Contrary to press reports, The President gave three foreign policy speeches last week. Granted, they were integrated into one appearance before the National Defense University, but they differed in scope, scale and, to this observer, satisfaction.
On the grandest macro scale, Mr. Obama sought to recast and reorient the nation’s approach to terrorism. He recounted the progress made against Al Qaeda in the eleven years since 9/11 placed the country on a war-like footing, stating that its core is in disorganized retreat; its leaders more pre-occupied with their personal safety than with their perceived jihadist mission. And he predicted that future threats now involve ‘lethal, yet less capable networks of Al Qaeda affiliates,” local threats to specific American interests abroad (e.g., the recent attack on an isolated natural gas facility in Algeria), and radicalized individuals at home.
In framing the response to those threats, the President counseled that the US must act in alliance and in proportion to the current threats, recognize the economic opportunity costs and social impacts of a perpetual war footing at-home, and integrate targeted assistance to countries evolving their own governmental institutions. Foreign aid, less than 1% of the federal budget (surprised?), is less ‘charity’ than it is ‘prevention,’ via patient promotion of US national interests.
I agree with the implications: the heavy lifting of addressing the clear and demonstrated danger of terrorism’s primary sponsor has been concluded, at great expense in personal and economic terms. The time for gross mobilizations is past. And it’s much more efficient, meaning the US and its allies will do much better, by appealing more to the hopes and dreams of the world than to its fears. Further, I’ve been deeply concerned about this nation’s lurches toward security at the sacrifice of civil liberties since 9/11. To the extent that we are over-occupied with the threat, do not live our lives fully and freely, and sacrifice the values that bless this land, our enemies truly do gain. This phase of the response to terror is nearly complete, and we’ve won – it’s time to move on with nation-building, here especially, and abroad.
The other two national security topics – drone policy and Guantanamo Bay -- were addressed less satisfactorily. The Administration has issued something called Presidential Policy Guidance -- a decision rule governing the targeting of drone strikes, to wit: they will be used when the target cannot practically be captured instead, and the threat posed is continuing and imminent, and local government cannot/will not respond, and we are virtually certain that the target is present while civilians are not. He also defended their use against Americans on foreign soil, waging war on the US, actively plotting to kill Americans, where no good alternatives exist: “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.”
I like the analogy of terrorism to crime – I think it has more in common with crime than with war. But it’s not clear who will make the actual, individual strike decisions under this rule; they are now vetted within the Administration. Mr. Obama suggested options of an independent judicial body, or a separate board with the Executive Branch, but ultimately punted that implementing decision (problems with both – what do you think, Congress?). Until that’s done, this is directional progress in coming to grips with this new weaponry, but it’s still a very incomplete process.
Finally, he reiterated his 2008 campaign pledge to close GTMO, which he correctly called “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He called for the help of Congress to remove blockages and facilitate repatriation of detainees who have long since been determined to pose no real threat, and many of whom are engaged in a politically embarrassing hunger strike.
He also opined that US courts can handle the majority of other criminal or military justice cases. But he deferred on the third group of detainees “who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but who cannot be prosecuted, for example, because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible” (read: as in acquired by torture). Those individuals currently inhabit a legal netherland of our creation, and the Prez had no solution – there may not Be a good one, but we’re clearly no farther along there.
A ballplayer who hits one-of-three pitches out of the park is a star. That’s too good a grade for this effort, but it’s important, incremental progress. It’s a turning point on a long, long road, and the destination remains distant and illusive.
Synopsis: Prez reframed the war on terror, began to flesh-out drone policy and wants to close GTMO.