An End In Sight


[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:

It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.

Indeed he must. And in the aggregate, I think history will look back on the balance he struck and see more wisdom in it than the purism on the civil liberties left and right or the lawless violence and torture of the Bush-Cheney years.

A few more key points: he will end the moratorium on releasing Yemeni prisoners at GTMO; he has appointed a figure to expedite the closure of the former torture camp (perhaps his newfound friendship with John McCain can accelerate the process). But he offered no real solution to the 50 or so prisoners deemed still dangerous to the world but who cannot be tried for lack of admissible evidence. He had noting really on that – except a self-evidently vain appeal to a Congress unwilling to give an inch on anything.

But the broader framework of the speech was the most important: the possibility of a return to normality, to a point where the understandable trauma of 9/11 no longer blurs our ability to construct a realist but restrained counter-terror strategy. That’s the promise of his presidency: the healing of a giant wound to this country’s psyche and values. And here’s where it came through most tellingly for me:

The scale of [the current] threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. In the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a disco in Berlin; and on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center; at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia; and at our Embassy in Kenya. These attacks were all deadly, and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow. But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

We can envisage a world in which this war is over, and yet our counter-terrorism continues “smartly and proportionally”. It is a tough and usually lonely task to make these calls. Which is why a president is ultimately accountable for them. Today, he stood accountable; and he neither shirked from responsibility nor apologized for the inherent tragedy of any armed conflict.

From this hard realist assessment, however, came a light at the end of a psychological and political tunnel; a small flicker hope at the end of a long dark night of fear.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration’s drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. By Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.)