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The President has no clothes

The President has no clothes

The emperor has no clothes
The emperor has no clothes

Not even the US President has the right to order killings without due process under the rule of law. By claiming otherwise, Emperor Obama lives in a fairy tale world.

The President has no clothes

By Bill Rowlings*

US Emperor Obama is a Man of No Clothes who leads a court of legal officials subscribing to the theory of pluralistic ignorance[1]. That is, the Emperor and his advisers, minions and servants are fervid adherents of the phenomenon that ‘no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes’.

Rabid, unreasoning delusion must form the fundament of belief in Washington, because nothing else explains constant, erroneous declarations that assassinating people in other countries is legal.  It can never, under US or international law, be legal to kill without due process which involves a trial, a judicial decision, and a public declaration of outcome.

These niceties have been absent from the drone death-from-the-sky scourge over Afghanistan and Pakistan which has seen dozens of targeted people assassinated, and hundreds of innocent bystanders – quaintly termed ‘collateral damage’ – obliterated.

The rule of law in the USA requires that warrants precede virtually every form of significant arresting or punitive action: to guarantee court appearances, to empower searches, before applying tracking devices to vehicles, as the the US Supreme Court has ruled consistently in case after case, confirming the surveillance device warrant requirement just this month. The US Supreme Court would conclude, absolutely certainly, that warrants must be served before administrative killings could approach anywhere near legality under the Constitution and statutes of the nation.

But drones carry no warrants, as well as clearly being illegal invaders of sovereign airspace of other nations. And the US assassination program bears no resemblance to the rule of law as administered traditionally by the USA’s top court.

The Emperor Has No Clothes is a parable of self-delusion, which well illustrates Obama’s drone flights of fancy logic. But if a naked President parading under a parasol offends you, another cautionary tale comes from the Through the Looking Glass[2] and Humpty-Dumpty’s notion that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”, which appears to be the presidential approach to the letter of the law, as warped by his legal weavers.

So ‘assassination’ is not killing: it is ‘drone-assisted, lethal, missile strikes’. Lethal drone strikes – which, by any other name would smell as fetid – are not a war crime.  At least the Administration gets that last bit right: lethal drone strikes are not a war crime, they are simply a crime.

The USA could argue before the International Criminal Court that, as the world’s policeman, the American nation is above the law when it comes to extra-judicial killing. Of course, the USA can’t run that argument in that court because it won’t submit to the jurisdiction of the ICC. If the USA did run such an argument, the claim would be thrown out quicker than you can say Rumpelstiltskin.

It is one thing to ignore a court you won’t acknowledge, but quite another to ignore your country’s own rule of law. If Emperor Obama believes assassinations by drone are legal, let him argue his case to secure a ruling to that effect by the US Supreme Court.

 “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”

Quite so. Will the rule of law rule in America, or will the law be what Emperor Obama declares it to be?

Background to the above:

The White House insists the deaths of civilians in US drone strikes cannot be labelled a war crime and that the attacks against militants are precise and effective.

A joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International is calling on the US government to “come clean” on how many people it has killed.  The US has carried out hundreds of drone-assisted missile strikes, the numbers increasing during the presidency of Barack Obama.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has defended the administration’s policies.  “They are lawful and they are effective and the United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorists,” he said. “Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute.

“We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counter-terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with US values and US policy.”

Mr Carney says the US is reviewing the report. “To the extent these reports claim that the US has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree,” he said.

In May 2013, Mr Obama spoke at the National Defence University and promised to narrow the parameters for the use of drones to limit collateral casualties.

The drone program has given the US major diplomatic headaches, especially with Pakistan which has publicly opposed the attacks.

Speaking in Washington, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said US drone strikes violate international law and “territorial integrity”. “Use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity, but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts to eliminating terrorism from our country,” he said.

The Human Rights Watch and Amnesty report’s authors have looked at a handful of cases and found multiple witnesses, including in the case of 68-year old Mamana Bibi who was killed in October last year.

Amnesty International’s Mustafa Qadri says she was doing nothing to warrant targeting. “Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when she was blown into pieces in front of their very eyes while she was gathering vegetables,” he said.

Letta Tayler from Human Rights Watch spoke of the deaths in Yemen of 12 people travelling in a van.  She says the US was targeting an Al Qaeda militant.

“But that target was nowhere in sight. It turned out that all 12 people killed were villagers coming home from market,” she said. “Their loved ones found their charred bodies in pieces on the roadside, dusted in flour and sugar that they were bringing home to their families.”


  • Bill Rowlings OAM is chief executive of Civil Liberties Australia


[1] “Pluralistic ignorance” is a phenomenon mainly studied in social psychology. Viewed as an epistemic phenomenon, one way to define it is as a situation where “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes ” _ Jesn Ulrik Hansen,


[2] Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) is a work of literature by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson):


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