- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Emile Simpson
Best Defense White House correspondent
I thought President Obama’s speech at NDU on Thursday was a conceptual car crash — a collision between two incompatible desires to aggregate, or disaggregate, threats.
He spent half the speech saying he wants to end a war, not have endless conflict, and not blur boundaries. But he spent the other half of the speech veering from identifying the enemy as al Qaeda, then its franchises, then just terrorists in general, and saying these terrorists hide at the ends of the earth.
Seems to me completely muddled: If you want to target networks and disaggregate threats, fine, I agree with that, but one would be forgiven for thinking any jihadist under the sun is still the enemy here, which is plainly aggregating threats to the extent that one will never narrow an enemy down enough to defeat militarily, so cannot therefore "end" the war.
For me this wasn’t a speech about drones, but about war, and despite, ironically, agreeing with what I think Obama was trying to say (i.e. disaggregate threats, move away from endless war), the way in which the concept of war here is (mis)applied seems to me to do the opposite.
The reality is that the administration is locked in to using the concept of war as a legal idea to justify the use of force in self defense, but that the legal concept of war today doesn’t match the military concept.
It just seems to me that it simply does not make sense for Obama to want to move away from a global war on terror, and then describe what he wants to do as an alternative precisely as a war against terrorists all over the world.
And this is in the major counterterrorism speech of the second term, regarding a conflict whose conceptual deficiency has been glaringly clear for 10 years, and yet nothing changes. Really quite disappointing.
Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).