Posted by Curt on 24 May, 2013 at 10:27 am. 1 comment.


Jim Talent @ NRO:

Shortly after the president’s speech yesterday, a friend of mine who is an expert on counterterrorism e-mailed me the following: “That speech was pretty much every constitutional-law class he ever taught. A moral argument with himself.”

I couldn’t have said it better. The speech raises more questions than it answers. Herewith, some observations:

The speech asserts that, because al-Qaeda’s centralized planning capability has been degraded, the threat of a large scale, 9/11-style attack on the United States has been reduced. That ignores the fact that, after American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, al-Qaeda in the region will likely reconstitute itself, at least in the southern provinces of the country. If the president has a plan to prevent that, he has yet to tell anyone what it is. It also assumes that the networks that al-Qaeda and its associates have established in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula will be unable or unwilling to plan or assist in a high-casualty attack on the United States. But why not? In his speech, the president said that these groups are concentrating on local targets. That may be true now, but how will we make sure it doesn’t change in the future?

On this point, there is an underlying reality which the president should have addressed. During the first 150 years of the Republic, the oceans protected the American homeland from sudden, devastating attacks. In the information age, that strategic reality has changed; today, rogue states or sub-national movements can launch cyber, biological, or even nuclear attacks directly against the United States, even with limited resources. To this point, the Obama administration has been vocal but not effective on the cyber danger, and it hasn’t begun to deal with the other threats. Nothing in the president’s speech changed that.

The president explained that, because the terrorist conflict is winding down, he wants the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), essentially a declaration of war against al-Qaeda and associated forces, to be changed so that the United States is not on a perpetual “war footing.” He should probably have mentioned that to Michael Sheehan, his assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Just one week ago, Sheehan testified before Congress that “[the administration is] comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured. Right now . . . it serves its purpose. In my judgment, this is going to go on for quite a while, yes, beyond the second term of the president. . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

The strongest part of the speech was the president’s defense of deploying drones against terrorist targets. But the context was the president’s evident but vague discomfort with how drones are being used. According to President Obama, he will only use drones when there is a “continuing and imminent” threat to the American people, and only when there is a “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed. Does this mean that if there is a “continuing and imminent” threat to the American homeland that a drone attack could stop, but more than a near certainty that foreign civilians would be killed if drones were used, the president would not act?

Is this a change from our past policy? How are we to know whether a change has now occurred, since the administration has never said what our past policy is? Why did the United States recently put a new drone base in Niger if the president is planning to limit their use? And how does the spread of terrorist networks to the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Syria, Libya, and other areas suggest less need for drones? If drones are as effective as the president has claimed, and if there are now more targets spread over a broader geographic area, doesn’t that mean we should use drones even more?

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