Feature

Redefining the war on terrorism

President Obama called for an end to what he called America’s “perpetual war” against terrorism.

What happened
President Obama called for an end to what he called America’s “perpetual war” against terrorism last week, announcing plans to set limits on the use of drones, and begin moving out some of the detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In the first major foreign policy speech of his second term, Obama said he would work with Congress to “refine, and ultimately repeal,” the post-9/11 legal framework giving the president a virtual blank check to use force against terrorists. Citing James Madison’s warning that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” he said the time had come to redefine the U.S. war against a decimated al Qaida. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said. “But this war, like all wars, must end.”

Obama expressed ambivalence about his use of unmanned drones to kill terrorists abroad, acknowledging that such strikes have killed civilians and radicalized local populations. “Those deaths will haunt us as long as we live,” he said. But he said he would continue to use drones against terrorists, targeting only those who “pose a continuing, imminent threat to Americans,” with a “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed. Obama called on Congress to help him close Guantánamo Bay, and said he was lifting his ban on transferring some of the prisoners to Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries.

What the editorials said
“It’s about time,” said The Baltimore Sun. Obama injected some “reason and morality” into the fight against terrorism this week, after more than a decade of “chest-thumping” by our elected leaders. While the drone policy has been undeniably effective, its lack of transparency or accountability has damaged our credibility overseas. Guantánamo, too, has “become an emblem of overreaction and abuse,” said the Los Angeles Times. Obama made a strong statement about our core values of freedom and the rule of law this week. “Even better would be comparably strong action.”

All Americans long for an end to the war on terror, said the Chicago Tribune. “But we’re not there yet.” Obama’s drone campaign has been “extremely and surgically effective” in killing al Qaida leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Now is not the time to strangle it in “slow-motion bureaucracy” by adding layers of oversight, or allowing judges in Washington to second-guess military leaders. The killing of Americans in Benghazi and Boston proved “the U.S. needs to keep those drones flying.”

What the columnists said
“This was a speech for grown-ups,” said James Fallows in TheAtlantic.com. For the first time since 9/11, a sitting president has had the courage to challenge the insidious notion that in the post-9/11 era, the terrorist threat “eclipsed all others America had faced, and justified the abrogation of liberties and principles we had defended through the centuries.”

Watch what Obama does, not what he says, said Glenn Greenwald in Guardian.co.uk.He issued no timetable for repealing post-9/11 laws giving the commander-in-chief virtually unchecked military authority, nor any detail about how his drone program would be overseen. This speech was intended to convince progressives that Obama is a “deeply thoughtful, moral, complex leader,” even as he pursues the Bush/Cheney path of unchecked executive power. “Obama can’t have it both ways,” said Jonathan S. Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. He wants to be seen as both the “sane, moderate alternative” to George W. Bush, and also the “tough-guy president” who killed Osama bin Laden and rained hellfire on al Qaida’s leadership. As usual, Obama is trying to sound “thoughtful” while “arguing both sides of every argument.”

Obama’s ambivalence isn’t just an act, said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. “If Bush was the Decider, Obama is the Agonizer.” He wrestles with the moral complexities of war like the lawyer he is, attempting to balance the risk of civilian casualties against “the cost of inaction,” and the merits of drone strikes against the abuse of power they invite. When contrasted with the smug certainty of his predecessor, “this is a good thing”—but only if all that analysis leads to specific policies. Without action to match Obama’s rhetoric, the war on terrorism will continue much as before.

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