Page 1 of 2
May 29, 2013 03:25:30AM MDT
Commander in Doubt
May 24, 2013, 6:35 p.m. ET
wsj.comPresident Obama delivered one of the more remarkable speeches of his Presidency on Thursday, or for that matter of any recent President. The Commander in Chief who has ruthlessly used nearly all of the antiterror tools bequeathedby his predecessor has suddenly declared that the war on terror is all but over, and he invited Congress to put newlimits on his war powers.
"The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self," he said in 7,000 words at NationalDefense University. "Groups like AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years tocome, 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, orcontinue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states."If this logic sounds familiar, that's because it is the way the U.S. thought about terrorism before 9/11. Terrorists werea disparate and minor threat, one that could be handled by law enforcement and intelligence, not with the tools of war. We learned differently 12 years ago, but now Mr. Obama is saying it is safe to return to that mindset.The President is right that "core al Qaeda" has been diminished, but in the next breath he also concedes that it has"shifted and evolved." Jihadist outfits now spread across North and East Africa, through most of the Middle East toPakistan. They are less concentrated than they once were in Afghanistan, but in some ways more dangerous for that.One of them killed four Americans in Benghazi, and other Islamists inspired the Boston marathon bomber.In 1999, Bill Clinton thought al Qaeda was a small band that posed a limited threat abroad. One of the lessons of post-9/11 policy was to keep the pressure on these groups so they can't become comfortable enough to plot attackson the U.S. That requires war powers like drone strikes, special-forces raids and extended detention.Yet Mr. Obama announced that he has put new limits on the drone strikes he so greatly expanded. Shifting droneoperations to the Pentagon from the CIA may make sense for such a kinetic program, though the spy agency hasoften been more nimble than the defense bureaucracy.More troubling is Mr. Obama's vow to use drones in the future only if there is "near-certainty that no civilians willbe killed or injured." Mr. Obama didn't say that U.S. drones, with their precision and ability to linger over a target,already limit civilian casualties like no aerial weapon in history. Near-certainty is an almost impossible standard tomeet, and announcing it only invites terrorists to hide among more civilians.White House officials also say that future drone targets must pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to the U.S., ahigher bar than the previous standard of "significant threat." This new threshold still leaves wiggle room, but theclear political message to U.S. generals is to take no risks. The number of drone strikes has already dropped from ahigh of 121 in 2010 to 23 so far this year.Mr. Obama even invited Congress to work with him to enshrine limits in law. He said Congress could establish "aspecial court to evaluate and authorize lethal action" or create "an independent oversight board in the executivebranch" to second-guess drone decisions.The second idea is only slightly less dreadful than the first, which would put judges with no military expertise in thechain of command. Both undermine the President's constitutional authority to conduct wars. Mr. Obama mentionedthe potential problems with this oversight, but even suggesting it is an invitation to a Rand Paul-Nancy Pelosicoalition to make it a political cause.As he did in his re-election campaign, Mr. Obama also made much of the understandable American yearning forpeace. "This war, like all wars, must end," he averred. "That's what history advises. That's what our democracydemands." And he invited Congress to revise and limit its post-9/11 war authorization that has served as the main