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Has Obama Presented a New Plan to Fight Terror or More of the Same?

Obama admits "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare” -- but fails to offer way out.

US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013.



Four years ago, President Obama gave a  seminal counterterrorism speech in front of the Constitution arguing we “uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe.” Today, amid controversies over his Administration’s killing of American citizens in drone strikes, efforts to break hunger strikes by Guantanamo Bay detainees who have long been cleared for transfer, and seizures of the call records of national security journalists, Obama tried to reclaim those cherished values in his fight against terror.

In a speech at the National Defense University, Obama tried to redefine that fight and at least rhetorically end the war. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”

In the speech, Obama proposed a number of policies that would return us closer to the values. He directed his aides to consider proposals—like a drone court or an additional Executive Branch review—to add oversight to targeted killing. He instructed Eric Holder to review Department of Justice guidelines “governing investigations that involve reporters” by July 12 (the only deadline in the speech). He even argued for the use of more foreign assistance rather than just military force in combating terrorism, though suggested people in both parties opposed such assistance.

Obama also promised to “engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing“ and threatened to veto any proposal that expanded this war. Obama has failed to make good on such veto threats in the past, and he made no mention of the Iraq AUMF, which remains in force two and a half years after the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq. So it remains to be seen whether his stated commitment to rework the AUMF will survive the political difficulties it has not in the past.

Obama’s most substantive proposals recommitted to closing Guantanamo Bay, a commitment that seemed to arise out of a focus on his own legacy. “[H]istory will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,” he reflected. The President laid out the following plan:


I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system.

All of these proposals have been possible for the last four years (indeed, the State Department only got rid of its existing envoy to close Gitmo in January). Yet the constant concerns of the 102 Gitmo detainees hunger striking and a concern about legacy appears to have given Obama renewed urgency.

With this plan, Obama received applause from the audience.

The speech was weakest in its promise to reform the use of drones and other targeted killing. Obama announced he was sending new guidelines to Congress to govern “our use of force against terrorists” (while he was speaking about drones, he didn’t limit these guidelines to drones). His speech and the White House guidelines on it insists on a standard of “near-certainty” that the terrorist is present and that that no civilians will be killed” in the strike. That is an improvement off past practice, and those more rigorous standards may explain why there have been vastly fewer drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen this year (even while some of the strikes seem to violate Obama’s recommitment to capture targets whenever possible, rather than kill them).

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