Obama: The war on terror has ended, long live the war on terror

Obama: The war on terror has ended, long live the war on terror

Yesterday’s speech is one that President Obama has evidently wanted to give for some time. For several years now, there appears to have been an internal debate over whether and how to reframe the war on terror. One camp, call them the optimists, have wanted to declare the equivalent of "mission accomplished," with al Qaeda strategically defeated and the remaining terror threats relegated to a second or third-tier concern. The other camp, call them the pessimists, have warned that such a declaration would be premature because operational successes against some aspects of the terror network (e.g. the killing of bin Laden and numerous al Qaeda operational commanders) have been undermined by strategic setbacks in other areas (e.g. the emergence of new safe havens in North Africa, the unraveling of security in Iraq, the spiraling chaos in Syria that has re-energized both Sunni and Shia terrorist groups, and so on).

Politically, declaring mission accomplished is a tantalizing risk. On the one hand, it is clear that Obama partisans are keen to wring maximum political benefit from the good fortune of killing bin Laden on their watch. The boast that they have "won" the "good" war that Bush started (the war on terror) and "ended" the "bad" war (Iraq) would, if true, cement Obama’s national security legacy. On the other hand, just as Bush paid a huge price for standing in front of a "mission accomplished" banner when the conflict in Iraq was anything but over, Obama would be at great risk if terrorists successfully struck after he had made the boast.

Shortly after the bin Laden raid, the Obama administration floated some "mission accomplished" trial balloons, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggesting that al Qaeda was near strategic defeat. As the presidential election campaign heated up in the summer of 2012, it looked as if the administration was considering a bolder declaration. If that is right, I bet they are glad they resisted the temptation because the Benghazi terror attacks were hard enough for the administration to spin as it was. It would have been a much more daunting task if the attacks came on the heels of a "mission accomplished" speech.

Perhaps that is why, when he finally gave it after the Benghazi terror attack and after the Boston terror attack, the president’s speech was so rhetorically unsatisfying. It sounded as if the president was personally and publicly wrestling with the tantalizing risk and never fully resolving where he came down. It seemed to be a compromise forged from two separate speeches, one drafted by the optimists and the other by the pessimists. Perhaps it was a sufficiently artful compromise to win one 24-hour news cycle, but that is probably its high water mark. The administration got some of the headlines it wanted — the Washington Post highlighted the notion of the United States at "a ‘crossroads’" in the war on terror, and the New York Times called the speech a "pivot," perhaps enough to give the impression that there is a fundamental shift underway. But, in fact, as the president was at pains to admit in the speech, the threat remains and requires on-going extraordinary efforts, including efforts associated with war and not mere law enforcement. 

And so it does. As Max Boot notes, the details laid out in Obama’s speech mostly take us back to the de facto policy he inherited from President George W. Bush — policies which have stood him in pretty good stead and made possible even having an internal debate about whether to declare the war on terror, or some crucial phase of it, over. 

In news terms, the most important change appears to be a reduction in drone strikes from Obama-era levels back to Bush-era levels. Slowing down the pace of drone strikes is not a trivial change. For one thing, the drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world, even — and perhaps especially — with our allies. They have become for Obama what "torture" was for the Bush administration and foreign discomfort with drone strikes is one important reason that the "soft power asset bubble" that Obama generated in his first few months in office has largely popped. So the evolution in drone policy is significant, but equally significant is that the president promised to continue to do drone strikes, as he deems necessary. The drone war has not ended. 

The other "changes" are mostly hortatory appeals for Congress to change, coupled with rejections of the proposals coming from Congress on the subject.

The current phase in the war will indeed end when Gitmo is closed and when U.S. forces operate under a newly drafted authorization for the use of military force, two things the president called for without explaining how he could achieve it. Even then, however, the war will not be over, just entering a new phase. And if events on the ground in the Middle East continue to unfold along their current trajectory, that new phase may be every bit as daunting as the pessimists fear.