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Our Ambivalent Commander-in-Chief

It has been fascinating to read reaction to President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech last week. Some commentators–including me—perceived no real change in a tough-on-terror policy inherited from the Bush administration. Others thought it was a sign of retreat and even defeat. In truth there is plenty of cause to support both viewpoints.

Those stressing continuity could point, as I did, to Obama’s robust defense of drone strikes, even on U.S. citizens, and the vagueness of his calls for limits on those strikes or for revising the authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and associated elements. The president did talk about ending the war on terror, but he offered no timeline for doing so, and news reports suggest that for the foreseeable future even one of the most controversial aspects of that war—drone strikes on “signature” targets in Pakistan who are not identified by name but are attacked because they look like militants—will continue.

Those who saw a message of defeat and retreat took Obama at his word that he really does want to wrap up the war on terrorism and declare victory—something that is wildly premature at a time when we have just seen horrifying terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris, and London, among other places. Perhaps the most worrisome thing that Obama said was his wistful embrace of a pre-9/11 world when we supposedly treated terrorism in its proper proportion:

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 a Pan Am flight — 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 brutal; they 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.

Actually, our lack of response to those earlier terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s emboldened Al Qaeda to ramp up its violence by staging the worst terrorist attack of all time. That is not a precedent to be emulated, as Obama suggested—it is a mistake to be avoided.

The question is whether in fact Obama will take us back to the pre-9/11 policies. He may well do so in the future, but he did not so with his National Defense University speech which, significantly, contained no timeline for making such a change.

The most concrete and concerning action Obama has made in conjunction with the speech has been to limit drone strikes to targets that directly threaten US “persons” rather than “interests.” If this means the U.S. will stop targeting militants who seek to overthrow the governments of, say, Pakistan or Yemen, then this is a troubling development, given the grievous blow the U.S. and our allies would suffer if Al Qaeda-style extremists were to gain control of any country, much less a nuclear-armed state like Pakistan. But, while drone strikes have declined in recent months, they still seem to be going on at a higher level than during the Bush administration. How Obama’s decree will be implemented in practice remains to be seen. At this point, I think there is legitimate cause for concern but not for panic.

What Obama’s speech reveals more than anything else is the fundamental ambivalence that characterizes the cerebral law professor-turned-president over issues of war and peace. This is, after all, the president who surged troops to Afghanistan after a lengthy period of soul-searching but imposed a timeline on their deployment; the president who expressed willingness to keep troops in Iraq but who did little to negotiate away obstacles to a Status of Forces Agreement; the president who helped topple Moammar Qaddafi but did little to rebuild afterwards; and the president who has called for Bashar Assad’s overthrow but has refused to provide lethal aid or American airpower to Syrian rebels.

In keeping with this meme, as Peter Baker of the New York Times notes, “’Americans are deeply ambivalent about war,’ the president said in his speech, and he seemed to be talking about himself as well.”

Baker’s article reveals the long and tortuous gestation of the counter-terrorism speech, which was a compromise between Obama’s dovish instincts and the hawkish necessities of national securities urged on him by the CIA and other agencies. How those contradictions are resolved in the future is anyone’s guess, but, as Obama’s critics have rightly noted, there is something disquieting about such an ambivalent commander-in-chief.


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