Skip Navigation

Rethinking the War on Terror: The President’s Speech Falls Short

Although President Obama outlined positive new actions in his recent counter-terrorism speech, he failed to address a number of key questions and policy changes needed for reform.

Crossposted in the Boston Review.

President Obama’s speech yesterday at Washington’s National Defense University was widely anticipated to mark a turning point in post-9/11 counterterrorism policy. The president was expected to shed light on programs that have been cloaked in secrecy; to put forward a vision for drawing the war to a close, as well as a comprehensive framework for addressing terrorist threats in the future; and to announce major shifts in policies relating to drone strikes and Guantánamo detainees.

In one area, at least, the president more than delivered. His speech was replete with soaring rhetoric about the importance of aligning our counterterrorism efforts with our values and with the rule of law. Having made such commitments before, however, he surely realizes that rhetoric will no longer satisfy his critics. Only concrete plans matter now.

But that’s where the president’s speech fell short. While he did outline some positive developments, his speech notably failed to address key questions, and the few policy changes he did mention were limited in scope.

The Nature of the Threat

President Obama described a very different threat from the one that our nation faced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The changing nature of the threat is familiar to national security aficionados, but probably not to the rest of the country. In essence, the president told the nation four things: 1) the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat; 2) al Qaeda affiliates in other countries still want to attack the United States, but their capabilities are limited; 3) the democratic upheavals in the Arab world have allowed extremists to gain a foothold, but they seem to be focused mostly on their own countries; and 4) we face a threat from individuals in the United States who are inspired by extremist ideologies.

Obama deserves credit for putting terrorism into perspective, noting that “the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11”— in other words, today’s threat is not existential. While he cited international acts of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s as support for this assertion, it is equally true on the domestic front. Multiple studies, including one by the Rand Corporation and another by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, show that the number of terrorism incidents on U.S. soil is much lower now than it has been in past decades. In the 1970s, for example, the U.S. saw an average of 60 to 70 terrorist incidents a year, which is 15 to 20 times higher than the level of terrorist activity seen in most years since 9/11.

After describing a new and diminished threat, however, the president went on to outline policies that were largely familiar. He began with core questions of how and when to deploy military force.

The End of the War

The president has received high praise for declaring that we cannot be in a perpetual state of war. But surely we all knew that. No one seriously believes that the United States will be fighting al Qaeda and associated forces forever. When it comes to the end of the war, the real question is: When?

Many commentators have argued that the justification for the war will become untenably weak after we withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. Yet a senior Defense Department official testified before Congress recently that the war will continue for 10 to 20 years. For the president’s speech to break new ground, he had to give some sense of how far we are from the finish line. Even a vague statement that the war would likely end in the “not-too-distant future” would have been welcome. The New York Times inferred this time frame, but it’s difficult to see how it did so from the text of the speech itself.

The president said that he would engage Congress in efforts “to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s [Authorization for Use of Military Force’s] mandate”— the legislation authorizing the use of armed force after 9/11—and he pledged not to sign any bills designed to expand it. That is encouraging. But if “refinement” is the first order of business, the devil is very much in the details. The president doesn’t need a new AUMF in order to ramp down military efforts, and probably isn’t seeking it for that purpose. It’s more likely that he’s considering a refocusing of military authority—a legislative acknowledgment that today’s threat comes from groups other than Al Qaeda. There’s a genuine risk that legislation along those lines could breathe new life into the war.

Rather than a new AUMF, the American public needs transparency for one of the best-kept secrets of this conflict: who we’re fighting. The administration’s definition of “associated forces” includes organized, armed groups who have entered the fight “alongside” al Qaeda and who are “co-belligerents.” But how exactly does the administration interpret these terms? What’s the process for deciding which groups qualify? Former Obama administration official Marty Lederman has publicly stated that the United States is at war with groups that Americans don’t know they’re fighting. If the identity of the enemy is classified, how can we evaluate the president’s claim to repudiate “a boundless global war on terror”?

Targeted Killing

Both before and after the president’s speech, news outlets reported that he would be ending the CIA’s “signature strikes”—drone attacks against individuals who are unknown but whose behavior is suspicious—in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. This perception, though, appears to be a misreading of the administration’s statements.

The president and attorney general have said that, outside areas of active hostilities, drone strikes will be conducted only against targets that pose “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” and only when capture is not feasible. These are familiar standards, having previously been described in official statements about the targeting of U.S. citizens. As observers noted at the time of these statements, however, the Justice Department’s definition of “imminence” has little relationship to the term’s actual meaning, and the president stated in his speech that even small capture operations may pose intolerable risks (and thus be “infeasible”). Such flexible standards may well allow the targeting of unknown individuals whose behavioral patterns raise alarms.

