Realism and Fantasy at the NDU

At the National Defense University, May 23, 2013


President Obama’s sprawling and frequently tedious speech Thursday at the National Defense University was long on hope but comparatively short on change, more scholastic navel-gazing than articulation of new policy.

Some of what Mr. Obama sold as new strategy is in fact a mere shift in verbiage. After the president said that “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,” for instance, he went on to outline an alternative that is just the G.W.O.T. by another name. We suppose that if the president wants to stop talking about this war while continuing to wage it, that’s better than the inverse.

On Guantanamo Bay, the president did call for real change, but change unlikely to occur any time soon. His comments on the facility there, in particular his claim that it has become “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” were irresponsible and likely to give comfort to our enemies. But his promise to close the prison is as empty now as it was in 2009, a truth reflected in the president’s admission that Congress still wields the power to block wholesale detainee transfers, which it did, in bipartisan fashion, the last time his administration tried this maneuver.

Guantanamo continues to play an indispensable role in the present conflict; it is a place where the United States can house dangerous terrorists and enemy combatants who cannot conscionably be released back onto the battlefield, but who are otherwise unfit for civilian prosecution and can provide critical intelligence. Prisons are by their nature unpleasant places, and “Gitmo,” although it has evolved into a state-of-the-art facility, is surely no exception. But at a time when an unacceptably high number of detainees released from Cuba return to terror, we should not entertain closing the prison as a public-relations stunt or an exercise in collective catharsis. We should consider closing it when there are no longer enough jihadists to fill it.

Indeed, President Obama spoke of such an end-state, saying “history advises” and “democracy demands” that “this war, like all wars, must end.” This is fine so long the war ends when the enemy is defeated. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president has a tendency to declare the end of wars that will continue after we leave.

The speech touched on two of the three major scandals troubling the administration, in neither instance satisfactorily. Mr. Obama admitted to “unacceptable failures” in security at the Benghazi complex but failed to name the responsible parties, and then joined ranks with congressional Democrats who have pushed the talking point, unsupported by fact, that those failures were the result of Republican budget cuts. On the aggressive targeting of journalists in leak investigations, he spoke in glittering generalities about the need to “balance” a free press against the dictates of national security, but he failed to address the wisdom of the specific actions undertaken by the attorney general on his behalf, if not under his orders.

Elsewhere, the speech was more mixed, which is to say, better. The president revealed that his administration has been briefing “appropriate committees” in Congress on drone strikes outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including strikes targeting American citizens. That is good news. As is the president’s explicit defense of the drone program as proportional, legal, and just. We are less cheered by the announcement that before any future drone strike is undertaken, there must be “near certainty” that that no civilians will be killed or injured. Noble as it sounds in theory, this is an impossible standard in reality, and one never used in the history of warfare. It would cause our shooters to hesitate when they shouldn’t.

Perhaps the biggest news in the speech regards the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate,” the president said. “And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.” These words are either encouraging or worrisome depending on how they are construed. We have called for an update of the AUMF to clarify ambiguities and reflect changes in the strategic landscape. Such an update would of course supplant the existing AUMF, but it is premature to be discussing repealing the authority altogether. The threat of vetoing expansions of the mandate is ambiguous, and also unhelpful, as improving the AUMF should not be thought about in terms of expansion or retraction. Nor can we help but note the convenience of the president calling for the — eventual — weakening of presidential war powers in year five of his presidency.

From the cavalier treatment of the Benghazi attacks to the elevation of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon, the Obama administration’s flawed foreign policy has, of late, regressed further still, away from a view of the world as it is and back to a view of the world as the president wishes it were. The NDU speech, on balance, is of a piece with these troubling developments. Though since the most offending proposals are either infeasible or immaterial, we hope it will not do too much damage.