We're accustomed to President Obama delivering big political speeches, and thinking about them in political terms -- was the rhetoric persuasive, will various constituencies approve or disapprove, how will the arguments be received, etc. But some speeches are important for reasons that have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with policy.
President Obama's speech on national security this afternoon, delivered at the National Defense University, clearly falls into this latter category. This wasn't about inspirational oratory; this was a war-time president charting a new, more constructive course when it comes combating terrorism.
Indeed, it was arguably a key moment in marking a possible end of the 9/11 era. [Update: Transcript here.]
It's a little tough to summarize, largely because the president covered so much ground, and for detailed analysis, I'd strongly encourage you to tune in to tonight's The Rachel Maddow Show. But for now, let's talk a bit about Obama's approach to national security going forward.
"[M]ake no mistake: our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11."
This isn't what the right wants to hear, of course, but it's very much in line with the assessments of nearly all credible experts on counter-terrorism. The nature of the threat has changed, and a responsible U.S. policy must change with it. That the president realizes this is a low bar to clear, but it's nevertheless encouraging.
"America is 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."
Right. The "total defeat" of a possible terrorist threat, now and forever, is not going to happen, and basing a national foreign policy on such a goal is counter-productive.
"[W]e must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' -- but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
It's a genuine relief to hear a president say this out loud.
"[A]s our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it. That's why, over the last four years, my Administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists -- insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday."
All of this was in reference to drone strikes, and while I'm glad the policy has been codified, it's worth emphasizing that this policy was signed "yesterday." That said, Obama went on to explain the fact that the "need for unmanned strikes" will "reduce" once the war in Afghanistan ends, that the U.S. "does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists," and that Congress "is briefed on every strike that America takes."
And what of the civilian deaths? "For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq."
As for the Stand with Rand crowd, the president added, "For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen -- with a drone, or a shotgun -- without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil."
"I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war -- through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments -- will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways."
In this context, it was especially heartening to hear the president tout the benefits of foreign aid as being "fundamental to our national security and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism."
"The Justice Department's investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society. As Commander-in Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable. Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law."
A media shield law will still be a heavy lift in Congress, but I'm glad it's part of Obama's comprehensive vision.
"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 AQAP 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. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."
This is no small moment. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States adopted a war footing -- and never stopped. What Obama is describing here is a fundamental shift.
As for the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, this is when protestors began interrupting the speech, but Obama nevertheless characterized the prison as a facility that needs to be closed and "should never have been opened." The president is asking for Congress to lift the restrictions; he's appointing a new envoy to complete transfers; and he will demand "judicial review be available for every detainee."
And what about those protestors? It was interesting to hear Obama express some sympathy for their perspective, saying he's willing to cut one of his interrupting critics "some slack, because it's worth being passionate about." After another interruption, he added, "The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn't listening to me and much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong."
It would have been easy for the president to ignore these critics, or dismiss their outbursts as fringe nonsense. I'm glad Obama chose a more substantive approach.
These are just some of the elements from my notes, and whether you agree with it or not, the video of the speech is worth your time. For real analysis, I'd strongly recommend tuning into MSNBC tonight at 9 p.m. eastern.