Obama signals retreat in the fight against terrorism

President Obama delivered an address today at the National Defense University called “The Future of our Fight Against Terrorism.” Actually, part of the speech was about the past, including much self-congratulation and some shots at President Bush.

This part of the speech is revisionist rubbish. As Max Boot explains:

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “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.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

As for the future of the fight against terrorism, Obama declared: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.”

This is dangerous rubbish. The fight against terrorism is defined by what terrorists attempt to accomplish. Thus, as much as we would like to, we cannot “define the nature and scope of this struggle.” If we wish to fight terrorism successfully, we must be prepared to combat it in all of its forms, with special focus on the terrorists’ methods of choice, which are always evolving.

Obama contended that “the scale of [the threat we face today] closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” He implied, therefore, that our approach to terrorism should more closely resemble those used in the pre-9/11 world. For example, he called for the refinement, and ultimately repeal, the of the mandate provided by the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).

This is fallacious rubbish. We know that the pre-9/11, pre-AUMF, tactics didn’t work.

Obama proclaimed that al Qaeda is a vastly diminished force in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.

But al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan spend so much time thinking about their own safety because our military puts their safety in jeopardy. Obama, though, is pulling our military out of the region:

In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Our troops will come home. Our combat mission will come to an end. And we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counter-terrorism force which ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe-haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.

This is wishful rubbish. When our combat mission comes to an end, al Qaeda will think less about its safety and, in all likelihood, more about how to conduct terrorism against U.S. interests in other regions. And having chased the U.S. out of Afghanistan, al Qaeda will likely once again become a rising, confident force. Relying on the Afghan government to counteract these realities is foolish.

To make matters worse, Obama signaled a shift in his policy of using drones. Going forward, he said, the U.S. will only use drone strikes against terrorists who “pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” where there is a “near certainty” that the target is present, and there is a “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed.”

As John Yoo points out:

The president risks rendering impossible the only element of his counterterrorism strategy that has bred success. An obvious problem is that there is almost never a “near certainty” that a target is the person we think he is and that he is located where we think. President Obama either is imposing a far too strict level of proof on our military and intelligence officers or the standards will be rarely followed.

Even if Obama wanted to water down the drone program in this way, why would he announce this decision? Yoo correctly point out that, in response to Obama’s announcement, “terrorists will always meet and travel in entourages of innocent family members and others — a tactic adopted by potential targets of Israeli targeted killings in the West Bank.”

In sum, President Obama is deliberately weakening America’s ability to protect its citizens from terrorism. Having been reelected, he feels free to be true to his core convictions. Thus, to a greater degree than before, he will permit left-wing ideology to trump national security concerns.

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