Are We Finally Ending the "War on Terror"

by Paul Siciliano


Today, President Obama delivered an address at the National Defense University where he laid out the Administration's counter-terrorism policy.  (Text of the script can be read here.)  I was very much impressed with the content of the speech as it finally shows a realist view on our so-called "War on Terror."

The President covered many topics in his speech:  the use of drones, closing GTMO, the eventual repeal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (2001), and the general approach the United States must take in dealing with potential threats.  On each topic, you can see the President is taking a realist approach balancing our needs for security with our need to stay true to the values that make our country great.  

With respect the use of drones, I never understood the particular hysteria over the use of drones, as compared to other types of military force.  Why should any sort of legal or moral analysis be different if the United States uses a drone to kill an individual overseas, or if the U.S. uses a guided missile or special forces?  The President effectively argued that, at times, the use of drones will be necessary but will be limited and have oversight from another branch of our government.  Obviously, we do not want a President who can just order a drone strike whenever he or she sees a potential threat.  At the same time, however, we cannot bar the use of drones in all circumstances.  Further, it should not matter whether the target in question is an American citizen who has declared war against the United States and is not in the United States (and we cannot get to the individual through more traditional means) or a foreigner engaged in similar circumstances.  

I have no question in my mind that GTMO should be closed and those being detained there should either be brought to the United States to face trial or be shipped to another country willing to take these individuals.  It is a betrayal of our values that we are holding individuals indefinitely without even pretending to bring them to trial.  Who cares if we cannot win at trial because the evidence was tainted through our use of torture?  That is a price we should pay for what we did and to ensure that we do not dismiss our values for some short-term false sense of security.

The part of the speech which impressed me the most was the President's willingness to begin refining and then eventually repealing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was passed in the wake of 9/11 and gave the President broad authority to use military force.  The initial purpose of the act was to get those who attacked us on 9/11 - it cannot be open-ended.  As the President acknowledged, the use of terror is nothing new and we can find examples of it throughout our and Western History.  What is new (or different) is technological capabilities and the underlying ideology used to justify terrorist acts.  But, those differences should not change our approach.

If the President does pursue the policy he outlined today, that would be better for the United States and for what we stand.  We may actually see a President cede some executive authority.  What we will definitely see is a more realistic approach to dealing with the terrorist threat the United States is facing.  We can not live in a perpetual state of war, as the President noted (hat trick to James Madison):

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.

Well said by our President, even if it is 12 years too late!