In a major speech last Thursday, President Barack Obama outlined a three-pronged approach to the future of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, consisting of “targeted action against terrorists, effective partnerships (and) diplomatic engagement and assistance.” However, this strategy was overshadowed by his discussion of two longstanding institutions of the war on terror — targeted strikes against terrorist suspects using remotely piloted drones and the Guantanamo Bay detention center. While his speech was critical of both these institutions and is a good starting point for the future of the war on terror, the president’s inability to close Gitmo and obstinate defense of drone strikes is disappointing. The success of the president’s new approach depends in part on him placing pressure on Congress to give him the tools he needs to close Gitmo, but also on scaling back the drone program.
In his speech, Obama claimed that his preferred method of targeted action against terrorists is to capture them. However, his actions over the past four and a half years show an entirely different preference. Though details are few, the government has used drones to kill suspected terrorists in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. While Obama contends that the program only goes after those who “pose a continuing and imminent threat against the American people,” his administration’s definition of “imminent” has been called into question before. Some estimates of the number of civilians killed by the strikes are in the thousands, and the program has been blamed for radicalizing the next generation of terrorists, even as it takes out the current generation. The administration should seriously consider ending this program and seek other methods for combating terror organizations that don’t exacerbate the future threat of terrorism.
In contrast to his discussion on drones, Obama’s evaluation of the Guantanamo Bay situation was quite accurate. At the moment, transferring prisoners away from the facility is virtually impossible without Congressional approval — even though some 86 detainees have been cleared to return to their home countries and secure facilities exist in the U.S. for the rest. Calls for its closure have reappeared as over half of the inmates have gone on a hunger strike over the last few months protesting their seemingly endless detention. Obama’s point that “(U.S.) allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo” reflects how the facility’s continued operation doesn’t line up with his new strategy. Congress must engage with Obama in order to close the facility.
Throughout the speech, Obama made it clear that terrorism is and will remain a significant threat to the U.S. His strategy’s focus on partnerships and diplomatic engagement reflects the fact that the country cannot hope to counter terrorist networks spread across multiple countries without the support and cooperation of other countries. Moreover, his proposal to eventually repeal the authorization to use force passed shortly after 9/11 indicates how the war on terror has — for better or worse — become more than a reaction to an attack on the U.S. With a few modifications in drone use and Congress’s cooperation, Obama’s strategy will be a workable blueprint for the future of counterterrorism strategy.