In a forceful speech at the National Defense University today, President Barack Obama sought to interrupt the possibility of an America trapped in a “perpetual war” footing in its struggle against homegrown and international terrorism. Calling for a comprehensive anti-terror strategy that would reduce the use of military force and protect soft power foreign aid packages, the president sought a better balance between security and civil liberties, including protecting the human rights even of enemy combatants. He again asked for the end to congressional resistance to the transfer of detainees from the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and the eventual closing of the “Gitmo” detainee facility completely.
“From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation—and world—that we leave to our children,” the president said.
Arguing that “the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat” and the terrorist threat is now more diffuse—as likely to emerge from homegrown “self-radicalized” operatives as from a hard-core al Qaeda cell somewhere in the Muslim world—the president called for a reevaluation of some of the trade-offs made in civil liberties and human rights during the ten-year trillion dollar war on terror.
“America is at a crossroads,” the president said. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’” The president said, in confronting the threat of terror as the U.S. military continues its drawdown in Afghanistan, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’—but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.
“In the years to come,” the president said, “we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” That will mean, he said, building in privacy protections to prevent abuses on efforts to intercept new types of communication; it will mean U.S. authorities cannot “deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence” and it will mean “putting careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information,” such as the State Secrets doctrine. “And,” the president added, “that means finally having a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counter-terrorism efforts and our values may come into tension.”
Regarding Gitmo, the president charged that the notorious and costly facility “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He added, “As President, I have tried to close GTMO. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States.
“These restrictions,” the president said, “make no sense.” He pointed out that under President Bush, “some 530 detainees were transferred from GTMO with Congress’s support.” But shutting down Gitmo, where more than 100 detainees are continuing a hunger strike that is proving a global embarrassment to the United States, is only part of the changes the president proposes as the nation’s large-scale efforts to confront Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan wind down.
President Obama said as the Authorization to Use Military Force, which launched the “war on terror” after the 9/11 terrorist strikes, nears its 12th year, he planned to “engage Congress” to determine “how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.” The president said he would not support an extension of the AUMF and would work with Congress “to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” He said he would not sign laws which might expand the mandate further. “This war, like all wars,” he said, “must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
The president acknowledged that his administration’s efforts to contain White House leaks has led to tension with the nation’s tradition of a free press. “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable,” he said. “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs…. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach.” The president said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing the investigation of journalists. The Attorney General will also meet with representatives of media organizations to hear their concerns and report back to the president by July 12th.
While the president spoke at length on the justifications for his administration’s continued use of force—specifically drone strikes (see more analysis on drone policy on this blog)—he argued that force can only be part of a larger comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Force alone “cannot make us safe,” he said.
“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war—through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.” The president pointed out that the much deplored foreign assistance "cannot be viewed as charity."
"It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism."
During a one hour speech that was interrupted several times by a heckling protestor (according to media reports Medea Benjamen from Code Pink), President Obama outlined what he called the “future of terrorism.”
“Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists,” the president said. “We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.
He said, “Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. … What we can do—what we must do—is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom. And that begins with understanding the threat we face,” President Obama said.