The days leading up to Memorial Day seem a particularly appropriate time to start a broad discussion about war and national security. And President Obama tried to do that in his speech at the National Defense University last week. If his actions back up his words (and if he can persuade Congress to support him), it may prove to be the most important speech of his presidency.
He got headlines for saying that we can't live in a perpetual state of war. But he went much, much further, laying out the nature of the terrorist threats we face and prescribing a cautious, multi-faceted course to deal with them.
Increasingly, national security is a complex task, and Obama's topics covered a wide range: the war in Afghanistan, our relationship with Pakistan, drones, Muslims in America, Guantanamo Bay, sectarian violence, al Qaeda, Syria, the Boston bombings....
Overall, it was a highly significant speech, one that could define US policy in a period of troubling challenges. It offers a policy based on full recognition of the complexity of those challenges, a clear departure from the approach of the Bush administration, and a clear divergence from the wishes of some members of Congress.
Obama emphasized the necessity of adhering to our laws and our principles. He warned that our actions – the use of torture, misguided wars, even the most thought-out and essential military actions – can have unintended consequences.
He warned against both exaggerating and simplifying the threat of terrorism. "Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror," he said. "We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society."
Our task, he said, is to protect against the terrorism that is a direct threat "while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend."
Our decisions must be based "not on fear but on hard-earned wisdom," he said. "That begins with understanding the threat that we face."
Some terrorists are "al Qaeda affiliates," he said, intent on attacking Americans in the US. Others are groups of extremists hoping to gain political control and territory in countries like Algeria and Libya, posing a threat not to us in the US but to our diplomats and businesses in other countries.
And others are "radicalized individuals here in the United States": Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in 1995, the Boston Marathon terrorists this year.... We faced terrorists like them before 9/11, Obama noted, and we'll continue to face them. Not every "collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda," he said, "will pose a credible threat to the United States."
Use of military force, Obama said, is only one aspect of a strong national security policy: "Force alone cannot make us safe." We also need to address "the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism – from North Africa to South Asia," he said.
He called foreign aid "fundamental to our national security," "fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism."
After the speech, Republicans and conservatives were furious. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham called the president "tone deaf" about terrorism's threat. But Obama's speech was an eloquent, principled, and rational one – the result, maybe, of the president wrestling with his conscience and listening to his liberal critics.
He has disappointed before, though. In a Brookings Institution post, Benjamin Wittes said that the speech was "less than meets the eye," full of "nice words" but giving the president plenty of wiggle room.
Obama cannot run for president again, so maybe he is finding some freedom that he did not see before. But for much of his national-security agenda, he will need a willing Congress and an informed public. And we are a year away from a crucial Congressional campaign.
Proof of the value of his words last week – of his intent, his will, and his leadership skills – will be in what he does to flesh out his national security vision over the next three years.
'Force alone cannot make us safe,' the president said. We must also address 'the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.'