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How the Left Thinks about the War on Terror

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Are you confused about how Barack Obama thinks about the War on Terror? How about Hillary Clinton? What about the editorial page of The New York Times? If you can‘t make sense of anything you hear or read, there is a reason for that. How they really think is rarely ever made explicit and never debated or publicly discussed. Until now.


Here are ten bad ideas implicit in most leftwing commentary on this topic.

1. If there are no boots on the ground, you’re not really at war.

Barack Obama said it over and over again – to our troops, to the American people, to the news media, to the world: “There will be no boots on the ground.” That was before he ordered boots on the ground in Iraq.

But why is that distinction so important? The implicit idea is that when we are dropping bombs, our planes are so high up the enemy can’t shoot them down. So no American ever gets shot or captured. We can kill them, but they can’t kill us. Voila. We can actually fight the bad guys without anyone on our side getting hurt.

Earth to Obama: When you are dropping bombs on people, you are at war. And the enemy will find ways to fight back. Look at what just happened in Paris.

2. If you don’t say what you are fighting against, you’re not really at war.

In the Democratic presidential debate last Saturday, Hillary Clinton was given ample opportunity to say we are fighting “radical Islam.” She demurred. President Obama never uses those words either.

But if we are not fighting “radical Islam,” what are we fighting? If you can’t identify what you are against, how do our soldiers know who to shoot at? How do we know whether we are winning or losing?

3. Killing is better than torture.

Think about the terrible ordeal Sen. John McCain went through as a prisoner of war. Ditto for Rep. Sam Johnson and other Americans who were tortured by their Vietnamese captors. Awful as all that was, does anyone think the world would be better off if McCain, Johnson and the others were killed rather than tortured?


Well, that is how Barack Obama thinks. He criticized George Bush for allowing three captives to be water boarded. He called it “torture” and apologized to the world. But Obama has no problem at all with killing people. As I previously reported, that is what our drones are doing day in and day out and the number of drone kills has spiked radically during the Obama years. In the president’s first five years in office, the C.I.A. made 330 drone strikes in Pakistan alone (a country we are not even at war with!), compared with 51 total drone strikes in four years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Remember: Our drones are killing people who are not wearing uniforms. They are not shooting back at us. They are not in any traditional sense “combatants.” I’m sure that a lot of the people the Obama administration has killed deserved to die. But we don’t always know who we are killing. And we admit that bystanders, including children, are victims as well.

Is that really more humane than water boarding?

4. Killing is better than capture.

Have you noticed that we are not capturing any bad guys these days? One reason why the population at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba keeps shrinking is that we don’t have any new captives to put there. The reason: the Obama administration doesn’t want prisoners.

This is terrible policy. Captives can be questioned. They can give up valuable information. Dead men can tell us nothing.

So why are we killing instead of capturing? Because of the next bad idea.

5. Captives have civil rights; people we kill do not.

Take Osama bin Laden. From what I can tell, the movie Zero Dark Thirtygot the facts pretty much right. Seal Team Six had no intention of bringing him back alive. They brought a body bag with them and they intended to fill it.


Bin Laden was not armed when they found him. He was not asked to surrender. He was not read his Miranda rights. There was no attempt whatsoever to take him prisoner. Our guys just went in and shot him. And then, with his body prone upon the floor, they shot him a couple of more times just to make sure he was dead.

So what about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? He probably has more American blood on his hands than bin Laden, considering that he was closer to the scene of the crimes. For more than a decade lawyers have been arguing over what rights he does or doesn’t have. But why bother? Why don’t we just send some special ops guys down to Guantanamo and shoot him?

There seems to be no real answer. And things don’t get any clearer if you read the editorials in The New York Times. In fact, the very same editorial that lauded the assassination of bin Laden and quoted President Obama as saying “justice has been done” went on to complain about the detention of prisoners at Guantánamo.

Got that? Assassination: good. Detention: bad. What is it you don’t understand?

6. The president has the right to order people killed.

The act of ordering someone killed from the White House – someone not wearing a uniform and not in formal combat -- has gone on for some time. But it has really escalated under Barack Obama.

