Shadow Government

Semantics is not strategy

The president's speech at the National Defense University was most unsatisfying for anyone hoping that at long last Obama would articulate what his purpose is in being commander-in-chief while terrorists continue their efforts to kill and maim Americans and our allies.

Both Peter Feaver (here) and Tom Mahnken (here) have offered incisive comments and I don't intend to belabor their excellent points other than to note that I think this speech is a defining moment in a way for which the administration was not hoping. Rather than turn a page and finally say what he believes and what he will pursue about the greatest challenge we face today, the president muddied the waters so much that clarity in his final term now seems impossible. The speech -- long-planned and expected by supporters and critics alike -- demonstrates that the administration's policy is incoherent because it sends two different messages.

On the one hand, after largely keeping in place the Bush policies designed to prosecute a global war on terror, Obama now says we cannot pursue terrorists everywhere in an unlimited fashion -- implying that that is what George W. Bush did -- and so he is also implying that the global war on terror is over because it was never a realistic approach. But on the other hand, he acknowledges that terrorists are still hatching their plots and working their will all over the world, and so we must combat them and he will do so. He can't have it both ways. If terrorists still operate, and they do, and he said so (even if he suggests inaccurately that al Qaeda is on the wane), and if they still operate all over the world and here at home, and they do, and he said so, then we are in a global war on terror. He should say so. To say otherwise is absurd.

Adding to the confusion is the president's announcement at NDU of policy changes he will seek: reducing the incidence of drone strikes and closing Guantanamo. It is hard to believe that suddenly the drone strikes are no longer useful when they have essentially been this administration's signature policy in fighting terror. And it is hard to believe that trying to close a secure prison that allows for interrogations when you still have no detailed plan that can pass muster with Congress is a serious policy. But maybe these new policies are motivated more by a desire to improve on his and the U.S. popularity ratings around the world that are currently lower than in the Bush era.

I do not say the administration is incompetent; I have worked with a number of them over the years in government, and so have we all at Shadow Government. But being smart and well-credentialed does not necessarily mean one will produce rational and coherent foreign policy. To do that, the head policymaker must eschew politics and have clear and precise goals; he must have a well-thought-out vision and mission of what is to be achieved. And he must formulate and articulate a strategy that puts money and other resources into the effort. The president has never done these things seriously and much less as a package. He's only made it worse with a speech that sends a confused message: The global war on terror is over but we will keep fighting terrorists who are active all over the globe.

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National Security

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.

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