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Obama reaches for moral high ground on drones, Gitmo

In a moral defense of his anti-terror tactics, Obama really argues for a national, even global consensus to counter the ideas of Al Qaeda and others.

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A demonstrator stands beside a mock drone near Fort McNair where President Obama spoke May 23 at the National Defense University in Washington. Obama gave a robust defense of the use of unmanned armed drones and said the threat of terrorism had shifted since 2001.

Reuters

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The two presidents since the 9/11 attacks – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – have spoken many times about the morality of their tactics against terrorists. The two differ widely on their approach, as do many Americans. Yet any counterterrorism strategy relies heavily on a national consensus in what is essentially a moral contest with Al Qaeda and like-minded groups.

On Thursday, President Obama tried once again in a speech to define the moral basis for his actions – in his use of predator drones even if they kill civilians, in trying to close Guantánamo Bay even if released detainees return to terror, in targeting American terrorists overseas even if that denies them constitutional rights.

As Mr. Bush did, Obama wrestles daily with the Gordian knot of legal, practical, and moral demands related to ending terrorist attacks. In this latest speech, he made a strong case for his approach, considering the difficult trade-offs in dealing with an enemy that is stateless and ruthless, and whose horizon for conflict seems endless.

“Our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone,” he said in his speech at the National Defense University. “We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.”

Moral defensibility often wins wars. As British historian Richard Overy wrote about World War II, the Allies won in part by relying on “the language of liberation and resistance” against the Axis powers. John Kennedy rejected a Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack against Soviet missiles in Cuba in hopes of keeping the moral high ground. Such an approach helps unify people, wins over allies, and perhaps even helps demoralize an enemy by showcasing the bankruptcy of its moral universe.

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