Early on in his first term as president, Barack Obama remarked that large ships turn slowly. At the time, he was talking about the economy. America—and indeed much of the world—was falling deeper into the recession that he had inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush, an inheritance that also included two insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there was the ignominiously labeled War on Terror, a vague and nebulous campaign conducted in the shadows, replete with torture, secret prisons, and kill lists.
Last Thursday, Mr. Obama finally sought to turn the ship on this war after four years of barreling forward full steam ahead. At the National Defense University in Washington DC, he delivered a much-anticipated address about restricting the use of drones, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the dangers of perpetual war. Those who interpreted the speech as the beginning of the end of the War on Terror were mistaken, however. In truth, Mr. Obama said only that history and democracy dictate that wars must end, but that this particular show will go on. It must only be recast to better correspond to a threat that has evolved since the wake of September 11, 2001.
Inside the United States, the speech was greeted with plaudits and ridicule by opposing sides of the political aisle, indicative of the polarized political gridlock Washington has become. It is difficult to say if Obama’s speech meant anything at all, or if he is even capable of reigning in a national security establishment that has been pumped full of steroids for the last twelve years. From its inception, the War on Terror lacked definition, like the term from which it took its name. Now, instead of the “boundless” war initiated by George W. Bush and carried on by Barack Obama during his first term, the American president wants to restrict it to a “series of persistent, targeted efforts” aimed at “dismantling specific networks of violent extremists.”
This hardly represents an end to anything, but rather “a new phase” as he puts it.
Three days after 9/11, the US Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), a resolution that gave sweeping powers to the president to conduct a war against those who had “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the attacks on the American homeland. It is the backbone and legal justification for the entire War on Terror. Yet Mr. Obama only mentioned discussing “efforts to refine” the AUMF, not to repeal it. At times the speech is seemingly at odds with itself, full of strange contradictions and logical gymnastics.
“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end,” says Obama, rather confusingly. Or, the US must “determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.”
Mr. Obama seems to want to end the war but does not know how, repeatedly calling for some type of national discussion to define its future, or for consultations with the Congress to find a way for greater oversight of the government’s conduct. He paints a picture of “America at a crossroads” that must “ask itself hard questions,” almost as if he has not led the country in this struggle for the past four years.
In another example of the speech’s ambiguity, Mr. Obama says the reason America uses drones for “targeted killing” is because it does not have the option to capture and detain every “terrorist” in every case. But then says in the future, whenever it is possible to capture them, America will do so instead of using drones. But how does this differ? It is almost as if to say that the US will become less reliant on drones whenever humanly (no pun intended) possible. Yet he also considers drones the most effective military tool for combating Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, a claim that would ensure its continued use.
And despite reports to the contrary, Mr. Obama offered no definitive curbs on drones but simply defended what his administration has done during the last four years, which is to say the massive expansion of the drone program. Far from a new set of guidelines, Mr. Obama offers a polished version of his prior operation of the drone program as a framework for their future use. For the moment, Mr. Obama simply calls for the wisdom and discipline to use drones sparingly but spends a good deal of time telling us why drones are more effective and less harmful than other military options.
Even the especially controversial practice of “signature strikes” does not appear to be completely off-the-table. Mr. Obama said that drone strikes will continue in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda members and “against forces massing to support attacks on coalitions forces,” a sentence with a broad interpretation.
So what would an end to the War on Terror look like? Is it simply a defensive rather than offensive posture in combating terrorism? Can the gloves be put back on, to reverse Cofer Black’s—the CIA’s counterterrorism chief throughout the War—infamous statement in front of Congress after 9/11? The United States has invested unthinkable amounts of time, money and resources into reshaping it’s security establishment to face the threat of terrorism. This has also meant a vast expansion in vested interests that will be extremely difficult to upend. Power is easily given, but hard to take away.
Yet President Obama is right to fear a perpetual war and the toll it will take on America and the world, if it has not already. No one should envy the tough decisions that have to be made. One thing is clear, however, this war is not ending anytime soon.