Post 9/11, from the Patriot Act to “armed peace”

Romain Champetier, translated by Carla Ortuño Guendell
28 Août 2013

During his speech at the National Defense University (NDU) at the end of May, Barack Obama solemnly announced the end of the “Global War on Terror”, what was the devastating inheritance of a decade of adventurous liberation. Has the United States truly shifted to the post-9/11 era?

Credits -- US Coast Guard photo - Petty Officer 1st Class David B. Mosley
Credits -- US Coast Guard photo - Petty Officer 1st Class David B. Mosley
Contrary to his predecessor, Barack Obama claims to be moderate, pragmatic and to hold a sense of realism. His doubts about the Syrian crisis, product of skepticism that is more than understandable with regard to the interventionist gaffes caused by administrators that preceded him after the fall of the Berlin wall, accurately reflect the characteristics of a person who is not naturally prone to excess and volatility. 

A better-suited use of UAVs

On the 23rd of May 2013, during his second and highly awaited speech about national security – the second in a 4-year term– given at the National Defense University (NDU), the President’s intentions flew through the air like gunshots. “America is at a crossroads […] this war (the war against terror, GWOT, ndlr), like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.” It is a surprise to find out that, while the strikes of UAVs continue on - despite the slowing down of the pace since last year -the United States has finally overcome its worse demon and has beaten Islamic terrorism.
At the end of his speech, Barack Obama defined the new legal framework of the antiterrorist fight, which is namely a clean one, less ambitious than that established by his Republican predecessor.
It stated first of all that, as suggested for many weeks by his administration, Obama took a number of measures to limit the use of UAVs in the Middle East. From now on, all strikes should meet the criteria described in the last Presidential Policy Guidance. For a strike to be authorized, the threat must be “non-stopping and imminent” for American safety, the capture of the target become absolutely impossible and there should be near certainty that there will be no civilian victims. He also wants the Pentagon to be in charge of UAV strikes, and make the CIA - which has been until now responsible of the strikes –in charge of intelligence and espionage activities. Lastly, Obama objects to maintaining the “signature strikes”, i.e. the authorized strikes against targets “suspected” of complicity or of engaging in terrorism.
On the other hand, as a sign that he hopes to cut the scope of the antiterrorist fight, Obama urged Congress to rework and possibly revoke the controversial legislation Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF)—an extremely vague text voted at the end of 2001— which until now had made up the legal basis of the 10-year-long antiterrorist policy. As US antiterrorist activities only target from now on Al-Qaeda, it seemed obvious to adapt the legislation, considered antidemocratic.
Moreover, hand in hand with the humbleness and respect for the institutions that comprise it, President Obama promised to limit the presidential power in order to better supervise the UAV war management. And this, even if –by his own admission— Congress is systematically informed of authorized strikes. In the future, an institution or a special court will be in charge of this, just like the FISA court for phone tapping.
Lastly, Obama reiterated his desire to close the offshore prison of Guantanamo. Often blamed for his incapacity to keep one of his most symbolic electoral promises, Obama said he would put an end to Guantanamo regardless of Congress’ stance. Amongst other promises, he promised to send the Yemeni prisoners back to their country of origin and to do his best to ensure the transfer of other prisoners into other American jails. 

The end of the War on Terror?

After a decade of stalemate in the Middle East, a true tombstone of empires, has Obama buried the hatchet for good? Not exactly. President Obama warns: We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society”. What interpretation should be made of a speech that, as many experts confess, marks the epilogue of the Global War on Terror?
Facts show that the Global War on Terror came to an end from the moment Barack Obama started doing his best organizing the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if he authorized in 2009 the “surge”, in other words the 300 000 extra soldiers that were sent to Afghanistan, the mantra of Obama’s administration will have been a monumental job of strategic retrenchment and readjustment of forces towards the Asia-Pacific. The national budget and the boosting of the economy being his first mandate’s main purposes, Obama has been forced to rethink the organization of the antiterrorist war. Instead of following his neo-Conservative predecessor’s strategy that consisted on bringing evil states to their knees and sending many soldiers onto the battlefield, Obama opted on frugality and moderation. Obama chose to focus on the war against Al-Qaeda instead of on a globalizing doctrine targeting transnational terrorism and an expensive counter-insurgency strategy on men and public resources. His “sole” ambition is that of cutting off the lifelines of the Islamic nebula that is Al-Qaeda and at the same time avoiding the loss of as many American lives as possible.
What does the President’s reorientation imply? By only targeting Al-Qaeda, Obama is focusing all his effort on a very specific organization that is non-representative of all the existing extremist circles of influence in the Middle East. “Beyond Afghanistan, he asserted, 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”. Terrorist threats and Islamic extremists tend to be somewhat of a hodgepodge; Al-Qaeda, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas are not to be put under the same umbrella. 

Refocusing American Foreign Policy

Obama’s speech at NDU is not new but simply confirms a 4-year-long strategic turnaround. The reconfiguration of the strategic fight against terrorism has taken place and new war tools have overcome Al-Qaeda’s resistance. It is in a way the rhetoric that catches up to a reality that has already been established. However, it would be too soon to store this speech in the dusty files of the White House without having even analyzed the key issues.
Actually, Obama has not only come through on his first mandate, he also represents the end of an era. The era of the War on Terror. An era where the absolute national priority was terrorism and only terrorism. After 4 years of hardworking management of Bush’s military inheritance, Obama ushers the United States into a post 9/11 era. Through this speech, he does not only affix the presidential seal over strategic changes already made and progress in data already recorded. He contributes to the shaping of what the next mandate will be like. He intends to bequeath to his successor a country free from his Middle East burden, which recovered its legitimacy and that acts within a secure landscape completely different from the one inherited 4 years ago.
The focus on the Asia-Pacific region marks a huge disengagement in the Middle East and a road towards peace. According to Obama, with Al-Qaeda’s heart “in full flight” and the epilogue of important operations to stabilize the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country has to turn the page of the War on Terror and adapt to the new challenges. This radical change is not only semantic. While George W. Bush made of the Global War on Terror the key element of his foreign policy - his priority in foreign policy - Barack Obama considers it as one of many priorities, in a context of economic crisis and a symbolic shift towards Asia. 

The establishment of armed peace

In spite of criticism, the vague and unstable character of the new legal framework imposed on the use of UAVs, and the continued aerial strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, Obama has begun the long march towards peace. He warns that peace does not mean a complete eradication of terrorism. The assassination of the ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya as well as the attacks by the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston remind the United States of the risks of terrorism – be they external or internal (homegrown terrorism), whether it is a victim under the leadership of harmful organizations or through the intervention of lone-wolf terrorism.“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror” admits Obama. This “armed peace” largely differs from the GWOT. In an era of peace, instead of sending out the cavalry and declaring an all-out war, the United States tackles the risks of terrorism through diplomatic measures, foreign aid, special forces, UAVs, the training of local forces, etc. In other words, everything but armed aggression.
Even if the UAV war goes on and phantoms from the Bush era continue to hunt today’s administration - as illustrated by the Snowden scandal and the strict surveillance role of the NSA - Obama must stay on his feet. He goes on the road towards peace, yet he does not disarm. Obama declared: “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”. Lowering the antiterrorist war’s ambitions, Obama’s rhetoric and method stand out. Without being sung the praises of weakness to, he moves forward modestly toward an evil he knows is incurable, but that he wishes nonetheless to defeat by winning on the battlefield. More so than the War on Terror that America has to fight, is the battle of ideologies that a true post-9/11-America must win to conquer its own demons.