In the wake of my recent Obama-bashing, I reckon I should note that I was actually quite impressed by the President’s much ballyhooed May 23 speech on the future of the War on Terror. The video is about an hour long, and I highly recommend watching it. It has the air of one of the defining moments of his presidency.
Indeed, it was very much the President at his best. Thoughtful, intellectual, and most of all aware. Aware of the arguments of his critics on both the left and right, aware that many feel the trademarks of his approach to national security — drone strikes and targeted killings, even against American citizens — go too far, while other efforts — such as his famously bungled attempts to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay — don’t go far enough.
Much scorn has been heaped on the “Code Pink” protester that somehow managed to repeatedly interrupt Obama’s speech with long anti-war monologues, but in some ways she was a fitting symbol of the entire event. Smiling politely, Obama clearly found her boring and shrill, yet with every outburst, he cautioned his audience to take her seriously, and not be overly dismissive. Because it was critics like her whom he was at least partially seeking to rebuke — at times through an almost Socratic dialogue.
Those Mideast civilians killed by American power are not mere collateral damage, he said, but real human beings whose deaths “will haunt us as long as we live.” Which is why he’s turned to drones — the technology with the best track record of preventing them, not to mention the long-term perils associated with traditional tactics of invasion and occupation.
“Remember,” he added, “the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.” In other words, the military technique that’s become most synonymous with American militaristic excess is actually its most feasible alternative.
When it comes to targeting American citizens committing terror abroad, the President similarly sought to “dismiss some of the more outlandish claims” and repeated that “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process,” while also affirming that in moments of imminent danger, one’s “citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”
But beyond such unapologetic defenses of first-strike principles, it was really quite a liberal speech, at least in the sense it attempted to portray the war-weary policies of the Obama White House as distinct, and indeed, contrary to the war-happy eight years of the Bush administration.
The importance of addressing the sociological root causes of terror loomed large, for example. (Any comprehensive anti-terror strategy must address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism,” namely “poverty and sectarian hatred”). And there was even a call for increased foreign aide (“fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.”)
At other times, the President veered into existential questions about the entire conceit of the War on Terror itself.
“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root,” he warned, nor will “every collection of thugs that labels themselves ‘al Qaeda’ pose a credible threat to the United States.” Likewise, “in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”
To that end, he concluded, while “our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations” must continue, “this war, like all wars, must end.” That, in turn, will require “efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal,” the quintessential legislative piece of the post-9/11 world order known as AUMF, or the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, that entrusts the executive branch with “all necessary and appropriate” powers to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”
It was that statement that made his speech one for the history books. Overturn AUMF and you’ve basically concluded the war on global jihad, or at the very least eliminated the legal legitimacy justifying everything from housing prisoners in Gitmo to bombings shacks in Yemen. It was an admission that the war Americans — and the world — have to come to accept as inevitable and permanent need not be. It was leadership.
Not everything the President said was brilliant or wise, of course. The bit about root causes and poverty was particularly naive, since the purported links between financial indigence and violent extremism have been widely discredited by numerous terrorism experts.
It’s similarly a deeply open question as to whether or not dissolving the AUMF or otherwise formally ending the terror war would really alter much of the overzealous security state that Obama purports to find so troubling. Henrik Hertzberg wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker recently about the sheer size and magnitude of the post-9/11 anti-terror establishment — “more than three thousand government organizations and associated private companies working on counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence, in ten thousand locations” with spending budgets in the billions. Ratcheting back any of that — which is to say, slimming down the bloated bureaucratic systems that manage the “systematic efforts” the President spoke of — could make closing Gitmo look like a breeze — which is probably why the topic didn’t come up.
Still, for those of us who’ve been justifiably skeptical over the last few years of Obama’s lead-from-behind management style, and a foreign policy that often appeared as unaccountable and unprincipled as it did arbitrary and disinterested, last month’s speech serves as a reminder there remains at least one realm in which — for better or worse — the President clearly knows what he’s doing.
Or at least knows why he’s doing.