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The Obama administration’s conceptual change: Imminence and the legitimation of targeted killings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 July 2017

Luca Trenta*
Affiliation:
Department of Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea University
*
*Correspondence to: Dr Luca Trenta, Department of Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea University, Swansea, SA2 8PP. Author’s email: l.trenta@swansea.ac.uk

Abstract

Starting in 2010, the Obama administration engaged in an effort to justify drone strikes relying on the concept of ‘imminence’. The aim of this article is to understand the reasons behind such insistence and to assess the administration’s efforts at conceptual change. Building on Skinner’s and Bentley’s work, the article argues that the administration has followed an ‘innovating ideologist’ strategy. The analysis shows how waves of criticisms exposed the administration to a key contradiction between its rhetoric of change that emphasised international law and the need for aggressive counterterrorism. Reacting to this criticism, the administration has relied on imminence due to its connection with legitimate uses of force, while working to change the criteria for the concept, causing a shift away from imminent as ‘immediate.’ Reassessing Skinner’s place in IR, the article identifies conceptual change as a lens to assess foreign policy rhetoric and practice. The analysis emphasises the connection between actors’ intentions, beliefs, and practices. It highlights the importance of criticism in engendering contradictions, exploring why only some criticisms are confronted. Finally, the article develops an original typology of the limits confronted by the innovating ideologist and methods to assess whether the actor has respected them.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© British International Studies Association 2017 

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170 Daskal, Jennifer and Vladeck, Steve, ‘Power wars symposium: Where did things go wrong? Three key moments that shaped Obama’s failed Guantánamo policy’, Just Security (11 November 2015)Google Scholar, available at: {https://www.justsecurity.org/27514/wrong-key-moments-shaped-obamas-failed-guantanamo-policy/} accessed 9 January 2017. See also Savage, Power Wars, p. 87.

171 The increased number of drone strikes in Pakistan was also connected with the decision for a ‘surge’ in Afghanistan. See Woodward, Bob, Obama’s War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011)Google Scholar and Aslam, Wali, ‘Drones and the issue of continuity in America’s Pakistan policy under Obama’, in Bentley and Holland (eds), The Obama Doctrine Google Scholar.

172 Bergen, Peter and Rowland, Jennifer, ‘Decade of the drone’, in Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg (eds), Drone Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 13 Google Scholar.

173 Becker, Jo and Shane, Scott, ‘Secret “Kill List” proves a test of Obama’s principles and will’, The New York Times (29 May 2012)Google Scholar, available at: {http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/world/obamas-leadership-in-war-on-al-qaeda.html?_r=0} accessed 28 October 2015.

174 Schachtman, Noah, ‘CIA Chief: Drones “Only Game in Town for Stopping al Qaeda”’, Wired (19 May 2009)Google Scholar, available at: {http://www.wired.com/2009/05/cia-chief-drones-only-game-in-town-for-stopping-al-qaeda/} accessed 10 March 2016.

175 Philip Aston, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions’, UN General Assembly (28 May 2010), available at: {http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/14session/A.HRC.14.24.Add6.pdf} accessed 5 May 2016, p. 25.

176 Obama, Barack, ‘Exit Interview’, NPR (19 December 2016)Google Scholar, available at: {http://www.npr.org/2016/12/19/504998487/transcript-and-video-nprs-exit-interview-with-president-obama} accessed 18 January 2016.

177 Lynn Davis, Michael McNerney, James Chow, Thomas Hamilton, Sarah Harting, and Daniel Byman, Armed and Dangerous: UAVs and US Security, Rand Corporation, available at: {http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR400/RR449/RAND_RR449.pdf} accessed 28 October 2015, p. 19.

178 Shane, Operation Troy, p. 231.

179 Brennan, ‘Strengthening our Security’.

180 John Yoo, ‘Using force’, University of Chicago Law Review, 71 (2004), p. 18.

181 Klaidman, Kill or Capture, p. 219.

182 Barack Obama, Google Hangout (30 January 2012), available at: {http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rPMPMqOjKY} accessed 10 January 2017.

183 Eric Holder, ‘Remarks at Northwestern University School of Law’ (5 March 2012), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-eric-holder-speaks-northwestern-university-school-law} accessed 28 October 2015.

184 David Barron, ‘Memorandum for the Attorney General’ (16 July 2010), available at: {http://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2014/06/23/National-Security/Graphics/memodrones.pdf} accessed 28 October 2015.

185 Scahill, Dirty Wars.

186 Department of Justice, ‘Lawfulness of a lethal operation directed against a US citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an Associated Force’, White Paper (2011), available at: {http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf} accessed 12 July 2017.

187 Jeh Johnson, ‘The Conflict against Al-Qaeda and its Affiliates: How it Will End’ (30 November 2012), available at: {http://www.lawfareblog.com/2012/11/jeh-johnson-speech-at-the-oxford-union/} accessed 18 March 2016.

188 Anderson and Wittes, Speaking the Law, p. 141.

189 Ibid., pp. 141–2.

190 Barack Obama, ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’ (23 May 2013), available at: {https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university} accessed 4 May 2017.

