Is President Obama Ending Perpetual War, Or Institutionalizing It?

President Obama Vows to End the Perpetual War–so reads the New York Timeseditorial about President Obama’s speech on counter-terrorism policy. The Times hailed the president’s remarks as a “momentous turning point in post-9/11 America,” but given Mr. Obama’s history of broken pledges, failed expectations, and underwhelming performance, we are less than enthusiastic about this latest among countless other “turning points.”

Lofty rhetoric and empty promises are hallmarks of this presidency, and without substantive action, this speech amounts to little more than soothing words designed to placate his base, deflect criticism, and sidestep accountability. If such was his goal, and the Times‘ editorial is any indication, it will work.

“We Have to Continue Fighting a War That Must End” 

In his speech, Mr. Obama stated, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”

But what does this proclamation mean? The president promised that his “systematic efforts” to fight terrorism will–nay, must–continue. Under his administration, such efforts have included a worldwide campaign of drone strikes, covert military operations, extrajudicial killings, unilateral interventions, severe economic sanctions, aid for dubious rebel groups, indefinite detention, military tribunals, rendition, domestic surveillance, and a renewed PATRIOT Act.

Even more troubling, nearly all of this has occurred under a shroud of official secrecy, enforced by broad use of “state secrets” and a ruthless crackdown on whistleblowers. Mr. Obama has presided over coordinated efforts to intimidate and silence those who leak (or publish) information embarrassing to the government, and his administration has brought more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Revelations that the Justice Department seized months of Associated Press phone records and searched Fox News reporters’ personal emails, in efforts to find and prosecute their sources, are only two of the most recent assaults on freedom of the press.

There was much positive-sounding rhetoric in the president’s speech, but little to suggest a fundamental shift from his first term foreign policy or repudiation of the post-9/11 paradigm of expansive executive power.

Institutionalizing Military Powers

Mr. Obama spoke of “replacing,” not repealing, the outdated 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the broadly-written law allowing the commander-in-chief to use any force he deems necessary against anyone that, in his sole discretion, was connected to the attacks of September 11. But he gave no indication of what should replace it, what powers or limitations it should include, who it should target, or even what the raison d’être of such an evidently permanent arrangement should be. He only said that he would not approve anything that would “further expand the mandate” provided by the already sweeping authority of the AUMF.

The president’s vagueness on these points is not an accident, by rather an inevitable result of the lack of direction and clarity that has marked his foreign policy since taking office. His speech rang a clear alarm about the dangers of perpetual war, unnecessary conflicts, and “unbound powers,” and yet seemed to conclude with the need to institutionalize the kind of regime he and his predecessor have created.

Institutionalizing “Targeted Killings”

The Times praised Mr. Obama for finally publicly admitting that he ordered the killing of a US citizen, radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in 2011, as well as unintentionally killing three other Americans in drone strikes. They further applauded announced changes in the broader drone war, which has killed countless civilians: “The targeting of citizens of other countries will now be subjected to the same conditions the administration uses to kill American citizens abroad.”

But what, exactly, what are those conditions? That they be declared a “continuing, imminent threat.” What this means in practice, the administration refuses to say, and Mr. Obama’s reassurance of a “strict, written set of rules” for such determinations was undermined by the fact such rules would remain completely secret. Even more disturbing was the implication that we have already conceded the president’s authority to kill Americans without charges, and admitted that he alone has the power to make the rules governing his assassination program. What is left of the rule of law, after such a concession? One is tempted to say “nothing.”

Institutionalizing Indefinite Detention

Despite having shut down the office working to close the facility, President Obama again promised to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and again blamed Congress for not letting him. But this is obfuscation at its finest. Even if we concede the implausible, that this is the one limit to his authority as commander-in-chief, and that he is not in control of his own bases and prisoners, it doesn’t change the situation in the slightest. Mr. Obama has no intention of ending the policy of indefinite detention, the hopeless legal limbo that has caused at least 100 detainees at the prison to go on a hunger strike (leading the military to begin aggressively force-feeding them).

His solution of closing the prison in Cuba and transferring all the inmates to a facility in the US is a bait-and-switch. He has already declared that dozens of them cannot be either released or charged with a crime, leaving them in exactly the same situation as before. What difference does it make whether they imprisoned without charges in Cuba or on American soil? It seems that only Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans, passing this political football, think it matters, as the Supreme Court has already ruled the same rules apply wherever “enemy combatants” are held.

“Change” You Have to See to Believe–And We Haven’t Seen It

The president gave a remarkable speech, and he addressed many concerns his administration has previously ignored or dismissed. He spoke about the dangers of endless war, unchecked power, and the damage being done to our image around the world. He invited criticism and input on his direction moving forward. He sounded, in effect, very much like the Senator from Illinois who ran for president in 2008. But that he is even making such a speech, in 2013, more than four years after being elected, is a testament to his failure so far to solve our problem with perpetual war.

Since Mr. Obama took office, the United States has sent troops, bombs, weapons, or supplies to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, SyriaGuatemala, Colombia, Uganda, North Africaand Mali. Sanctions and other moves have also been made against Iran. While US troops have left Iraq and are slowly drawing out of Afghanistan, it is clear that the Global War On Terror is still very much with us, and will continue to be for many years.

Although it is true that President Obama did not initiate US involvement in some of these conflicts, it is also true that he has not been the one to disentangle us from them, either. His record thus far has been decidedly mixed. The president clearly does not want to involve the country in another large, protracted war, and he has made efforts to keep the size, cost, and risk of his strikes relatively small. But this policy is also dangerous, because it has allowed the president to meddle far and wide, with hardly any opposition, debate, oversight, or direction. Like Mr. Bush before him, he has seized unprecedented new powers, but he has met little resistance from either party because of it.

We would certainly like to believe that the president is serious about a fundamental change in direction, and an end to the heretofore endless war, but we have heard these words and seen these promises broken before. We have seen the US involve itself in numerous conflicts unrelated to its national security, and seen its missions creep and drift far from their original purpose, costing billions we can ill-afford, creating new enemies we do not need. His intention may be sincere, but as he has already learned, resisting the temptations of power and the inertia of the military establishment requires more than good intentions and eloquent speeches.

The New York Times‘ editorial board concluded, “There have been times when we wished we could hear the right words from Mr. Obama on issues like these, and times we heard the words but wondered about his commitment. This was not either of those moments.”

After four years of war, drones, and broken promises, maybe a little skepticism is just what we need at moments like these.

See also: The Long Emergency: Living In the Shadow of 9/11