The pivot in counterterrorism policy that President Obama announced last week was nearly two years in the making, but perhaps the most critical moment came last spring during a White House meeting as he talked about the future of the nation’s long-running terrorism war. Underlying the discussion was a simple fact: It was an election year. And Mr. Obama might lose…
While part of the re-evaluation was aimed at the next president, it was also about Mr. Obama’s own legacy. What became an exercise lasting months, aides said, forced him to confront his deep conflicts as commander in chief: the Nobel Peace Prize winner with a “kill list,” the antiwar candidate turned war president, the avowed champion of transparency ordering operations over secret battlegrounds. He wanted to be known for healing the rift with the Muslim world, not raining down death from above…
In seemingly endless meetings, including a dozen or more with the president, Mr. Brennan and other administration officials grappled with the issue. Concluding that Al Qaeda’s core leadership had been decimated, some officials wanted tighter restrictions on the use of drone strikes, but the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon balked. The C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center resisted another proposal to take its drones away and put them under Pentagon control.
While the agencies argued, Mr. Obama focused on winning a second term, boasting about the same aggressive approach he was privately rethinking.
Obama knows that the war on terror requires that the United States kill or capture a very small number of implacable enemies, and change the minds and the lives of tens of millions of others. Indeed, in his speech he acknowledged that “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.” Even former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once worried that the United States was making enemies faster than it was killing them. But the short-term urgency of killing bad guys inevitably eclipses the long-term goal of changing the conditions which produce terrorism. So even a figure as conscientious as Obama slides down the slippery slope from approving the rare drone strike against “high-value targets” to approving the less discriminating “signature strike” against unidentified individuals engaged in a pattern of threatening activity. Both ending that practice and closing Guantanamo, which Obama also vowed in his speech to take steps to do, constitute an implicit recognition that the time has come to restore that balance.
Of course, the deep sense of embitterment which citizens of the Islamic world feel towards the United States is not going to be much diminished by Obama’s decision to end “signature strikes,” or to transfer control of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon. Pakistan’s leaders will keep feeding their people a steady diet of anti-Americanism even if the Obama administration ends the drone program altogether, and doubles foreign aid. In his speech, Obama was careful to say that the United States had to be humble about what it could do to improve the lives — and, presumably, the opinions — of people in the Middle East. But it has no choice save to try.
Early on in his speech, Obama defended the use of drones, noting that they are often the only way to kill people who are planning attacks on the United States and that, while these weapons sometimes kill innocent civilians, they kill far fewer civilians than other forms of military power, such as conventional airstrikes or troop incursions on the ground.
But then, Obama conceded that these weapons had to be subjected to restrictions, lest they be used too casually. Specifically, it had to be determined that the person killed poses a “continuing, imminent threat” against the United States; that capturing the person alive was infeasible; and that there was “near certainty” that the strike would kill or injure no civilians.
This sounds reasonable, except that these same standards were outlined—with much of the exact same language—in an unclassified 16-page “white paper” that the Justice Department released back in February. And the way that the paper defined those terms rendered the restrictions meaningless…
To put the matter simply, I can’t tell at this stage whether there’s really been a substantial narrowing—that is, whether there are people whom the US used to target whom it is, as a matter of new policy, no longer targeting because the President regards the AUMF conflict as winding down and in its end phase. To be sure, the number of drone strikes in Pakistan has fallen sharply, but I had taken that to be a function largely of sovereign pressure. This question strikes me as an area ripe for additional clarification from the administration.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for closing Guantánamo, reining in drone strikes, and making U.S. counterterrorism policy more focused and effective — as long as American security interests don’t suffer as a consequence. But was it necessary to wrap all of this in a long and largely academic presidential address? The presidency isn’t a law-school seminar. And while teaching and educating the nation is important, means and ends need to be calibrated carefully, words credibly followed up by deeds…
I don’t want to create a strawman here: I know Obama made clear that no American president can eradicate terror entirely, and that we must continue to fight it. Still, the speech did have a historic turning-point quality about it — that’s what happens when the most powerful man in the world gives a speech suggesting we’re turning the page on the War on Terror.
But our success against al Qaeda doesn’t mean we can call off the struggle against those who want to do catastrophic harm to America. All it means is that we’re winning that war.
And it is a war. The most important task of a president is to protect the homeland, and to safeguard our individual liberties while he does it. And while we’re much safer from externally planned attacks, we’re still not safe. Those who want to harm us have unlimited time, and the angry, broken, dysfunctional region in which they live will continue to provide them with ample resources. Let’s do everything we can — within reason — to address what ails the greater Middle East, drain the swamp, and defuse the anger.
This war, like all wars, must end when someone wins it. The president—speaking at the National Defense University, of all places—said, “the core of al Qaeda . . . is on the path to defeat.” And so it may be. But meanwhile, the core of al Qaeda, its aims and its beliefs, is also on the path to Boston and London and any number of other places…
In 2001 Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a declaration of war on terrorists and nations that harbor them. In his speech the president said, “I look forward to engaging . . . in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate.”
I like the president’s use of the word “efforts” here, as though he’s merely trying to be stupid. He doesn’t need to try. Earlier in the week he signed new policy guidance for drone strikes. In the future we will use lethal drones only on terrorists who are a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and not on terrorists who are a “significant threat to U.S. interests.” Although, assuming tremendously stupid efforts will be made to tell the two kinds of terrorists apart, maybe I’m wrong about the president not needing to try. The policy guidance also stipulates that there “must be a near certainty” that civilians won’t be killed or injured in a drone strike. Imagine how stupid a WWII Army Air Corps briefing officer would have had to be to say that to his B-17 pilots.
Obama’s Reinhold Niebuhr act comes with potential costs of its own. While the last president exuded a cowboyish certainty, this president is constantly examining his conscience in public — but if their policies are basically the same, the latter is no less of a performance. And there are ways in which it may be a more fundamentally dishonest one, because it perpetually promises harmonies that can’t be achieved and policy shifts that won’t actually be delivered.
That’s a cynical reading on Obama’s speech, but it feels like the right one. Listened to or skimmed, the address seemed to promise real limits on presidential power, a real horizon for the war on terror. But when parsed carefully, it’s not clear how much practical effect its promises will have…
Over all, as the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes put it, the speech seemed written to align Obama “as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility in actual fact.”
There are obviously good reasons to preserve this flexibility. The problem is that by making it sound as if American policy is about to change more than it actually will, the president’s rhetoric risks coming across as a bait and switch — on his supporters at home, but more important, on audiences across the Muslim world.
“Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.” This is merely an assertion, and it raises further questions about how the Obama administration defines “near-certainty” and what lower standard they were following previously…
This was supposed to be the speech in which President Obama clarified his targeted killing policies. Instead, he further confused both domestic and international audiences. By comparing it with previous administration officials’ comments, Jonathan Landay determined that “Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes.” Wall Street Journal reporters came to the opposite conclusion: “The new language is more restrictive than the policy declared in an April 2012 speech by John Brennan, then White House counterterrorism chief.”
To quote the rant by former New York Jets football coach Herman Edwards about anonymous comments by his staff: “Just put your name on it. That’s all I say. Be a man, or a woman, put your name on it.”
This is President Obama’s policy. He has authorized over seven times more drone strikes than his predecessor, he is the commander in chief, and he can declassify whatever information he wants. He missed this opportunity to put his name on his drone policies, relying on his senior aides to do it for him — a common presidential practice. To assure his administration remains the “most transparent in history,” he should direct Brennan’s replacement, Lisa Monaco, to prepare a follow-up speech that explains to the public, not just to selected reporters, what U.S. targeted killing policy really is.