I t was always pretty easy for your average British liberal to object to the Bush administration's anti-terror policies. George W Bush never carried our hopes and the easy distaste for Guantanamo and waterboarding aligned perfectly with our sense of his take on the economy, his social conservatism, his environmental barbarism. You could hate him and assume that his successor would be a nice, civilised Democrat and feel a little better about things.
Now that nice, civilised Democrat is in place and, in a lot of areas, things do indeed seem to be better. On terrorism, though – and on the targeting of militants – the picture is a troubling one and getting more so. On three successive days this week, Barack Obama launched three drone strikes in Pakistan, killing at least 29 people. They were the last of eight such strikes in a fortnight. During that run, the New York Times published a remarkable long article detailing the process by which the president and the CIA picked their targets and who they called a terrorist. The administration claims that the number of civilians killed in such hits in Pakistan was in the "low single digits". But a number of insiders say that such a calculation relies on a definition of "militant" that is laughably broad.
"It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants," one official told the newspaper. "They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are." Even if one disregards the strategic wisdom of such provocative attacks on Pakistani soil, one needn't be a human rights absolutist to be disturbed by this process. The Obama doctrine, after all, encompasses situations where believed terrorists are sitting with their families. It seems to count any young man in the vicinity of a terrorist as a terrorist himself. As the policy reaps greater and greater dividends as far as the headcount is concerned, the standard for who constitutes a threat to the United States is surely diluted. As Obama's former chief of staff, William M Daley, put it, when considering the criteria for the "kill list": "One guy gets knocked off and the guy's driver, who's No 21, becomes 20? At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?"
None of these reservations will have the slightest effect in the US, where Obama's perceived steadfastness in the War on Terror is one of his most useful tools in the battle with Mitt Romney. But anyone here or there who imagines they can support so ruthless a president and keep their liberal values unsullied had better think more carefully.
Frightening examples of state violence no longer come with the convenient imprimatur that they had in the Bush years. And no-one is any less dead just because it is a Democrat giving the order.Reuse content