Screen shot from White House video of Obama’s speech at the National Defense University

The speech by President Barack Obama, which touched upon perpetual war, his authority to carry out drone strikes, the efficacy of drones, closing Guantanamo Bay prison, adhering to the rule of law when fighting terrorism and even national security leaks was wide-ranging and bewildering. It was longer than the “State of the Union” address he gave this year.

A speech like this on his counterterrorism policies and civil liberties had not been given since his May 21, 2009, at the National Archives. In many ways, this was a repurposing of that speech with the inclusion of content intended to stifle criticism of the expansions of executive power he has embraced. Not responding to that criticism earlier and maintaining an excessive level of secrecy made it inevitable that his administration would have to cram all manner of talking points into a speech that would seemingly go on and on forever.

Obama, again, rejected the notion of perpetual war, saying,”We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” He also said he intended to “engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.” And, “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

Yet, as he seemed to admit America is on a path where it is engaged in perpetual war, he said in defense of this global war without end, “America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

It is essentially a public relations gambit, a recognition that critics are increasingly being considered credible so there must be a rebranding. That means the policies and operations could potentially remain the same, but the government will define what is being done as “persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks” and not some kind of “boundless global war.” It is no different from how the Justice Department has argued eliminating targets are not “assassinations” but a part of meting out “due process” because the Executive Branch applies multiple reviews before killing an alleged terrorist.

Obama stated, “Our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm.” In other words, the plot of Zero Dark Thirty can’t be the template for handling terrorists. He continued:
The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture, although our preference, was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces – but also depended on some luck. And even then, the cost to our relationship with Pakistan – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.

But then, he said, “It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.” He did not acknowledge that drone strikes have been just as much of an “encroachment” and, in fact, a Pakistan High Court has found that they are illegal and war crimes.

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” Obama said, while addressing drone strikes. “For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it.” It was similar to what he said in his speech at a rally against the Iraq War that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008, “I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”

The implication of such statements is that the American people can trust that I, as president, will only target and kill people when it is “wise” or “moral.” The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and Yemeni-based cleric—if this logic is followed—was “wise” or, perhaps, even “moral.”

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee members that Awlaki was a “senior operational leader.” Obama called Awlaki a “chief of external operations for AQAP.” He asserted that Awlaki had “approved” Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s “suicide operation, and helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack. His last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil.” But, none of this comes remotely close to be the activity of someone acting in a senior capacity. He did not come up with the plan nor did he facilitate or give Abdulmutallab the means to try and blow up a plane.

The three Americans Holder acknowledged were “not intentionally targeted” but killed by US drones—Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi and Jude Kenan Mohammed—were not mentioned by name in Obama’s speech. He, like Holder, provided no details on their wrongful deaths and the circumstances, which led up to them being assassinated by their own government. He did not explicitly address “signature strikes”—the practice of killing people who are suspected of engaging in terrorism because of patterns of life they engage in (how Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Mohammed may have been killed).


The speech was given in response to steady demands for more transparency, oversight and accountability for drone strikes from members of Congress, the human rights community and others in the general public. There has also been international pressure, including criticism from the United Nations, to fully explain the administration’s policies and actions. So, how did he suggest these demands would be addressed?

…I have asked my Administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress. Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice. For example, the establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority. Another idea that’s been suggested – the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch – avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national-security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process. Despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these – and other – options for increased oversight…

He addressed it by offering nothing concrete. All he promised was further dialogue with Congress and that his administration would continue to contemplate some kind of legal infrastructure that could be put in place to oversee the use of lethal force to target and kill suspected terrorists. This will not appease human rights groups who oppose the establishment of some kind of “special targeted killing court” that “would give a veneer of judicial review to decisions to launch lethal strikes without offering a meaningful check on executive power.”

What the administration should do is what several human rights groups have advised: “cease making broad claims of non-justiciability or political question, to prevent cases alleging human rights or constitutional violations from being heard on their merits.” And, stop utilizing “political question and immunity doctrines, Bivens special factors, and the state secrets privilege to obstruct litigation.”

As far as transparency goes, all Obama said was, “I authorized the declassification of this action”—the drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki—”and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes, to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims.” It could barely be construed as transparency, given the fact that officials with links or ties to the Obama administration already leaked information to the New York Times for a story published in March that included a justification for his assassination. There also was no information given about how exactly the three other Americans wound up dying by, as the administrations, being mistakenly struck by a drone.

He said he looked ”forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.” How would he refine it? What does he plan to do?

Last week, Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, and Brigadier General Richard Gross, legal adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, participated in a Senate Armed Services hearing. Both agreed the battlefield is wherever the “enemy chooses to make it” (as Sen. Lindsey Graham put it). They not only embraced boundless warfare, but they both seemed to agree that treating the world as a battlefield could continue for 10 to 20 more years.

Few senators openly endorsed repealing the AUMF. More seemed to favor “refining” and, by refining, they did not mean including restraints on who could be targeted but expanding its ability to cover the use of lethal force to give the president more executive power. For example, Sen. John McCain maintained it did not cover the Haqqani network in Pakistan. They were not designated a terror group until 2012. Now, they are being targeted and killed and so he would like to see the AUMF “revised.”

As much as Obama might like critics to discern from his speech that he understands their indignation and he is doing his best to eliminate America’s “enemies” as fast as he can so what feels like perpetual war can come to an end, there is no evidence from Obama’s speech to support the thought that this signals a significant shift toward peace.

In acknowledging the risks posed to diplomats stationed all over the world, he stated, “This is the price of being the world’s most powerful nation, particularly as a wave of change washes over the Arab World. And in balancing the trade-offs between security and active diplomacy, I firmly believe that any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers we face in the long run.”

That is a clear embrace of empire. Truly shifting away from perpetual war would mean dismantling the vast network of military bases, abandoning the operation of several drone bases and moving away from using them as “lily pads” that can aid in the carrying out of covert operations anywhere in the world. It means not having military forces in over 74 nations that are training or helping forces fight. It means not recommitting America to training and supporting proxy forces in countries like Yemen or Somalia, as Obama did today.

The Obama administration has no intention of being the administration that curtails America’s dominance in the world. This only helps to ensure that terrorism will continue to be a focus of US policy, as so much of terrorism today is blowback that happens as a result of groups or individuals inspired to take up arms and fight America as it disrupts or meddles in their country.