What Mattered in Obama's Speech Today: Ending the Open-Ended 'War on Terror'

Passed when the Pentagon and World Trade Center rubble were still smoking, the AUMF has been the basis for everything since.
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This speech was very long -- nearly 7000 words, even longer than my profile of Jerry Brown! And I didn't expect anyone to listen to me read my article aloud. Also, I am not going to deal with the part of the speech that has been most thoroughly discussed: changes, or not, in the administration's drone policy.

Instead I'll focus on a part of the speech that I think matters even more: his argument that the time has come to end the "war on terror." And, even more important, to bring an end to the "Authorization for Use of Military Force," which the Congress passed while the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was still smoking and which has been the basis for the wars, detention, killings, and torture carried out in the 11+ years since then.

I am long on record in arguing that, even though America will continue to face threats and endure attacks including from Islamic-motivated extremists, it needs to move off the open-ended, permanent-war footing that was used to justify invasions and constraints on civil liberties. Yes, there will still be attacks, perhaps (I hope not) even as horrific as the recent one in London. But we do not let the tens of thousands of annual highways deaths justify banning cars; nor the toll of alcohol justify a new Prohibition; nor take an absolutist approach to a range of other risks, starting with guns. So too with "terror" risks. We cannot end them, but we don't have to be driven mad by them.

I thought that was a case Obama was building toward today. Parts of the speech I noted, with occasional commentary in brackets [like this]:

1) How we got here, and at what cost:

And so [after 9/11] our nation went to war. We have now been at war for well over a decade....

Meanwhile, we strengthened our defenses - hardening targets, tightening transportation security, and giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror. Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. [TSA} But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy [good to have a president noting this tension]. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values - by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law. [Even better to have this noted.]

2) It's not just about "keeping America safe":

From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation - and world - that we leave to our children.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us [the post-9/11 era crystallized] mindful of James Madison's warning that "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." [Wish I had remembered this quote in some of my previous articles.]

3) Thank you: talking to us as if we were grown-ups.

Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror.

4) Putting today's threats in perspective:

While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based. That means we will face more localized threats like those we saw in Benghazi.

5) A very important sentence, helpfully highlighted by me:

Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. 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.

This is part of the long sweep of American history.

6) Again, let's match the problems of the moment to the tradition of the centuries:

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

7) There is more to what is going on than the effectiveness of drone strikes:

To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.

8) I cannot overemphasize how important this passage  is:

All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact - in sometimes unintended ways - the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why 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...

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. [See also this.]

I won't go into Gitmo, nor Obama's (correct) argument that this facility must be closed down.  But I will mention (9) his peroration:

America, we have faced down dangers far greater than al Qaeda. By staying true to the values of our founding, and by using our constitutional compass, we have overcome slavery and Civil War; fascism and communism.... But because of the resilience of the American people, these events could not come close to breaking us.

What I hate, hated, about the "post-9/11" era was the idea that this threat eclipsed all others America had faced, and justified the abrogation of liberties and principles we had defended through the centuries. These are complex trade-offs. Think of having a president who recognizes their complexity -- and comes down on the side of liberties.

__

I am remiss in not noting the ending, (10):
Thank you. God Bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

Sigh. But again, this was a speech for grown-ups.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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