Shadow Government

Mission accomplished?

Now, I'm no Medea Benjamin, but I had several strong reactions to President Obama's speech at the National Defense University Thursday. 

First, as expected, Obama used the platform to criticize the Bush administration. Quite frankly, however, I've gotten so used to that trope that I almost don't pay attention to it anymore. But in criticizing America's conduct of its conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates, the president was also critiquing his own performance over the last four plus years. Listening to Obama's speech, one cannot help but ask, "What were you doing over the past four years? Wasn't it you who greatly expanded the scope and intensity of drone strikes during your first term?" Obama has hardly been a passive bystander as this drama has unfolded. The drone strike program was inaugurated by the Bush administration, but it has reached its zenith under Obama.

Which leads to my second observation: Obama's speech was almost entirely about tactics. Indeed, Obama has presided over what my late friend and colleague Michael Handel termed the "tacticization of strategy." Obama and his team have used a tactic -- strikes on terrorists launched from unmanned air vehicles -- as a substitute for the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy. The same is true of the administration's attitude toward interrogation and detention.

Third, in seeking to define the conflict more tightly, he actually muddied the waters. Obama's call for limiting the use of force to al Qaeda and its affiliates is sensible. Indeed, I don't know of anyone from the previous administration who would argue with that notion. The difficulty has always involved determining the criteria for affiliation with al Qaeda. Is it individuals or groups who have sworn an oath of fealty of al Qaeda central? Is it groups that share al Qaeda's vision of violent jihad? Is it individuals who are inspired by al Qaeda's preaching?

Obama appears to have difficulty with this himself. Consider the following paragraph from his speech:

And finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States. Whether it's a shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history. Deranged or alienated individuals -- often U.S. citizens or legal residents -- can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. And that pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

So Timothy McVeigh was a "violent extremist", whereas violent extremism "appears to have led to" Major Nidal Hassan's murderous rampage? The use of the passive voice in the latter case is telling.

We can -- and should -- debate how strong and how centralized al Qaeda is. Such a debate is crucial to understanding the nature of our adversary and the kind of war upon which we are embarked and thus to developing an effective strategy. Furthermore, scholars would be aided in this debate if they had access to more of the documents seized from Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan. Only seventeen have so far been released, and the president quoted from another yesterday. Would the thousands of documents that remain classified corroborate the president's view of how we are doing? One wonders.

Fourth, and most importantly, just as President Bush was criticized for declaring a premature end to the 2003 Iraq War, Obama may very well be criticized for declaring an end to the war on terror. 

It takes two to end a war. Indeed, it is the defeated party that determines when a war is over, because he holds the power to continue it. In the present instance, it is less than clear that al Qaeda's leadership believes that it is defeated. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are if anything gaining new footholds in North Africa, West Africa, and Syria. 

Obama's NDU speech may thus prove to be his own "mission accomplished" moment. I hope that I am wrong but fear that I am right.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Obama: The war on terror has ended, long live the war on terror

Yesterday's speech is one that President Obama has evidently wanted to give for some time. For several years now, there appears to have been an internal debate over whether and how to reframe the war on terror. One camp, call them the optimists, have wanted to declare the equivalent of "mission accomplished," with al Qaeda strategically defeated and the remaining terror threats relegated to a second or third-tier concern. The other camp, call them the pessimists, have warned that such a declaration would be premature because operational successes against some aspects of the terror network (e.g. the killing of bin Laden and numerous al Qaeda operational commanders) have been undermined by strategic setbacks in other areas (e.g. the emergence of new safe havens in North Africa, the unraveling of security in Iraq, the spiraling chaos in Syria that has re-energized both Sunni and Shia terrorist groups, and so on).

Politically, declaring mission accomplished is a tantalizing risk. On the one hand, it is clear that Obama partisans are keen to wring maximum political benefit from the good fortune of killing bin Laden on their watch. The boast that they have "won" the "good" war that Bush started (the war on terror) and "ended" the "bad" war (Iraq) would, if true, cement Obama's national security legacy. On the other hand, just as Bush paid a huge price for standing in front of a "mission accomplished" banner when the conflict in Iraq was anything but over, Obama would be at great risk if terrorists successfully struck after he had made the boast.

Shortly after the bin Laden raid, the Obama administration floated some "mission accomplished" trial balloons, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggesting that al Qaeda was near strategic defeat. As the presidential election campaign heated up in the summer of 2012, it looked as if the administration was considering a bolder declaration. If that is right, I bet they are glad they resisted the temptation because the Benghazi terror attacks were hard enough for the administration to spin as it was. It would have been a much more daunting task if the attacks came on the heels of a "mission accomplished" speech.

Perhaps that is why, when he finally gave it after the Benghazi terror attack and after the Boston terror attack, the president's speech was so rhetorically unsatisfying. It sounded as if the president was personally and publicly wrestling with the tantalizing risk and never fully resolving where he came down. It seemed to be a compromise forged from two separate speeches, one drafted by the optimists and the other by the pessimists. Perhaps it was a sufficiently artful compromise to win one 24-hour news cycle, but that is probably its high water mark. The administration got some of the headlines it wanted -- the Washington Post highlighted the notion of the United States at "a ‘crossroads'" in the war on terror, and the New York Times called the speech a "pivot," perhaps enough to give the impression that there is a fundamental shift underway. But, in fact, as the president was at pains to admit in the speech, the threat remains and requires on-going extraordinary efforts, including efforts associated with war and not mere law enforcement. 

And so it does. As Max Boot notes, the details laid out in Obama's speech mostly take us back to the de facto policy he inherited from President George W. Bush -- policies which have stood him in pretty good stead and made possible even having an internal debate about whether to declare the war on terror, or some crucial phase of it, over. 

In news terms, the most important change appears to be a reduction in drone strikes from Obama-era levels back to Bush-era levels. Slowing down the pace of drone strikes is not a trivial change. For one thing, the drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world, even -- and perhaps especially -- with our allies. They have become for Obama what "torture" was for the Bush administration and foreign discomfort with drone strikes is one important reason that the "soft power asset bubble" that Obama generated in his first few months in office has largely popped. So the evolution in drone policy is significant, but equally significant is that the president promised to continue to do drone strikes, as he deems necessary. The drone war has not ended. 

The other "changes" are mostly hortatory appeals for Congress to change, coupled with rejections of the proposals coming from Congress on the subject.

The current phase in the war will indeed end when Gitmo is closed and when U.S. forces operate under a newly drafted authorization for the use of military force, two things the president called for without explaining how he could achieve it. Even then, however, the war will not be over, just entering a new phase. And if events on the ground in the Middle East continue to unfold along their current trajectory, that new phase may be every bit as daunting as the pessimists fear.

Win McNamee/Getty Images