: symbolically banning torture or twiddling with prisoner and trial principles.

Two months later, Obama met in the Oval Office with a group of civil libertarians and human rights advocates. “No person questions your values,” began Anthony Romero, the American Civil Liberties Union head. “Nonetheless when your substantive policies are not substantively diversified out of your predecessor’s, then the comparisons are fair.”

Later that year, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and in December, he travelled to Oslo to give his dazzling acceptance speech. The premise of his Nobel lecture was that terrorism, which he privately described (according to interviews) as a unimaginative regulatory quandary, was so new and threatening that it required thinking “in new ways about the notions of suitable war and the imperatives of a suitable peace”. No matter the illusions some had cultivated when Obama ran, for a president, at least of the United States, an anti-war stance in vitality was out of the question.

All appreciate was because of his elected ancestor Martin Luther King’s rejection of war when he won his have Nobel in 1964 with the message that violence “solves no social reveal: it merely creates new and extra complicated ones.” Nonetheless neither King nor Mohandas Gandhi ahead of him had led a great nation.

Obama at the Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo in 2009.
Obama at the Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo in 2009. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

It was a brilliant self-defence, not most productive of the ethics of Obama’s have operate, however of American violence in a world the place, he insisted, too many naively demand peace. “In many countries,” Obama remarked, “there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.” As the Unusual York Times editorialists identified in lauding Obama’s rhetoric, “he instantly challenged the widespread ambivalence and aversion” toward the Afghan war among Americans, too.

In his eloquent rationale for the makes use of of US military vitality for a new age, the saving grace, perhaps, was that Obama insisted on humane constraints. He recalled the US’s onetime contribution to a less war-torn globe, that is, after the second world war, establishing the international systems and establishments that were supposed to attenuate international battle. And that contribution in the route of and after the frigid war left the world a “legacy for which my have nation is rightfully proud”, though there may have been prices and mistakes along the way. Nonetheless in the face of fright, what the American contribution required was not an halt to war however exactly playing by the principles of humane warfare.

“I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens folks that carry out, and isolates and weakens folks that don’t,” he concluded. Obama was clear: “I bear the United States of America ought to remain a standard-bearer in the behavior of war.”


Obama became to armed drones extra times in his first year alone than Bush had in the entirety of his presidency. Almost from the start, Obama’s coverage called for engaging in targeted killing, not most productive by drone however also with the Special Forces or standoff missiles sent from prolonged distances. Introduced in secret and then normalised in public, targeted killings transformed the “war on fright” so that it stretched further and further across the Earth.

By the halt of Obama’s time in office, drones had struck almost 10 times extra than beneath his predecessor’s watch, with many thousands dead. The air force now trained extra drone operators than aircraft pilots, and the bases and infrastructure of drone activity had been prolonged deep into the African continent, not merely across the Heart East and south Asia. Meanwhile, gentle-footprint Special Forces operated in or moved thru 138 nations – or 70% of all countries in the world – in Obama’s last year in office. Actual combating took place in at least 13, and targeted killing in some of those.

The attractions of this approach were clear. First and foremost was the have to net the war off the US’s front pages, and end body bags from coming dwelling. What’s extra, Obama was really eager by the threat of domestic fright attacks. The month after the Nobel speech, on Christmas Day, the near destruction of Northwest Flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit by the Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, “the underwear bomber”, caused Obama large consternation. The near leave out led the president to intensify in practice what he had defended in theory and his lawyers had blessed.

An equally large incentive was the have to avoid the damaging political attacks that his predecessor had suffered for the treatment of captured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, along with the CIA’s black sites. If no person was captured, no person may very successfully be mistreated. Nonetheless past these factors, Obama embraced the ideal of humanity in warfare not merely as what the law required however as a morally legitimate and legitimating endeavor.

The enlargement of the “war on fright” thru targeted killings, and its extension in space or time, initially obtained runt public scrutiny. The world had reacted with fright when Bush’s national safety strategy in 2002 had forthrightly claimed the have to engage in pre-emptive self-defence without any impending threat. In what sceptics regarded as an absurd oxymoron, Obama’s lawyers now invoked the “elongated imminence” of threats they said justified force. No longer most productive was targeted killing allowed in self-defence, however Obama also asserted the legality of doing it pre-emptively.

