Under George W. Bush, a common liberal critique of the U.S.'s post-9/11 foreign policy was that, instead of treating terrorist attacks as crimes, the Bush administration had adopted the war paradigm. Instead of treating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as criminal acts like previous acts of terrorism, such as the 1993 WTC bombing, Bush and company responded with invasions rather than indictments.
With the killing of Osama bin Laden, however, the liberal commentariat has come to embrace the terrorism-as-war framing, just as Democratic partisans who once mocked Bush's “cowboy” persona are now, with no trace of irony, casting their beloved Barack Obama in the role of tough-talking, ten-gallon hat wearing bad ass.
This was all to be expected, of course. It borders on the banal to point out that, for many liberals, the problem was never the U.S. empire, it was that the U.S.'s state of permanent war was being administered by a member of the wrong party. If Al Gore had decided to invade Iraq, no doubt many Democrats would have embraced the supposed humanitarian case for war – even more so than they did under Bush – just as they have with Obama's unilateral decision to bomb Libya.
Despite the predictability of it all, however, even I'm a bit surprised by how readily those who based the “eight disastrous years” of George W. Bush have come to embrace not just the policies they once claimed to loathe, but the rhetoric. On Twitter, American Prospect blogger Adam Serwer lambasted those who would dare claim the execution of Osama bin Laden was illegal, despite reports he was unarmed and that U.S. officials had no intention of taking him alive – and, if you believe his 12-year-old daughter, that he was in fact executed after being captured.
Indeed, despite the shifting narrative from the White House about how the hit actually went down, "there's just no dispute killing him was legal," Serwer declared. The evidence provided: this UN Security Council resolution and the internationally recognized right to "self-defense."
There's a couple problems with this. For one, nothing in the Security Council resolution appears to endorse an extrajudicial killing. In fact, it states simply that UN members ought to "bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of [the 9/11] terrorist attacks," suggesting the opposite. Secondly, as Michael Mansfield points out in The Guardian, the right to self-defense applies in cases of an imminent threat and, nasty man though he may have been, there's little to suggest Osama bin Laden -- a man who didn't even have an Internet connection -- had an actual operational role in planning future attacks against the United States, instead serving as a figurehead and inspirational figure. That is, though he may have been a murderer, he did not pose an imminent threat that would justify murdering him. And while you may not shed a tear for the death of an admitted killer, the dangerous principle embodied in his killing -- that the U.S. can extrajudicially kill anyone it declares a terrorist -- is important to oppose; while it may just be Osama today, it could just as easily be Anwar al-Awlaki or others against whom there is much less evidence of wrongdoing tomorrow.
As for Osama, what of that minor being-unarmed thing? It's of no concern: "[A]ctually," Serwer replied to one critic, "in the context of armed conflict it's perfectly legal to shoot someone who is unarmed but has not surrendered." If true -- like Serwer, I'm no lawyer -- this indicates that perhaps appeals to international law don't have the moral authority some would like to believe. And given that the institutions tasked with upholding international law have allowed the U.S. to run roughshod over the most basic aspects of it, like the prohibition against aggressive war, it's not clear it's worth the paper -- not stone tablet, as Serwer appears to believe -- it's written on.
If we accept the interpretation of international law offered, however, it's hard to see how one could argue against other nations acting just like America and summarily executing anyone they say has declared war against them, a fear actual experts in international law have raised. If the whole world's a battlefield, as Serwer argues, then, indisputably, the Cuban government has the right to send an assassination squad to Miami to take out admitted terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. After all, Carriles is unrepentant about killing 73 civilians on an Cuban airliner in 1976 and admitted to The New York Times his role in planning a series of deadly bombings that struck Havana during the 1990s.
Or, as I suspect, does only America, guided as it is by the Light of Liberty, have the right to execute its enemies without trial?
That Serwer and his ilk would stretch international law to defend the actions of President Obama isn't surprising. He's a Democrat. What is, at least to me, is the extent to which he and his ilk have adopted the exact same rhetoric and debate techniques as the neoconservative right. Consider this exchange between Serwer and a critic who noted that America's "right to self-defense" was perhaps undermined by the fact that said right was cited to justify the invasion of Iraq.
This disgusting response is straight out of the Rudy Giuliani school of foreign policy debate. Challenge any aspect of the war on terror -- in this case, uncontroversially pointing out that the U.S. has killed a lot more people in "self defense" than actually died on 9/11 -- and, my god, you must be siding with The Terrorists.
Then there are the lame attacks on limp-wristed liberals -- nay, pacifists (if phlegm doesn't come out of you're mouth when you say it, you're pronouncing it wrong) -- who have the audacity to question whether the U.S. really ought to be going down the assassination route: