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.
The two presidents since the 9/11 attacks â€“ George W. Bush and Barack Obama â€“ 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 â€“ in his use of predator drones even if they kill civilians, in trying to close GuantĂˇnamo 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.
â€śOur response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone,â€ť he said in his speech at the National Defense University. â€śWe need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.â€ť
Moral defensibility often wins wars. As British historian Richard Overy wrote about World War II, the Allies won in part by relying on â€śthe language of liberation and resistanceâ€ť 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.
Obamaâ€™s moral arguments for his antiterror tactics have several intended audiences â€“ courts, Congress, the American people, and close allies like Britain. Most of all, he wants to win over Muslims who might lean toward jihad based on arguments that Americaâ€™s actions are immoral. Not all will be convinced, but each president must keep making a moral case.
Obama, a former constitutional professor, at least makes his points simple. Take the drone strike that killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the Al Qaeda chief in Yemen: â€śHis citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.â€ť
And as for civilians killed in drone strikes despite Obamaâ€™s â€śhighest standardsâ€ť to prevent such harm: â€śLet us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.â€ť
And on the need to close GuantĂˇnamo: â€śImagine a future â€“ 10 years from now, or 20 years from now â€“ when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?â€ť
Many in Congress, left and right, will offer practical reasons opposing many of his arguments. And Obama must still answer Muslims who decry his support for the antidemocratic and sometimes ruthless monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Defending Americaâ€™s security based on its values requires a constant â€“ and democratic â€“ struggle to define, hone, and implement those values. Of all the speeches by Obama and Bush to forge such a consensus, this latest one should bring more agreement than any other. It was meant to get the US off â€śa perpetual war-time footingâ€ť by narrowing the use of past tactics. A moral unity will help.