Obama Calls For An End To A Perpetual War on Terror And For Respect For Civil Liberties

I only heard portions of Barack Obama’s speech while driving to and from lunch today but did like what I heard. It was clear that whether or not I wound up agreeing with everything, contrary to claims from portions of both the left and right, Barack Obama is no Richard Nixon or George Bush. For now I am relying on the prepared text, which lacks the portion where I hear Obama did an excellent job of responding to the criticism of a heckler. While we could question if some of this is being said later than desired, there was much in today’s speech which I did like, such as addressing this early in the speech: “I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”

Obama discussed our triumphs in fighting al Qaeda , and then its cost:

These questions matter to every American. For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, exploding our deficits and constraining our ability to nation build here at home. Our service-members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf. Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our children.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” 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. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom. And that begins with understanding the threat we face.

He recognized that victories over terrorist groups often come from targeted efforts and police actions as opposed to the Bush/Cheney concept of a global war on terror:

Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives fighting extremists. In Yemen, we are supporting security forces that have reclaimed territory from AQAP. In Somalia, we helped a coalition of African nations push al Shabaab out of its strongholds. In Mali, we are providing military aid to a French-led intervention to push back al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and help the people of Mali reclaim their future.

Much of our best counter-terrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence; the arrest and prosecution of terrorists. That’s how a Somali terrorist apprehended off the coast of Yemen is now in prison in New York. That’s how we worked with European allies to disrupt plots from Denmark to Germany to the United Kingdom. That’s how intelligence collected with Saudi Arabia helped us stop a cargo plane from being blown up over the Atlantic.

Obama called for greater oversight over the use of drones and targeted killing, and greater transparency:

This week, I authorized the declassification of this action, and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes, to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims. For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil…

Going forward, I have asked my Administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress. Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice. For example, the establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority. Another idea that’s been suggested – the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch – avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national-security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process. Despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these – and other – options for increased oversight.

I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

He called for a media shield to protect journalists:

Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach. I have raised these issues with the Attorney General, who shares my concern. So he has agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and will convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns as part of that review. And I have directed the Attorney General to report back to me by July 12th.

While Republicans were leading us into a perpetual war, Obama realizes that, like all wars, this war must end:

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

He is addressing the continued detaining of prisoners at Guantánamo:

Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.

Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.

I know the politics are hard. But 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 – ten years from now, or twenty 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 a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?

The president does not micromanage every action by the United States government and, as Ed Kilgore and David Weigel pointed out, Obama did try to hold the Congressional Republicans for their actions:

One thing is fairly clear: the speech poses a challenge to congressional Republicans that may not be that easy for them to meet, distracted as they are and as divided as they tend to be on national security policy these days. As Slate’s Dave Weigel quickly noted, Obama four times shifted responsibility for current dilemmas at least partially to Congress: on drones (where he insisted the appropriate congressional committees have known about every single strike); on embassy security; on the 9/11-era legal regime that still governs anti-terrorist efforts; and on Gitmo (where Republicans have repeatedly thwarted effort to transfer detainees to U.S. prisons). But like critical reporters, Republicans, other than neocons who want GWOT not only to be maintained but intensified, will probably tear off tasty chunks of the speech and masticate them noisily, or just dismiss it all and get back onto the crazy train of Scandalmania ‘13.

David Corn sees this as Obama taking the middle ground:

Not shockingly, Obama is attempting to find middle ground, where there is more oversight and more restraint regarding activities that pose serious civil liberties and policy challenges. The McCainiacs of the world are likely to howl about any effort to place the effort to counter terrorism into a more balanced perspective. The civil libertarians will scoff at half measures. But Obama, at the least, is showing that he does ponder these difficult issues in a deliberative manner and is still attempting to steer the nation into a post-9/11 period. That journey, though, may be a long one.

He is also looking for a middle ground which considers our security needs in the era of international terrorism along with the need to respect civil liberties and the principles which the nation was founded upon. He might not get it completely right, and the answers are not always entirely clear but, contrary to Bush and Cheney, he is considering the key issues.

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