How Obama Gave Trump the 'Military-Age Males' Talking Point

The same tactics used to justify drone strikes are now being used to demonize immigrant men.


Immigration hawks want you to believe that men are a threat by default. Figures like former President Donald Trump and current Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R–La.) argue that immigration is really an "invasion" because many migrants lined up at the border are "military-age males" from "adversarial nations." The implication isn't that these people work for any specific army or militant organization, but that any young man from the wrong country is guilty until proven innocent.

Conservatives and liberals alike might be surprised to learn that this idea was written into U.S. policy by former President Barack Obama. During drone campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration counted any "military-age" men in certain areas as enemy fighters, even if the U.S. government didn't know who those men were. The policy allowed Obama to lowball the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes.

Of course, the category of military-age or fighting-age men is much older than the drone program. But as political scientist Micah Zenko pointed out in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations, the term "military-age male reentered the lexicon of American warfare" during the Obama-era debate over the drone program.

"Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in," The New York Times revealed in 2012. "It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."

Even more dystopically, the CIA had inherited a policy known as "signature strikes" from the Bush administration. Drone pilots were allowed to fire on armed men "associated with suspicious activity even if their identities were unknown," according to The New Yorker.

Obama expanded the definition of "suspicious activity" to include almost any man in the wrong place at the wrong time, overseeing 10 times as many drone strikes as Bush had. Obama administration officials told the Times that "people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."

The phrase "military-age males" jumped from U.S. military and intelligence circles to American politics during the Obama era, too. In late 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, Republican politicians including Trump began claiming that the Obama administration was importing an "army" of fighting-age Syrian men. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, who had previously covered the Times revelations about Obama's targeting of "military-age males," was a major figure pushing this narrative.

Only a quarter of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States at the time were adult men, and only two percent were single adult men, according to U.S. State Department records.

One of the first uses of the specific term "military-age males" in the immigration debate came from Allen West, a former Army colonel who had derailed his career by torturing an Iraqi detainee. "We should not allow any military-age males to be part of this refugee crisis," West said in a Fox and Friends interview on November 16, 2015. "I believe that anyone from about 16 to 40 years of age, single males, should not be allowed to come in. That's a Trojan horse." 

The Obama administration didn't have much ground to oppose West's logic. A few months after that interview, the Obama administration finished its internal review of signature strikes. The government decided to continue the practice of killing suspicious unknown men, with the caveat that people will now be considered "noncombatants until proved otherwise" rather than the other way around.

Throughout the Trump and Biden eras, politicians—from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R–S.C.) and former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—continued to rail against "military-age males" immigrating to Western countries.

That talking point really took off again in mid-2023, according to the News on the Web Corpus, a database of English-language online media in several countries. The data also captured a spike in articles about young Russian men fleeing the draft in mid-2022.

The same was true for television, according to an analysis commissioned by The Washington Post, which showed a massive increase in the use of the phrase "military-age" in the context of immigration debates since mid-2023. Almost all those mentions came on Fox News, particularly on Sean Hannity's show. And the increased use of the term was entirely political, because it came as a decreasing percentage of people stopped at the border were single adults while an increasing percentage came from families with children.

Immigration restrictionists, of course, don't need an Obama-era term to demonize immigrant men. But the category of "military-age males" lends an official-sounding sheen to the idea that young adults looking for work or asylum are really an army of conquest. It's encouraging everyone to look at the huddled masses through a drone's eye view.

The migration of this phrase from Obama's CIA to anti-immigration rants should be a lesson to liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals who support a hawkish foreign policy—even the kindler, gentler war on terror that Obama promised—may end up normalizing repression at home. And even conservatives who rail against the "forever wars" may allow the logic of those wars to live on, directed at the American homeland itself.