Kill List


John Peeler

The New York Times recently published an extensive story about the Obama administration’s secret “Kill List” that is used for selecting targets for strikes by unmanned drones.

It has been clear for some time now that President Obama is making far more use of such drones that President Bush did, even as Obama systematically winds down more conventional warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most strikes have occurred in Afghanistan (of course), in Pakistan, and in Yemen.

The President is not delegating the responsibility for selecting targets, and insists on having the final word on whether a strike goes ahead. An extensive interagency review process considers whether particular persons ought to be on the list of targets, and how high they should rank. Those recommendations then go to the President, in a meeting with his top national security advisers; it is the President who has the final word.

There has been considerable dispute about the administration’s method of counting civilian casualties: the assumption is that any adult male killed or injured in a strike is in fact an al-Qaeda collaborator, unless there is concrete evidence after the fact to the contrary. Thus, effectively only women and children are counted as civilians. Critics (including some in the government) argue that this seriously understates death or injury among civilians. The administration counters that in the situations they are dealing with, adult males would not be casually or accidentally present: given the activities observed, all males present can reasonably be assumed to be combatants.

There was at least one instance when the President was informed that a strike on a high-value target was certain to entail civilian casualties; Obama ordered the strike anyway, killing not only the head of the Pakistani Taliban, but also his wife and possibly other relatives.

Many readers will recall the 2011 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was a public voice of al-Qaeda in Yemen. There was evidence that Awlaki was not merely preaching violence and speaking for al-Qaeda; he had a command role in setting up the mission of Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” on December 25, 2009. Armed with an opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel that the due process rights of an American citizen do not necessarily entail court proceedings, Obama ordered the assassination after the internal reviews described above had found that Awlaki posed an imminent danger.

It is then clear that Obama has not only followed Bush’s precedents in stretching presidential powers and restricting the rights of presumed terrorists, including those of American citizens, he has gone further. In lieu of the Bush policy of capture and indefinite imprisonment without charges, Obama imposes death sentences without judicial proceedings, based only on administrative deliberations about intelligence findings.

Ironically, the very monstrosity that is the detention system at Guantánamo seems to have driven Obama to this extreme so as to minimize the continuing embarrassment of detentions that are seen around the world as contrary to international law. Dead men need not be detained with limited rights, nor need they be put on trial.

As Bush defended the Guantánamo detentions, Obama defends the drone strikes as within the “war powers” of the president as commander-in-chief. They have plenty of company: presidents John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan all substantially stretched their prerogatives under the pressure of war. And certainly both Bush and Obama knew that tenderness about individual rights would do them no good in the event of another successful attack like 9/11.

However, like “body counts” in the Vietnam War, or numbers of detainees under Bush, drone strikes can be deceptive: you can take out the leaders at a cost in lives and money far lower than conventional or counterinsurgency warfare. It’s easy to see and tabulate the results. But it’s also easy to lose sight of the bigger questions: (1) are we addressing the fundamental causes of these attacks on us? and (2) are we destroying freedom by defending it in this way?

The most bitter irony is that we must ask these questions about Obama.


Fuel Prices

Fuel Prices:
How Much Blame Does Obama Merit?

John Peeler

It is a quadrennial ritual for the opposition to attack the incumbent president for failing to keep fuel prices under control. In the current campaign, Republicans routinely accuse President Obama of not doing enough, and specifically for failing to approve enough new drilling for oil and for temporarily blocking construction of a new pipeline to carry Alberta oil-sand slurry to Houston for refining. Many actually seem to blame the president for not exerting more control over prices.

This is quite a strange line of attack from people who are incessantly demanding a return to untrammeled free markets. Do they really want Obama to impose price controls?

Presidents, of course, actually have very limited leverage over the short-term fluctuations of fuel prices: they are primarily a result of global market forces. Changes in fuel prices in the US run directly parallel to those in Europe and elsewhere. The Europeans pay a lot more because they have higher taxes than we do (which they use to maintain their infrastructure better than we do).

A big part of the current spike in oil prices has to do with nervousness about the prospects of war with Iran, which would certainly disrupt supplies and thus send prices up. So buyers are bidding up the price now in anticipation of such a crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Another factor is the tentative recovery that is occurring in the US economy, along with continuing strong demand from emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil. When more people in the United States have jobs, as they now do, more people will buy gasoline. Rising price at the pump is a downside of economic recovery.

