The covert commander in chiefhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/david-ignatius-the-covert-commander-in-chief/2013/05/24/7a3e6948-c48d-11e2-8c3b-0b5e9247e8ca_story.html
Watching President Obama's compelling speech on counterterrorism policy Thursday, one couldn’t help wondering what he might accomplish if he could apply the same intellectual focus and intensity to governing the nation that he has shown as covert commander in chief.
By announcing new restraints on the use of armed drones for targeted killing and pushing again for the closure of the Guantanamo prison, Obama signaled more strongly than ever that he means to turn the page of American history that began on Sept. 11, 2001.
“This war, like all wars, must end,” he said in the signature line of the speech. He said he wants to amend or repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the catch-all legal justification for the global war on terror. He wants to take America off its permanent war footing so that presidents have to justify future use of force prudently, on a case-by-case basis.
Stating this new reality required intellectual clarity, and it took guts, too. It’s a paradox that this president, with such limited management and political experience, has been so sure-footed in the realm of secret warfare — knowing when to step it up, as he did with drone strikes and the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and knowing when to step it down, as he now proposes to do.
An unscripted Obama moment came when a heckler interrupted his review of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence problems. The president didn’t lose a step — defending not just the heckler’s right to speak but much of her critique of how America’s policies are unintentionally damaging the country.
It bothers Obama that he inherited a red-hot rhetorical war on terror from George W. Bush, one framed on loose rules and policy assumptions about a long (i.e., endless) war. He’s taken down the rhetoric and tightened the rules — wise on both fronts.
Some policies are still fuzzy. The president says he wants to move away from “signature” drone strikes and target only those who pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, but not yet and not everywhere. He knows that “imminent” doesn’t mean instantaneous, and to protect Americans, he may take out a bomber thousands of miles away and months in advance. For that unflinching recognition, he has the country’s thanks.
Many details are still to come: In the Afghan theater (which includes the tribal areas of Pakistan), he plans to use drones aggressively until U.S. combat forces leave in 2014. What does Pakistan say about this? The president wants to move drones from the CIA’s deniable arsenal to the military’s more transparent framework, but he doesn’t explain how he’ll do that. He wants more oversight of targeted killings, but he has constitutional and practical objections to either a special court or an executive review panel. He wants to close the embarrassment of Guantanamo, but he can’t unless some members of Congress join him in showing some backbone.
Not a perfect plan for transition, but what the nation saw Thursday was a president who has taken to heart the warning he quoted from James Madison that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” That wariness of perpetual conflict doesn’t just apply to drones; Obama hasn’t yet seen a plan for U.S. military force in Syriathat he thinks will work, so he’s refusing to sign off on one.
Obama understands the lonely predicament of leadership since 9/11: Nobody wants to challenge a presidential decision at the time it’s made, but everybody wants to second-guess. He’s right that both sides of the equation must change.
In his wily role as covert commander in chief, Obama seems to have internalized theadmonition of Bob Gates, his deeply cynical defense secretary during the first term. Gates cautioned that “every day, someone, somewhere in the federal government, is screwing something up, and it could come back to bite the White House.” In running America’s secret wars, a Gatesian Obama tightened loose military and intelligence rules — but alsodecided to attack bin Laden knowing the 15 ways that disaster could strike.
The challenge for Obama, now that he has begun to “right-size” America’s counterterrorism policies to the actual threats, is to apply a similar rigor and toughness — combined with frank, public debate — to the larger problems of governing America. Watching Obama on Thursday, one sensed that he still has the smarts and savvy to lead the country out of its dysfunctional mess, which is surely why the country reelected him: So get on with it!
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Obama renews his anti-terrorism strategy
Washington Post Editorials
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FOUR YEARS almost to the day since outlining a vision of how to fight terrorism, President Obama traveled Thursday to the National Defense University to deliver a self-evaluation, course correction and proposed way forward. The speech offered some valuable explanations of administration action and opened the door to constructive negotiation with Congress, while leaving unanswered some key questions.
In his 2009 speech at the National Archives, Mr. Obama was clearer about what he believed President Bush had done wrong than about how he would govern differently, and where he was clear he has not always been able to follow through. He ruled out “enhanced interrogation techniques,” an important accomplishment. But Congress, circumstances and inadequate commitment have prevented him from closing the Guantanamo Bay prison as promised. Though he vowed to develop with Congress a new detention regime, his armed forces in the subsequent four years have killed many alleged terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen with drones and captured almost none.
Four years wiser — and, he argues, with the world in a very different place — Mr. Obama wants to try again on some fronts while rethinking some of the assumptions in place since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He renewed his vow to close Guantanamo, urging Congress to stop making the work more difficult. There are measures Mr. Obama can take, even without congressional approval, to repatriate some of the 166 prisoners still in the Cuban prison, and his promise to step up that effort was welcome. He acknowledged, as he did four years ago, that some prisoners will be too dangerous to release but impossible to try in court, yet again he proffered no answer to this quandary other than to say he is “confident that this legacy problem can be solved.”
We agree with Mr. Obama’s contention thatfederal courts are capable of trying many alleged terrorists. We also think he is right that drone strikes, if properly limited, offer an important means of self-defense, in many cases less dangerous to civilians than is more traditional military force. His intention to have the Pentagon replace the CIA in the execution of such attacks is also welcome if it leads to greater accountability and open debate. We certainly agree that a key to U.S. security is “patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya . . . strengthen[ing] the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements . . . training security forces in Libya” — all policies that have been inadequately supported until now.
The fundamental question with which Mr. Obama wrestled Thursday is the nature of the war — if it is still a war — in which the United States remains engaged. With the core of al-Qaeda much reduced, Mr. Obama said, and the U.S. combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan ended or ending, “we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” That may be true; but it is also true that the U.S. response to those pre-9/11 attacks, which relied heavily on the FBI and occasional cruise missile attacks, was wholly inadequate. Mr. Obama is not recommending a return to that paradigm, which would be foolhardy; but he also is worried about a thoughtless embrace of unending war.
“This war, like all wars, must end,” Mr. Obama said. True; but America’s enemies will have a say in the timing. The president said he is open to “refining” the war-making authorities that Congress granted the president in 2001, a process Congress also has begun to contemplate. We hope they move forward together.