Obama's Speech: Not a Step in the Right Direction, But Justification for Assassination, Torture, and Unjust War

by Revolution Newspaper | May 30, 2013

On May 23, President Barack Obama delivered a major speech on drones, Guantánamo, and the "war on terror." The speech was packaged as a new direction—a real step away from "endless war" and a real step towards the establishment of legal norms and due process in how the U.S. carries out military actions and detentions.  

It was nothing of the kind. Obama covered two main questions—covert drone attacks and the U.S. prison at Guantánamo—and offered no fundamental righting of these unjust and illegal policies that stand as war crimes.

“The interests, objectives, and grand designs of the imperialists are not our interests—they are not the interests of the great majority of people in the U.S. nor of the overwhelming majority of people in the world as a whole.

“And the difficulties the imperialists have gotten themselves into in pursuit of these interests must be seen, and responded to, not from the point of view of the imperialists and their interests, but from the point of view of the great majority of humanity and the basic and urgent need of humanity for a different and better world, for another way.”

— Bob Avakian
Chairman of the Revolutionary
Communist Party, USA
BAsics 3:8

This speech was wrapped with the rhetoric of "concern" and the "difficult choices" forced on an administration inheriting a "fight against terrorism" that had increasingly lost focus under George W. Bush. But dig beneath the pieties of Obama's speech and what is revealed is a deceitful effort to justify, institutionalize, and continue key and core outrages and war crimes of the U.S.'s "war on terror."

And let's be clear about what has been going on for over 12 years. Beginning with George W. Bush, the rulers of the U.S. have carried out a vicious war for greater empire—for greater domination over the Middle East and Central Asia, over strategic energy resources vital to the global economy, and to put down local and regional forces actively standing in the way of U.S. dominance. This global onslaught has been waged under the banner of a necessary "war on terror." And in his four years in office, Barack Obama has not only continued the program of war and torture begun by Bush; he has also extended U.S. bombing to several other countries, escalated policies of drone attacks and targeted assassination, and refortified Guantánamo. 

This "war on terror" has been carried out in the name of protecting the safety and security of the American people. But it has brought incalculable horror and suffering to vast swaths of humanity—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and other countries. More than 100,000 people have been killed outright as a result of U.S. military actions; hundreds of thousands more have lost limbs, or been otherwise maimed and sickened; and millions have been displaced from their homes and countries. This is the logic, this is the morality, of empire.

And with all its carnage and destruction—and with its torture practices, illegal detention policies, and routine violations of international law—this "war on terror" has provoked mass outrage across the planet (and the statement Close Guantánamo Now that appeared in the New York Times as a full-page ad is an expression of that outrage within the U.S.). The ongoing hunger strike by prisoners at Guantánamo has shone a light on the illegal and horrendous conditions of confinement, and has won the sympathy of people over the world.

At the same time, this "war on terror" has caused friction with the U.S.'s allies and with its neocolonial client states.

The U.S. rulers are facing legitimacy problems, affecting their ability to maintain and extend their dominant global position. It is a serious contradiction for them—including at a time when the U.S. imperialists are also moving to adjust their military posture to confront new challenges to America's global supremacy, like the emergence of capitalist China as a potential global rival.

All of this is part of the backdrop for Barack Obama's May 23 speech… part of why he had to give this speech… and part of why it was presented in the way it was.

Barack Obama aggressively articulated and defended policies deemed essential by America's imperial rulers, while trying to reassure those anguishing over the thousands murdered by drones, the unending horror of Guantánamo, and the escalation of domestic spying and repression that all this is legal, carefully considered, extremely restrained, and guided by a deep concern for human life. Importantly, this speech was also directed at an international audience.

Continuing Illegal Assassination by Drone

Repeatedly Obama claimed to be agonizing over moral issues and alluded to crimes committed in the name of the "war on terror" under Bush—although without actually calling them what they are: crimes.