The President and Congress do have the capacity to affect our long-term energy posture. How have we been doing on this level? In short, Obama’s not doing too badly. He has adopted an “all of the above” energy policy that promotes everything from drilling for oil and gas to all sorts of alternative and renewable energy. Specifically on petroleum, US production is up substantially on Obama’s watch, while, for the first time in years, less than fifty percent of the oil we use now comes from foreign sources. We are doing better than we were under Bush.

In the short run, because we continue to suck up as much oil as we can get, we have no choice but to “suck it up” and deal with the higher prices. Oh, it would help if the hawks stopped talking up an attack on Iran.

In the long run, Obama’s “all of the above” policy promises to reduce our dependence on petroleum and enhance the role of renewable energy.

In the even longer run, all of this may be too late to stop the catastrophic impact of global warming. But the upside of that is that the worldwide economic disruption that would result will certainly reduce demand for fuel.

So it might all work out. Are you relieved?

Free Riders



Why is Health Care Any Different from Food Stamps?


John Peeler


I was talking to some friends recently who said that they were disturbed by people “gaming the system,” maneuvering to get benefits that they shouldn’t be entitled to.  Common examples are people who get welfare or food stamps even when they really have enough income so that they shouldn’t qualify.  Or take those who keep getting extended unemployment compensation while turning down jobs that they don’t like.


Let’s leave aside the question of how common cases like these might be.  Most conservatives will be sure that such abuses are widespread, and most liberals will be convinced that the problem is greatly exaggerated, and that the vast majority of those who receive such benefits are qualified, and deserve them.  We’re not going to settle this question here.


My initial response to my friends was to point out that we live in a society where the rich and the big corporations routinely “game the system” to get out of paying their fair share of taxes or to avoid bothersome regulations.  They acknowledged that I had a point.


However, I failed to make another point, concerning the Affordable Care Act of 2009 (now known colloquially, for better or worse, as ObamaCare).  Republican challenges now before the Supreme Court are based on the argument that the federal government lacks the authority to require citizens to purchase health insurance.  The problem, of course, is that if many people hold off getting insured until they get sick, the costs will go up for the rest of us who do have insurance.  This is the classic problem of the “free rider,” the person who takes something without paying for it.  In this case, that something is health care.  We all pay the costs of very expensive emergency room care for the uninsured: it’s built into our health insurance premiums and hospital bills.  The Affordable Care Act intends to fix that problem by requiring everyone to have insurance.


Republicans are up in arms about this and have taken their case to the Supreme Court.  We’ll know how they rule later this year.  But what I would like to know is why getting extra food stamps amounts to fraud if not outright theft, while refusing to buy health insurance when you can afford it is a constitutional right.  A free rider is a free rider.  Does the Constitution really protect the right to be a free rider?  That would be a right that just isn’t right.

Grand Bargains, Friedman, and the Problem with Moderates

Thomas Friedman, I suppose, thinks of himself as a moderate.  Maybe like Matt Miller from KCRW’s Left,Right, and Center who advocates for “radcial centricism” (or something like that).  This species of thinking imagines that the “left” and “right” can only be correct up to a point.  Hence, the one good path towards progress must, by definition, be some thing “in between.”  Friedman, especially, excels at taking what seem like irreconcilable differences and with his wise words, turn them into new consensuses that if only the irrationally passionate partisans of left and right would accept would lead us into a shiny tomorrow.

Friedman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times is a classic.  He argues that the great debate of our times is over “which capitalism?” instead of “which -ism?” Fair enough.  In this context, he defines “American Capitalism” as- that’s right- the perfectly moderate mix of opposites, of public and private.  I suppose that European “safety-net” socialism is unbalanced by inference from his argument.

To regain our American mojo we need to rebalance public and private. Hence, he calls for a series of “grand compromises.”  Between cutting the federal budget and raising taxes.  Between paying  for “nursery schools and nursing homes.” (Nice line).  Between labor and management.  Between environmentalists and extractive industries.  And so on.  Between Dogs and Cats.  Yankees and Red Sox.  No, not the last two.

I find this seductive.  Yes, let us come together and find common ground.  What a story: can we not have politicians who can use language, influence, guile, and all their dark arts to bring these differing parties to Friedman’s round table of Grand Compromises?  I want to be in that story!

