President Barack Obama’s speech Thursday at the National Defense University (NDU) may turn out to be the most significant of his tenure. This was only the second speech the president has devoted to national security since he took office. The first came almost exactly four years ago, at the National Archives. Then, as now, he insisted that the battle against al-Qaeda must be fought within the framework of the rule of law, consistent with the Constitution and international law. Then, as now, he argued that we had undermined our safety and played into our enemy’s hands by failing to adhere to our highest principles. Then, as now, he maintained that Guantánamo does us more harm than good, and should be closed. Then, as now, he defended the use of military force and detention of the enemy as appropriate and legal tools in a continuing armed conflict—but unlike his predecessor, he insisted that the use of such tools must conform to legal limits.
After four years of failing to make much progress toward closing Guantánamo, while increasingly relying on a drone war whose legality has often been questioned, Obama might have chosen to speak more cautiously in his NDU speech. Instead, he went much further, outlining a way out of this “perpetual war,” saying that “our democracy demands it.” Whether he can make good on this promise will very likely define his legacy. If he succeeds in doing so, the Nobel Peace Prize committee will be seen not as naïve, but as remarkably prescient, in its awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama in 2009.
The key to resuming a state of peace, Obama argued, lies in acknowledging our limitations. As he put it, “Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society…. We must be humble in our expectations.” Humility has never come easily to the United States or its presidents. But that humility is the foundation of peace.
Even as he defended his controversial use of drones to kill by remote control, Obama laid out a vision for countering terrorism in the future in which the use of force is truly a last resort. He stressed the importance of alternative tools, including law enforcement, intelligence-gathering, diplomacy, foreign aid, and more generally, working to alleviate the underlying grievances that drive human beings to kill innocent people for political ends. He explained that al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the verge of being decimated, and that the Authorization to Use Military Force, passed by Congress after 9/11 and directed at al-Qaeda, should accordingly be refined and ultimately repealed. He specifically rejected expanding the president’s power to use military force against unspecified new terrorist groups. And he acknowledged that preventing all terrorist attacks is simply not possible, and that we must learn to live with risk—a truth that all security experts profoundly understand, but that most politicians are deathly afraid of conceding in public, for fear that they will be seen as weak.
Peace does not mean the end of terrorism, he insisted. We will always face risks that misguided and desperate people will do dangerous and destructive things, but in peacetime we manage those risks through tools other than waging war. That admission is critical, because it is the false promise of preventing all terrorist attacks, or ending terrorism, that at bottom drives the excesses that have too often tarnished the American response to 9/11. Obama could not have been more clear, or more right: “Force alone cannot make us safe.”
Moreover, al-Qaeda was, in a sense, a unique case. No terrorist group had ever attacked the United States with the force and devastation of the September 11, 2001 attack. They were a well-funded force, with a safe haven and extensive training camps in Afghanistan, and an unmistakable design to continue attacking civilian targets as long as they were able to do so. By their scope and audacity, the attacks of 9/11 gave rise, according to both the United Nations and NATO, to the right to respond militarily in self-defense. But that was more than twelve years ago. Al-Qaeda has not succeeded in another attack on US soil in all that time. If it is true, as Obama reports, that al-Qaeda’s core has been decimated, does it make sense to continue the war?
The United States and its interests around the world still face terrorist threats, to be sure—one need only recall the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the thwarted Times Square and Christmas Day bombings, to see that terrorism continues to plague us. But as Obama emphasized, these are the kinds of threats that every nation must live with. They are sometimes referred to as the price of living in an open society. But it is more fundamental than that: although our ability to prevent attacks is much better today than it was in 2001, it is simply impossible to eliminate all terrorist threats, no matter what sacrifices we make in our ideals and values. Indeed, as the violence evident in so many other countries illustrates, authoritarian regimes seem if anything more beset by terrorism than democratic ones, probably because the absence of peaceful avenues for dissent contributes to radicalization.
But how do we reach this state of peace? The first step, according to Obama, is finishing the job of defeating al-Qaeda. President Obama contended that we continue to face threats from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group based in Yemen that the administration sees as either “part of” al-Qaeda, or an “associated force” or “co-belligerent” of al-Qaeda. To this end, Obama defended the use of drones as a means to counter AQAP, arguing that a drone strike may be more effective and less costly—in terms of innocent lives lost—than either doing nothing (and risking a terrorist attack), or using more conventional forces, such as “boots on the ground” or less surgical bombings, both of which are likely to pose greater risk to civilian life, to the stability of the nation in which we act, and to our diplomatic relations.
Nonetheless, Obama also acknowledged the serious concerns that drone warfare has raised. Until now, the administration has exercised the authority to order lethal drone strikes entirely in secret, without a precise or clear set of rules, and under the veil of such secrecy that it would not even acknowledge the killing of US citizens. The day before the speech, the administration revealed for the first time that it had killed four Americans with drones—only one of whom, Anwar al-Awlaki, was actually targeted. This ends the administration’s unconstitutional practice of killing citizens in secret. During the speech, moreover, President Obama announced that he has issued a Presidential Policy Guidance setting forth the substantive criteria and procedures for employing drone strikes outside active areas of combat. Although those guidelines are themselves classified, the White House issued an unclassified summary, and the rules appear to narrow the previously understood criteria for such strikes in important ways.
