Friday, May 24, 2013

Barack Obama and the end of the War on Terror

By Michael J.W. Stickings


There's a lot to dislike about the way President Obama has handled the so-called war on terror -- the continuation of much of the Bush-Cheney national security state; the kill list and the drone war -- but he showed yesterday in his thoughtful speech at the National Defense University that he understands the nature of the problem -- that is, both the threat to America and the way America responds to that threat -- and recognizes the need for change.

Indeed, as is so often the case with him, what was truly remarkable was not just his intellectual grasp of the enormously complex world beyond America's borders but the maturity with which he was able to explain that complexity to an audience, the broader American and global audience as well as those in attendance, that is demanding answers without really understanding the questions, that is often at odds with itself, and that often wants simplistic solutions. And he laid out a plan for further action that was at once nuanced and crystal clear.

Now, that doesn't mean I agree with all of it. His strenuous defense of the use of drone strikes -- they are effective; they are legal; they save lives -- hardly resolves the matter. The U.S. may be going after terrorists, and Obama may be exercising caution in the use of drones, but the drone war still kills and terrorizes not just those who wish to do America harm but innocents as well, and, of course, there is still the matter of the astonishing amount of power, including over life and death for many -- that has been vested in the office of the president and that Obama has at his disposal. He is certainly right that "[t]o say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance," and that sort of self-reflection is welcome, but it is not clear that the much-ballyhooed "framework" is enough to prevent abuse.

But, look, like this or not, and obviously many on the left do not, Obama said what needed to be said:

America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.  And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.

Now, this last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes — both here at home and abroad — understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties — not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana'a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold. Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option. 

Again, I'm not saying that this is the end of it, that we should just take him at his word, or that it's all good now. Far from it. But this... this is leadership. Like it or not. Agree with him or not. The world is a crazy place and he's the president of the world's most powerful country. The choices aren't always clear, and there's rarely a clear good and a clear evil. Those who criticize him, as I myself have done, should consider what they would do were they burdened with those reponsibilities -- doing what needs to be done to protect the country and its people, and providing leadership both at home and around the world, while also operating within a democratic system at home that is anything but easy to navigate -- what they would do were they sitting in the Oval Office with the final say on what is done.

Of course, huge questions remain: What will come of this "larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy"? What about these "proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress"? How will he "[address] the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism"? How will the U.S. "patiently [support] transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya"? How will he address "the daunting challenge of terrorism from within our borders"? What about the drone war? What about Gitmo? What about the paralysis of hyper-partisanship, mostly from Republicans, in Capitol Hill?

The problem with Obama has always been the gap the separates rhetoric from reality, from action. He talks big, in other words, without always following through. The rhetoric was excellent yesterday. On the one hand, he laid out a plan of action to protect the country and advance its values and objectives while also ending the era of "perpetual war" that continues to plague the country. On the other hand, it was an extremely self-defensive, if also self-aware, speech, and the concern is that it's just a new spin on the same old policies. We shall see.

There's good reason to be cynical when you pay attention to U.S. politics, and maybe I'm just not in the mood for such cynicism. Certainly I have often given Obama the benefit of the doubt throughout his presidency, and maybe I still want to have hope, to believe that meaningful change is possible. But there's no denying that what he brings to the job is mature, thoughtful leadership -- and, yes, you can lead by giving speeches, by trying to influence public opinion through rhetoric.

Disagree with him, if you want. Yes, by all means, disagree with him -- we should, we must, have a larger discussion about where we go from here. And hold him accountable. Yes, make sure what he says isn't just empty rhetoric. But imagine if it were Romney giving this speech, or McCain, or those many others who think that chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" amounts to a foreign policy. President Obama is not saying America is the best and leaving it at that. He's not saber-rattling. He's not hiding behind the flag. He's inviting us to think about what it means to be America, and to express American power, in this complicated age. And when you think about it, that's pretty amazing, like what he had to say or not.

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