President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech yesterday was a hopeful glimpse into what might be the future of foreign policy for his administration. It wasn’t the Bullworth moment he longed for, but it was a step in the right direction, if (and it’s a big if) he follows through.
Turning over the drone program to the CIA at least removes his direct responsibility for the strikes, but nevertheless, the program will continue. The long-awaited closing of GITMO, however, and the ending of the “official” so-called “War on Terror” are more likely goals. Mother Jones has the story:
So Obama’s speech Thursday on counterterrorism policies—which follows his administration’s acknowledgment
yesterday that it had killed four Americans (including Anwar al-Awlaki,
an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen)—is a big deal, for with this address,
Obama is self-restricting his use of drones and shifting control of them
from the CIA to the military. And the president has approved making
public the rules governing drone strikes.
The New York Times received the customary pre-speech leak and reported:
A new classified policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama will sharply
curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in
places that are not overt war zones, countries like Pakistan, Yemen and
Somalia. The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign
enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.
Lethal force will be used only against targets who pose “a
continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be
captured, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter to
Congress, suggesting that threats to a partner like Afghanistan or Yemen
alone would not be enough to justify being targeted.
These moves may not satisfy civil-liberties-minded critics on the
right and the left. Obama is not declaring an end to indefinite
detention or announcing the closing of Gitmo—though he is echoing his
State of the Union vow to revive efforts to shut down that prison.
Still, these moves would be unimaginable in the Bush years. Bush and
Cheney essentially believed the commander in chief had unchallenged
power during wartime, and the United States, as they saw it, remained at
war against terrorism. Yet here is Obama subjecting the drone program
to a more restrictive set of rules—and doing so publicly. This is very
un-Cheney-like. (How soon before the ex-veep arises from his undisclosed
location to accuse Obama of placing the nation at risk yet again?)
Despite Obama’s embrace of certain Bush-Cheney practices and his
robust use of drones, the president has tried since taking office to
shift US foreign policy from a fixation on terrorism. During his first
days in office, he shied away
from using the “war on terrorism” phrase. And his national security
advisers have long talked of Obama’s desire to reorient US foreign
policy toward challenges in the Pacific region. By handing
responsibility for drone strikes to the military, Obama is helping CIA
chief John Brennan, who would like to see his agency move out of the
paramilitary business and devote more resources to its traditional tasks
of intelligence gathering and analysis.
With this speech, Obama is not renouncing his administration’s claim
that it possesses the authority to kill an American overseas without
full due process. The target, as Holder noted in that letter
to Congress, must be a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or an
associated group who poses an “imminent threat of violent attack against
the United States” and who cannot be captured, and Holder stated that
foreign suspects now can only be targeted if they pose “a continuing,
imminent threat to Americans.” (Certainly, there will be debates over the meaning of “imminent,” especially given that the Obama administration has previously used an elastic definition of imminence.)
And Obama is not declaring an end to the dicey practice of indefinite
detention or a conclusion to the fight against terrorism.
But the speech may well mark a pivot point. Not shockingly, Obama is
attempting to find middle ground, where there is more oversight and more
restraint regarding activities that pose serious civil liberties and
policy challenges. The McCainiacs of the world are likely to howl about
any effort to place the effort to counter terrorism into a more balanced
perspective. The civil libertarians will scoff at half measures. But
Obama, at the least, is showing that he does ponder these difficult
issues in a deliberative manner and is still attempting to steer the
nation into a post-9/11 period. That journey, though, may be a long one.
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