IN ONE OF the more pivotal speeches of his presidency, and the one that could define his second term, President Obama on Thursday called for an end to the persistent vision of the United States as ubiquitous, well-armed heavy bristling for war 24-7-365, and for better definition of the parameters of future wars — even while doubling down on a geopolitically corrosive policy, one that’s become indistinguishable from the war we’re still fighting.
The president, speaking at National Defense University at Fort McNair, Va., said “America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.”
This manages to be both a leading and a lagging indicator. It smartly frames the challenges before us as a nation, lays out the stakes and the risks in galvanizing, inspiring language. But in some ways, it’s, well, late. We’ve known for years how “this struggle” has already defined us. It has certainly defined our politics in the last decade: bellicose, contentious, obstructionist. And economically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have absolutely defined the shape and arc of our domestic economy for the last decade, in ruinous ways.
The question, then, is how to keep this beast from becoming an even bigger part of the national psyche? Obama answered by stating the obvious and the insightful at the same time.
“This war, like all wars, must end,” he said, and he’s right. Despite the stateless asymmetricality of the two past and current conflicts (that’s led some in high places to call for the United States to be on a permanent military footing), the president understands that if war never ends, its very existential identity as an exception to normality utterly vanishes. If war forms the fabric of an indefinite “new normal,” the very idea of “normal” itself becomes a fiction.
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And that’s where the strangely hybrid aspect of Obama’s speech comes in. While advancing the perfectly welcome idea that “this war must end,” the president also reinforced his faith in the core of the drone targeting program used with deadly efficiency in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2009 — the program that has the potential to usher in a whole new construct of geopolitical conflict: the stealth war.
This came through when he sought to define the parameters of the current war, “not as a boundless global war on terror, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks ...”
One of the operative words there, of course, is “targeted.” And then there’s the phrase “dismantle networks,” used more than once. This was really the beginning of a wholesale, categorical defense of the drone program.
“To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, ‘We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.’ Other communications from Al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled Al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.
“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.”
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THERE MAY be little to argue with factually on either point. But it’s at least rhetorically curious that the president, with the opportunity to itemize these justifications for drone policy in the order of their importance, placed effectiveness before legality.
With effectiveness of drones as the rationale that is, apparently, first among equals, The White House and the U.S. military face a challenge built in to the technology that conveys us leverage: the real and historically manifest risk of our ability getting ahead of our values.
The president was less than convincing when he defended the drone program on a disputed call, namely, the “wide gap” between U.S. assessments of such [civilian] casualties and nongovernmental reports.”
When you take it all together — the ends justify the means; it’s self-defense; it’s our word against theirs — it’s hard not to pick up on a prickly defensiveness just under the words, a defensiveness about whether this policy is endangering not just high-value targets, but also our own high-value values.
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“I believe,” he said, “that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy -- because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.
“[T]he next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism -- from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. ...
“This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya -- because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements ... We are actively working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians -- because it is right and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship -- because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with people’s hopes, and not simply their fears.”
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THE PRESIDENT’S speech seemed to alternately veer from soft power to tough love, and back again. Obama said that civilian deaths from drone strikes were “heartbreaking,” but that doing nothing against terrorists “is not an option,” and drones were simply the best, most surgical tool in the toolbox.
In response to the withering criticism over the four Americans killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, Obama said there was a “preference” for capture rather than killing and he said he opposed targeting killing whether done “with a drone or a shotgun, without due process” — right before he said, with harsh pragmatism, that American citizenship shouldn’t be an absolute shield against a pre-emptive drone strike.
Then Obama said that Attorney General Eric Holder would be dispatched to review DoJ guidelines on government investigations that involve reporters, reporting to the president on July 12. All of this the day before Holder was found to have signed a search warrant for the personal e-mails of a Fox News reporter — a man at legal risk for doing his job.
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For all its rhetorical power, Obama’s speech was in some ways neither fish nor fowl — an address with an odd amalgam of objectives. In his reaction on MSNBC, Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, may have put it best: “It’s a strange situation, where you have the rhetoric of peace but the reality of war.”
True that. And it’s equally inescapable that the decisions on national security the Obama White House is making now, directly or by proxy, by actual order or as a result of passive actions leveraged by plausible deniability, will likely define not just the Obama second term but the whole of his administration.
President Obama has dared to propose an end to the formulation of the war on terrorism according to George W. Bush. That works for me and you and everyone we know. The questions are: how and when? For that achievement, the devil’s not in the details. The devil is the details.
“This war, like all wars, must end,” he said. Agreed. But President Obama’s great second-term challenge may be to resist this second-term temptation: transforming war into a subliminal, imagistically benign, multigenerational experience, and doing so in the name of national security.
“It’s one thing to commit to end the war,” Jameel Jaffer said, “and another thing to end
Image credits: Obama: whitehouse.gov. Drone in flight: via wired.com. DoJ Seal: U.S. Department of Justice. AP logo: © 2013 The Associated Press.