By Walter Shapiro
In foreign affairs—unlike domestic policy—a president can reinvent himself in the middle of his time in office without worrying about congressional majorities. Mistaken paths can be abandoned and new approaches tried, often without public acknowledgement that anything has changed. George W. Bush did this in his second term as he moved away from the bristling go-it-alone militarism of Dick Cheney towards a more traditional approached personified by Condi Rice.
Now, Barack Obama has hit the reset button with the most far-reaching national security address of his presidency. In an hour at the National Defense University on a spring afternoon, Obama backed away from the excesses of his death-from-air drone policy, renewed his efforts to depopulate Guantanamo and tried to reassure the press that he is not attempting to criminalize investigative journalism.
Embedded in the speech was the larger message: The war on terror, launched in the panicked aftermath of Sept. 11, is finally drawing to a close nearly 12 years after it began. As Obama put it, choosing his words carefully to avoid a whiff of triumph or complacency, “We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. … Now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions—about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them.”
Obama repeatedly returned to this theme when talking about drones: “As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.” And when wondering aloud if the legal authority that Congress gave George W. Bush after 9/11 needs updating, he said: “I intend to engage Congress … to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.”
There is no absolute certainty that the policy changes that Obama hinted at will dramatically alter American national security policy. Drone attacks will continue and, under exceedingly rare circumstances, American citizens may still be targeted abroad. There is no guarantee that more than a handful of prisoners will be repatriated from Guantanamo. And neither the president nor Attorney General Eric Holder has directly repudiated the government legal document that stated that a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, might be vulnerable to prosecution in a leak investigation under the Espionage Act.
But perhaps the deeper significance of Thursday’s speech was that it was given at all. Not too long ago, the administration refused to publicly admit that it was conducting drone strikes. Now, the president mentioned the word “drone” a dozen times in a formal address. Just a few weeks ago at a press conference, Obama portrayed himself as a helpless bystander when it comes to Guantanamo. Now, he is unilaterally “lifting the moratorium on detainee transfer to Yemen.” And nothing in the structure of this speech required Obama to offer a few conciliatory sentences to a skittish national security press corps.
This shift in the president’s public rhetoric—especially on drones—may partly be the result of the changed internal dynamics of his new second-term national security team with John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defense and John Brennan as CIA director. Or, it could reflect Obama’s need to fortify his liberal flank on issues like drones and Guantanamo when he is battling scandal at the IRS and continued skepticism over the administration’s response to Benghazi and has invited comparisons to Richard Nixon in his handling of leak investigations.
Whatever its original catalyst, the speech was vintage Obama, including a mock debate with himself over whether more civilians would die in lawless nations like Pakistan if we launched drone attacks or if we depended on more traditional military raids. This was also a speech of a second-term president willing to take political gambles, such as his full-throated defense of global economic aid: “Foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent.”
But, ultimately, the biggest risk that Obama took in the speech was to not visibly worry that conservatives would brand him as “soft on terror.” Harking back to pre-2001 attacks, from the wrenching embassy bombing in Lebanon in 1983 to the 1995 carnage in Oklahoma City, Obama suggested that the scale of the threats that the nation faces today fits more into that pattern than 9/11. Implicit in this comparison was the notion that America did not restrict its liberties or wage worldwide war against such 20th-century threats.
The Obama speech—intellectually dense, well-argued and yet hazy in places—serves as a reminder of another president recasting his foreign policy at a moment of national calm rather than crisis. Almost 50 years ago to the day (June 10, 1963), John Kennedy, sobered by the nuclear standoff in the Cuban Missile Crisis, spoke eloquently of peace at American University.
While the American University speech contained a major announcement (a unilateral end of nuclear testing by the United States), it is now mostly remembered as pivotal moment in ending the eyeball-to-eyeball brinkmanship that characterized the early decades of the Cold War. “What kind of peace do we seek?” Kennedy asked rhetorically. “Not a Pax American enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living.”
Yes, the Cold War went on for a quarter century after Kennedy invoked peace at American University. But never again did Americans live with the kind of duck-and-cover nuclear war fears that were a nerve-rattling subtext of the early 1960s.
So, too, alas, isolated terrorist attacks will continue to flare up over the decades to come. And drone warfare—hopefully under tighter legal control—is going to remain a tool in the American military arsenal.
But Thursday afternoon in Washington, Barack Obama, who was less than 2 years old when JFK spoke at American University, declared that our long war against Islamic terrorists was drawing to a close. And that we could soon return to genuine peace—the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living.