Killer Presidents

During the presidential campaign, when he was still battling an array of Republican heavyweights for the party’s nomination, Donald Trump indulged in a bit of hubris that would have buried a more conventional candidate.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Iowa in January 2016.

Trump was praising, in an off-kilter way, the steadfastness of his supporters. He was also subtly emphasizing his disdain for gun control. Perhaps most ingeniously, he was playing on the rivalry between the heartland and the Big Apple, putting some distance between himself and the cosmopolitans of his hometown.

“I’m no East Coast snob,” Trump was dog-whistling to his fans. “I’d be happy to prove it by taking out a few of those snotty New Yorkers.” No doubt some in the adoring crowd would have stood shoulder to shoulder with Trump, locked and loaded and ready to bag some Knickerbockers.

Trump likes to be the king of the hill in everything. But he’s been outdone in this particular category. Before the year was out, the leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, admitted that he not only directed a bloody campaign against suspected drug dealers when he was mayor of the city of Davao, he’d actually killed people himself.

“In Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you,” Duterte told business leaders in December at the presidential palace in Manila. “And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”

As president, Duterte has gone national with his violent anti-drug campaign, with more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers and users killed in his first six months in office. He hasn’t indicated, however, whether he’s still leading his forces into battle. Even after his self-incriminating remarks, Duterte’s popularity remains around 83 percent in the Philippines.

The bar has officially been raised. To prove that you’re a tough guy in the dog-eat-dog world of politics, shooting a mean round of golf is no longer sufficient. Nor is simply ordering the murder of an opponent or two. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before Vladimir Putin confesses that he has used his black belt judo skills for more than just tossing people around the mat.

National leaders have been known in the past to notch a few kills. Andrew Jackson, one of Trump’s heroes, killed a man in a duel after himself taking a shot near the heart. Teddy Roosevelt boasted of killing at least one enemy combatant in the battle of San Juan Hill. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas, however, gets the littlest assassin award. He was only three years old when he very well may have killed the family’s 12-year-old maid as part of a “game” with his older brother and a friend.

Until recently, killing people in battle or by accident has generally fallen off the list of qualifications for modern leadership. Today, presidents and prime ministers are still responsible for the deaths of others, but they generally delegate the actual task to third parties. Indeed, one of the definitions of the modern state is its bureaucratic method of dispatching opponents both domestic and foreign. Even the barbaric Hunger Games, after all, followed certain procedures in setting up the annual battles royal among selected youth.

Perhaps Trump and Duterte, leading the new crop of populist leaders, are reviving a tried and true method of demonstrating leadership that goes all the way back to the Stone Age. Our leaders are setting an example for the rest of society. The loosening of gun control regulations and the ever increasing proliferation of arms exports will allow all of us to be leaders in our community — the old-fashioned way.

The Kill List

The introduction of drones into modern warfare in the 1990s made state-directed assassination a great deal easier. Drones also helped to further concentrate killing power in the executive branch. In previous eras, analyst Tom Engelhardt points out,

presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability about the acts. We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisers, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief.

Barack Obama, the constitutional scholar turned president, ushered in this new stage in history.

As Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote back in 2012 in The New York Times, Obama decided to take on the task of determining whether to order drone strikes that might also kill civilians. The strikes largely obviated the need for the controversial extraordinary rendition program that whisked suspects off to secret sites for interrogation and torture.

There was just one problem. The president, with his “kill list,” was acting as judge and jury. However much the United States was committed to the rule of law, counterterrorism trumped all other considerations.

Liberal critics fretted. They acknowledged the uses of a drone program but worried about what would happen when a constitutional lawyer no longer presided over the kill list. No one imagined that the White House would fall into the hands of someone with the ethical profile of Donald Trump.

It’s bad enough that Trump has the nuclear football. But raging narcissists with properties all over the planet will think twice about blowing up their holdings and possibly themselves. The kill list, on the other hand, is just the kind of lethal accoutrement that goes with the Trump presidential brand. During the campaign, he talked about his faith in torture. He liked the idea of resurrecting the CIA black sites where torture took place. He recommended killing the families of terrorist suspects. Hypothetically mowing down people on Fifth Avenue was just another way of demonstrating this ruthlessness.

Trump has never had much interest in rule of law. Worse, he also possesses an almost pathological revenge streak. Little prevents him from pushing a much broader definition of terrorism. He already has plans to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Then, thanks to Congress, it will be the Muslim Brotherhood. After that, a few more steps down the slippery slope, come Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, anyone who wears a pink hat, and all those who refuse to buy Ivanka’s merch.

Trump has excelled at character assassination. Why stop at Twitter when you have drones at your disposal?

