Almost 12 years after the attacks of Sept. 11, the country is due for a discussion about how to proceed in its long struggle with Islamic extremists and their campaign of terrorism. That is what President Obama set in motion with his speech last week at the National Defense University. He rightly wants to move away from the posture established in the immediate aftermath of that ghastly day, Congress giving the president wide authority to prosecute the fight.
It makes sense to revisit the authorization. (Whether a polarized Washington can do so reasonably and effectively is another question.) Much has changed on the battlefield. For starters, the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden has been shattered. As the president explained, the threat has evolved, becoming more fragmented and far-flung, and less easily identified, as the bombing at the Boston Marathon reinforced.
The president got things right when he argued: “Beyond Afghanistan, 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.”
What does that entail? The president engaged two of the more controversial aspects of his watch. The first involves his accelerated use of drone strikes. The weapon has decimated the leadership of al-Qaida and affiliates. Yet it also has triggered blowback, concerning the wide authority of the president, plus the dilemmas of killing American citizens and potentially recruiting more extremists than the strikes have killed.
In his speech, the president strongly defended the drone strikes. He also suggested ways to achieve restraint, setting tighter rules, more precisely defining targets, the CIA giving way to the military — and perhaps gaining greater accountability. This element has been sorely missing. Thus it was encouraging to hear the president talk about the oversight of a court or some independent body bringing a necessary check and balance.
The second item concerns the president’s unkept promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. To be sure, Congress has erected obstacles. Yet the president has lacked the required determination to act on his own and press the argument to the public. The prison represents a stain on the country’s reputation and harms its influence. The president would do well to lift his moratorium that has prevented many Yemenis cleared to depart from returning to their country.
Put another way, the president now must follow through in the discussion. John Boehner, the House speaker, fired a volley in response: “Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida?” The president has been plenty tough in this battle. The moment is right for thinking hard about going forward, placing the emphasis on such things as intelligence gathering and sharing information, improving policies overseas and practicing at home the defiance that comes from leading ordinary lives.