President Obama's counter-terrorism speech yesterday was a hopeful glimpse into what might be the future of foreign policy for his administration. It wasn't the Bullworth moment he longed for, but it was a step in the right direction, if (and it's a big if) he follows through.
Turning over the drone program to the CIA at least removes his direct responsibility for the strikes, but nevertheless, the program will continue. The long-awaited closing of GITMO, however, and the ending of the "official" so-called "War on Terror" are more likely goals. Mother Jones has the story:
"So Obama's speech Thursday on counterterrorism policies -- which follows his administration's acknowledgment yesterday that it had killed four Americans (including Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen) -- is a big deal, for with this address, Obama is self-restricting his use of drones and shifting control of them from the CIA to the military. And the president has approved making public the rules governing drone strikes.
"The New York Times received the customary pre-speech leak and reported:
"A new classified policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama will sharply curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not overt war zones, countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.
"Lethal force will be used only against targets who pose "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans" and cannot feasibly be captured, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter to Congress, suggesting that threats to a partner like Afghanistan or Yemen alone would not be enough to justify being targeted.
"These moves may not satisfy civil-liberties-minded critics on the right and the left. Obama is not declaring an end to indefinite detention or announcing the closing of Gitmo -- though he is echoing his
State of the Union vow to revive efforts to shut down that prison. Still, these moves would be unimaginable in the Bush years. Bush and Cheney essentially believed the commander in chief had unchallenged power during wartime, and the United States, as they saw it, remained at war against terrorism. Yet here is Obama subjecting the drone program to a more restrictive set of rules -- and doing so publicly. This is very un-Cheney-like. (How soon before the ex-veep arises from his undisclosed
location to accuse Obama of placing the nation at risk yet again?)"
Despite Obama's embrace of certain Bush-Cheney practices and his robust use of drones, the president has tried since taking office to shift US foreign policy from a fixation on terrorism. During his first days in office, he shied away from using the "war on terrorism" phrase. And his national security advisers have long talked of Obama's desire to reorient US foreign policy toward challenges in the Pacific region. By handing responsibility for drone strikes to the military, Obama is helping CIA chief John Brennan, who would like to see his agency move out of the paramilitary business and devote more resources to its traditional tasks of intelligence gathering and analysis.
With this speech, Obama is not renouncing his administration's claim that it possesses the authority to kill an American overseas without full due process. The target, as Holder noted in that letter to Congress, must be a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or an associated group who poses an "imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" and who cannot be captured, and Holder stated that foreign suspects now can only be targeted if they pose "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans." (Certainly, there will be debates over the meaning of "imminent," especially given that the Obama administration has previously used an elastic definition of imminence.) And Obama is not declaring an end to the dicey practice of indefinite detention or a conclusion to the fight against terrorism.
But the speech may well mark a pivot point. 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.