Kill for Peace

In detouring around the rule of law, Trump seems to be quite taken by the example of Duterte. He reportedly told the Philippine leader back in December that he was addressing the country’s drug problem “the right way.”

In a two-part series in The New York Review of Books, James Fenton describes the two ways that Duterte’s regime has transformed itself into a killing machine. In the first, the “buy-and-bust,” undercover cops pretend to buy drugs from a pusher and end up killing him. One-third of the killings, about 2,000 people, have happened this way.

The other method is extra-judicial killings (EJK) — essentially, assassinations:

What we hear, and what we can extract from the president’s monotonously droning speeches, sounds like (and is meant to sound like) scraps of confidential instructions to the police: if the victim doesn’t have a gun, give him one; don’t waste the effort on torturing him—just kill him. But as soon as the president is taken up on such remarks, there is either an aide on hand to say that he was exaggerating when he said that, that his words are to be taken seriously but not literally, or the president himself is denouncing his critics in another speech, calling them any name that comes into his head. Meanwhile the message to the public at large is: whatever happens, Duterte’s hand is in it; and there is no real distinction between a buy-bust and an EJK.

This is the “right way” that Trump admires. No doubt, the U.S. president is also fond of how Duterte and his aides make outrageous statements, dial them back, and then issue fresh outrage the next day. The media is flummoxed by this audacity and manipulation. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are taking notes.

Not everyone in the Philippines is taken in by Duterte. According to former Philippine Congressman Walden Bello, Duterte’s

charisma is not the demiurgic sort like Hitler’s, nor does it derive so much from an emotional personal identification with a “nation.” Duterte’s charisma would probably be best described as carino brutal, a Filipino-Spanish term that denotes a volatile mix of will to power, a commanding personality, and gangster charm that fulfills his followers’ deep-seated yearning for a father figure who will finally end what they see as the “national chaos.”

Sound familiar?

Trump’s description of the American landscape as “carnage” in his inaugural address was the first sign. His three executive orders on “crime reduction” — and their failure to address the epidemic of police brutality — are the second sign.

How far with Trump go to emulate the Philippine leader? I don’t quite see the U.S. president riding around on a motorcycle dispensing justice Duterte-style. He likes the Mar-a-Largo lifestyle too much to get his little hands dirty. The corrupt and violent criminal justice system, unshackled from federal oversight, will do the job for him.

But there’s still EJK outside the United States.

Taking Them Out

Assassination is all the rage these days.

Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of and potential rival to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, died in Kuala Lumpur this week after a Vietnamese woman reportedly poisoned him. Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza has slipped into a mysterious coma after what seems to be a second attempt by forces unknown to put him out of commission. A lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi was shot dead in Burma at the end of January. An off-duty policeman shot and killed Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara in mid-December.

But these are still the killings of the ancient regime. They were done with conventional methods, at close range, and by specific assassins.

The future of assassination is drones, and Donald Trump has already taken up the mantle.

In the first three days of his administration, he authorized strikes in Yemen that killed five suspected al-Qaeda members. The overall death toll was 30, including 10 women and children. Among the dead was the eight-year-old daughter of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who’d been killed by a previous drone strike under the Obama administration. Trump has now fulfilled one of his campaign promises: to kill the families of terrorism suspects.

The notion that Donald Trump will be in charge of the kill list is of course deeply troubling. Equally troubling is the possibility that authority for launching drone strikes will not be in his hands.

Writes Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy:

Though nobody can know how carefully Trump — who has promised to both “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism” and avoid overseas commitments — intends to weigh evidence for proposed strikes, you might be able to guess. And this would mean there would be less apparent accountability at lower levels in the chain of command because it’s not clear who is weighing the evidence, if the buck doesn’t stop with the president. Indeed, commanders for Yemen are reportedly preparing to ask the White House for more direct authority over lethal counterterrorism operations, in a sign that they believe they should be empowered to conduct drone strikes and raids without sign-off from Washington.

Ultimately it’s not who’s in control of the kill list that’s the problem. It’s the existence of a kill list in the first place.

Unless the United States takes the lead in developing global restrictions on drone use — and gives up its controversial kill list in the process — it’s just a matter of time before North Korea, Russia, and other countries eliminate their enemies by this most modern of means. I’m not optimistic in the short run. The same president who pooh-poohed new rules in football to reduce injuries to the players is probably not going to do anything to hamper Washington’s ability to play fast and dirty internationally.

The best we can do at this point is throw sand in the gears of the mechanisms of the state. By wrapping the administration in scandals that take down top officials, we might have a fighting chance at blunting the amount of damage our latest killer president can do.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 15, 2017


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