191 See White House, ‘US Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism’ (23 May 2013), available at: {https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/fact-sheet-us-policy-standards-and-procedures-use-force-counterterrorism } accessed 4 May 2017.

192 Ibid.

193 Eric Holder, ‘Letter to Patrick J. Leary, Committee on the Judiciary, US Senate’ (22 May 2013), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/slideshow/AG-letter-5-22-13.pdf} accessed 4 May 2017.

194 US Department of Defense, ‘Law of Armed Conflict, the Use of Military Force and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force’, Joint Statement for the Record, Committee on Armed Services, US Senate (16 May 2013), available at: {http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/lawofarmedconflict_useofmilitaryforce_2001aumf_hearing_051613.pdf} accessed 4 May 2017, p. 8.

195 Brien Egan, ‘International Law, Legal Diplomacy, and Counter-ISIL Campaign’ (4 April 2016), available at: {https://www.justsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Egan-ASIL-speech.pdf} accessed 9 May 2016, p. 5.

196 Daniel Bethlehem, ‘Not By Any Other Name: A Response to Jack Goldsmith on Obama’s Imminence’, Lawfare Blog (7 April 2016), available at: {https://www.lawfareblog.com/not-any-other-name-response-jack-goldsmith-obamas-imminence} accessed 9 May 2016.

197 The White House, ‘Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations’ (December 2016), available at: {https://www.justsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/framework.Report_Final.pdf} accessed 4 January 2017.

198 Ibid., pp. 9–10.

199 Walzer, Michael, Just Wars (London: Basic Books, 2000), p. 81 Google Scholar.

200 Betlehem, Daniel, ‘Self-defense against an imminent or actual armed attack by nonstate actors’, The American Journal of International Law, 106:4 (2012), pp. 775776 Google Scholar.

201 Ellen O’Connell, Mary, ‘Dangerous departures’, The American Journal of International Law, 107:2 (2013), pp. 380386 Google Scholar. See also Wittes, Benjamin, ‘The White House Releases a “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks” on American Uses of Military Force’, Lawfare (5 December 2016)Google Scholar, available at: {https://www.lawfareblog.com/white-house-releases-report-legal-and-policy-frameworks-american-uses-military-force} accessed 9 January 2017; and Anderson and Wittes, Speaking the Law.

202 Scharf, Michael P., ‘How the war against ISIS changed international law’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 48:1 (2016), pp. 5051 Google Scholar

203 Gibb, ‘Attorney-general sets out legal basis’.

204 Dworkin, ‘European countries edge towards war on terror’.

205 Hurd, ‘The permissive power of the ban on war’, p. 2.

206 Venzke, ‘Is interpretation in international law a game?’.

207 Brooks, Rosa, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (New York: Simon and Schuster 2016), pp. 200202 Google Scholar.

208 See Maddow, Rachel, Drift (New York: Broadway Books, 2012), pp. 8687 Google Scholar; Woodward, Veil.

209 Savage, Power Wars, p. 232.

210 Klaidman, Kill or Capture, p. 221; Chris Woods, email exchange with the author, 12 January 2016.

211 Hartig, Luke, ‘The Drone Playbook: An Essay on the Obama Legacy and Policy Recommendations for the Next President’, New America (2016)Google Scholar, available at: {https://na-production.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/Drone_Playbook_Essay_8.16.pdf} accessed 9 January 2017.

212 Woods, Chris, Sudden Justice (London: Hurst and Company, 2015), p. 160 Google Scholar.

213 Searle, Jack, ‘CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan Fall to Lowest Level in 8 Years’, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (7 January 2016)Google Scholar, available at: {https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2016/01/07/cia-drone-strikes-in-pakistan-fall-to-lowest-level-in-8-years-bureaus-annual-report-reveals/} accessed 18 March 2016.

214 Savage, Charlie and Schmitt, Eric, ‘Trump administration is said to be working to loosen counterterrorism rules’, The New York Times (12 March 2017)Google Scholar, available at: {https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/politics/trump-loosen-counterterrorism-rules.html?_r=0} accessed 21 April 2017.

215 Micah Zenko, ‘The (Not-So) Peaceful Transition of Power: Trump’s Drone Strikes Outpace Obama’, Council on Foreign Relations, available at: {http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2017/03/02/the-not-so-peaceful-transition-of-power/} accessed 21 April 2017.

216 Chayes, Abram, The Cuban Missile Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 103 Google Scholar.

217 Ibid., p. 35.

218 See Goldsmith, Jack, ‘Let loose the laws of war’, The Slate Book Review (6 January 2016)Google Scholar, available at: {http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/books/2016/01/power_wars_by_charlie_savage_reviewed.html} accessed 10 March 2016.

219 Harold Hongju Koh, ‘The Emerging Law of 21st Century Law’, Third Annual Justice Stephen Breyer Lecture on International Law, available at: {https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/ios_20170411_breyer_lecture_koh.pdf} accessed 21 April 2017, p. 39.

220 Banks, William, ‘Regulating drones’, in Bergen and Rothenberg (eds), Drone Wars, p. 144 Google Scholar.

221 Ward Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); John Prados, interview with the author, 11 September 2015; Bruce Riedel, interview with the author, Washington, DC, 4 August 2016.

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