COLUMN: Obama refashions War on Terror

James Fallows believes Obama’s May 23 2013 foreign-policy speech equated to the “argument that the time has come to end the ‘war on terror.'” Indeed, Fallows comes close to suggesting Obama’s speech ended the war on terror. I think Fallows is too sanguine in his reading of Obama’s foreign-policy speech from Thursday.

In my reading, this speech marks not the end of the war on terror, but its refashioning. Obama’s speech urges us not to reject the war on terror, but to more fully buy into the redesigns he has already started. At most, the goal is that in the near future we may end the war on terror.

The most important question is whether the next administration inherits a war on terror, or whether it does not. I think the next administration will inherit something to the effect of a war on terror.

I could be wrong. I look forward to seeing, as data, how the neo-cons respond. If they feel threatened, then perhaps Fallows is right, or will be proven to be right.

That said, I think the speech was terrific, given the circumstances. A forceful call for realism. It dealt with a number of difficult pieces of knowledge — post-Iraq facts, if you will — that confront citizens and policymakers alike.

The following are some important yet difficult facts Obama took head on.

The fact of Iraq as foreign-policy failure:

We have now been at war for well over a decade. I won’t review the full history. What’s clear is that we quickly drove al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but then shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. This carried grave consequences for our fight against al Qaeda, our standing in the world, and – to this day – our interests in a vital region.

The fact of US torture:

And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

The fact there were economic consequences to the Iraq failure:

[O]ver the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, exploding our deficits and constraining our ability to nation build here at home.

The fact many American families deeply sacrificed for this war on terror. And American soldiers died:

Our service-members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf. Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home.

In light of these facts the global war on terror should be redesigned, and a new approach taken.

[W]e 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 that threaten America.

And finally, this new design will be different and better than the old one.

In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries.

Much of our best counter-terrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence; the arrest and prosecution of terrorists

To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.

But did the speech end the war on terror? I don’t believe it did. First, Obama never uttered anything like the phrase, “this marks the end of the war on terror.” He instead said, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror.'” And that “this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” One way to interpret these statements is the way Fallows interprets them: that this speech marks The End of the Global War on Terror.

But I think another interpretation is equally reasonable: the war on terror ought to end soon. In this reading, Obama is only re-fashioning the war on terror, albeit in a more intelligent and measured direction, with the intended purpose of moving toward ending the war on terror.

In fact, Obama’s speech provided large qualifications, including this:

Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. [Bold added]

That’s a pretty clear statement that a war on terror, of some sort, continues on.

The context of international relations, too, indicates the war on terror is not over. Two key state elements of the Cheney-Rumsfeld vision, Syria and Iran, in particular, remain problems. Around both the use of military force is widely discussed. The global war on terror had the US going from Afghanistan to Iraq and then to other states in the area and nearby regions. Therefore, I think the question to ask ourselves is, does this speech mean the end of the possibility in the coming years for regime-change-based war in Iran and Syria?

I would say, no. The possibility for war in either Syria or Iran, under the next administration, will still be near or at the front of the table, depending on who the next administration turns out to be. The possibility for war will also depend on the internal dynamics of the political structures within the two societies. After all, entire societies, not just the elites of rogue or enemy states, are the settings of US bombing campaigns.

I suspect the possibility of war will also depend on the state of the US economy and the affordability of war.

In any event, Obama deserves immense credit for so far avoiding war with Iran and (increasingly) Syria. But in response to the events of the week, the most realistic position is this: nothing Obama has done so far, up to and including this speech, takes off the table the possibility for more war, indeed on the very same foreign targets that comprised Cheney and Rumsfeld’s original vision.

In sum, I don’t believe journalists and other intellectuals should think the war on terror is over. For now, I stand by what I wrote on Monday, prior to Obama’s speech. It looks more than ever like one fact the next administration will inherit will be the fact of a war on terror.

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