Indeed, given that the administration has never disclosed its standards for drone strikes—even the Justice Department’s white paper on the targeting of U.S. citizens states that it was describing only one set of circumstances in which targeted killing of Americans would be legal—it’s difficult to see why so many journalists have agreed that the new standards are tighter than the old. The president’s rhetoric was undoubtedly designed to leave that impression. Yet the president has never acknowledged, let alone renounced, the use of signature strikes. So how can we assess what has changed and what remains the same?


At least the president’s speech signaled a welcome re-engagement with the issue of Guantánamo. Congress has behaved despicably in erecting pointless barriers to the transfer of the prison’s detainees. But it’s important to remember that the president’s own acts and omissions have also contributed to the problem. He addressed some of these in his speech—but was disturbingly silent on others.

Perhaps the president’s greatest self-imposed obstacle to detainee transfers has been the administration’s moratorium on repatriation to Yemen. The president announced that he would be lifting that ban. He also announced that he would designate a special envoy at the State and Defense Departments to work on transferring detainees to third-party countries. These are, without question, important and positive steps.

Yet the president continued to assert that Congress’s restrictions “effectively prevent” transfer. In fact, Congress gave the administration the authority to issue waivers of the most onerous restrictions in cases where they would serve national security. Obama has yet to issue even a single such waiver. Why? And why did he fail to mention this important tool in a speech purporting to explore all options for closing the facility?

Then there’s the matter of the 46 detainees “who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted.” Obama expressed revulsion at the idea that we might still be holding these individuals without charge10 or 20 years from now. But when it came to presenting an alternative, the president merely stated: “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved.” The failure to even begin resolving this problem well into the president’s second term is unacceptable. The president’s references to “our sense of justice” and “the values of our founding” ring hollow when his approach to this critical issue is so deficient.

Obama did, in his first term, offer at least one concrete idea about how to handle these detainees. In March of 2011, he issued an executive order directing the establishment of Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), which would conduct hearings every three years and file reviews every six months to determine whether any given individual’s detention was still necessary. He ordered the PRBs to conduct their first review within one year. More than two years later, there have been no reviews—and there was no mention of them in the president’s speech.

The “Home-Grown” Threat

When the president turned to concerns about citizens and residents attacking the United States, he correctly situated the threat, noting, “Whether it’s a shooter at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin; a plane flying into a building in Texas; or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our time.” He didn’t shy away from addressing the threat of jihadist terrorism, though, carefully pointing out that the “pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.”

But Obama’s solutions reflect the discredited notion that law enforcement or the American Muslim community can “identify signs of radicalization.” He either hasn’t read or doesn’t accept the research commissioned by his own Homeland Security and Defense Departments, which shows that we cannot identify incipient terrorists based on ideological markers. There is no straightforward process that leads directly from embracing “extremist” ideology to becoming a terrorist. While we have spent millions of dollars to figure out how to spot who is becoming radicalized towards violence, our efforts have not succeeded.

Obama’s emphasis on partnering with the American Muslim community in countering extremism is well placed. But it is more than a little naïve for him to expect American Muslims to figure out “when an individual is drifting towards violence.” Take the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev: as the imam of the Cambridge mosque where he occasionally prayed noted, if the FBI questioned Tsarnaev and didn’t think he was a threat, how can we expect leaders of mosques or fellow Muslim civilians to somehow know that he was going to commit an attack? Impending violence isn’t always accompanied by warning signs, much less ones that ordinary citizens can see.

Nor did Obama grapple with the tension between placing this special burden on Muslims and his exhortation that we must “recognize that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family.” Can American Muslims really be an equal part of the American family when they’re viewed either as suspects or as informants? And despite Obama’s stated “determination to guard against any encroachments on [Muslims’] civil liberties,” the intelligence and law enforcement agencies under his purview continue to target these communities.

Equally troubling were Obama’s hints that we may need to expand the government’s already vast domestic surveillance powers. His statement that we must review “the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse” was troubling in its ambiguity. One possibility is that he was referring to the FBI’s position that Congress should require all Internet service providers to facilitate government access to Americans’ online communications. Given the president’s acknowledgment that the scale of the current threat resembles that which we faced before 9/11, one would hope that he doesn’t intend to expand domestic surveillance powers beyond even their generous post-9/11 scope.

• • •

The shortcomings of the president’s speech demonstrate that many of our current counterterrorism policies are untenable. The war has lasted too long—longer than any other American war. Our heavy reliance on drone warfare is making new enemies and undermining our moral standing around the world. And the Guantánamo hunger strike reveals the continued cruelty of our detainee policies.

What the American public needs now is not a rhetorical recommitment to preserving our liberties and values, but new ways of thinking about combating terrorism and the determination to change our policies accordingly. Wishful thinking won’t close the gap that remains between our words and our actions.