Blog No. 5 Whither the War on Terror? Part I: The President’s Vision

On May 23, President Obama gave a major speech on what has commonly been referred to as the War on Terror. The New York Times hailed it as “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America.”  The Wall Street Journal took a symmetrically negative view, but described it as “one of the more memorable speeches of [the Obama] Presidency… or for that matter any recent President.”  Yet only a few weeks later, the speech has been swept from not only the front pages, but the editorial and op-ed pages and, no doubt, from most of the public consciousness.

Attention to the Obama speech has been blotted out by the dramatic disclosures of the NSA programs and the ensuing controversy. The issues concerning the NSA programs are certainly important, and will be addressed in Part III of this Blog. The President’s speech, however, remains a foundational statement and deserves more scrutiny than it has received. A few prominent Republicans, including Senators McCain, Graham and Chambliss, responded with reactions that were immediate and negative.  None, however, appeared to give the speech the detailed examination that it deserved, and thus it falls to a RINO to try to fill that gap.

President Obama did not refer to the “War on Terror,” eschewing that term for the more generic “the war.” The term War on Terror was employed soon after 9/11 and, as a matter of semantics, was perhaps never particularly felicitous. Critics quickly pointed out that terror, or terrorism, was not an enemy, but a tactic. And it was reminiscent of other “wars” that had been more rhetorical than successful (War on Poverty, War on Drugs). The Obama administration never favored the term and attempted to substitute “Overseas Contingency Operation,” but that term never caught on with the public or the media. Thus, the War on Terror has remained a part of our lexicon, defined by that handy authority, Wikipedia, as “a global military, political, lawful, and conceptual struggle—targeting both organizations designated as terrorist and regimes accused of supporting them.” Wikipedia further explains that the term has been “typically used with a particular focus on militant islamists, al-Qaeda, and other jihadi groups.”

The War on Terror encompassed the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan commenced pursuant to the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress. Beyond the battlefield, however, the Bush Administration stressed that the War on Terror signified a different approach to combating terrorists than the “law enforcement” model used prior to 9/11.  While the differences between the two approaches were never fully spelled out, the war had three major elements. First, the war involved apprehending “enemy combatants” wherever they could be found (often far from any recognized battlefield), detaining them (perhaps indefinitely) and interrogating them (sometimes “harshly”), without a need to observe the niceties of criminal procedure. The detention and interrogation took place most commonly at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. In addition, the Bush Administration inaugurated–and the Obama Administration greatly expanded–the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”) not only on the battlefield, but on suspected terrorists in Pakistan and other neutral countries. Finally, the war also gave rise to the Patriot Act, which spawned a variety of new or expanded surveillance and investigative techniques. That, in brief, was the landscape on which the President spoke.

To his credit, The President identified the enemy more clearly than it sometimes has been in the past: “Most though not all of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology—a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.” (Too often, the government, apparently fearful of antagonizing Muslims, has been reluctant to refer to Islamic extremism or jihad by name.) President Obama also observed that, while al Qaeda has been crippled, dangerous enemies remain in the form of “al Qaeda affiliates” variously based in Iraq, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, and some continue to plot terrorist attacks in the United States homeland.

Apart from that relative clarity, however, the speech was fraught with ambiguities, disconnects and apparent contradictions. The one specific change in policy announced by the speech was that the use of drones would be reduced, and would be authorized only under narrower criteria than had been applied in the past. While the soundness of that decision can (and will) be debated, it is clearly within the authority of the President as Commander-in-Chief. Although such a tactical change could have been implemented with little or no fanfare, the President attempted to place the change in a larger context, perhaps to serve a domestic political purpose. The result, however, was to create confusion as to the Administration’s intentions in a variety of respects.

The portions of the President’s speech that drew the most attention were the suggestions that the War on Terror is nearly over. In the very first paragraph, the President referred to past conflicts, and noted that “every war has come to an end.” He went on to speak of engaging Congress “to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.” And he concluded that “this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what democracy demands.” The difficulty, of course, is that wars do not end unilaterally, except perhaps by surrender, and even that would be hard to arrange when the enemy is scattered and diffuse.

How might we know when the war has ended? The President gave no clue except to suggest an effort to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the AUMF. But what refinements he had in mind were wholly unspecified as were the circumstances that might justify repeal. Nor did he explain why refinement or repeal was necessary. The resolution authorizes military force but does not require it. Presumably, President Obama does not believe that he needs legal constraints, but is seeking to tie the hands of his successor. In the first year of his second term, that would seem to be premature.

Even short of the war being ended, the President indicated that he was undertaking a significant redefinition of it: “Beyond 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.” He referred to al Qaeda” affiliates as “lethal yet less capable,” and suggested that the threat they pose “resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” Well, perhaps. But we are reminded all too often that our intelligence assessments of enemy capabilities are far from infallible. Moreover, short of flying airplanes into buildings, devastating damage and terror can be inflicted by far less elaborate methods. The Boston Marathon bombing, for example, tragic as it was, could have been far worse. In any event, the key question is what, in practice, does the Administration plan to do differently?

The President has sprung to the defense of the NSA surveillance programs and has expressed no desire to curtail other aggressive techniques authorized by the Patriot Act. So the war does go on. Nevertheless, one is forced to recall the cautionary words from Corinthians, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?”

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Part II of this Blog will discuss drone strikes and Guantanamo, and Part III NSA surveillance.