President Obama was elected on an anti-war platform, yet targeted killings have increased under his command of the ‘War on Terror’. The US thinks of itself as upholding the rule of international law and spreading democracy, yet such targeted killings have been widely decried as extra-judicial violations of human rights. This book examines these paradoxes, arguing that they are partially explained by the application of existing legal standards to transnational wars.
Critics argue that the kind of war the US claims to be waging — transnational armed conflict — doesn’t actually exist. McDonald analyses the concept of transnational war and the legal interpretations that underpin it, and argues that the Obama administration’s adherence to the rule of law produces a status quo of violence that is in some ways more disturbing than the excesses of the Bush administration.
America’s interpretations of sovereignty and international law shape and constitute war itself, with lethal consequences for the named and anonymous persons that it unilaterally defines as participants. McDonald’s analysis helps us understand the social and legal construction of legitimate violence in warfare, and the relationship between legal opinions formed in US government departments and acts of violence half a world away.
No shortage of books on targeted killing, I know, but this one stands out through its focus on the entanglements between law and violence in the very idea of transnational war and its interest in the individuation of later modern war. Here’s the Table of Contents:
Introduction: The Balkan Crucible
1. The Cleanest War
2. The Lens of War
3. In Washington’s Shadow
4. Lawful Annihilation?
5. Unto Others
6. Individuated Warfare
7. Killing through a Monitor, Darkly
8. The Body as a Battlefield
9. Gyges’ Knife
That said, I do have reservations about the claim that the US ‘thinks of itself as upholding the rule of international law’ – or, more precisely, about the reality that lies behind that rhetoric.
As I continue to work on ‘The Death of the Clinic‘, and the assaults on hospitals and healthcare in Syria and beyond, I’ve been drawn into debates that circle around the selective impotence of international law and appeals to the International Criminal Court. In the Syrian case, the geopolitics of international law are laid bare: the jursdiction of the ICC is limited to acts carried out in the territory of a state that is party to the Rome Statute [Syria is not] unless the crimes are referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council – where Russia has consistently exercised its veto to protect its ally/client. But it is important not to lose sight of what Patrick Hagopian called ‘American immunity’; based on a close reading of Korea and Vietnam he shows how the United States has consistently sought ‘to police a system of law universally binding on others from which it reserves the right at any moment to exempt itself.’ Similarly, Jens David Ohlin has traced a persistent American scepticism towards international law that was redoubled in the years after 9/11 and, as I’ve suggested before, the US is by no means alone in what Jens identifies as a sustained ‘assault on international law‘.
I don’t say this to detract from Enemies known and unknown: it’s just really a promissory (foot)note to my continuing work on spaces of exception in Syria (where it isn’t intended to give succour to the legions of Putin/Assad trolls inside and outside the academy either – on which see this long overdue, forensic take-down of one of the most egregious offenders by Brian Slocock here).