On May 23, President Obama spoke at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. to address rising concerns about America’s counterterrorism strategies. According to a Gallup poll conducted on March 20-21, 65% of the American public agrees the U.S. government should use drones against suspected terrorists.[i] Nevertheless, the Obama Administration felt the need to address the use of unmanned drone strikes, a tactic that less than half (41%) of Americans view as acceptable according to the same Gallup poll, most likely because of the political attention garnered when U.S. citizens have been the targets. Teeming with references to our founding fathers and their timeless debate of security versus freedom, President Obama’s address is a testament to the transformation that occurs when a young idealist is constrained by the new responsibilities and limitations to power of high office.
The speech began with the poetic language that has been commonplace in the President’s speeches since his rise to the national spotlight in 2004. With phrases like, “America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” the President painted an image of a nation not only in conflict with Al-Qaeda and its associates but also with itself.[ii] President Obama sought to elucidate the changing nature of our fight against terrorism by remarking, “The core of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”[iii] The premise of Obama’s speech is simple: the nature of terrorism has changed and our counterterrorism strategy must change accordingly. The President defined these changing dangers as “lethal, yet less capable, Al-Qaeda affiliates, threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad, and homegrown extremists.”[iv] According to the Obama Administration, the solution to this new age of terrorism is not to look at our efforts as a “boundless global war on terror,” but instead “as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.”[v] With this phrase the President foreshadows the most salient issue he must address: drone strikes.
President Obama’s speech crescendoed with his explanation of the role that drone strikes play in this new war against “localized” terror threats.[vi] The President did not disguise the drone program as a perfect tool that can rid the world of terror, something the American people know it is not, but rather as the only sensible solution for a country stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The President’s address ended with his final, and nearly emotional, point about the civilian casualties that the drone program incurs. Although President Obama assured that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured [before a drone strike is approved],” the Columbia Human Rights Clinic found that between 72 and 155 civilians were killed in 2011 in Pakistan alone.[vii] Despite these statistics, the President promised Americans that the drone program (which started under the Bush administration but escalated under Obama’s) is not only legal, but also moral.[viii]
Surprisingly, even the segment of Obama’s speech focusing on drone strikes targeting American civilians, did not garner as much ire as when the President turned to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In what President Obama must have hoped to be a quiet denouement during which he could briskly curtail humanitarian fears from liberals, condemn purely political moves by conservatives, and remain faithful to campaign promises, the President encountered outbursts from Medea Benjamin, a well-known liberal activist. Benjamin’s repeated interruptions threatened to embarrass the President’s administration if the piqued Obama could not firmly, yet respectfully, address the woman’s concerns. Benjamin urged Obama to use his presidential powers to immediately free the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama responded to Benjamin with his new policies that aim to uphold American ideals of justice while keeping Americans safe: Obama called on Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers, appointed a new envoy at the State and Defense Department whose responsibility it will be to transfer detainees, and lifted the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen.
Benjamin’s outbursts, while passionate, seemed to ignore the reality of America’s current political landscape (such as the Senate’s vote to block funds for the closure of the detention center) that has impeded Obama’s Guantanamo Bay agenda.[ix] Obama handled Benjamin presidentially by understanding her passion over this issue and by using the image of a concerned citizen shouting at her president to exemplify what victory means to a determined people. [x]
Although President Obama’s address may be lauded by those left-of-center for its unequivocal message and criticized by conservatives for its vagueness, the language of the speech displays Obama’s transition from a charismatic idealist to a resigned realist, encumbered by terrorist threats, partisan attacks, and outrage from disaffected liberals.
Watch or Read the Speech Here: http://www.npr.org/2013/05/23/186305171/transcript-obama-addresses-counterterrorism-drones
[i] Brown, Alyssa, and Frank Newport. Gallup, “In U.S., [i]65% Support Drone Attacks on Terrorists Abroad.” Last modified March 25, 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/161474/support-drone-attacks-terrorists-abroad.aspx.
[ii] Obama, Barack. “The Future of Our Fight against Terrorism.” Web, http://www.npr.org/2013/05/23/186305171/transcript-obama-addresses-counterterrorism-drones
[v] Obama, Barack. “The Future of Our Fight against Terrorism.” Web, http://www.npr.org/2013/05/23/186305171/transcript-obama-addresses-counterterrorism-drones.
[vii] Shah, Naureen. Columbia Human Rights Clinic, “Brown, Alyssa, and Frank Newport. Gallup, “In U.S., 65% Support Drone Attacks on Terrorists Abroad.” Last modified March 25, 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/161474/support-drone-attacks-terrorists-abroad.aspx..” Last modified 2011. Accessed June 2, 2013. http://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/human-rights-institute/CountingDroneDeathsPresserFINAL.pdf.
[ix] Taylor, Andrew. Associated Press, “Senate votes to block funds for Guantanamo closure”. Accessed 20 May 2009. Retrieved August 30, 2009.
[x] Braun, Meg. New America Foundation, “Drone Wars in Pakistan.” Last modified 5 29, 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013. http://natsec.newamerica.net/drones/pakistan/analysis.