The issues on which President Obama has most disappointed liberals (and strayed farthest from his 2008 campaign rhetoric) have centered on the War on Terror. Yes, he got our combat troops out of Iraq (slowly) and is winding down the Afghan War (finally). He did renounce torture as an interrogation technique. But rather than reverse Bush administration’s expansion of presidential power and paint it as a one-time over-reaction to an emergency (like the Japanese internment camps of World War II), Obama has largely ratified Bush’s power-grab, and in some cases even grabbed more. As many of us feared at the time, it is hard for a president to cut back his own power, even if that’s what his principles say he should do.
Thursday, in a major speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, President Obama sounded a lot more like Candidate Obama in two ways: He took civil liberties issues more seriously than he has in some while, and he talked to us as if we were adults who can think about complex issues. In that second sense, it was his best speech since his campaign speech about race.
To put a few of my own words in Obama’s mouth: War is bad for democracy. A government at war needs to keep secrets, and it needs to favor security over freedom. The bigger the war, the worse for democracy.
Modeling the threat as a “Global War on Terror” amalgamates every little extremist group and home-grown terrorist into one giant enemy that justifies fighting one giant war. Maybe there was some justification for that framing immediately after 9-11, when Al Qaeda had a unified leadership that seemed to be able to direct multiple efforts all over the world. But:
Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.
Instead, what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates. From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse … Unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria. But here, too, there are differences from 9/11. In some cases, we continue to confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals. Other of these groups are simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory. And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based. And that means we’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria
What we face now, in other words, are a lot of little threats, not one big threat like Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda of 2001.
the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. [my italics] … if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11. … Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror,” but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.
And he recognizes that he can’t promise a perfect defense against those threats.
Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.
I read this as a rebuke of President Bush’s sweeping statement three days after 9-11: “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”
If that’s our goal, then we are never done and we have never gone far enough. But if we have a more manageable goal (say, to reduce the risk of terrorism to below the level of many other risks we live with), then democracy might have a chance to survive.
The rest of the speech is more specific and tactical.
Drones. Obama defends drone strikes as “effective” (“measured against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations”) and “legal” (i.e., in accordance with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after 9-11), but admits the discussion can’t end there.
America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.
Obama claims that “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday” embodies that needed discipline. (I haven’t studied those guidelines — which he partially outlines — but I doubt I’m going to buy their sufficiency, given how easily Obama or some future president could change them or just ignore them. He later mentions options for moving some oversight outside the executive branch, but doesn’t commit himself.)
He specifically defends the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen:
when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.
“Force alone cannot make us safe.” Obama says we need to increase foreign aid, and that we should support transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya “because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists.”
In this country, we should “work with the Muslim-American community” to “prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists”. Speaking in my own words: The guy who is a committed member of a American Muslim community mosque is not going to blow himself up, any more than a Baptist deacon is going to blow up an abortion clinic. In any religion, the people to worry about are the alienated loners who want to go from loser to hero in one big step.
Civil liberties. Even after the Boston bombings, Obama says, “we do not deport someone or throw somebody in prison in the absence of evidence.” He also says we need “careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information, such as the state secrets doctrine.”
His defense of press freedom, calling for a shield law for journalists and saying “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs” in some ways misses the point. The targets of the AP investigations are leakers, not journalists. But a journalist’s ability to investigate the government is compromised if sources suspect their communications are going to be intercepted.
Repeal the AUMF. The AUMF was a very sweeping grant of power that Congress gave President Bush after 9-11. It didn’t have a time limit, but maybe its mission has been accomplished.
I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
Close Guantanamo. Finally, he discusses closing Guantanamo, which was one of the first things he pledged to do after taking office. In asking Congress to cooperate with him this time, he invokes the judgment of history.
Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. … Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.
And that may be the best reason to hope that President Obama is serious this time, and that he might really start to disassemble the wartime presidency that Bush built. As he gets closer to leaving office, the temptation to shore up presidential power should wane, and the judgment of history may start to weigh on his mind.