But I am afraid it is a fairy tale.  Continue reading

Fair and Free Economy- Draft of Message and Policies

Note: This is a draft of a policy paper for a PA Progressive House candidate.  I want to capture the ideas of a fairer economy in language that resonates with American values of hard work, fair play, and compassion.  The policy ideas are negotiable…

The economy should work for everyone who works.

We have lived through an upside-down economy where Wall Street prospers on Main Street’s misery.  Just as millions of hard-working home owners found themselves upside-down in their homes- paying for a mortgage worth more than the house- all of us have been in an upside-down economy.  We are paying for the idea of an economy, one that favors wealth over work, one favors a quick buck over an earned dollar, one that favors glitz over grit, when the real economy is loosing real value.

The real economy is where stuff is made, relationships matter, value is clear, and a handshake instead of a stock option starts a deal.  The real economy needs the strengths and talents of all of us.  It also needs the infrastructures to connect people and companies.  It also needs rules of the road that we all agree to.

We can fix the economy.   We can give it what it needs: better people, better infrastructures, and better rules of the road.

Better People Ideas:

1) Healthy People: decouple health insurance from employment
2) Prepared People: invest in worker re-training
3) Child care systems so that working parents can work

Better Infrastructure Ideas:

1) Invest in transportation networks
2) Invest in healthy ecosystems
3) Invest in people through daycare, schooling, community college, state 4 year
4) More access to the Internet for people, towns, and entrepreneurs

Better Rules of The Road Ideas:

1) Too Big to Fail is Too Big to Be- re-instate Glass-Steagal separation of retail from investment banking and also cross-ownership of financial institutions.
2) Reward Work and Wealth- change taxes so that wealth (retained interest, capital gains) does not get a huge tax break compared to work; encourage better alignment of compensation to long term wealth
3) End Foreclosure Abuse by Banks and Mortgage Holders
4) Allow workers to represent themselves
5) Tie minimum wage to economic indicators like inflation
6) Require all free trade agreements to integrate wage, safety, and environmental minimums so it is far trade and not a race to the bottom

License to Kill

License to Kill
John Peeler

Last September, Al-Qaeda leader and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by an unmanned drone in Yemen. Yesterday, Attorney General Holder laid out the legal grounds for the President to order such an assassination . He argues that, in facing an imminent threat of a terrorist attack by a U.S. citizen, the government may kill that person under the following circumstances:

an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

All of the determinations to which he alludes in this passage are to be made by the executive branch, without judicial input. He is saying that the Constitution’s guarantee that one may not be deprived of life without due process does not imply judicial process. Deliberations within the executive branch suffice.

Although it seems clear from what we have been told that Awlaki did indeed consider himself at war with the United States, it is still distressing that a president who came to office as a bitter critic of abuses of presidential authority by his predecessor now takes essentially the same position as George W. Bush. Power that is unchecked and operates in secret is always dangerous to democracy.

We are one more step along the road that I foresaw back in 2006, when the following essay appeared on this site:

A Death Foretold

John Peeler

Guantánamo Bay, September 11, 2026. Defeated Republican presidential candidate Bjorn Looser was sentenced to death today after a secret trial, on charges that were not specified. According to the current interpretation of a law passed twenty years ago, in 2006, the government did not have to specify charges, did not have to show evidence, and did not have to allow Looser to have a lawyer.
The heroic and patriotic President of the United States, Clint McClane, pointed out that, as President, he was simply exercising the powers granted to him by the 2006 law. “The President has the power to decide whom to detain, what rights the detainee is to have, whether the detainee will be convicted, and what the penalty will be,” said the spokesman. “When the opposition persists in criticizing the President and demanding that he step down, even though the people have voted for his reelection four times,” he continued, “they are clearly a threat to our national security and should have no rights.”
The Republican Party is a shadow of its former self. In the first years of this century the party dominated the national scene under the leadership of President George W. Bush. Impelled by the threat of terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and by persistent opposition to his plans by the courts, Bush successfully pushed for the presidential powers embodied in the 2006 detainee law.
Although many Democrats opposed the law, once they captured the presidency they saw its virtues. As President Bush said many times, the War on Terror would go on indefinitely, until terrorism is defeated. As Rank Toady, the President’s press secretary said, “a strong President is vital to our national security, and this heroic and patriotic President especially needs the power to control the domestic opposition to prevent dissent from undermining national security by destroying national unity.”
In other developments, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hack Player, declared all 100 seats held by Republicans vacant after they failed to appear for sessions last week. Inquiries by the news media found no one who knew where the missing members were. However, it should be noted that the Republicans had voted against the Homeland Security budget, which, they alleged, was being used for repression of dissent.
“I don’t know where they are,” the Speaker said. “But we’ll be better off without a bunch of subversives obstructing and criticizing our work. People have to understand we’re in a war here! To vote against Homeland Security is to threaten our very security as a nation.”
The well-known Republican mouthpiece, The Washington Times, was closed today by executive order of the President, after it published an editorial accusing the Administration of detaining the missing lawmakers. Explaining the closing, Secretary of Information Rosemary Beebe said, “Our democracy has a free press, but that doesn’t entitle anyone to make wild accusations that insult our heroic and patriotic President and weaken our country by endangering national unity.”
This dispatch has received the approval of the National Office of Information (NOINFO) as safe for all audiences. Long live our democracy under the distinguished leadership of our heroic and patriotic President, Clint McClane.

