President Obama has a strategy for American counterterror policy and he is sticking to it; that was the core message of the speech the President gave Thursday at the National Defense University.
Confronted by a troubling strategic and political situation in the world at large as well as in the complex conflict that he does not want to call a ‘global war on terror,’ the President offered a careful, thoughtful speech that doubled down on the core foreign policy themes he has sought to promote since accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in the summer of 2008.
The President is a man who believes that speeches matter; his critics sometimes accuse him of believing that making speeches and making policy are the same thing. He has no doubt learned in the White House that this is not always true; nevertheless, President Obama does not take major foreign policy addresses lightly. Like his speech in Cairo and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2009, yesterday’s speech was intended as a comprehensive and definitive statement of the ideas by which he intends to be guided in the remaining years of his second term. Both supporters and critics of the President should study it carefully; it is the best available window into the mind of the man onto whose shoulders the responsibility for American security rests.
On reading the speech one first notes what it isn’t: this isn’t a speech about American grand strategy or about American foreign policy as a whole. It is a speech about how to deal with the threat to America’s domestic security that stems from groups and individuals saturated in jihadi ideology. The speech has nothing to say about whether the United States should continue to protect the flow of oil from the Middle East to the world’s markets, much less whether we should accept a nuclear Iran. There was no mention of a pivot to Asia or relations with China. The speech was what the President hopes the campaign against terror will henceforth be: limited, focused, and isolated from the rest of American foreign policy.
The second thing one notes is the studied defensiveness of the speech. This is a President who feels that wounding and dangerous criticisms have been made of his approach. The President is deeply concerned with the criticisms his policies have attracted from the legalists on the left, less so with criticisms from the multiculturalist left and not at all with his critics among the humanitarian hawks and the right. The legalists accuse him of counterterrorist policies that trample on the Constitution and the laws of nations; much of the speech is taken up with a defense of some policies and a promise to modify or revise others.
The legalist left is a relatively small but well placed, well organized and well funded set of organizations and activists who believe that strict adherence to formal standards of international law, and the deepening and extension of the role of law in international affairs constitute humanity’s best hope for securing freedom, peace and, given what 21st century great power war could produce in the way of destruction, survival. For such people, the greatest risks in war come less from the actions of our enemies than from the actions we ourselves might take that weaken the hold of those international laws on which ultimately, in their view, everything depends. Piracy would be a lesser evil and a lesser threat in this view than an extralegal response to piracy from governments; piracy is an unpleasant nuisance but the weakening of international legal norms is a calamity.
Although some members of the legalist left are also leftists on economic issues, legalist liberal internationalists are mostly an upper middle class and above movement rather than a populist movement for economic justice. Many people on Wall Street both now and historically have supported a vision of world politics that holds law as the paramount good – given the role that international legal norms play in securing investor rights around the world. It is the sort of idealism that an elite law school culture warmly embraces, and it is a common ground where Wall Street bundlers, diplomats and academic intellectuals can and do frequently meet. It is an important part of President Obama’s personal milieu and it is an important part of his base.
For the President, taking on the arguments of the legalist left and articulating his position vis a vis its beliefs is important for both personal and political reasons. In this speech as in his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama is advocating what Reinhold Niebuhr would call a “Christian realist” position against the absolutist claims of the legalist left. History can’t be simplified into a set of legalistic formulae and there are times when a state must move into “the House of War.” There is a higher justice and a higher law than the codes the legalists worship, and the head of state in a democratic republic must sometimes exercise sovereign power in legitimate war.
This one of President Obama’s core convictions, and it is one of the qualities that make him larger than the milieu from which he springs. Without it, he could not be an effective president of the United States; even with it, he remains a cautious actor on the international stage. He can and does go beyond what the legalists would allow, but at the same time he feels compelled to address their arguments and concerns, and to test the validity of his actions against stringent criteria: is the war itself just? Are the means used proportional to the ends to be gained? Has due care been taken to preserve innocent life? Is the conflict being waged in accordance with existing law so far as this is possible under existing circumstances?
The President’s speech is best understood as a sober but passionate defense of his war policy on these lines. He believes that he is consistently Niebuhrian in his approach to war, and that his departures from legalism are both limited and necessary. He is aware that rational people can disagree about this, and he makes no claim to infallibility, but his convictions are honestly arrived at and clearly presented. He has done his best to wage war in the right way, and so long as the war is on his hands he intends to continue on this path, and where possible, as experience teaches and as a fluid situation offers new opportunities, he will move his counterterrorism policy out of the House of War into the House of Peace. The logic of war will fade in importance, and the power of law will grow.
At first glance it appears strange to pitch a major foreign policy address so heavily toward one constituency. The arch-legalists have the power to write eloquent op-eds and to dent the administration’s reputation among a certain segment of the public, but it is hard to argue that the legalist left or indeed the whole left is in a position to thwart the President’s war policy. No antiwar tsunami is threatening Congressional funding for the war or forcing the President to change his handling of Guantanamo inmates or to cut back on drones. The resolution authorizing the use of force in response to 9/11 is in no serious danger of repeal.
Indeed, from a purely political point of view, the President’s speech added to his political difficulties by introducing a legislative agenda that lawmakers in his own party must quietly wish would go away. (Few Democrats up for re-election are looking forward to a vote on releasing Guantanamo inmates, and the last time we looked, drones had a higher favorable rating among the American people than the President and Congress combined.)
That said, the speech does serve some important political ends. It always helps the President among the public at large when he distinguishes himself from the legalists. Americans don’t want presidents who gratuitously trample on international law, but they also don’t like presidents who subordinate the defense of the homeland to paper edicts by bloodless international civil servants. When President Obama says that he believes in a commonsense interpretation of the law that is consistent with an unyielding determination to protect the American people, most Americans will say that he has struck the proper balance.
He must also hope that his reasoned defense of his nuanced position on the role of law in the war on terror will soften the opposition to his policies now growing on the left. The recent string high profile national security journalism cases have increased the interest of the mainstream press in the possibility that the administration’s conduct of the war has insufficiently prioritized the Bill of Rights. The President is not worried that Congress will repeal his powers overseas or force him to close Guantanamo prematurely if he doesn’t develop a preemptive plan to close it on his own. But he is deeply worried that the press, frightened and angered by what it sees as attacks on its most vital privileges, will rediscover the tradition of adversarial journalism. He is asking Congress to curtail his war powers (knowing that this is unlikely to happen) in the hopes that he can convince the press that he isn’t addicted to power.
We’ll see if this works, but it is clear that the President is far more concerned at this point about those who attack him from the left as too hot about the war than he is about the people on the right who think his approach is too cool. He is less worried about being seen as another Jimmy Carter than he is about being seen as another Lyndon Johnson: a Democratic president trapped in a war that his party doesn’t support.
Next up: an assessment of the President’s ideas about the future of the war.
[President Obama speaks at NDU, courtesy of Getty Images]