Then there was the extraordinary way the law was stretched to cowl new terrorist groups, as Obama’s war expanded to new places. Home law posed runt barrier to targeted killing itself, at least for non-Americans, because in its Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Congress had allowed armed force to be outdated against any “persons” linked to the September 11 attacks. Nonetheless it absolutely became a burning question whether a rapidly changing al-Qaida and new copycat groups that claimed its name were shut ample to those eager about September 11 to earn legalised death. In the landmark March 2009 legal short, Obama’s lawyers drew on the Bush-era idea of “associated forces” of al-Qaida in sing to expand the range of legal targets. It was applied to groups such as the Islamist al-Shabaab outfit in Somalia with few or no ties to al-Qaida, and to individuals in advantage of their membership on this and other far-flung outfits. In 2014, to elaborate military action against Islamic State without desiring to net congressional signoff, Obama’s lawyers deemed Isis to be Osama bin Laden’s “fair heir”.

There were legal arguments for each of the steps Obama took, their credibility differing from case to case. Taken together, on the other hand, they blessed an expanding “war on fright” with unpredictable consequences. Nor were these varieties of legalistic sleights of hand confined to counter-terrorism. In 2011, the US commenced a United Nations authorised humanitarian intervention in Libya however transformed it into an illegal regime change, with deplorable consequences for that nation. The Libya operation depended on an essentially unlimited rationale for presidential war that the attorneys offered.


If so runt of this registered in mainstream US public debate, it was because the Obama administration emphasised the humanity of the combating. From summer season 2011 onwards, the drone programme began to receive extra intense scrutiny in the press. The Obama administration would partially and strategically elevate secrecy over the years that adopted. By doing so, it normalised targeted killing – not hard to carry out given the enthusiasm for the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, in a dramatic commando raid. At the same time, it place out to demonstratively minimise collateral harm. If the alternative to targeted killing was indiscriminate killing, and if the alternative to drones was corpulent-on wars care for Iraq or Vietnam, then it gave the impact obvious to many that Obama’s way was the suitable one.

Early statements for public consumption absurdly claimed that no collateral damage was being inflicted in these targeted killings, which outside reporting easily contradicted. “We’re exceptionally exact and surgical,” enthused John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, in June 2011. He claimed that US counter-terrorism operations had not eager a single “collateral death” in almost a year “because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to draw”.

That was far from the fact. Obama himself had been so upset by excesses in the new incursion he ordered into Yemen that he stopped the drone attacks there for a year between 2010 and 2011. Most hard to reconcile with the idea of humane war were reports of the US carrying out “signature strikes”. These targeted males of combating age in a given area without certainty that they were individually terrorists, let alone threatening ones. It was a presumption reminiscent of the Vietnam-era practice of declaring “free-strike” zones wherein anyone remaining was presumptively an enemy. As the “war on fright” wore on, administration estimates of civilian casualties were raised, even as outside displays reached noteworthy larger totals.

Most of the early evaluations of targeted killing eager how the humane standards of the laws of war applied. This level of interest anticipated the debate of the later Obama administration, which was whether too many innocent folks were demise, not whether the interventions themselves were legal, the place American force may swagger and how prolonged it may stay.

US and Afghan soldiers question a farmer after a firefight with the Taliban in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, in 2010.
US and Afghan infantrymen question a farmer after a firefight with the Taliban in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, in 2010. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

As he ran for re-election in 2012, aware that somebody else may inherit the gadget he had built, Obama began a route of to codify drone coverage. He even informed Jon Stewart on an episode of The Daily Indicate two weeks ahead of winning that he wanted a “legal architecture” to make clear that “not most productive am I reined in, however any president’s reined in”. And after winning, he gave his speech at the National Defense College at Fort McNair divulging that he had issued an executive order a year earlier clarifying the humane controls his administration placed on targeted killing.

