President Barack Obama watches as graduates toss their hats at the conclusion of the U.S. Naval Academy commencement at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, May 24, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
How to view President Barack Obama's speech on counterterrorism can be likened to how you might think about a serious drug problem: you could deny that anything's wrong and keep using; demand a cold-turkey withdrawal; or ratchet down the drug dosage over time to a minimal level.
Obama, both in his speech and his evolving policies, has opted for the third approach. Overall, he has reduced the levels of violence even as he has used some methods, such as lethal drones, with greater ferocity than his predecessor. Yet, even with drones, the number of strikes has been dropping in recent months.
In his May 23 speech, Obama also announced that he will resume repatriating Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been deemed not to represent a terrorist threat. Obama vowed, too, to revive his earlier effort to close the offshore prison despite vigorous congressional opposition.
In other words, one way to evaluate Obama -- just past the expected halfway mark of his presidency -- is by measuring the trends of American military violence as he has scaled it back, rather than judging each individual aspect which may have its own legal and humanitarian concerns, i.e., violations of international law from drone strikes and the deaths of more noncombatants.
For many of Obama's critics on the Left, his measured approach toward gradually weaning U.S. national security policy off its heavy reliance on violence (like conventional war) and replacing that with more selective tactics (like drones) is still unacceptable. His strategy does, as they note, continue to flout international law.
To these critics, the use of weaponized drones in the airspace over other nations is a clear violation of their sovereignty and the killing of civilians (or even suspected terrorists) breaches standards on human rights and due process. Whatever sophistry Obama and his lawyers may devise, there is no doubt that these objections are correct.
International law offers no special permission for the United States to conduct a transnational war against shadowy organizations of loosely defined "militants." Imprecise claims of self-defense are not what the United Nations Charter had in mind when it included that exception to prohibitions on military force.
One can only imagine how outraged Official Washington would be if some other country began sending unmanned aerial vehicles across borders to assassinate its "enemies." Such a country would be branded an international outlaw or worse.
Still, Obama's speech represented something of a plea to his critics to see the problem in the moral grays of a shadow struggle against a ruthless foe eager to kill innocent civilians, not in the blacks and whites of a perfect world where the rule of law neatly prevails. In one of the most emotional parts of his speech, Obama said:
"America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.
"Now, this last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes -- both here at home and abroad -- understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. ...
"For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.
"To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties -- not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana'a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold. Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option."
Implicit in his speech was a warning, too, that any president who ignores the terrorist threat invites even more draconian policies in the future if another 9/11 happens. However, Obama argued that even staying for too long on the course charted by George W. Bush would fundamentally alter the U.S. constitutional structure. He said:
"America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be 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.
"But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom."