Obama’s Impossible Alternative to Bush’s War on Terror

Obama hasn’t found a good reason to dump the Bush doctrine.

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President Barack Obama talks about national security, Thursday, May 23, 2013, at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. Declaring America at a "crossroads" in the fight against terrorism, the president Barack revealed clearer guidelines for the use of deadly drone strikes, including more control by the U.S. military, while leaving key details of the controversial program secret. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

The 9/11 attacks for Americans and Europeans have faded into memory; the very success of the counterterrorism policies of the United States has bred the belief that the threat no longer exists. Current victory in the war, from the perspective that the United States has not experienced a successful mass attack on American soil, has led many to conclude that the war is over. The domestic obsessions of recession and health care overshadow international crises. International crises are so many that the War on Terror is often forgotten.

The President's speech at National Defense University on May 23 was an attempt at another pivot concerning counterterrorism. It, like everything the Obama administration does, avoids grand strategy and strategic thinking.

The speech has been dissected and autopsied in the mainstream media. The key points are known: The United States must adapt to a supposedly weakened al-Qaida and turn its back on the Global War on Terror. But this assumes, erroneously, that this administration believed that there was a strategic threat from al-Qaida or that there was a Global War on Terror to begin with. The very president that made drone war into the third rail of fighting announced that they should be more limited and with greater congressional oversight. Obama went on to promote the idea that America should address the "underlying grievances" of extremists, which include supporting democracy, but without any passion.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The most severe aspect to the speech, though, was the president's call to repeal the AUMF, the Authorization to Use Military Force. The AUMF was and is the cornerstone of America's Global War on Terrorism. This is, so far, the pinnacle of the Obama Doctrine, something this column has devoted months to exploring.

Under Obama, the United States has announced the abandonment of Iraq, the premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, the acceptance of genocide in Syria, the acquiescence of chaos in Libya, the unwillingness to recognize Islamic extremism at home and abroad as organized or threatening, and now, as the height of fantasy, wishes to repeal the one major act that has kept the wolf at the gate, the one act that would allow a future president to pursue the strategic threat that transnational and state sponsored terrorism poses.

The speech resurrects the question: Does anyone have a reasonable alternative to the strategic counterterrorism policy of the Bush administration? There is always plenty of talk about operational and tactical counterterrorism, but very little about strategic counterterrorism. This is a national strategic direction that leads all aspects of the fight. For the Bush Doctrine, it was the belief that the only way to counter terrorism on a macro scale was to assist in the creation of democracy and civil society, especially the Middle East, to drain the toxic poison that fuels extremism, poverty and corruption. This view is often mutated to mean only elections.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

But the Bush Doctrine was always about more than elections, because elections in and of themselves are only an end result to law, order, security and, most importantly, civil society, which protects rights and liberties for all. The old chestnut that the Bush Doctrine bred the victory of Hamas is both absurd and grotesque. It is definitely true that groups like Hamas believe in "one man, one vote, one time," but that is hardly the American view of democracy and civil society; it is in fact, the opposite.

I did not find my answer to this question in the president's recent speech and am led again to conclude that no one but the Bush administration had any real answer to the strategic question. It becomes therefore en vogue to spend considerable time in the media, conferences, journals and speeches to wax on about operational and tactical issues, which are meaningless without a strategic rudder. So what if you build roads and schools if al-Qaida or the Taliban blows up the food trucks and beheads the teachers? So what if you destroy a terrorist encampment with a predator drone, if that leads to no political or social sea change?

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

This is not to suggest the foolish conclusion that these activities aren't necessary; it is that they are futile without a strategic blueprint. It was the Bush Doctrine that gave us that strategic blueprint of preemption, prevention, primacy and democracy promotion. If that is not the answer, then what is?

President Obama's speech creates the need to reassess the very threat that he seeks to diminish. Here we are with a Sunni extremist global jihad and a Shiite extremist attempt at territorial expansion; we ask where does the war stand? I have identified ten grand issues in the War on Terror that need to be assessed eight years after 9/11. In my next column I will identify these ten issues concerning the Global War on Terror and expose much of the wrongheaded thinking that the war's critics have created.

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