Obama’s Hypocrisy on Civilian Casualties

A few weeks ago, the State Department’s incoherent spokeswoman Marie Harf all but accused Israel of war crimes. As Tablet noted at the time, Harf said that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” She said a full investigation and accounting of Israel’s actions was warranted (as if Israel doesn’t already conduct such investigations). Expect her, then, to be asked about the following:

The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.

The Obama White House appears to have expanded Richard Nixon’s famous maxim to international law: when the (American) president does it, it’s not illegal. The Obama administration’s air war on terror has operated under the standard referred to as “near certainty”: that they be all but certain no civilians will be endangered by air strikes. But as the Obama administration continues withdrawing from these battlefields, that gets more difficult to ensure since sources of on-the-ground intelligence dry up.

Such sources weren’t there to begin with in Syria, at least not to the extent they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s not as though President Obama suddenly decided he doesn’t care about innocent Syrian lives. It’s that he’s doing his best to prevent civilian casualties within the realm of realistic but effective warfare. The double standard is still glaring, as Jonathan pointed out last week. And it only becomes more so with yesterday’s report on the shift in standards. The White House was asked about just how much effort they’re putting into their aim after a particularly damaging errant strike:

But at a briefing for members and staffers of the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last week, Syrian rebel commanders described women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians. Images of badly injured children also appeared on YouTube, helping to fuel anti-U.S. protests in a number of Syrian villages last week.

“They were carrying bodies out of the rubble. … I saw seven or eight ambulances coming out of there,” said Abu Abdo Salabman, a political member of one of the Free Syria Army factions, who attended the briefing for Foreign Affairs Committee members and staff. “We believe this was a big mistake.”

Yes, a “big mistake” that mere weeks ago the State Department was calling unjustified–tantamount to a war crime, in other words–when committed by Israel. Now, there will be some leeway of course: it’s not as though Obama’s a Republican, so the laws of war are of minimal concern to the left. Additionally, everyone knows a double standard is applied to Israel, so no one expected Barack Obama to live up to his own words or follow his own administration’s sanctimonious pronouncements.

Nonetheless, even some Obama partisans are wondering if the president is simply making it up as he goes along. The Yahoo story that confirmed the removal of the “near certainty” standard quotes Harold Koh, formerly the Obama State Department’s top lawyer, trying mightily to figure out where Obama’s legal authority is coming from:

“They seem to be creating this grey zone” for the conflict, said Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer during President Obama’s first term. “If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.”

The difference, then, between the way the Obama administration and Israel conduct war boils down to: Israel puts the greatest effort it can into avoiding civilian casualties and then follows up with transparent investigations, while Obama basically just hopes for the best. The press should ask him about that.

Indeed, they should do more: will the New York Times shove down its readers’ throats a constant stream of enemy propaganda designed to engender sympathy for genocidal terrorists at the expense of the democratic West? To ask the question is to answer it. If Jews or Republicans can’t be blamed, what’s the point?

More likely, however, is the possibility that the walking disaster that is Marie Harf will be asked about it, since the diplomatic press pool tend not to find her petty sniping and cheerful ignorance intimidating in the least. Does she still think these acts are war crimes, now that her government is the one conducting them? And does she believe she owes Israel an apology? There’s no question she does owe Israel that apology, and so does the Obama administration more broadly. But it would be interesting to see if they could summon the necessary integrity to offer it.