Barack Obama has given what may turn out to be his most important foreign policy speech. It certainly is, as the editors of The New York Times put it, “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America.” But what exactly is the president’s point? What is different about this new counterterrorism policy and is it putting us on the right path going forward?
Of course, the Times editors are quite happy with it. They are pleased that it marks an end to “extraordinary acts like indefinite detention without charges and the targeted killing of terrorist suspects.” And, as you might expect, they are pleased that from now on, counterterrorism will be handled “primarily by law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.” Those of us who believe that acts of war should actually be handled differently have reason to be disappointed and worried.
No wonder that when Code Pink’s leader Medea Benjamin shouted out her protests, she was not removed and the president admonished the audience that “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.” Evidently, the angry Ms. Benjamin was too stupid to understand — perhaps because she was not really listening to the president, who was telling us that he was preparing to implement precisely the kind of measures that Code Pink has always proposed. As the Times editors wrote, he was “briefly stopped by a heckler from outlining the very closure [of Guantanamo] plans that she demanded.”
Obama said he was no longer going to keep the country “on a perpetual wartime footing.” In particular, he promised a new policy on the use of unmanned drones against terrorists, a policy that has over the past few years come under attack from both those on the left and the right. Drones have, for example, drawn the ire of both Rand Paul and the editors of The Nation. Others in the conservative community, such as Kenneth Anderson in Commentary magazine, have presented cogent arguments in defense of their use. As Anderson writes, “The strategy has worked far better than anyone expected. It is effective, and has rightfully assumed an indispensable place on the list of strategic elements of U.S. counterterrorism-on-offense.”
Indeed, in the period when Barack Obama increased the use of drones to a much greater level than the sparing use of them by George W. Bush, liberals remained silent and supportive, while only those like the Code Pink left-wing extremists, the Nation editors, and New York Review of Books writer David Cole yelled about it. Cole was quite pleased with the speech:
Until now, the administration has exercised the authority to order lethal drone strikes entirely in secret, without a precise or clear set of rules, and under the veil of such secrecy that it would not even acknowledge the killing of US citizens. The day before the speech, the administration revealed for the first time that it had killed four Americans with drones—only one of whom, Anwar al-Awlaki, was actually targeted. This ends the administration’s unconstitutional practice of killing citizens in secret. During the speech, moreover, President Obama announced that he has issued a Presidential Policy Guidance setting forth the substantive criteria and procedures for employing drone strikes outside active areas of combat. Although those guidelines are themselves classified, the White House issued an unclassified summary, and the rules appear to narrow the previously understood criteria for such strikes in important ways.
The problem, as Jonathan S. Tobin writes, is that the president covers all his bases, and has presented a speech in which he seeks to satisfy both critics and supporters of his old terrorism policy. He wants an end to an “endless” war, although al-Qeda and our other opponents have not ended their war against our country. How can one side say its war is continuing, and the other simply pretend that it is not going on? It is so reminiscent of the left’s suggestion in the waning days of the Vietnam War that our leaders simply say that we have won and unilaterally withdraw.
We may actually do that now, but does anyone really think that once we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban won’t move to quickly take over that sad country and once again make it a haven for terrorists and their training camps? The president acknowledged that “our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” But he went on to argue that we are safer than we ever have been, and he repeated that al-Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated, so that now “America is at a crossroads.”
Then there is the critical question of ideology. The president said that “state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah” have engaged in acts of terror on behalf of political goals. He did not mention the state in question– Iran — or propose any measures that would effectively deal with the threat posed by the ayatollahs in control of that country, now on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon. He seemed to suggest that “radicalized individuals here in the United States” pose a threat, without mentioning who radicalized them and the nature of the belief system that spurred them on. We all know it is radical Islam.
Again, Obama harked back to the themes of his disastrous Cairo speech, referring to “a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets…is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.” The president assured the Muslim world that ideology is “based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam,” and he emphasized that “the vast majority of Muslims” do not share in the radical belief.
Here, the waffling is amazing. The truth is that radical Islam (a version in fact accepted by large numbers of Muslims in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere) and its adherents are at war with the United States and the West. President Obama is correct that we are not at war with Islam, but the problem is that our leadership does not seem to comprehend that if radical Islamists are at war with us, we cannot deal with their beliefs by simply ignoring that they exist and are dangerous. And although the Islamists may be a minority of Muslims, they are not only a loud and very vocal minority, but in absolute terms they number in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, their ideology is accurately based on their reading of the Koran, of which they can cite chapter and verse to prove that they are motivated by Islam.
So again, turning to drones, the president presented the arguments on their behalf, after assuring us he is toning down their use. So if their use is beneficial, and here Obama made arguments similar to those of conservative supporters and opposite to those of liberals like David Cole, why is he then limiting their use? The president made the case for use of drones in a strong fashion, since, as he said, “doing nothing is not an option.” In these paragraphs, it is almost a different Obama speaking than the one cited favorably by the Times editors and David Cole. Here is one of the president’s most tough and strongly stated passages, in which he defends the drone attack that killed Anwar Awlaki:
But 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.
And here is Obama’s defense of drones, and of the military action we have taken to date:
Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.
The above is true. In that paragraph, the president seemed to acknowledge that others, motivated by Islamist thought, are fighting us in a real war. If that is the case, then why is he now proclaiming an end to the measures that to date have kept us safe, and promising to limit the very drones that he has argued have worked so well? Could it be that his left-wing heart is fighting an internal battle with his own comprehension that measures he does not like have to be taken?
Finally, Obama turned to the question of freedom of the press. Here, he made two contradictory statements. First, he said “we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field.” Thus law-breakers and leakers must be prosecuted for failing to protect classified information. Then he added that “I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.” Calling for a media shield law, he stated that “journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.” How will he square the circle? He answered that he has raised “these issues with the Attorney General, who shares my concerns.” As we all know, Eric Holder is the very man who signed off on the DOJ’s and FBI’s investigation of Fox News journalist James Rosen, whom the FBI argued should be a co-conspirator for violating the Espionage Act of 1917!
So the president has given the nation a confused, contradictory, and sometimes powerful speech, one that each side will find things to agree with. He appears to not know which arguments he has presented he really believes in, preferring to lay them out and have us put our trust in his hands. With a president as indecisive as ever, and continuing to lead from behind, our nation is supposed to hope that all will turn out well with Obama in charge. For many of us, that is not sufficient.