Ending The Perpetual Emergency

Spencer counts up the topics Obama should address in his upcoming national security speech, particularly his scroll of emergency war powers authorizing detention and surveillance:

To date, the Obama administration hasn’t talked about rolling back any of the emergency powers it enjoys. Those powers, and the rebalance of liberty and security they represent, have already outlived Osama bin Laden. The basic inertial forces of American politics position them to outlive al-Qaida. Just two years ago, cabinet officials talked about being ten or 20 kills away from strategically defeating al-Qaida. Now senior Pentagon aides talk about a war that will last ten to 20 years.

“Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” Obama said in his second inaugural address. Rhetoric like that is cheap, and arguably cynical, considering Obama’s geographic expansion of the war on terror. If Obama wants his speech tomorrow to surpass empty rhetoric, he can at least acknowledge that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war powers, either.

I hope Spencer is pleasantly surprised tomorrow. I think Obama understands that one of his critical legacies will be unwinding the “perpetual emergency” and to normalizing our relations with the rest of the world so we can return prudently to a pre-9/11 posture again. The ferocious critics of the drone strikes do not, it seems to me, acknowledge the role of drones in this process. The drone strikes really did help wipe out the human infrastructure of al Qaeda as a formal network in Af-Pak while allowing us to draw down troops in that region. There came a point, of course, at which their success in undermining the formal institution of al Qaeda actually fortified the informal Jihadist movement, and its support in Muslim countries, and even here, as in the Tsarnaev losers. Since that inflection point, the drone war has been reduced enormously.

This has been a terribly difficult needle to thread, and I wish some of the president’s critics would occasionally acknowledge that difficulty, instead of getting more and more shrill in blanket condemnations. Obama wants both to end the Bush-Cheney “war on terror” rubric without letting our guard down against Jihadists. That’s why I’m not too outraged by the fanatical pursuit of national security leaks.

If we are to defang Jihadist terror – and it is real and resilient – without the horrible error of occupying Muslim countries with troops, we have to use intelligence, infiltration, espionage and superior data analysis to prevent plots before they bear bloody fruit. When the existence of informants are exposed by the AP, the chances of keeping terror at bay by these least worst means dwindle. Which means the temptation to return to war and torture would remain, in the hands of future presidents. This may be hard for purists to grasp. But if Obama is going to unwind the full Bush-Cheney apparatus of the permanent war, he needs to be able to fight Jihadist terror on traditional intelligence grounds as well. And that requires some secrecy.

But it also requires more boldness than Obama has shown so far. He needs to have Gitmo closed and bulldozed before he leaves office. That may require some truly difficult calls – but that’s what the executive branch is for, especially in its control of the release of prisoners. Maybe this cannot happen until the near the end of his term. But if Gitmo is left open, its legacy of brutal torture, murder and violation of core American values will remain for a future Republican to reboot. Obama has already come a long way in unwinding much of this. But before he leaves, he must ensure that no trace of the Cheney gulag remains.

(Thumbnail photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images.)