Saying that America is at a crossroads, President Obama outlined an evolving counterterrorism strategy aimed at threats that are lethal yet less capable, at threats to U.S. diplomatic and business interests abroad and at homegrown threats.
It means striking a crucial balance, the president said, between the essential mission to protect the American people from attack, which is the core mission of the U.S. government, while also upholding the nation’s most fundamental beliefs in an individual’s constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and the democratic foundation of the rule of law.
“With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them,” Obama said in a much-anticipated May 23 speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” he said.
As military operations wind down in Afghanistan through 2014, the United States must define its effort not as a boundless “global war on terrorism,” but as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America, Obama said.
A significant aspect of the best counterterrorism strategy in the past 12 years is cooperation that has resulted from the gathering and sharing of intelligence and the arrest and prosecution of terrorists worldwide, the president said. This involved extensive cooperation from partners and allies in every region of the world.
The United States will continue to aggressively counter terrorists and terrorist groups by leveraging effective global partnerships. The U.S. response cannot depend on military or law enforcement actions alone, he said, but an array of actions involving partners and other nations.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the president’s clear strategy will help to ensure that the United States is meeting the ever-evolving threats to national security at home and abroad. “The struggle against extremism has evolved enormously in the nearly 12 years since 9/11 [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks] and so too must our defenses,” Kerry said.
Obama told the audience of civilian and military leaders in a televised address that no president can promise the total defeat of terrorism: “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.
“But what we can do, what we must do, is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend,” he said.
Decisionmaking, the president said, must be made not out of fear, but from hard-earned wisdom learned in more than a decade of struggle and understanding of the current threats.
The first objective, Obama said, is to complete the mission of defeating the threat posed by al-Qaida and its associated forces. A significant part of that is completing the transfer of security operations in Afghanistan to the Afghan National Army and police forces by the end of 2014 in a mutually agreed transfer.
The United States will continue to build on global networks in intelligence gathering, law enforcement, the prosecution of terrorists, and military measures where needed. At its core, the United States prefers the arrest, trial and imprisonment of terrorists, but at times that avenue is closed to authorities, the president said.
The evolving counterterrorism strategy also contains guidance that imposes stricter standards on the use of airstrikes from remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones. The strategy strengthens clear guidelines, oversight and accountability on their use contained in a new Presidential Policy Guidance Directive that Obama signed May 22 on the use of lethal actions against terrorists and terrorist groups.
The president also emphasized his intention to close the military detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The detention center currently houses 166 detainees. About half have been cleared for return to their home countries, and some will face civil or military trials.
When Obama entered the White House in 2009 he transferred 67 detainees to their home countries or other nations that agreed to accept them as part of his stated goal to eventually close the detention center. Congress imposed legislative restrictions that prevented the further transfer of detainees, the president said. Former President George W. Bush, during two terms in office, transferred some 530 detainees from the facility.
“Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system,” Obama said. “And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”
As the United States commits to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, Obama said, issues that remain on what to do with those detainees who have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but cannot be prosecuted will be resolved consistent with the American commitment to the rule of law.
Additionally, Obama said, the U.S. strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism from North Africa to South Asia. Success, the president said, depends on sustained diplomatic engagement and assistance. Foreign aid amounts to less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget and is fundamental to national security, he added.
“For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists,” Obama said. “That has to be part of our strategy.”
Secretary Kerry said diplomacy and security are not at cross purposes. He said building people-to-people relationships is an essential component of U.S. national interests because it means the United States can solve problems before they reach military crises.
Obama said targeted action against terrorists, effective global partnerships, diplomatic engagement and foreign assistance, in a comprehensive strategy, can reduce the chances of large-scale terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland and reduce threats to Americans living and working abroad. But the United States also must address the challenge posed from terrorist attacks emanating from within the country’s borders, he added.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that he has already begun directing the Defense Department to work closely with other U.S. agencies and allies to implement the president’s counterterrorism guidance, including efforts to close the Guantánamo detention facility.