Commentary Magazine


Obama Can’t Have It Both Ways on Terror

The basic conceit of President Obama’s approach to terrorism has been two-fold. On the one hand, he has always tried to pose as the sane, moderate alternative to what he depicted as the cowboy unilateralism of his predecessor that he claimed had destroyed America’s credibility in the world when he first ran for president in 2008. On the other, he also likes to play the tough-guy president who isn’t afraid to track down and kill terrorists, which was the main foreign-policy theme of his re-election campaign in which at times it seemed he mentioned Osama bin Laden as much as he did his running mate.

Both these elements were on display yesterday during his lengthy address at the National Defense University that seemed to combine a striking call for change with what also seemed to be a determination to keep using many of the same Bush administration policies that he had kept in place these last four and a half years. As our Max Boot said yesterday, the “balance between rhetorical versus substantive change” might be said to be tilting toward the rhetoric because of the president’s determination to keep using drone strikes to attack terrorists. The part of the speech defending the use of drones was well said and correct. But I think our John Podhoretz is also correct when he notes in today’s New York Post that other major elements of the speech undermine the president’s rationale for continuing those strikes. Obama’s promise to work for congressional repeal of the Authorization to Use Military Force that was passed on September 14, 2001 may please elements of his base, left-wing critics as well as Republican libertarians like Senator Rand Paul, who share the president’s distaste for the idea that we are locked in an “endless” war against Islamist terrorists. But unless the other side of this equation agrees that the war is over, the president’s declaration that it is finished and that we won it will continue to ring hollow.

The problem is that, like the president’s repeated declarations that the war in Afghanistan will end when he finished pulling out American troops, the end of the war on terror is not something that can be declared unilaterally. Far from the Afghan war coming to a close when the last U.S. soldier leaves, it is almost certain to heat up as our Taliban foes will view it as an opportunity to make advances that were impossible so long as U.S. and NATO coalition forces were there to stop them. We are entitled to hope that the heroic efforts of those forces will have sufficiently altered the balance of power in the country so as to make it impossible for it to ever revert to the pre-9/11 situation in which Afghanistan was a large Islamist terror base for al-Qaeda. But that is a hope, not a policy. The future there is, at best, uncertain even if Americans prefer not to think about it.

The same is true in Iraq where Obama’s haste to pull all American troops out—something made possible by the victory the U.S. had won there by the end of the Bush administration—has created the possibility that it, too, will sink back into the sectarian warfare that the surge had ended.

The president wants to act as if he has ended unpopular wars as well as unpopular elements of these wars like the prison at Guantanamo Bay. He also wants to reserve the right to keep fighting Islamist terrorists who continue to pop up both in the Middle East and in the West since Americans rightly believe it is his responsibility to keep them safe.

But without the broad, sweeping powers that Congress granted the executive branch and which the president wishes to repeal, it’s an open question as to whether the continued use of drones can be justified. After all, the only effective answer to the critique of the drone strikes articulated by Rand Paul and others is based is the fact that America is still at war with Islamist extremists that believe they are locked in a conflict with the West that will last for generations.

The president seems to think the threat level is sufficiently low that America can go back to a September 10, 2011 mentality where terrorism was treated primarily as police problem rather than a military one. Doing so might prove popular since Americans would prefer to think that ramping down security measures and aggressive counter-terror operations means they really are safe and that they can go back to ignoring the Islamist war on the West. But if the United States is to continue to defend its citizens and the West against an Islamist movement that seeks our destruction, it must continue to keep itself on a war footing with regard to terrorism.

The president may enjoy the praise he is getting today for the characteristically thoughtful nature of his speech in which he seems to be arguing both sides of every argument. But much as he’d like to, President Obama can’t have it both ways on these issues. He can and should continue to use drones to take out terrorists wherever that is feasible. But by beginning the process by which the legal props for that effort are discarded, he will further degrade the government’s ability to effectively defend the homeland. The West’s Islamist foes have been bloodied and weakened by American efforts in the last 11 years and eight months. But they are not yet defeated. Any policy shift based on that faulty assumption is bound to lead to tragedy as well as confusion.

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