Two Cheers for President Obama's Speech at the National Defense University

By Mike Dorf

In commemoration of Memorial Day Weekend, I'd like to (mostly) praise President Obama for his speech late last week at the National Defense University.  I'll begin with the praise.

Obama is already being criticized by the right for abandoning a policy of targeting al Qaeda leadership just when, by his own lights, it has succeeded in weakening the organization.  If we take our foot off the gas now, they say, won't al Qaeda use the opportunity to rebuild?  That is a legitimate question--or it would be if it were posed by people who don't simply oppose a policy on the ground that the President supports it.

In any event, although Obama did not directly address this anticipated criticism in his speech, the speech contains an implicit answer: The costs of going after "core" al Qaeda at full throttle now outweigh the benefits.  Those costs include gigantic sums of money that could be put to better use at home or abroad; civilian casualties; putting U.S. troops in harm's way; and counter-productive blowback from the people who are radicalized in response to U.S. attacks in their countries.  If we have evidence that core al Qaeda is growing again or that another group, like AQAP, is developing capacities akin to what core al Qaeda possessed on the eve of 9/11, then a more aggressive posture may be warranted.

Meanwhile, Obama's speech was remarkable for a modern politician in not just saying that there are no easy answers; politicians often say as much just before they attempt to rally support for what they regard as clearly the best answer; Obama went further in expressing ambivalence and uncertainty.  That was especially true with respect to what he hopes will be a shrinking number of captives who cannot be tried or repatriated.

Overall, this was a speech by a grownup for grownups.  Obama clarified and defended a narrowed drone strike policy in a way that presented it as simply the least bad option, and even then, he recognized the very real limits of what can be accomplished through military power alone.  For me, the speech called to mind Michael Walzer's notion of tragic choices and dirty hands: No matter what the President (and by implication the rest of us) do--including doing nothing--we will have blood on our hands.

Apart from particular quibbles and questions about a speech that covered an enormous range of complex subjects, I have two related reservations about the speech.  The first concerns our politics.  A good deal of what the President described involves decisions that he can make, and in some instances has already made, on his own in the exercise of his powers as Commander in Chief.  But on some very crucial questions--e.g., replacing the post-9/11 AUMF with a narrower authorization for the use of force better suited to our current circumstances; legislation establishing a framework for making targeting decisions; broadening the President's authority to repatriate Gitmo detainees who have been cleared for release--the President's position amounted to a call for Congress to act.  Yet Republicans in Congress and conservative opinion makers have given no indication whatsoever that they are interested in cooperating with the President on any subject.

To be sure, there is a wing of the Republican party that is skeptical of military force on grounds that roughly parallel some of the grounds one finds in the anti-military left: Senator Rand Paul's filibuster of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director is characteristic of the position.  But I doubt that there is a sufficient constituency within the Republican blocking coalition in Congress to be peeled off to join Democrats in forging a majority (or in the Senate a filibuster-proof supermajority) in support of legislation of the sort that the President seeks.  The Paul wing of the Republican Party is isolationist (although Paul himself would resist that label, and it may be unfair as applied to him in particular).  Perhaps there are particular issues on which they will occasionally vote for policies that the President supports, but the isolationists and right-wing libertarian critics of the Administration are not likely partners in forging the sort of comprehensive new strategy the President has in mind.  The closest he even came to acknowleding their existence was, in his words, "to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims that have been made" -- a clear reference to Sen. Paul's questions regarding the Administration position on targeting Americans here at home.

The general tone of President's speech indicated that he expected cooperation from Congress in forging a new policy for a changed but still challenging national security environment.  I very much hope that was only for show, because, as anticipated, the Republican leadership and FoxNewsiverse pundits have already condemned Obama's speech as soft.  The President needs to figure out what he can accomplish without new legislation and do it.  Building popular support for his overall strategy might be a way to bring around some Republicans, but that will be very challenging given that his position is nuanced and the Republican position (for the most part) is not.  E.g., Mitt Romney paid no political price with Republican primary voters by vowing to "double Guantanamo."

My second reservation about the President's speech concerns what might be called its detachment, at least on some matters.  In various important respects, the speech was a defense of what the President has done.  But in others it almost sounded as though the President was an external observer of U.S. military/foreign policy.  This was particularly noticeable on the force-feeding question, where the Prsident said this:

Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike.  . . . Is this who we are?  Is that something our Founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that.
Reading that passage, one has the sense that the President is criticizing someone else's policy, but in fact it was his decision to force feed detainees--over the objections of much of the international human rights and medical communities.  Now I get that the President only took that decision because he thought that the alternatives were worse--absent some fundamental change in our approach.  But, to return to my first reservation, we're not going to get that fundamental change from this Congress, and so the challenge for the President is to figure out how, in the short run and acting on his own, he can get us closer to the new strategy that he rightly seeks.