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Rhetorical vs. Substantive Change in Obama’s Security Policy

With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

Obama was particularly effective and hard-nosed in explaining why he authorized the strike that killed an American citizen, Anwar Awlaki: “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America … 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.” Take that, Rand Paul.

There really was not much new in Obama’s speech; even his desire to close Guantanamo and transfer its detainees to prisons on the mainland has been often been expressed before—and is no closer to realization because of bipartisan opposition in Congress. He noted the difficulty of dealing with detainees who remain dangerous but cannot be convicted in a court of law—without offering any solution. All he said was: “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.” He also genuflected toward greater accountability for drone strikes but did not endorse any particular idea such as the creation of special courts; he simply said, “I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these — and other — options for increased oversight.”

There are some real changes associated with Obama’s speech, it seems, but, like much else in the war on terror, they remain classified, murky, and imperfectly understood by those of us who are not cleared to know the inner details. The Washington Post reports, for example, that Obama has issued a new directive limiting the use of drone strikes to targets that “pose a ‘continuing and imminent threat’ to the United States” and then only in instances where there is “near certainty” of no civilian casualties. His guidance apparently also includes a “preference” for the Department of Defense to play the lead role in drone strikes rather than the CIA. It’s not clear exactly what these changes portend, since, as Fred Kaplan has previously noted, the government’s definition of “imminent threat” is wide enough to include just about any al-Qaeda operative, whether he or she is actually about to attack the U.S. or not.

My own view is that drone strikes should not decrease while the threat from “al-Qaeda and Associated Movements” (to borrow the Obama administration’s parlance) remains as high as it is today—the threat coming no longer primarily from al-Qaeda Central but, as Obama noted, from its affiliates and from lone wolves inspired by its rhetoric. But at the same time, while I believe it is dangerous to reduce drone strikes, it is also misguided to believe that they can be the sum of our counter-terrorism efforts. We need to address, as Obama said, “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.” That doesn’t mean ending poverty, as his remarks implied, but rather effectively countering extremist propaganda and political organizing by helping moderate forces throughout the Muslim world to fight back. Unfortunately, this is an area where Obama, like Bush, has conspicuously fallen short.

Obama blandly noted that “unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria,” while conspicuously failing to note that it is his own administration’s lack of support for moderate forces—in the government of Libya and among the rebel factions of Syria—that has allowed extremists to come to the fore. Obama eloquently and rightly defended the need for foreign aid spending, but he announced no new steps to help embattled, pro-democratic forces in Libya or Syria.

Bush at least made rhetorical bows toward criticizing dictators and supporting democrats in the Middle East. Obama, in thrall to “realist” dogma, has been much less inclined to try to spread freedom abroad. Ironically, he seems to have adopted the “hard power” part of the Bush legacy while eschewing the emphasis on “soft power”—i.e., democracy promotion. That is his primary shortcoming—not, as the mainstream media narrative would have it, his support for supposedly excessive drone strikes but rather his failure to embed the drone strikes in a wider plan to promote better governance in the Middle East.

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