President Barack Obama will defend his counterterrorism policies in a speech at National Defense University on Thursday afternoon, looking to reassure Americans concerned about his hugely controversial targeted assassination strategy with drones and revive efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected extremists.
Obama’s remarks come as key lawmakers have begun debating whether to revise and update the post-9/11 law that underpins most of the so-called war on terrorism, legislation known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF. Critics worry the executive branch has interpreted the AUMF as a blank check for a global campaign over which lawmakers have only limited oversight.
Ahead of the speech, here are some questions about Obama’s approach to the anti-terror campaign begun when al-Qaida militants slammed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
— How long does Obama think the conflict against al-Qaida will last?
It’s been called “the forever war.” Some critics have scoffed at the very idea of a “war on terrorism,” arguing that because terrorism is a tactic, the United States might as well be fighting a “war on flanking maneuvers.” Obama shares this view, at least based on these remarks from 2004.
What does he think now? Does he agree with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a May 16 hearing that the conflict will last “at least 10 to 20 years” from today?
— Are drones creating more extremists than they are killing?
At an April 30, 2013, press conference, Obama renewed his call to close the detention facility for suspected extremists at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Why? “It is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
Will he address that same question now for drones? There’s ample evidence that America’s drone strikes are vastly unpopular across the Muslim world. While U.S. officials play down civilian casualties and insist that the United States takes every precaution to minimize them, such tragedies occur and plainly fuel anti-U.S. sentiment.
There is precedent for a president asking the U.S. intelligence community to make such an assessment. A formal 2006 study by America’s intelligence community found that the Iraq invasion and occupation was creating terrorists faster than U.S. forces could take them out.
And there’s a problem with past Obama promises to use deadly force only in response to imminent danger of attack. The White House has redefined “imminent threat” to the point of meaninglessness. A Justice Department memo, revealed in February, declares that “‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
And a May 2012 New York Times report said the administration minimizes civilian casualties by counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.”
— How will America respond to drone strikes by other countries?
The Obama administration has argued that it has the right to kill suspected terrorists inside other countries, with or without the host country’s green light. The president reaffirmed that right in May 2011 when he ordered the raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.
So what happens when China or Russia assassinates someone they consider a terrorist? It’s hardly an idle concern. Countries are racing to make up lost time in the race for drones. U.S. ally France, for instance, is in talks to buy drones from the United States and Israel. Others aren’t far behind.
There are related questions. Will Obama push for some kind of global regulatory structure affecting drone sales, something akin to nonproliferation regimes affecting the transfer of nuclear or chemical weapon technology?
— How many Americans, total, have been killed by their government since 2009?
The administration revealed late Wednesday that four Americans have been killed in drone strikes “outside of areas of active hostilities” since 2009: radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and three others who were “not specifically targeted.” What about inside areas of active hostilities, like Iraq or Afghanistan? What about with means other than drone strikes?
— How will Obama overcome bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo Bay?
The first lawmaker to deal a major blow to Obama’s promise to close the facility was a Democrat, then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey. And with the campaign ahead of the 2014 midterms already heating up, vulnerable Democrats may not rush to support the president’s approach.
— How will Obama deal with the Guantanamo detainees that his administration has decided cannot be tried in court and are too dangerous to be released?
This has always been a policy nightmare. No U.S. president wants to free someone who might turn around and attack Americans. And it’s not clear what’s to be gained from simply transferring the detainees to another facility to end their days there.
— How does an American get off Obama’s “kill list”?
Apart, of course, from the way that results in drone pilots half a world away high-fiving each other? If there are no formal charges to contest, where do you go if you think your government has wrongly targeted you for assassination? Or, as the author of a harrowing book on Obama’s counterterrorism strategy, Jeremy Scahill, puts it: “How do you surrender to a drone?”
— Why can’t the next president just roll back any changes Obama makes?
A White House official said late Wednesday that Obama’s speech would coincide with “the signing of new Presidential Policy Guidance that lays out the standards under which we take lethal action.”
But presidents have a tough enough time fulfilling their own campaign promises (see: Guantanamo Bay, Obama’s pledge to close), never mind abiding by their predecessors’ rules. Whatever unilateral steps Obama announces on Thursday, a future president could likely undo.