This Presidential Coverage Guidance (PPG) was an essential doc. The place the March 2009 legal short signalled war without limits in time or space, the PPG belatedly promised that it was to be humanely performed. It promised that outside areas of active hostilities, and “absent extraordinary circumstances”, no killing would happen except capture was “infeasible” and there was a “near certainty” that no person other than the terrorists would undergo. And the place Bush had given the CIA blanket authority to strike anywhere, Obama demanded oversight. He met weekly to pore over “slay lists” that he personally vetted, and formally committed to doing so in the guidance doc.

Written in 2012, the PPG was most productive publicly released two years later. Harvard Law professor Naz Modirzadeh cuttingly described the doc as mixing together a quantity of “legal-ish” standards. The optics of humane behaviour, Modirzadeh suggested, were “being outdated to give an international law-care for gloss” to “an approach that most allies gaze as violating” other parts of international law, most of all the principles controlling force.

The lawyer Martin Lederman, a traditional Obama official, took umbrage. How may anyone, he wondered, have the effrontery to complain about the attempt to humanise the war? Brutal war was worse than humane war, suitable? Lederman failed to confront whether humanisation may work as a spoonful of sugar supposed to encourage the medication of endless war swagger down.

One of the insidious outcomes of the humanisation of endless war was to immediate activists to demand even extra humane war. Obama offered one thing between war and policing. Why not swagger all the way, these critics reasoned. If war was going to happen off battlefields and without deadline, so the argument went, it really ought to resemble the permanent establishment of policing with its far extra stringent principles on killing, most productive now on a global scale. Nonetheless this was an extremely dangerous argument. In sing to implore maximum humanisation, it conceded that illegal war may very successfully be endless and in all places. Did the humanisation of so nightmarish a practice as endless global war make it larger or worse?

Humanitarian and military lawyers bickered around how noteworthy wartime humanity was going to be ample. They tacitly agreed not to battle over the war itself. The campaign to seem extra humane war failed to challenge the endeavor of war itself.


As his stumble upon with the peace activist Medea Benjamin in 2013 proved, Obama himself hoped to stand for humanising the war from the high. Nonetheless after Benjamin’s unceremonious removal from the audience, on stage, along with his trademark calm and intellectualism, Obama overtly wondered whether the strides toward humane war he himself demanded may come at a mark.

“The announce of that woman is rate paying attention to,” Obama meditated off-script, gorgeous his audience. “Clearly I carry out not agree with noteworthy of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in noteworthy of what I said. Nonetheless these are tricky considerations, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is despicable.” Obama affirmed that his policies for targeting killings were legal, beneath domestic and international standards. Yet he intuited that endless war, on the other hand humane, may restful be a mistake.

A US marine in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2009.
A US marine in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2009. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of fright,” he said. “Force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force in all places that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war – thru drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – swill display self-defeating, and alter our nation in troubling ways.” He even concluded that “this war, care for all wars, ought to halt”.

Obama was his have greatest critic. It was hard to know whether he actually cared about the imperative of peace, as against wanting part of his audience to contemplate he did. It was extraordinary, all the same, that Obama voiced the fear of endless war as he did. Obama’s statement reflected rising perceptions that a dreadful error had been made at the start of the war he inherited, or someplace along the way on his have watch. “Since world war two,” Obama said to graduating West Point cadets the following spring, “some of our most pricey mistakes came not from our restraint, however from our willingness to bustle into military adventures without thinking thru the consequences.” Nor were the prices merely for victims far away.


Obama was often criticised for failing to maintain perpetrators of torture beneath the prior regime accountable. Nonetheless to concentrate on this level misses his constant invitation to Americans to see that “we” had tortured and that “we” are not the variety of folks who would ever carry out so again. “We did a entire lot of things that were suitable, however we tortured some folks,” he said disarmingly at a White Home information conference in summer season 2014. “We did some things that were contrary to our values,” he persisted, and “we have to, as a nation, take accountability for that.”

Americans had carried out bad things in the past. Nonetheless they may restful attempt for the gentle, in the net of extra humane war in the present and future. Over and over again, Obama’s characteristic reaction to the inhumanity of latest wars was: “That’s not us. That’s not who we are.” Torture was not us – however, his argument gave the impact to imply, endless war is.

