In one respect at least, Barack Obama’s pitch for bipartisanship in Washington is paying off. From liberal Democrats to the Republican right, the two parties of U.S. capitalism responded to the Department of Justice White Paper justifying assassinations of U.S. citizens by overwhelmingly hailing this augmentation of the lethal powers of the imperial presidency. Obtained by NBC News, the previously secret document confirms what was already known: the executive branch of the government can assassinate a U.S. citizen anywhere, anytime, without even the pretense of judicial oversight. Obama asserted this principle with his “targeted killings” of Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki—all U.S. citizens—in Yemen in 2011. Those assassinations are but a tiny fraction of the murderous toll of U.S. imperialist terror on the people of Yemen, not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As described by Glenn Greenwald in the London Guardian (5 February): “The president’s underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president—at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as ‘Terror Tuesday’—then chooses from ‘baseball cards’ and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.” It is not even necessary for the intended victims to be charged as terrorists or for there to be a shred of evidence against them. Anyone deemed an “associate” of a “terrorist” can end up on the kill list, with the authorities even spared the trouble of having to concoct an imminent threat.
Greenwald expresses righteous anger at Democrats’ falling into line behind Obama’s shredding of such Constitutional protections as the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. He chastises “obsequious lawyers telling their Party’s leader that he is (of course) free to do exactly that which he wants to do, in exactly the same way that Bush got John Yoo to tell him that torture was not torture, and that even if it were, it was legal.” No mystery to this. The Democrats have been just as diligent as the Republicans in using the “war on terror” to augment the repressive powers of the capitalist state because the aim of both parties is to operate that state machinery against the working class, minorities and the poor, at home and abroad.
The White Paper offers some legal basis for the kill list in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed with exactly one dissenting vote in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Justice Department document reaffirms the global sweep of the “war on terror,” stating that “none of the three branches of the U.S. Government has identified a strict geographical limit on the permissible scope of the AUMF’s authorization.” Under Obama, U.S. forces continue to kill and maim in wars, drone strikes and special operations from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa, while the administration cranks up the war on the rights of the U.S. population.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit against the Obama government in 2010, challenging the placement of Anwar al-Awlaki on government kill lists before his death. A federal district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the issue of targeting for assassination was a “political question” to be taken up by the executive branch. The ACLU has now filed another suit charging that the killings of the al-Awlakis and Samir Khan violated the Constitutional guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process of law. Its February 6 statement on the new suit notes that “the government counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (An “innocent” corpse is still a corpse.)
Some of Obama’s liberal critics ask that he at least go through the motions of getting prior approval before launching his “targeted” killings. One option they offer is to establish a special court for such purposes, akin to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts for wiretapping applications. Trumpeted as a check on the nation’s secret police, FISA has never been anything more than a rubber stamp. From 1979 to 2011, it denied all of eleven of nearly 32,000 wiretap applications. The bottom line for Obama is not only that the White House must have the power to order U.S. citizens killed but that the documents explaining the “legal” rationale for this power must be classified, i.e., concealed. While some liberal critics bemoan Obama’s lack of transparency in this matter, their concerns do not extend to his legions of non-American victims.
Guantánamo is not closed, but Obama is taking few prisoners. Over the last three years, his administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes. The Air Force now trains more unmanned-systems operators than it does fighter and bomber pilots combined. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that CIA strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013 have resulted in 3,468 deaths. In Somalia, the Bureau reports, up to 57 people described as civilians have been killed and in Yemen as many as 178. The key architect of the drone murder scheme is John Brennan, who is slated to be chief of the CIA, which directs many of the drone strikes. Brennan’s résumé, spanning a 25-year CIA career, includes working as a top agency official during the torture interrogations carried out under the Bush administration.
On MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes last year, Jeremy Scahill described the village of al-Majalah in Yemen after the first strike there authorized by Obama. With 35 women and children killed, the U.S. tried to palm it off as the work of the Yemeni government. But, as Scahill said, “We know from the Wikileaks cables that David Petraeus conspired with the president of Yemen to lie to the world about who did that bombing. It’s murder—it’s mass murder—when you say, ‘We are going to bomb this area’ because we believe a terrorist is there” (Huffington Post, 3 June 2012).
An editorial in the liberal Nation (6 June 2012) stated: “The drone strikes are inciting even more anti-American hatred in troubled places like Yemen as well as Pakistan…. It is hard to argue that they are making us safer when, for every suspect killed, one or more newly embittered militants emerge to take his place.” In other words, the Nation feels that Obama has broken his only real 2008 campaign promise, which was to be a more effective chief executive for blood-drenched U.S. imperialism. The carnage wreaked by the Obama administration gives the verdict on the reformists—International Socialist Organization, Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, et al.—who pushed pro-Democratic “anybody but Bush” politics in protests over the Iraq war and cheered Bush’s replacement as a supposedly more benign Commander-in-Chief.
