Obama Passes the Buck

The President's Empty Rhetoric on Counterterrorism

“This war, like all wars, must end,” President Barack Obama said in his much anticipated counterterrorism policy speech yesterday, at the National Defense University. Many commentators have said that the speech marks a major change in the direction of the war against Islamist terrorists, and anticipates its end. But, in reality, the speech portends few concrete changes. Its main aims were to conserve the arc of the secret war that Obama has presided over and to help deflect responsibility for the inherited problems that he has been unable to fix.

Two central difficulties plague U.S. counterterrorism policy. The first is a Bush-era legacy: the conundrum of what to do with Guantánamo Bay detainees. The second is Obama’s creation. In reaction to his predecessor’s expensive heavy-footprint wars and politically and legally controversial interrogation and detention policy, Obama has unilaterally steered the country toward nimbler secret warfare, characterized by ramped-up clandestine Special Forces operations and significantly enhanced targeted killing, primarily by drones, in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. In recent months, the President’s stealth war has come under broad attack as illegal, unduly secretive, and strategically counterproductive, since it provokes blowback from nations whose sovereignty the United States violates and whose innocent civilians it kills. 

Obama addressed both difficulties at length in his speech, but nothing he said will bring a major change in policy. 

Obama reiterated his old case for closing Guantánamo Bay and again urged Congress to lift its restrictions on transferring the facility’s detainees. And he proposed, once more, the idea of putting some detainees in a maximum-security or military prison in the United States. But he offered no plan to make these things happen, other than a pledge to work with Congress -- the same pledge he made, with no results, in a major speech on counterterrorism policy in May 2009, and that he repeated, again with no results, five months ago in his State of the Union address. Against this background, it is hard to judge this latest pledge as anything other than empty rhetoric. (The only concrete step the President announced was a reversal of the moratorium that he imposed years ago on transferring Yemeni detainees who have already been cleared for release. But even if he lets all the Yemenis go, a hundred or so detainees would remain.)

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