By President Barack Obama
Reviewed by William C. Harrop
President Obama delivered a major address on national security at the National Defense University on 23 May 2013. He discussed terrorism, the relationship of American values and laws to combating terrorist threats, drone warfare, and closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. While mainstream media generally praised his address (the New York Times was quite complimentary), individual reactions and blogs varied.
Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official now teaching at Georgetown University, a “realist” commentator normally critical of Administration policy, was enthusiastic in praise: “…one of the most sensible, realistic, thorough and truthful statements about terrorism and counterterrorism from any senior official, let alone a president.” But the speech was criticized from both right and left. Charles Krauthammer concluded that Barack Obama makes a better law professor than president. From the left, Professor Norman Pollack of Michigan State University, a Guggenheim Fellow, sneered sarcastically that, “Obama spoke with becoming assurance—to me, arrogance—as the leader of the Enlightened World in its struggle against the forces of ignorance, darkness, covetousness, wholly oblivious to America’s moral sense and good intentions.”
The president avoided the term “war on terror,” implying his understanding of its misleading inaccuracy. He argued that military force should not be the central vehicle of American foreign and security policy. He expressed his satisfaction that we had withdrawn our combat forces from Iraq and were in process of doing so from Afghanistan. He said that, although a risk of individual terrorist acts remained and would be with us, the major body of Al Qaeda strength had been destroyed. We were faced with individual offshoots in, e.g.,Â Yemen, the Maghreb, Somalia, Pakistan, still locally dangerous but lacking global leadership or coherence. He emphasized the importance of moving against the social roots of terror through enhanced assistance programs, through a focus more upon diplomacy than on force.
Ever the politician, he included a whopper: “Our alliances are strong and so is our standing in the world,” as though polls worldwide, even among our European allies, did not show a dismal decline in trust and respect for the United States. American popularity in the Islamic world is in fact at a nadir, and in Arab countries the percentage of public support for the United States is in one figure or in the teens. Obama forcefully denied that the United States was waging some sort of war against Islam, and spoke of American civil rights legislation that guaranteed the equality of Islamic Americans in our society.
He was at pains to stress the advantages of drone warfare over deployment of troops, the greater accuracy of drone firepower, the lesser negative political impact, the ability to limit civilian casualties. He described at great length, somewhat defensively, the array of checks and balances in drone deployment, the articulated judicial and congressional oversight, the limitations upon presidential prerogative. While thus reacting to public and international concern about his extensive use of drones, he did not reveal any intention to reduce their deployment.
He emphasized the importance of preserving American values in the face of terrorist threats: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” In this NDU speech, which preceded the Snowden disclosures of massive NSA surveillance programs, he warned that expanded surveillance raised “difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy.”
The president reasserted his determination to close Guantanamo, which he deplored as a negation of American standards of law and individual rights. He essentially blamed the Congress for frustrating his effort to do away with it.
One’s first reaction to this speech—to its sophisticated analysis of terrorism, its defense of American values, its warning of the militarization of our society and foreign policy, its renewed determination to close Guantanamo—may be a welcome reassurance that here we have the Obama for whom we voted.
But then the mind goes back to other lofty speeches: in Cairo; when accepting the Nobel prize; during both presidential campaigns. This president has not yet demonstrated the political courage actually to follow through on his declarations, to stand up to political constituencies that oppose his objectives, to deploy the full weight of his office to realize his purposes. For instance, he did not use the political leverage he had available to halt Israeli settlement policy, move to a two-state agreement and thus save Israel from herself. He did not stand behind the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles Commission to come to grips with the national deficit.Â He did not deploy the power of his office to override resistance to closing Guantanamo. None of these actions and others like them would have been easy, far from it. Leadership is not easy.
So while we admire most of the ideas and intentions in this admirable NDU speech, and the moving language in which it was delivered, we can not help being a bit uneasy about the extent of presidential actions to follow.