Declaring that “America is at a crossroads,” the president called for redefining what has been a global war into a more targeted assault on terrorist groups threatening the United States. As part of a realignment of counterterrorism policy, he said he would curtail the use of drones, recommit to closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and seek new limits on his own war power.
In a much-anticipated speech at the National Defense University, Mr. Obama sought to turn the page on the era that began on Sept. 11, 2001, when the imperative of preventing terrorist attacks became both the priority and the preoccupation. Instead, the president suggested that the United States had returned to the state of affairs that existed before Al Qaeda toppled the World Trade Center, when terrorism was a persistent but not existential danger. With Al Qaeda’s core now “on the path to defeat,” he argued, the nation must adapt.
“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Mr. Obama said. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”
The president’s speech reignited a debate over how to respond to the threat of terrorism that has polarized the capital for years. Republicans contended that Mr. Obama was declaring victory prematurely and underestimating an enduring danger, while liberals complained that he had not gone far enough in ending what they see as the excesses of the Bush era.
The precise ramifications of his shift were less clear than the lines of argument, however, because the new policy guidance he signed remains classified, and other changes he embraced require Congressional approval. Mr. Obama, for instance, did not directly mention in his speech that his new order would shift responsibility for drones more toward the military and away from the Central Intelligence Agency.
But the combination of his words and deeds foreshadowed the course he hopes to take in the remaining three and a half years of his presidency so that he leaves his successor a profoundly different national security landscape than the one he inherited in 2009. While President George W. Bush saw the fight against terrorism as the defining mission of his presidency, Mr. Obama has always viewed it as one priority among many at a time of wrenching economic and domestic challenges.
“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ ” he said, using Mr. Bush’s term, “but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,” he added. “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”
Some Republicans expressed alarm about Mr. Obama’s shift, saying it was a mistake to go back to the days when terrorism was seen as a manageable law enforcement problem rather than a dire threat.
“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said he still agreed with Mr. Obama about closing the Guantánamo prison, but he called the president’s assertion that Al Qaeda was on the run “a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible.” Mr. McCain said the president had been too passive in the Arab world, particularly in Syria’s civil war. “American leadership is absent in the Middle East,” he said.
The liberal discontent with Mr. Obama was on display even before his speech ended. Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of the antiwar group Code Pink, who was in the audience, shouted at the president to release prisoners from Guantánamo, halt C.I.A. drone strikes and apologize to Muslims for killing so many of them.
“Abide by the rule of law!” she yelled as security personnel removed her from the auditorium. “You’re a constitutional lawyer!”
Col. Morris D. Davis, a former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo who has become a leading critic of the prison, waited until after the speech to express disappointment that Mr. Obama was not more proactive. “It’s great rhetoric,” he said. “But now is the reality going to live up to the rhetoric?”
Still, some counterterrorism experts saw it as the natural evolution of the conflict after more than a decade. “This is both a promise to an end to the war on terror, while being a further declaration of war, constrained and proportional in its scope,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, a counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush.
The new classified policy guidance imposes tougher standards for when drone strikes can be authorized, limiting them to targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, according to government officials. The guidance also begins a process of phasing the C.I.A. out of the drone war and shifting operations to the Pentagon.
The guidance expresses the principle that the military should be in the lead and responsible for taking direct action even outside traditional war zones like Afghanistan, officials said. But Pakistan, where the C.I.A. has waged a robust campaign of air assaults on terrorism suspects in the tribal areas, will be grandfathered in for a transition period and remain under C.I.A. control.
That exception will be reviewed every six months as the government decides whether Al Qaeda has been neutralized enough in Pakistan and whether troops in Afghanistan can be protected. Officials said they anticipated that the eventual transfer of the C.I.A. drone program in Pakistan to the military would probably coincide with the withdrawal of combat units from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
Even as he envisions scaling back the targeted killing, Mr. Obama embraced ideas to limit his own authority. He expressed openness to the idea of a secret court to oversee drone strikes, much like the intelligence court that authorizes secret wiretaps, or instead perhaps some sort of independent body within the executive branch. He did not outline a specific proposal, leaving it to Congress to consider something along those lines.
He also called on Congress to “refine and ultimately repeal” the authorization of force it passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Aides said he wanted it limited more clearly to combating Al Qaeda and affiliated groups so it could not be used to justify action against other terrorist or extremist organizations.
In renewing his vow to close the Guantánamo prison, Mr. Obama highlighted one of his most prominent unkept promises from the 2008 presidential campaign. He came into office vowing to shutter the prison, which has become a symbol around the world of American excesses, within a year, but Congress moved to block him, and then he largely dropped the effort.
With 166 detainees still at the prison, Mr. Obama said he would reduce the population even without action by Congress. About half of the detainees have been cleared for return to their home countries, mostly Yemen. Mr. Obama said he was lifting a moratorium he imposed on sending detainees to Yemen, where a new president has inspired more faith in the White House that he would not allow recidivism.
The policy changes have been in the works for months as Mr. Obama has sought to reorient his national security strategy. The speech was his most comprehensive public discussion of counterterrorism since he took office, and at times he was almost ruminative, articulating both sides of the argument and weighing trade-offs out loud in a way presidents rarely do.
He said that the United States remained in danger from terrorists, as the attacks in Boston and Benghazi, Libya, have demonstrated, but that the nature of the threat “has shifted and evolved.” He noted that terrorists, including some radicalized at home, had carried out attacks, but less ambitious than the ones on Sept. 11.
“We have to take these threats seriously and do all that we can to confront them,” he said. “But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”
Eric Schmitt and Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
Original article on The New York Times