Obama's artful anguish on counterterrorism

I am not particularly nostalgic for the Bush era either. But 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.

For instance, the president insisted that “history will cast a harsh judgment” on indefinite detention — but proposed no actual plan to deal with Gitmo detainees who (in his own words) “we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but who cannot be prosecuted.” He promised that drone attacks would be carried out only amid “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” — but also suggested, in defiance of much evidence, that this standard is already being met. He pledged to support efforts to “ultimately repeal” the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force — but offered no timetable to contradict the recent testimony from a Defense Department official projecting another 10 to 20 years of military activity.

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.”