In a landmark speech Thursday at National Defense University, President Obama laid out a new direction for the war on terrorism. “I believe,” he told a packed auditorium filled with journalists, activists, and DOD employees, “that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.” While the President is correct in placing the discussion about how he has used force in a larger context, his “comprehensive” strategy is a throwback to the 1990s.
Much of Obama’s speech was an implicit apology for his own missteps. The key challenges he discussed — civilian casualties in drone strikes, prisoners cleared of wrongdoing but nevertheless stuck at Guantanamo, and deteriorated relations with strategically vital countries like Pakistan — happened on his watch. And rather than grappling with them in his speech, Obama instead rephrased the 2009 mantra he gave on the torture the CIA performed under President Bush: “Look forward, not back.”
“We are safer from our efforts,” the President said at NDU, but “we must define the nature and scope of this struggle.” Appealing to James Madison’s famous warning about the dangers of perpetual warfare, Obama described a new vision for the future of counter-terrorism, working with Congress to end the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after the 9/11 attacks so that America “can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.”
While Obama’s endorsement of an end date for the war on terrorism is long overdue, the alternative vision he lays out is deeply familiar. “The scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11,” he said. And to address that threat, he is looking back to the period before 9/11 for ideas on how to counter it.
The new “comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy” Obama laid out has three broad components:
- Targeted action against terrorists;
- Effective partnerships; and
- Diplomatic engagement and assistance.
These criteria suggest that the President is curtailing drone strikes by placing them alongside many other policies: expanding foreign aid (he called it “fundamental to our national security”) and democracy promotion. In his vision, U.S. strategy will evolve from just responding to terrorism to trying to preempt it with social and economic initiatives. “We must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship,” he said.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because such policies largely defined American foreign policy during the 1990s. The 1993 intervention in Somalia is possibly the most memorable: humanitarian aid, governance support, and targeted strikes against militia leaders as part of a multinational UN peacekeeping coalition. Though Obama promised “no more Black Hawks Down,” referring to the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, he is basically replicating the very policies that created it.
That doesn’t mean Obama’s new turn is doomed to failure. Despite some similarities between the two administrations (expansive surveillance, a “surge” in Afghanistan, excessive secrecy), Obama has tried to distance himself from some of the worst aspects of George W. Bush’s foreign policy — frivolous invasions, torture, and counter-insurgency. The concepts Obama laid out today are a reaction against that legacy, even if they implicitly admit that his own flirtations with targeted killings and counter-insurgency haven’t worked as well as he’d hoped.
Moreover, if the President is right that the threats today resembled those of the 1990s, then it makes sense to adopt a posture similar to the one the country had in the 1990s — with some modifications. President Clinton was unable to track and prevent terrorists, including al Qaeda from carrying out several astonishing acts of terror against the U.S.: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing by Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 embassy bombs in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, and, eventually, the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
These attacks all succeeded for different reasons, and the U.S. government’s toolkit for countering terror has evolved considerably since 9/11. There is now more sharing between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, and the FBI has built up an admirable record for recognizing and dismantling terror attacks before they can be carried out.It’s not a perfect record — the Boston bombing still slipped through — but most attacks are now thwarted before they can be carried out.
A final consideration about the future of terrorism is how the U.S. handles the people it captures. The Guantanamo prison is a stain on America’s conscience, and during his speech Obama received raucous applause (and some heckling) when he renewed his vow to work with Congress to close it. Obama alone cannot close the prison, though he can take some concrete steps to start the process on his own. In his speech, he mentioned he is resuming prisoner transfers to Yemen — a long overdue process. The President is taking some initial, halting steps to end its abuse of law and principle.
President Obama set out an admirable first step in his speech today: a future where the war on terrorism is over, the U.S. reverts to peace while remaining vigilant against future threats, the government respects rights while defending its people, and the rule of law replaces the secret world of classified memos and assassinations.
Whether the President will be able to achieve this vision, however, is another matter entirely. His most recent promise to close Guantanamo, made in 2009, fizzled out. His last promise to put American policy under the rule of law became buried in secret memos authorizing summary killings. And he still faces a Congress that is by turns skeptical and supportive of his desire to take the country off of its war footing.
Obama has a lot of his own precedent against which to work, in other words. But maybe today is the start of a new direction.