Editorial: Obama is right to transition war on terror

Published: Friday, May. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 9:24 am

This was the clear and visionary speech that President Barack Obama should have delivered soon after Osama bin Laden was killed two years ago.

Nearly 12 years after 9/11, the president on Thursday told Americans that the enemy is diminished and different, and that the war on terror, like all wars, must eventually end.

Now that al-Qaida is nearly defeated, the threat is less another 9/11-scale attack on the homeland and more like the localized attacks against U.S. interests abroad that came before Sept. 11, 2011, the president said. While we must be vigilant about not allowing terrorist groups to strengthen, a "perpetual war" also endangers our democracy because it "will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways," he said.

"America is at a crossroads," Obama declared. "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."

In this new phase of the war on terror, our strategy must match the new reality, with only targeted operations against specific extremists, the president correctly argued. This includes significant, long-overdue restrictions on the use of deadly, unmanned drones, which human rights groups and other critics say violate international law and have killed hundreds of civilians.

Under rules Obama signed Wednesday, drone strikes will be more limited in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia outside war zones. They will only be used against terrorists who pose "a continuing and imminent threat" to Americans and who cannot safely be captured – and not unidentified people who act like terrorists or might be associated with al-Qaida.

It does make you wonder: How many unjustified or unnecessary deaths, including civilian casualties, happened under the looser rules of engagement? Given the secrecy shrouding the drone war, we may never fully know, but the president should provide an accounting.

Even as Obama announced the new policy and said he is haunted by civilian deaths, he strongly defended the drone war as just and effective. That includes the targeting of U.S. citizens who plot to kill Americans from abroad – like Anwar al-Awlaki, who Obama said helped plan two failed plane bombings. While al-Awlaki was deliberately killed in 2011, the administration has finally confirmed that three other U.S. citizens were killed by drones because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Obama wisely said that winning the war on terror also requires providing foreign aid, supporting democracy movements and dealing with the underlying causes for extremism. One significant grievance is the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay – and the president renewed his effort to close it.

It needs to happen. The camp at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba damages our legal principles and our reputation, besides costing taxpayers about $900,000 a year for each detainee. More than half the 166 men being held were deemed a low enough risk more than three years ago for conditional release or transfer to other countries.

Obama said he is ending the moratorium on sending detainees to Yemen and appointing a senior official to spearhead the overseas transfers. He said the others can be tried in the federal courts or in military tribunals, or can be safely held in the United States.

Obama's plan on Guantánamo provoked the only applause of his speech – and the only protest.

An activist rudely and repeatedly interrupted the president, calling on Guantánamo to be closed immediately. Obama showed grace and patience – and used the woman's shouting to make his point that free speech is among our fundamental values that cannot become a casualty of the war on terror.

"We have faced down dangers far greater than al-Qaida," he said, and did so "by staying true to the values of our founding and by using our constitutional compass."

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