World Can't Wait and others protest Obama's use of drones at his inauguration in Washington, DC, January 21, 2013. (Photo: Li Onesto/Revolution)

Beginning with George W. Bush, the rulers of the U.S. have carried out a vicious war for greater empire—for greater domination over the Middle East and Central Asia, over strategic energy resources vital to the global economy, and to put down local and regional forces actively standing in the way of U.S. dominance. In his four years in office, Barack Obama has not only continued the program of war and torture begun by Bush, he has extended U.S. bombing to several other countries, escalated policies of drone attacks and targeted assassinations, and refortified Guantánamo.
World Can't Wait and others protest Obama's use of drones at his inauguration in Washington, DC, January 21, 2013.
Photo: Li Onesto/Revolution

Then, over and over, he followed up with lies, distortions, and duplicitous declarations that he was respecting basic rights—all while essentially upholding these crimes and justifying their continuation and possible expansion.

Obama acknowledged, for example, that U.S. drone attacks and conventional warfare "resulted in civilian casualties." "For me," he claimed, "and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live."

In fact, the number of deaths from drone strikes since Obama took office is more than four times greater than under Bush, and so-called "high-level targets" have been 2 percent or less of total casualties—in other words, these strikes are hitting a wide range of people. Activist Medea Benjamin, who disrupted Obama's speech, righteously challenged him to end "signature strikes" that target supposedly suspicious gatherings. Such strikes have been responsible for atrocities like the murder-by-U.S.-drone of 69 school children in Pakistan in that category in 2006.

In response to the disruption, Obama claimed that he had addressed this. But even some mainstream news commentators pointed out that Obama's formulations and standards to justify drone strikes could actually lay the basis to expand the scope of who could be targeted.

The Torturer-in-Chief Declares: We Don't Torture

Obama declared that "we compromised our basic values—by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law."

Demonstrators dressed like detainees demand that Obama close Guantánamo, Chicago, May 2013. (Photo: FJJ)

The “war on terror” has been carried out in the name of protecting the safety and security of the American people. But it has brought incalculable horror and suffering to vast swaths of humanity—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and other countries.
Demonstrators dressed like detainees demand that Obama close Guantánamo, Chicago, May 2013.
Photo: FJJ

Obama made no mention at all of the tens of thousands within the U.S. prison system who are held in prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation—conditions which have been condemned as torture by UN officials, human rights groups, and psychologists. Nor has Obama ever, elsewhere, spoken to this outrage. Meanwhile, courageous prisoners in California have waged hunger strikes themselves, and have declared their intention to launch another hunger strike to end this torture.

And as Obama spoke, over 100 detainees at the Guantánamo torture camp were waging a hunger strike to protest their hellish conditions. In response, they are being tortured by force-feeding through a tube that snakes up their nose and down their throat. 

The prisoners at Guantánamo were swept up by U.S. forces from around the world, taken without any due process and held indefinitely—with no specific legal charges and no judicial review. Not a single one of the 166 detainees in Guantánamo—whether the 86 cleared for release or not—is in Guantánamo legally. Guantánamo is an ongoing crime against humanity.

Obama claimed, "I have tried to close GTMO [Guantánamo]." But he set no timetable and proposed no concrete mechanism for doing so. He said he would lift the ban on releasing Yemeni prisoners who make up a large section of those imprisoned. But, again, no timetable, no real mechanism—and an immoral lack of urgency. In 2009, Obama promised to close Guantánamo. 

Obama blamed Congress: "As President, I have tried to close GTMO," he claimed. The truth is that it was Obama, not Congress, who shuttered the State Department office which oversaw the release of prisoners; Obama who imposed the ban on returning any of the 56 Yemeni detainees to Yemen; and Obama who made it more difficult for lawyers to visit their clients at Guantánamo. And as Commander-in-Chief, Obama has the authority to close down Guantánamo with or without Congressional consent. 

Redefining Kill Lists as "Due Process"

Obama said, "I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen—with a drone, or a shotgun—without due process." And Obama's speech publicly acknowledged for the first time that four American citizens have been killed by drone attacks. Obama said these were constitutional since there was due process.

