In an hour-long speech Thursday afternoon, President Barack Obama laid out his policies toward global terrorism. He touched on revoking the war powers passed in the wake of 9/11, on drone warfare as a method of defense, on the potentially negative impact of an unending state of war on U.S. civil liberties, and on the need to close the prison for alleged terrorists at Guantanamo.
The president also projected a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy that includes continued foreign aid and an energetic diplomatic presence in zones of conflict. “With a decade of experience to draw from” he told an audience at the National Defense University, “now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions—about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them.”
The conclusion, Mr. Obama drew, was that, while we must continue to defend the country against terrorist attacks, the seemingly endless war against terror should come to end. He cited James Madison, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war.” In the place of a war on terror, the president proposed “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
With the threat of al-Qaeda gravely eroded, Mr. Obama told his audience, a new strategy needs to take into account the kind of threats the U.S. faces today: Al-Qaeda imitators, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that still plot against the U.S. but represent a diminished threat; unrest in the Arab World that draws in extremists who are more a threat to western interests in the Middle East than a grave threat to the homeland; homegrown extremists who threaten the security of American citizens.
Mr. Obama voiced a preference for the pursuit of terrorists, where possible, with intelligence and counter-terrorist police in cooperation with other governments with occasional use of Special Forces. Where that is not possible, he proposed a continued, though limited, use of drones attacks.
The president defended the attacks as justified under U.S. and international law. He admitted, however, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away,” he explained, “also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it.”
Mr. Obama revealed that yesterday he had signed a document on Presidential Policy Guidance intended to codify the rules for use of drones in counter-terrorist strikes. Analysts and critics will want to have more information on the processes, limits and oversight provisions of the guidance document than the president’s brief comments disclosed. He did announce, however, that Congress had been informed about all the strikes until now. But information does not necessarily count as oversight.
News reports had indicated that the drone warfare would be largely transferred to the Defense Department from the CIA, making it subject to the laws of war. But the president made no announcement on that point. The country will have to look to see whether we can learn in more detail about “the policy guidance” the president has put in place in the coming days. If not, pressure will need to be brought to bear to bring the guidance out of the darkness into the light for public review and debate.
Mr. Obama is right to end the era of continual war. But the legacy of the war on terror will continue to haunt us until we can learn who will be responsible for the defense against terrorism and what the limits and checks on their power will be.
Drew Christiansen, S.J., the former editor of America, is currently a visiting scholar at Boston College.