Obama’s Ambitious National Security Shift

Obama laid out a new security vision with which both the left and the right can take issue.

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Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama delivered, perhaps, the signature national security policy speech of his presidency – at least to date. He attempted to thread the needle in warding off attacks both from the right and the left – Code Pink's Madea Benjamin's outbursts during his talking showing just how displeased the far left is with his policies.

But overall it appeared that the president intends to shift major elements of his national security policy in the second term from the first term's more pragmatic feel – a quasi-continuation of the second term George W. Bush policy – to a more idealistic approach.

Noting that the United States still faces threats from international and domestic terrorists, he argued that the nation is nonetheless at a crossroads:

We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison's warning that "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom. And that begins with understanding the threat we face.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

He outlined the tenets of his "comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy." It boils down to:

Targeted action against terrorists. Effective partnerships. Diplomatic engagement and assistance. Through such a comprehensive strategy we can significantly reduce the chances of large scale attacks on the homeland and mitigate threats to Americans overseas. As we guard against dangers from abroad, however, we cannot neglect the daunting challenge of terrorism from within our borders.

And he resolutely defended as legal the use of armed drones against terrorists, although he did state that it was always preferable to detain and prosecute terrorists when possible.

[ Take the U.S. News Poll: Does the U.S. Need to Rework the War on Terror?]

On the Authorization for Use of Military Force, he stated:

I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.

He also called for an eventual end to the use of Guantanamo Bay as a detention facility and praised the resilience of the American people. As an end-state for this war with al-Qaida he said:

Our victory against terrorism won't be measured in a surrender ceremony on a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street. The quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear – that is both our sword and our shield. And long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world's memory, alongside the brutal despots, deranged madmen, and ruthless demagogues who litter history – the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries, to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad.  And that flag will still stand for freedom.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

This was an ambitious speech. Elements of it will surely remain unpopular on both the left and right. The invocation of resilience probably will be the key to determining whether this shift in policy is possible over the long run.

As the Boston Marathon bombing, and more recently, the brutal "propaganda of the deed" attack on a British soldier in Woolwich showed, the self-radicalization of extremists – what the defense intellectual Frank Hoffman calls "autocatyltic" terrorism – may test both resilience and public opinion. If such domestic terrorists, especially if they are materially or ideationally supported from abroad, can keep the issues simmering, then it will be a tough sell to a divided public that it is time to jettison a war-footing.