Yes, Of Course, But No, by Karl Patten

“If there are no more forests, there will be no more poets.”
—Jonathan Bate on Robert Harrison’s FORESTS

Yes, of course, but no.
The poets must live deep
In the dark wood, where fear goes on four legs,
Never bares its teeth and almost smiles,
Where temptation lurks behind each oak
Slightly showing a bit of herself, always
A hairy something from some part of her soft,
Warm body, that needs caressing, and parting,
And the poet limps about, shaded,
Never going forward for he knows he does not know
Anything of direction, progress. Born
To be lost, he likes veins in fallen leaves,
As mysterious to him as what he sees
Every day in his own palm, telling him nothing,
Delights in the parasitic vines throttling
Tree trunks, which also go nowhere, and loves
The deadfall that often trips him, stiff
Reminders of how hard it is to keep a rhythm
An allegorical place, the forest
Spreads correspondences, holy and green.


Adorno said: No poetry after Auschwitz.
There was. The poems looked like survivors, Bareboned, hollow-eyed, starved, trembling
At the fact they were alive and speaking words
In which the silence of the unspeakable echoed.
The greedy men who clear-cut and bulldoze forests,
Men who cannot see beyond their fingernails,
Work at a genocide like Hitler’s and Himmler’s,
Cannot see they are killing their children’s
Childrens’ future. The saw and saw for profit,
And will and will.
But after everything is stumps
Slashed down and burnt out, wilderness made
A flatland, ready for asphalt, even on hills,
Breathing nearly impossible for lack of leaves,

A few poets will rise up on their skinny elbows,
peer with haggard eyes at that bald, treeless
Space in front of them, will speak with some style
And good cadences resounding words, limping About in the dark woods of themselves, convinced
Words will stand, trees in a lost forest.

Source: Karl Patten, TOUCH, pp. 67-68.

COMMENT by the author

This poem, rather unusually, came directly out of the epigraph. That is an astounding sentence and is supported by Harrison’s FORESTS, a book I can recommend heartily. And the somewhat strange title bounces directly from the epigraph, for, much as I was/am impressed by Harrison’s book, I could not give up the lack of poetry in our future.

In order to find a way of disagreeing with (or partially disagreeing) Bate/Harrison, I went to Canto 1 of Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY for the first six or so lines. And Dante will, in minuscule and quiet ways, underlie most of the poem. None of this should be notice by the reader; I am saying that the Commedia was essential for me in writing the poem.

The second full paragraph allows me to say through the imagery of a wood what I believe to be true of poets in general. The the two lines before the break open out, stealing from Baudelaire (and perhaps Emerson), in order to say what the forest gives us.

Next, I allude to Adorno’s famous remark concerning Auschwitz, which I immediately disavow, for I am thinking of the poets of Eastern Europe, who suffered through Nazism and came forward with a stripped, yet powerful, poetry. And that naturally led me to Hitler and Himmler, whom I liken to today’s corporate looters and their unceasing greed.

Finally, I return to the poets who have survived this raid on our planet (a different kind of genocide) and show them still speaking, believers in the permanence of words, bringing the forests of themselves into being, the place they started from.