Has there been a less serious president in our lifetime than President Obama? In light of yesterday’s speech at the National Defense University on national security, one would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.
First, Guantanamo. With high indignation, the president once again asserted his intention to close the prison there: “I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future—ten years from now, or twenty years from now—when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?” But other than the indignation, what solutions did he actually put forward? A new special envoy? Give me a break. It’s the Obama administration that has let that post stand unfilled. Lifting the moratorium on transfers to Yemen? Well, again, the moratorium is his, and it was put in place for good reasons given Yemen’s own fight with al Qaeda and the rate of recidivism among those that had been repatriated to that country. And, most important, how is Guantanamo to be closed (or some facility like it) when the president still has no answer for what to do with those detainees that his own team has determined are too dangerous to release but are not plausibly put on trial? These are incredibly difficult and serious issues but are addressed by the president in the most facile and morally pretentious way.
Second, drones. Here the president asserts that “the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists—our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them….[And] we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people….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.” Really? Since when has the administration’s policy been to capture and interrogate terrorists? To the contrary, it has avoided captures and interrogations precisely because it would result in more bodies, not fewer, in Guantanamo. As for the standard of imminent threat, that’s nothing new, with John Brennan, the former White House counterterrorism chief and now CIA director, having spelled out what “imminence” meant in these cases in a speech in September 2011 at Harvard. But what is new, and worrisome, is the president’s public declaration that a drone strike would only take place when there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Presumably, every senior jihadist terrorist in the world now will take extra care to surround himself night and day with wives, children, or other innocents. Obviously, the United States doesn’t want to be in the business of killing the innocent as a matter of course. On the other hand, the president’s declaration is an open invitation to terrorists to use those innocents as shields even more than they might have otherwise and flatly ignores the morally difficult but inevitable issue of what to do when a strike might be the only chance to forestall a terrorist operation in which scores may die but may itself result in some civilians dying. This is clearly a president who still to this day has not come to terms with the fact that the United States is at war.
Which brings us to a third point made in the speech, the war. Here the overt theme of the speech was how he, the president, was bringing this war against “al Qaeda and their associated forces” to an end—this, in spite of the fact that, as Benjamin Wittes over at the Lawfare blog points out, only a week ago the president’s own team was saying that the conflict would go on for another decade or two. Now there is only one of two possibilities when it comes to the president’s theme that the war’s end is in sight. The first one is simply that he is naïve and has forgotten one of the most obvious rules of war that “the enemy gets a vote, too.” The second possibility is that he knows full well that the war will continue—a possibility reinforced by other sections of the speech—and is just producing rhetorical “eye candy” for the American public generally and his disappointed liberal base more specifically. Neither possibility presents the president in a flattering light. But, as stated at the outset, this president has shown day-in, day-out, with defense cuts, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Benghazi, Syria, and now the war on terror, that he is either incapable of being or simply unwilling to bear the burden of being the nation’s “commander-in-chief.”