Last month, The New York Times published a lengthy article describing all of the legal opinions the president got before he ordered the bin Laden kill. I read the article several times and nowhere in it could I find any lawyer explicitly saying the president has the right to kill people. But nor did the article overtly admit that this is what really happened.


I don’t doubt for one moment that bin Laden deserved to die. Nor do I doubt the patriotism of the Special Forces. They risk their lives for you and me. They serve their country admirably.

But shouldn’t we acknowledge who the Special Forces are and what their role is? They are licensed to kill. That’s what they do. When they shoot, they don’t shoot to wound. They rarely take prisoners. As a general rule, they don’t leave any witnesses.

7. Killing people with robots isn’t really killing.

After the CIA killed an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen, a federal court ordered the Obama administration to release an internal memo justifying the act. As reported in The New York Times:

The main theory that the government says allows it to kill American citizens, if they pose a threat, is the “public authorities justification,” a legal concept that permits governments to take actions in emergency situations that would otherwise break the law. It’s why fire trucks can break the speed limit and police officers can fire at a threatening gunman.

Got that? If fire trucks can break the speed limit, why can’t the CIA kill a few Americans with drones? What’s more depressing than the memo is the Gray Lady’s tepid response to it:

Blithely accepting such assurances at face value is why these kinds of killings are so troubling, and why we have repeatedly urged that an outside party — such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — provide an independent review when a citizen is targeted…. This memo should never have taken so long to be released, and more documents must be made public. The public is still in the dark on too many vital questions.


Before the government can zap you with a drone, the Times wants a court review. You won’t be present at the hearing, however.

8. Prisoners of war are not really prisoners of war if we’re really not at war.

From the beginning of his presidency Barack Obama has promised civil libertarians on the left that he would close the Guantanamo prison. So far Congress has blocked him and in the struggle over what to do next the national news’s media has completely forgotten why Guantanamo was an issue in the first place.

The real issue is not where the prisoners are located. The issue is indefinite detention.

When German solders surrendered to the allies at the close of World War II or when they were captured on the battle field, no one thought they had any rights – other than the right not to be treated cruelly. And that has been true in every war. Combatants do not have the same rights ordinary criminals do. As for detention, victorious armies have always exercised the option to detain enemy soldiers as long as they are perceived as a threat.

Clearly the terrorists think they are in a war with us. They have said it over and over again. Yet the left in this country continues to insist that they be treated under the criminal law, with all the constitutional rights and privileges ordinary criminals enjoy.

The president of France says we are in a war. Why can’t the president of the United States acknowledge the same thing?

9. Killing from the air is not as bad as killing from the ground.

During the Vietnam War, a company of US soldiers lined up the residents of a village and shot and killed them all. The soldiers believed the villagers were enemy sympathizers who were giving aid and comfort to the other side. And that is probably true. The victims of what is now called the My Lai massacre included men, women, children, and infants. Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the platoon leader, was convicted. The event became an international incident, was a huge embarrassment for the United States and added to the ever-growing antiwar sentiment in this country.


Yet here is what is interesting. Throughout the Vietnam War there was never a case of a pilot being court martialed for napalming an entire village (men, women, children and all) thought to be giving aid and comfort to the enemy – even though I understand that this happened quite a lot.

What’s the difference? Why is it okay to do from the air what is impermissible on the ground? I don’t know. I do believe this is another version of the sentiment behind 1 and 7 above.

10. Terrorism isn’t terrorism if our side does it.

I define terrorism as killing people for no military purpose other than the desire to strike fear and panic in the minds of the enemy – especially the civilian enemy population.

One of the worse examples of US behavior in this regard was the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Estimates of the number killed differ, but it appears that at least 25,000 people died – all in one night and all for no military reason whatsoever. The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must count as well. That cost 129,000 lives, (again) for no military reason.

The apologies for these actions did not just come from American liberals. They were also defended by conservatives. In the case of Japan, the argument was, and still is, that the bombings speeded up the Japanese surrender and saved lives that would have been lost had hostilities continued.

Yet even if that were true, terrorism that works is still terrorism.

There are people on the ground who regard our drone strikes as acts of terrorism. I’m not ready to concede that. But I can understand the argument.


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