The First Un-War

Picture the circumstances. You’re evaporating politically, less and less remains of you every week. The nation itself is quivering with anxiety, freaking out over each new virus or decapitation posted on Instagram. The economy, six years after the crash, continues to be catatonic: half the GDP generated by liquidation sales, the other half driven by enterprises that require HazMat suits. There’s scant hope of finding an exit from that gnawing vortex, not with the gang running the Hill these days.

Some of your closest allies have jumped ship, and shanked you in the back on the way out the door with bitchy tell-all memoirs that excoriate you for not heeding their advice. The rest of the inner circle seems to have lost faith: faith in the office, faith that anything will get better, faith in you.

Yes, put yourself in Obama’s chair, right there in the cockpit of the Oval Office, under these tremulous circumstances. What would you do when you’re flatlining and there’s no quick fix, no patch, no system upgrade that will reboot the program? What is to be done? You unlock that secret drawer and pull out the old playbook, the binding worn by numerous desperate hands before your own, you pencil in some innovations, a few of your signature moves and then let rip by declaring a new war.

Well, not exactly “declaring” war. That would be problematic. Hmm. There is that sweeping Authorization for Use of Military Force cooked up by Bush’s crack team of lawyers back in 2001, the one that sanctioned unilateral war across the Middle East from Afghanistan to Somalia to Iraq. Of course, you once denounced that very document as “constitutional over-reach” but who will hold those naïve opinions against you now?trayvons

In any event, this won’t be a war like Bush’s. In fact, it won’t be a “war” at all. It will be history’s first un-war, a military action of higher moral purpose, designed not for acquisition of land or resources or as a punitive measure or as a settling of old scores. These carefully calibrated missile and drone strikes will be entirely benign, computer-targeted only at the forces of darkness, to keep them from defiling the bodies of the innocent. These bombs are meant to protect not destroy, each one carrying a Humanitarian Exemption for any troublesome collateral damage.

But what’s the pretext? How can military intervention be sold to a war-weary nation that knows next to nothing about ISIS? When 9 out of 10 members of your own cabinet couldn’t name the leader of the new Caliphate. Fear is good. Yes, fear is the ticket. Turn the creeping national anxiety to your own advantage. Use the very anonymity of ISIS to hype the spook factor.

Bush labored too hard to market the Iraq war. He had to resort to far-fetched claims about Saddam palling around with Bin Laden or stockpiling an arsenal of chemical weapons and suitcase nukes. Bush had to stretch credibility to the snapping point.

But you’re smarter. There’s no reason to invoke mysterious subplots like the Nigerian yellowcake of Cheney’s apocalyptic fantasies. You know that the intimate fears are the ones that haunt us most. The suburban disquietude that plays out in so many movies on the Lifetime channel: the fear of intruders, of being a captive, of being held by violent thugs with no capacity for empathy, of being bound and gagged and decapitated with a scimitar. Those are the sinister scenarios that strike right at the gut and trouble our sleep.

Let the media sell the war for you. Ratcheting the fear index is the press’s new métier. They will portray ISIS as a kind of zombie army, capable of engaging in acts of unrivalled depravity. They will even provide the visuals, the terrifying optics of black flags, beheadings and gun-toting masked teenagers roaring into remote desert towns like Marlon Brando’s gang in The Wild Ones.

There’s no one to oppose you. Even Red State America recoils at the bellowing of the boots-on-the-ground right, represented by the increasingly psychotic ravings of John McCain. And the anti-war Left collapsed faster than the Iraqi army. The field is yours to take.

The deep advantage of the un-war is that it’s largely a hidden operation, where most of the dirty work plays out in the shadow realm of hunter-killer squads, mercenaries and private contractors. Your hands remain clean. The un-war is a low-risk affair that yields spectacular profits for those with the sense to maintain healthy positions in Pentagon ponzi schemes.

The un-war is a conflict without a deflating parade of American body bags, where the lethal risk will only materialize years, perhaps decades, later, in a time-released form of blowback—probably, it must be said, finally exploding in some mall in the heartland. But who will ever recall the spark that lit that distant fuse?

The problem is: you’re Barack Obama. Despite his impressive body count (and, yes, the Pentagon is in the body count business again), Obama just can’t seem to acquire any cred as the stone-cold killer he is. Perhaps it’s the halo of righteousness he coolly assumes about the sanctity of each operation. Obama’s piety is his tell, his giveaway, his consciousness of guilt. No one really wants their Commander-in-Chief, their Drone Czar, to consult the homilies of Aquinas before each killshot.

So Obama made all the right moves, but still continues to dissolve before our eyes. He launched his un-war, but was un-done by the karmic vagaries of politics. Namaste.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at:



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3