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Obama rhetorically ends the 'war on terror'

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Larry Downing/Reuters

(Read caption) President Barack Obama makes a point about his administration's counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington on Thursday.

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President Barack Obama's sprawling national security speech this afternoon veered from the controversial drone program that has killed at least 3,000 alleged militants overseas since 2002 to the legality and ethics of his justice department snooping into reporter's emails.

But if the speech is remembered for anything years hence it will be as the moment when the president declared "The war on terrorism is dead! Long live the open-ended game of whack-a-mole against diffuse networks!"

Yes, that's right. Obama has rhetorically put to bed the frankly silly GWOT terminology – while obliquely calling for years of low-grade conflict. The president said that core Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan are on a "path to defeat" but said the use of the drone program, to kill people in far off lands we are not at war with, will have to continue for years.

"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," Obama said. "Beyond Afghanistan, we 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."

Of course, "persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists" doesn't fall as lightly off the tongue as does "global war on terror" or even the briefly popular GWOT ("Gee-WOT"). But that's what the US has mostly been doing in recent years with its killings in Pakistan and Yemen, which dramatically accelerated after Obama took office. And that's clearly the way Obama would like to keep it (for those keeping score at home, he mentioned Syria only twice, once in passing and once in a manner that contained a warning: "We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism.")

The US really is in a different era. Obama with his words hasn't opened it. In fact, they're an acknowledgement of a new reality, as was his urging of Congress not to extend the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was passed 12 years ago and that began the overarching justification for so much that has happened since. The president was right to worry that open-ended war powers for presidents tend to lead nations in dark directions. He continued:

"I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing. 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."

From here he went to a spirited defense of the drone program, calling it highly successful at disrupting Al Qaeda, legal, and necessary. Though he expressed some concerns – "to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance" – he left little doubt that we'll be droning on. And on. And he did not appear to address the concerns of some that overuse of aerial bombings in foreign lands may help recruit new members to anti-American causes.

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