In “9/11 in Retrospect” (Foreign Affairs, September-October 2011), Melvyn P. Leffler laid out that the Obama administration’s strategy has been in continuity with that of the Bush administration and, in fact, others going back to the dawn of the 20th century. The September 11 attacks, this bourgeois historian writes, “did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. grand strategy.” Rather, the U.S. “quest for supremacy” as well as “its preference for an open door and free markets, its concern with military supremacy, its readiness to act unilaterally when deemed necessary…all these remained, and remain, unchanged.”
Wars, invasions, torture, executions, massacres of civilians, deployment of mercenaries, covert operations: all are integral to capitalism in its imperialist epoch, i.e., in its (prolonged) death agony. We wrote in “U.S. Imperialism’s Torture, Inc.” (WV No. 826, 14 May 2004):
“Capitalist society was born in blood; modern imperialism continues the brutal practices of mass murder, torture and humiliation that accompany exploitation of labor and the ceaseless struggle between competing imperialist forces to dominate the world. From the Belgian Congo killing fields of King Leopold and the massacres in the Philippines by U.S. troops in the early days of its imperialist expansion to the first concentration camps, created by the Spanish in Cuba and a little later used by the British in South Africa in the Boer War, to Japanese imperialist atrocities in China and Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, imperialism has created a world in constant, cruel convulsions.”
Decaying Capitalism and the Imperial Presidency
The Obama administration’s assertion of the power to assassinate U.S. citizens is a dangerous but entirely logical extension of the police-state powers assumed by the government after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee submitted an amici curiae brief on behalf of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested in Chicago in 2002 on trumped-up charges, declared an “enemy combatant” and disappeared into a Navy brig in South Carolina. Tortured by extreme sensory deprivation and other measures, Padilla was initially threatened with execution. In the end, a civilian show trial sentenced him to 17 years. Our brief noted:
“The ‘war against terrorism’ is a fiction, a political construct, not a military reality…. Like the ‘war against communism’ and the ‘war against drugs,’ this ‘war’ is a pretext to increase the state’s police powers and repressive apparatus, constricting the democratic rights of the population.”
The brief observed: “Following the Executive’s own logic, Padilla could have been shot to death in the Chicago O’Hare airport, just as well as being taken into custody. Thus the rationale of the ‘war against terrorism’ is a construct justifying not only the right to disappear citizens, but the right to assassinate them as well.”
Promoting the myth of “national unity” against an ever-shifting “terror” threat, the U.S. ruling class has tried to get the population to willingly accept attacks on fundamental democratic rights and massively increased state snooping. We insisted in the immediate aftermath of September 11 that the enhanced police powers that would first be used against Muslims and Near Eastern and South Asian immigrants were ultimately aimed at the oppressed black population and the working class as a whole. This may not be evident today, with the absence of any massive social or class struggle, let alone a revolutionary threat to capitalist rule. But the Obama administration hinted at what may be in store when the FBI staged raids against leftists in the Midwest and elsewhere in 2010 on the grounds that their support for Palestinian nationalists and Latin American guerrillas constituted “material support to terrorism.”
The lack of class and social struggle has emboldened the capitalist rulers in their sidestepping of Constitutional niceties as well as their slaughter abroad. But make no mistake: The bourgeoisie is determined to build up its powers of repression so that they can be used to put down any perceived threat to its rule and profits.
The working class cannot advance its struggle against exploitation without also defending democratic rights and opposing every instance of imperialist barbarism carried out by its own ruling class. The tiny class of obscenely rich capitalist exploiters rules over a society marked by decaying infrastructure, joblessness, low wages for most of those who have jobs, abject urban and rural poverty, massive incarceration particularly of black and Latino men and women, and an education system where quality is increasingly the preserve of the wealthy. This social destruction has been wrought with the active complicity of the pro-capitalist, “America first” trade-union bureaucracy, which has presided over the vast decline in union membership and rarely engages in action against the bosses’ one-sided class war.
The economic decline of the U.S. in recent decades has been accompanied by unchallenged military superiority abroad, to which the existence of the Soviet Union had stood as a counterweight until its counterrevolutionary destruction in 1991-92. That dominance is something that no wing of the U.S. ruling class will concede voluntarily, just as it will never concede its ability to answer with massive repression any genuine challenge to its rule “at home.” Power must be wrested from the blood-soaked rulers as the Bolshevik-led workers in Russia wrested power from the bourgeois rulers in October 1917, smashing the existing state apparatus and replacing it with the dictatorship of the proletariat.
From the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the counterrevolutionary slaughters in Korea and Indochina to the neocolonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. imperialists have repeatedly demonstrated that they are the biggest force of organized terror on the planet. Having long outlived any progressive role, the capitalist system must be overturned from within. We seek to forge the necessary instrument to lead the working class in struggle against its “own” rulers—a revolutionary, internationalist proletarian party dedicated to nothing other, nothing less than new October Revolutions.