Is Obama Taking ‘No Prisoners Alive’?

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A Pakistani villager holds a wreckage of a suspected surveillance drone along the Afghanistan border. August 2011.(AP Photo/Shah Khalid)
A Pakistani villager holds a wreckage of a suspected surveillance drone which is crashed in Pakistani border town of Chaman along the Afghanistan border in Pakistan on Thursday, Aug 25, 2011. Suspected U.S. surveillance drone crashes in Pakistan military area near border with Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Shah Khalid)

“It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die….The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name.”

So explains a must-read 8-page article in today’s New York Times about the president’s moral, legal and political deliberations in the “war on terror.” The article focuses on President Obama’s expansion of the drone program and the fact that he personally oversees the “kill list,” describing a “paradoxical leader” who aides say “shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing.”

Unmanned drone strikes have killed at least 18 top-level members of Al Qaeda in the past two years. They are low cost, carry little risk of U.S. casualties, and — theoretically — keep civilian deaths to a minimum.

But, the Times piece goes on to say,

“The administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.”

In last week’s episode of Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers pointed out that “according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats support keeping Guantánamo Bay open. Seventy-seven percent of liberal Democrats endorse the use of drones, which we know kill innocent civilians.”

So how, exactly, is killing suspected militants — defined broadly as all military-age males in a strike zone — better than taking them prisoner?

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that human rights organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have “raised pointed questions regarding the perceived lack of accountability and transparency” of drone strikes. CFR’s John Bellinger wondered in The Washington Post last fall whether these “targeted killings” will “become Obama’s Guantánamo?” He noted that internationally, the program has drawn criticism. In 2010, “the U.N. rapporteur for summary executions and extrajudicial killings said that drone strikes may violate international humanitarian and human rights law and could constitute war crimes.”

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald says that a similar outcry hasn’t happened here at home because Obama, rather than “the swaggering cowboy George Bush,” is simply better at marketing.

Obama — by leading blind-partisan Democrats and progressives to cheer for these policies rather than denounce them — has converted what were just recently highly divisive and controversial right-wing Assaults on Our Values into fully entrenched bipartisan consensus. But worse than that, he has put a prettier and more palatable face on extremely ugly policies.

Greenwald points to a passage in the Times article which observes that David Axelrod, the president’s closest political advisor, had begun showing up at counterterrorism meetings. “In other words,” Greenwald writes, “the person in charge of Obama’s political fortunes attends the meetings where the Leader decrees who lives and dies. Just think about how warped that is, or what progressives would be saying if Karl Rove did that with George Bush.”

Politico’s Byron Tau writes that “Obama’s record on terrorism is one of the most surprising elements of his presidency: in three short years, he has reversed the traditional Republican advantage on national security and is now facing an opponent who is decidedly uncomfortable talking about foreign policy or the war on terror.”

That’s a reversal that may indeed help Obama this November, but also one that may not sit well with many progressives who never expected the liberal law professor who campaigned against torture to adopt such aggressive anti-terror tactics.

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