Until this year, drone strikes have been reportedly used not only against particular leaders of al-Qaeda and “associated groups” but also against suspicious individuals without knowing their identities—the so-called “signature strikes.” But the new guidance authorizes strikes beyond the theater of battle only of specific targets who pose a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons,” whom the host country is unwilling or unable to countermand, and whose capture is not feasible. Where previously the administration said it ensured that collateral damage was limited, it now claims that no attack will be permitted unless there is a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” And where The New York Times previously reported that the administration presumptively treated young males near a target as combatants unless proven otherwise, the administration now states unequivocally: “Males of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” And where the procedures for targeting have until now been entirely secret, Obama said he was open to exploring with Congress further constraints on drone targeting, including possibly a special court or an independent executive review board.
This does not answer all questions about the use of drones, of course. It is unfortunate that the new policy has been classified save for a summary statement. It was previously claimed that the program could not be made public because other countries had agreed to allow us to engage in strikes in their territory only on condition that we did not acknowledge our actions. But now that the administration has disclosed as much as it has about the drone program, that justification seems moot, and it is unclear why it can’t go further and make public the actual standards and procedures, as well as provide an accounting of its past—and future—killings, including civilian casualties.
Nor do Obama’s statements or the public version of the new guidance suggest that the administration has changed or refined its troubling concept of “imminent threat,” by which individuals may be targeted on the sole basis of of their status as operational leaders of a group even if they are not in fact undertaking any terrorist plot at the time. And how exactly does the administration assess whether the option of capture, which it says it prefers, is not “feasible”? The fact that the Obama administration has reportedly killed thousands with drone strikes, while capturing only a handful of terrorists outside Afghanistan, has led many observers to worry that it has set too low a bar. If we invested sufficient resources in the Yemen security forces, might it have become feasible for such forces to capture al-Awlaki? If it is “cheaper” to kill than capture, does that make capture infeasible? The power to take a human life by pushing a button half a world away must be constrained by the rule of law, and the rule of law demands transparency and accountability on all of these concerns.
Yet perhaps more telling than the president’s words are his actions. The New York Times reports that the number of drone strikes has dropped dramatically in the past year: “Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 and have fallen sharply since then; their pace in Yemen has slowed to half of last year’s rate; and no strike has been reported in Somalia for more than a year.” This may reflect a diminishing number of appropriate targets. It may suggest that the administration has for some time been employing more restrictive standards. Or it may reflect increasing acceptance of the view that drone strikes have become counterproductive—a point made publically by former counterterrorism intelligence chief Dennis Blair and retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed the US forces in Afghanistan. Whatever the cause, the decreasing frequency of such strikes, at least for the moment, indicates that greater restraint is being used. And Obama’s speech suggested that it should continue in that direction.
Regarding his renewed pledge to close Guantánamo, the president lifted his own moratorium on repatriating detainees to Yemen, a limit put in place after the foiled Christmas Day underwear bombing plot in 2009 and reaffirmed earlier this year. The Yemeni’s cases will now be reviewed on an individualized case-by-case basis. Fifty-six of the eighty-six detainees already “cleared for release” at Guantanamo are from Yemen, as are many of those not yet cleared. If we can support Yemen’s capacity to monitor and contain the threat such individuals might pose upon return, a large portion of the Guantánamo population could be freed. The president also announced that he would appoint specific individuals in the State and Defense Departments to work on transferring detainees overseas. Other countries are understandably not lining up to take Guantánamo detainees off our hands, but it’s ultimately a question of how much we are willing to sweeten the deal. The president urged Congress to relax the unrealistic restrictions it has imposed on transfers—both to other countries and into the United States. And without going into specifics, he suggested that even the hardest cases—men who his administration in 2009 identified as too dangerous to release but not susceptible to trial—can be dealt with consistent with the rule of law. In the end, as the war against al-Qaeda winds down, and with it the authority to detain the enemy, we will have to find a way to either convict any remaining Guantánamo detainees of a crime or find nations to which they can be sent. But that is as it should be.
As he spoke of his plans to close Guantánamo, Obama was interrupted by a heckler, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, who asked, among other things, why he hadn’t already released many of the detainees. Obama listened to her, and remarkably, instead of ignoring her, stressed that “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.” Near his closing, he effectively echoed her concerns, saying:
History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future—10 years from now or 20 years from now—when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.
These were the words of a president with his eye on the long term, on his legacy, and on America’s fundamental values—apparently willing to look beyond the politics of the moment. The question before us now is whether the nation, too, can rise above those politics in order to make the project of restoring peace a reality.