A few years later, on the other hand, it became out that some of “us” were restive. Two days ahead of the South Carolina Republican primary in February 2016, Donald Trump appeared on stage with the CNN host Anderson Cooper. On this Bush-friendly, pro-military state, Trump blasted the Iraq war as probably the “worst decision” in US history. “We have destabilised the Heart East,” he said, causing the upward push of the Islamic State and conflicts in Libya and Syria. He won South Carolina the subsequent day by 10 ingredients, and by no means looked back. In every presidential debate, Trump reiterated that he had antagonistic the Iraq war from the start – proof that voters may have confidence him as commander-in-chief and ignore the chorus of national safety experts who deemed him unfit.

In the 2016 general election campaign, it was identified repeatedly that Trump had not, in fact, antagonistic the Iraq war. And while Clinton acknowledged her error in balloting to authorise the war, she brushed off the field, as if the lesson to be learned was by no means again to let Bush invade Iraq in 2003. It fell to Trump to recognise the war as a disaster that warranted meaningful change in American national safety. The hashtag #EndEndlessWar originated in 2014 from grassroots activism among progressives around the annual congressional ritual of renewing war funding. Two years later, the shock was that the mainstream of each parties, and Clinton not least, had left Trump an opening to persuade millions of Americans that he was the candidate extra worthy of the hashtag.

In contrast to Obama, Trump left absolute self belief about his plan of humane war. He actively praised brutality. On the campaign trail, he claimed that torture works. He did so again when he was president.

Nonetheless a amusing factor happened on the way to the feared restoration of brutal older varieties of war that Trump personally favoured. The executive sing to reinstitute torture was by no means issued, in part because secretary of protection James Mattis chanced on torture unconscionable. And Trump’s proposals were met by the howls of leading Republicans, such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The CIA itself pushed back, reflecting a period of institutional self-correction parallel to the one the military had undergone after Vietnam – although neither held anyone accountable for past crime.

In his first year in office, Trump deleted the Presidential Coverage Guidance, replacing it with a extra permissive Guidelines, Standards and Procedures doc. Once again, the bark proved worse than the chew: Trump retained the requirement that the prediction of any civilian death at all takes a targeted strike off the table. Even as he proved willing to pardon some accused American war criminals, Trump, to a remarkable extent, was locked into the humanity of war, too.

Was the same to be fair of its endlessness? In office, Trump strove mightily to end certain aspects of endless war – the Afghan part most notably – even as he intensified the war overall. Typically, his attempts to withdraw forces provoked howls of rage across the political spectrum – especially when he abandoned Kurdish allies by starting a pullout from Syria in 2019. To a extra divided reception, Trump bombed the Syrian authorities in retaliation for chemical attacks, and performed Iranian military mastermind Qassem Suleimani when he was in Iraq in 2020.

By comparison, Trump’s augmentation of the military rate range (which he constantly bragged about), his escalation of the use of the Special Forces even past the high-water mark Obama reached, and his expansion of the drone empire with ever extra strikes, encountered runt bipartisan complaint. After all, it was suitable the coverage of the prior two presidents, most productive extra so.

Now Biden has achieved the withdrawal in Afghanistan that Obama began and Trump struggled to take to the halt, even as each preserved the new varieties of counter-terrorism to replace troops on the ground. The chaotic situation has caused a bout of national soul-searching in the US, as it finally brought dwelling suitable how feckless the Afghan “nation-building effort” has been all along. Nonetheless Biden conscientiously illustrious the counter-terrorism he always planned to continue from the withdrawal he performed. And the attacks by Isis-Okay at Kabul airport led the US’s national safety and surveillance authorities to intensify for the future the very strikes into endless counter-terrorism that so troubled Obama and which helped propel Trump into office.

Whatever history’s judgment of the deserves of the “war on fright”, and the consequences for the world and for itself, the outcomes left the nation with a paradox it had not yet faced, and had therefore carried out nothing to overcome. Thru the presidencies of Bush, Obama and Trump, the US may take strides to attend its wars humane. Nonetheless it absolutely did so while entrenching its globalised militarism, as one anti-war candidate then another became an endless-war president. And now one extra, alas, looks a prisoner of the script.

Adapted from Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, published by FSG in the US on 7 September and by Verso in the UK in January.

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How the US created a world of endless war