[Re-posted from earlier today. Blogosphere response to the pivotal speech here.]
The challenges that Barack Obama faced upon taking office were, even his critics would admit, daunting: an economy tail-spinning toward a second Great Depression, two continuing, draining and tragically self-defeating wars, and an apparatus of vastly expanded executive power (including torture) which had only just begun to be checked by the judiciary. More to the point, the United States was formally at war in a conflict which seemed to have no conceivable end.
And so easily the most important thing the presidents said today, it seems to me, was the following:
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 AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists] is now nearly twelve 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 and 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.
“Ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate”. I wish the word “ultimately” were not there. But the announcement of an eventual, discrete, concrete end to this war may have been a step enough for now. For my part, I think it should be a critical goal of this administration to repeal that AUMF by the end of its second term. Our goal must not be an endlessly ratcheting of terrorist and counter-terrorist violence that creates more enemies than friends. Our goal must be normalcy and freedom, even as we continue strong counter-terrorism strategies outside of the context for warfare.
I’m glad the president defended the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki as forcefully as he should:
When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.
My view entirely. I’m struck too by his Niebuhrian grasp of the inherent tragedy of wielding power in an age of terror – a perspective his more jejune and purist critics simply fail to understand. This seems like a heart-felt expression of Christian realism to me: