Obama’s Terrorism Speech Was a Beginning, Not an End

When was the last time a president argued with not just a heckler but himself, laying out the pros and cons of different options?

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

The speech President Obama just finished giving laid out principles and concerns against which a series of hard policy choices ahead must be measured. It did not lay out specific pathways; but it set out more comprehensively than any president or other official has a case for what the U.S. government is trying to do in combating terrorism and why specific tactical choices have been made.

What did we learn?

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

  • Barack Obama the thoughtful law professor and long-range strategist is alive and well. When have we last heard a president argue not just with a heckler but with himself, laying out the pros and cons of several counterterrorism practices that have come to define his presidency? When did we last hear a president offer the public options on how to respond to a national security concern – increased oversight for targeted killings – and critique them both?
  • The speech lacked many specifics and at the same time committed the president to embarking on some genuinely challenging and politically risky steps: releasing Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo, moving some other prisoners to the United States, initiating a Congressional dialogue on his authority to use military force against terrorists.
  • The president gave a ringing endorsement of an America that uses resilience and unity, rather than fear and profiling, as the fundamental touchstones of its security: "the refutation of fear is both our sword and our shield." This view is broadly shared across the national security establishment. But how those touchstones translate into policy, and how they play out, looks dramatically different from the point of view of local police, Muslim Americans, telecoms companies or rural Yemenis.
  • [See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

    This last point is why this speech must be the beginning, not the end, of an aggressive effort to help different stakeholders see where the actual impacts of their preferred policies are different from what they anticipated, and adjust accordingly. That kind of flexibility is what led President Bush to favor closing Guantanamo, which opened on his watch; and seems to have led President Obama to move toward a more limited pace and more transparency around the targeted killing program.

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