Four years almost to the day since outlining a vision of how to fight terrorism, President Barack Obama traveled Thursday to the National Defense University to deliver a self-evaluation, course correction and proposed way forward. The speech offered some valuable explanations of administration action and opened the door to constructive negotiation with Congress, while leaving unanswered some key questions.
In his 2009 speech at the National Archives, Obama was clearer about what he believed President George W. Bush had done wrong than about how he would govern differently, and where he was clear he has not always been able to follow through. He ruled out “enhanced interrogation techniques,” an important accomplishment. But Congress, circumstances and inadequate commitment have prevented him from closing the Guantanamo Bay prison as promised. Though he vowed to develop with Congress a new detention regime, his armed forces in the subsequent four years have killed many alleged terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen with drones and captured almost none.
Four years wiser — and, he argues, with the world in a very different place — Obama wants to try again on some fronts while rethinking some of the assumptions in place since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He renewed his vow to close Guantanamo, urging Congress to stop making the work more difficult. There are measures Obama can take, even without congressional approval, to repatriate some of the 166 prisoners still in the Cuban prison, and his promise to step up that effort was welcome. He acknowledged, as he did four years ago, that some prisoners will be too dangerous to release but impossible to try in court, yet again he proffered no answer to this quandary other than to say he is “confident that this legacy problem can be solved.”
We agree with Obama’s contention that federal courts are capable of trying many alleged terrorists. We also think he is right that drone strikes, if properly limited, offer an important means of self-defense, in many cases less dangerous to civilians than is more traditional military force. His intention to have the Pentagon replace the CIA in the execution of such attacks is also welcome if it leads to greater accountability and open debate. We certainly agree that a key to U.S. security is “patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya… strengthen[ing] the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements … training security forces in Libya” — all policies that have been inadequately supported until now.
The fundamental question with which Obama wrestled Thursday is the nature of the war — if it is still a war — in which the United States remains engaged. With the core of al-Qaida much reduced, Obama said, and the U.S. combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan ended or ending, “we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” That may be true; but it is also true that the U.S. response to those pre-9/11 attacks, which relied heavily on the FBI and occasional cruise missile attacks, was wholly inadequate. Obama is not recommending a return to that paradigm, which would be foolhardy; but he also is worried about a thoughtless embrace of unending war.
“This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama said. True; but America’s enemies will have a say in the timing. The president said he is open to “refining” the war-making authorities that Congress granted the president in 2001, a process Congress also has begun to contemplate. We hope they move forward together.