Annotate This: Obama’s Speech on National Security

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been suckered by the Obama administration. A few weeks ago the secretary of State announced, in effect, that the “war on terror” was over. From now on, the mass media informed us, the United States would be fighting only “overseas contingency operations.” There was so much buzz about the end of the war that I was moved to write a column, do radio interviews, the whole bit. Very exciting!

Except that now we know it wasn’t exactly true. In his recent speech at the National Archives, the president himself said clearly that we’re still at war. We can still suspend the Constitution and imprison people indefinitely (the new euphemism is “prolonged detention”) because they are “prisoners of war.”

Though they haven’t been convicted of any crime and “cannot be prosecuted for past crime,” they “nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States, Obama explained. “Those that we capture — like other prisoners of war — must be prevented from attacking us again.” If there’s no war, there’s no case for “prolonged detention.”

Disturbing Parallels

So it seems that the reports of the death of the war — including my own report — were rather premature. Things haven’t changed as much as we might have hoped since the bad old days of Bush and Cheney. In fact, the ever-alert researchers at John Stewart’s Daily Show found these striking parallels between key lines from Obama’s speech and lines that Bush made famous:

OBAMA: “We can’t count on a surrender ceremony.”
BUSH: “There will be no surrender ceremony.”
OBAMA: “To deny the world’s most dangerous people access to the world’s deadliest weapons.”
BUSH: “[T]he world’s most dangerous men; the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

There was one noticeable difference between Obama and his predecessor:

OBAMA: “To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda.”
BUSH: “To dismantle, disrupt, and destroy terrorists.”

Does that mean the enemy is now “al-Qaeda,” rather than the vaguely defined “terrorists”? Though the president never used the phrase “war on terror” in his National Archives speech, he did use the words “terror,” “terrorists,” and “terrorism” fully 27 times to describe the threat the nation faces. His new twist is to use those words not to name the enemy, but only to describe the enemy’s tactics.

In Search of Enemies

Which still leaves the question: Who is our enemy? It’s a crucial question because, in the ever-so-subtle legalese of the administration, only our war enemies can be put in “prolonged detention” and deprived of all constitutional rights. Unfortunately, Obama’s answer is hardly less vague than Bush and Cheney’s.

Obama gave a partial answer when he said: “An extremist ideology threatens our people…al-Qaeda is actively planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will be with us for a long time” (“in all probability 10 years,” the president added).

But things got more complicated when Obama said: “We are indeed at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates.” Who are those affiliates? He named the Taliban. But there may well be others. Who knows?

Then there was Obama’s equally murky comment that “we’re fighting two wars.” Since he seems to count the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a single “AfPak” war, that leaves, presumably, the war still raging in Iraq (despite little to no media attention). Who is America’s enemy in Iraq? That remains as unclear as ever.

But a lack of clarity may very well be the whole point. Consider what Obama went on to say: “There may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes…but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who’ve received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden.”

Yet these are only — and here’s the pivotal word — examples. These are, the president said, examples of “people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.” Anyone who “otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans” falls into the same category. This from a former editor of the Harvard Law Review and teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, who isn’t likely to use such words loosely (He probably even knows what the meaning of “is” is.).

Questioning the President

Well, let’s pretend we’re in Obama’s constitutional law class. Let’s raise our hand and ask a few questions. Is anyone who wants to “kill Americans” really “at war with the United States”? A regrettably large number of people want to “kill Americans” every day for all sort of reasons — usually very personal reasons — and most of them are themselves Americans!

Professor Obama presumably replies that he means only those who want to kill a lot of Americans for political reasons, as part of a campaign against the American nation and its government. Well, we ask, what about Timothy McVeigh and any accomplices who might have helped him? They wanted to kill a lot of Americans, apparently as part of a politically motivated campaign against the government.

What about David Koresh and his Branch Davidians? They wanted to kill armed agents of the U.S. government — only in self-defense, to be sure, but Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar also say they’re fighting in self-defense. Every army nowadays claims it’s fighting in self-defense.

Will Professor Obama add the qualifier that you can only be “at war with the United States” if you’re part of an organized foreign group that wants to kill a lot of Americans? What about so-called “homegrown terrorists,” like the four who allegedly plotted to shoot down military planes at Stewart Air Force Base with Stinger missiles? They were living in the United States with only the most tenuous links to any foreign group. Are they prisoners of war?

Of course by this point, Professor Obama, if he’s doing his job well, has to admit that President Obama’s definition of “prisoner of war” is so vague as to be meaningless. That, presumably, is the point. The administration wants the right to decide for itself who counts as an enemy — who gets protected by constitutional rights and who doesn’t.

Important Differences

If that reminds you uncomfortably of the Bush administration, there is one crucial difference to remember. Bush and Cheney presented their war as a moral drama between absolute good and absolute evil. Bush encouraged the all-too-common impulse to see foreign policy as a way for the good guys with the white hats — that’s us — to defend truth, justice, and the American way against evildoers around the globe. Cheney still does.

Obama plays that rhetorical game, too. If he gives it up altogether, he is likely to alienate a large portion of the American public, which still wants a president who stands tough against supposed threats to our nation and its virtue (Why else would John McCain have been leading in the presidential race until the mid-September economic collapse changed everything?).

But Obama uses such language somewhat less than his predecessor. He is more likely to balance simplistic moral pieties with practical arguments about safety and national interests. So he encourages the public to move, however slightly, toward a view of foreign policy as a logically calculated way to pursue practical goals.

The more that new view gains ground, the better chance we progressives have to influence the foreign policy debate. We can marshal powerful arguments that “prolonged detention” and prolonged war in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan are irrational, that they are bound to harm American interests.

While we justly criticize Obama for his unreasonable, self-defeating policies, we should thank him for shifting the foreign policy discourse at least a bit toward the kind of terrain that suits us best. We should spotlight the long-range practical goals that we share with him (rather than digging furiously to find all the differences we can, as we so often do). The more we frame the debate as a disagreement over means toward shared ends, the more success we can have.

So we should insist that the important question is not, “How can we win our wars?” The important question is, “Does it serve the best interests of the American people — ultimately our common goal — to declare that we are at war with anyone at all?” Once the debate shifts that way, we can build a strong case that the very idea that we are “at war” is likely to do us more harm than good in the long run.

We certainly won’t have an easy time persuading a majority of our fellow citizens to agree. But if the terms of the discussion are set by questions of practical interest, not feel-good moral theater, progressives will at least have a better chance to be heard. We just have to make our case in calm reasoned language, without vilifying either the president or the public that supports him.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor.