Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

Obama the "innovating ideologist": imminence and justifications for counter-terrorism from Bush to Obama

Dr Luca Trenta, Swansea University

5 May 2015

Luca Trenta

This talk was presented by Dr Luca Trenta


At least since 2011, officials within the Obama Administration have been involved in a public and private effort to justify and normalize drones strikes and targeted killings. In this effort, the Administration has increasingly argued that the targeted individuals pose an 'imminent threat' to the United States. This insistence on imminence, however, has gathered strong criticism from both scholars and commentators. Many see it as an Orwellian double-speak, but few try to provide an interpretation regarding the Administration's reliance on this concept.

The talk looked to provide such interpretation. The paper argued that the Administration has adopted what Quentin Skinner called an 'innovating ideologist' strategy. This strategy relies on two moves. First, the innovating ideologist adopts a valuative-descriptive term, that is, a term carrying normative connotation, to justify its practice. At the same time, the ideologist also modifies the criteria defining this term in order to cover activities previously outside the boundaries of the term.

The paper argued that the Administration had relied on imminence due to its connection with pre-emption and legitimate use of force, but had also changed the criteria for imminence making the term almost unrecognizable. The paper concluded that the Administration's strategy had failed and, as Skinner would put it, the ideologist's 'sleight of hand' is public.