US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment duck their heads in the back of a Humvee as smoke and dust rise from a roadside bomb. (AP Photo/Jim MacMillan)
Before you express an opinion about President Obama’s national security speech yesterday, if you didn’t see it live the read the whole speech on the White House’s website. It’s an important and transformative speech, one that is already drawing howls of outrage from right-wing pundits, hawks in Congress and the neoconservatives.
It was a clarion call to end the war on terrorism. Said Obama: “We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ ” Al Qaeda is on the “path to defeat” (actually, it’s pretty far along that path), and its imitators, affilates and clones are either focused on local struggles or, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are far weaker, he said, adding: “None of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11.” Among the Al Qaeda types, he said “While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.”
That couldn’t be clearer. Global War on Terrorism, R.I.P. Explicitly, Obama said that the United States can go back to its pre-9/11, less-hysterical, less-frantic mindset. “We have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11,” said Obama.
In an important section of the speech, Obama insisted it’s time to rewrite, and in so doing, weaken, the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda et al.:
The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
I’d highlight two phrases. The first, “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves Al Qaeda,” which means that the president is sticking it to the hawks who say that literally dozens of rabble-rousers around the world must be targeted by the CIA and the Pentagon. And second, of course: “This war, like all wars, must end.”
Some controversy surrounds the drone issue, still. The Nation—and its specialist, Jeremy Scahill—have focused enormous attention on the issue, and Code Pink—whose founder, Medea Benjamin, repeatedly interrupted Obama yesterday—has done the same. But too much can be made of this. First of all, a drone is just another weapon in the American arsenal, not unlike cruise missiles, which President Clinton unloaded on Al Qaeda in 1998, and other lethal power. Since taking office, after stepping up the use of drones, Obama and John Brennan, who was Obama’s terrorism adviser in the White House and now the CIA director, have steadily reduced the use of drones every single year since 2009. In his speech yesterday, and in classified instructions to the CIA and the military, Obama is further placing restrictions on their use. The CIA’s ability to use drones is being sharply reduced and restricted to Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the number of strikes has fallen sharply in 2013. By 2014, when US forces leave Afghanistan, the CIA will stop firing drones into Pakistan altogether. Meanwhile, if drones are going to be used by the Pentagon against individual targets, the military will operate under new guidelines that will limit strikes, reduce civilian casualties, and probably prevent the killing of American citizens, except in extreme cases.
As The New York Times reports, in discussing the classified parts of the new drone policy that Obama didn’t mention in his speech, but which underpin what he said:
The new classified policy guidance imposes tougher standards for when drone strikes can be authorized, limiting them to targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, according to government officials. The guidance also begins a process of phasing the C.I.A. out of the drone war and shifting operations to the Pentagon.
Giving operations to the Pentagon still leaves room for abuse and overuse of drones, and the secrecy that attaches to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which will have responsibility for drones, means that it will be opaque, at best, to the public. It’s unclear yet what an “imminent threat” is—in the past, the government has interpreted imminent to mean almost anything, though most people would view that word as implying something like the ticking-time-bomb scenario. And, there’s still some question over the use of so-called “signature strikes,” used against unidentified people and targets. But by insisting on what Obama called a “continuing, imminent threat,” it would appear that drone strikes against nameless “militants”—often the generic “military-age males”—will be ruled out.
In his remarks, Obama didn’t exactly “go Bulworth.” But reading between the lines, I’d say that the president put into words his clearly felt belief that the military and the CIA aren’t the right tool to use against a terrorism threat that can be dealt with, as before 9/11, by intelligence and law enforcement.
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