Reality Check

Speak No Evil

Why Obama shouldn't have given that big drone speech.

EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

Was Barack Obama’s big speech at the National Defense University last week really necessary?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for closing Guantánamo, reining in drone strikes, and making U.S. counterterrorism policy more focused and effective — as long as American security interests don’t suffer as a consequence. But was it necessary to wrap all of this in a long and largely academic presidential address? The presidency isn’t a law-school seminar. And while teaching and educating the nation is important, means and ends need to be calibrated carefully, words  credibly followed up by deeds. 

The New York Times has already hailed Obama’s speech as "one of his most significant speeches since taking office." I’m not at all sure. And here’s why.

 Conflating words and deeds 

All presidents believe in the power of a big speech, and Obama especially seems to enjoy impressive rhetorical flourishes. He gave one in May 2009 in which he vowed to take a different approach on national security than his predecessor, only to morph into a more disciplined version of George W. Bush; he gave another in Cairo that June where he promised a major reset on the Middle East that turned into the same-old, same-old. But on this one, it’s just not clear to me who the president was trying to convince, unless of course this was about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered.

Closing Gitmo has taken on a new urgency because of the ongoing hunger strike and the reality that Obama’s window for fulfilling this campaign promise is closing. But the practical problems involved in closing the prison haven’t been resolved in Congress, or with other governments who might be persuaded to repatriate prisoners. 

As for the foreign audiences, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia, this speech won’t buy the president much. The source of anti-American anger runs across a range of issues, including Washington’s support for authoritarian leaders and Israel. And since the president’s speech actually defended the use of drones and the strikes will continue, who’s really going to notice much of a difference?

Raising expectations 

There’s a good chance that the NDU speech, like the Cairo speech in March 2009, will unnecessarily raise expectations for the Obama administration — without much reason to believe that it can fulfill them. But unlike the Cairo speech, which was given while hopes for Obama were still very high, this one comes at a point in his presidency when the bloom is off the rose, particularly in the Middle East.

Already the New York Times in one column described the address as "an ambitious vision — one that eschews muscle-bound foreign policy, dominated by the military and intelligence services, in favor of energetic diplomacy, foreign aid and a more nuanced response to terrorism" and in another as "a pivot in counterterrorism policy ….nearly two years in the making." 

That’s all well and good — if the White House can deliver. But the odds are long indeed: Obama faces military and diplomatic quandaries in Syria and an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that will not bend easily to his will. Even if droning is curtailed, the United States will continue to take out bad guys. Indeed, if there’s a major terrorist strike on a U.S. installation traced to al Qaeda or a foreign government, we’ll see how nuanced our response will be.

It’s our policies, stupid 

I’ll take the word of those who argue that drones are the poster child for the anger Arabs and Muslims feel toward America. I can see why. But the grievances toward the United States in this region run deep, and the source of that anger is not only drones. Don’t forget: The Middle East was exasperated with Washington long before droning, and it remains eager to blame America for just about everything.

The list of the Arab world’s grievances go on and on: America is blamed for supporting the authoritarian Arab kings, blindly backing Israel, not talking to Hamas, not intervening militarily in Syria, intervening militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, according to Egyptian liberals, for supporting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. And that’s even before we discuss the small but determined minority of Muslims who do, in fact, hate us because of who we are — not just because of what we do. 

No nuanced modulation of our approach on drone strikes or the closure of Gitmo is going to change any of that.

Mission unaccomplished 

I don’t want to create a strawman here: I know Obama made clear that no American president can eradicate terror entirely, and that we must continue to fight it. Still, the speech did have a historic turning-point quality about it — that’s what happens when the most powerful man in the world gives a speech suggesting we’re turning the page on the War on Terror.

But our success against al Qaeda doesn’t mean we can call off the struggle against those who want to do catastrophic harm to America. All it means is that we’re winning that war. 

And it is a war. The most important task of a president is to protect the homeland, and to safeguard our individual liberties while he does it. And while we’re much safer from externally planned attacks, we’re still not safe. Those who want to harm us have unlimited time, and the angry, broken, dysfunctional region in which they live will continue to provide them with ample resources. Let’s do everything we can — within reason — to address what ails the greater Middle East, drain the swamp, and defuse the anger.

But let’s also not forget that America’s enemies think not in terms of administrations but generations. They are fighting the long war — and we must, without sacrificing our values and liberties, fight that war too. Nobody, including Barack Obama, can possibly know where we’re situated in that struggle — or where we’re going. 

We need to be wise and conscious of our values to combat al Qaeda and its successors. And we need to do what’s necessary. This speech wasn’t.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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