But the due process that has been in effect is not the due process of law and judicial review. It is process of review and secret decision-making of the executive branch without recourse to open courts and any kind of civil liberties or rights at all for those targeted for assassination. Again, as in the Bush years, it is the "trust us, we know"—in this case, the deliberation of the president and advisors as they draw up and review "kill lists" is called "due process."

Obama raised the possibility of some kind of oversight mechanism—but the goal is simply to provide a legal fig leaf for executive action, for the broad authority to strike terror, instant incineration, outside any battle zone.

And Obama called for creating a new prison facility in the U.S. where trials before 'military commissions' will be held. The legal standards of these military tribunals are of a whole different character than what is promised as constitutional due process. For instance, the accused cannot access all the evidence used against them; and trials can be held in secret.

Adjusting and Selling the "War on Terror"

To those outraged by drone attacks, Obama insisted: "Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives."

Drone strikes and torture chambers aren't saving lives in Pakistan or Yemen! The underlying, if not overtly stated, premise here is that these things save American lives.

An essential starting point is Bob Avakian's statement: "American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People's Lives." (BAsics 5:7)

And saving lives is not what the "war on terror" has ever been about. To the extent that people are taken in by and buy into the logic that torture and extra-legal assassination are justified if they "keep Americans safe"—this is a logic and (im)morality that leads to passive, or even active, complicity with terrible crimes against people around the world.

There are reactionary, Islamic jihadist forces that pose a threat to the interests of imperialism in strategic parts of the world. And these forces do carry out actions that target innocent civilians. But the U.S. rulers are not waging this "war on terror"—however it is branded or rebranded—to "save lives." They are acting to maintain, to extend, and to enforce the global interests of U.S. imperialism: that is, to dominate and exploit, and to control and plunder, the planet.

What about the threat posed to innocent people by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? First of all, the rise of Islamic jihadist forces is in the main a product of and reaction to the workings of imperialism: to the ways imperialism has uprooted and devastated the lives and livelihoods of millions; to how imperialism has propped up vicious regimes (like Mubarak in Egypt); and to how it has literally sponsored the rise of these jihadist forces when that served the perceived interests of U.S. imperialism (as in Afghanistan, where the U.S. backed and funded Islamic fundamentalists going up against the Soviet Union).

Times Square, NYC, May 2013

No matter who is selling global massacres and torture, no matter what rhetoric is invoked in service of unjust wars for empire, right is right, and wrong is wrong. The times call for honesty, courage, and determined political protest by everyone who refuses to be silently complicit in these crimes.
Times Square, NYC, May 2013. Photo: World Can't Wait

Further, the crimes of U.S. imperialism—from the death-trap sweatshops of Bangladesh to the environmental emergency, from mass incarceration in the USA to the ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—dwarf even the aspirations of these reactionary Islamic forces.

Finally, to the extent that people do not oppose, but instead fall into active or passive complicity with, either the outmoded U.S. imperialist and other Western imperialist ruling classes, or the outmoded reactionary Islamic fundamentalism/jihadism—this only strengthens both of these outmoded forces. It is the vicious cycle where every drone attack that wipes out a wedding party in Pakistan (with far, far too little protest in the U.S.) serves to recruit more jihadists, and on and on.

A Time to Resist, a Time to Cast Off Illusions—and Self-Delusion

Obama's speech was given in large part because so many around the world are outraged or deeply troubled by these crimes. But on the most basic issues—assassination by drone, and the ongoing maintenance of the U.S. torture chamber at Guantánamo—Obama essentially upheld policies that are crimes against humanity and offered an intellectual-legal brief for their continuation.

No matter who is selling global massacres and torture, no matter what rhetoric is invoked in service of unjust wars for empire, right is right, and wrong is wrong. The times call for honesty, courage, and determined political protest by everyone who refuses to be silently complicit in these crimes.

This article originally appeared on revcom.us on May 30, 2013.