Strategic Horizons: Obama’s End to ‘War’ on Terror a Needed Corrective

Strategic Horizons: Obama’s End to ‘War’ on Terror a Needed Corrective

In a May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama announced a shift in U.S. national security strategy. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, he noted, the United States "went to war." After 12 years, al-Qaida has been decimated. Those of its leaders still alive spend more effort hiding than plotting new attacks. The American homeland "is more secure," the president said. And the United States had ended or is ending large-scale military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorism still threatens, Obama argued, but the nature of the threat has changed to an extent that U.S. strategy should emphasize nonmilitary tools rather than armed action.

Unsurprisingly, Obama's speech ignited an immediate firestorm of criticism. Liz Cheney, a former Bush administration official and co-founder of Keep America Safe, claimed that Obama was "retreating" in the conflict with al-Qaida. Echoing the charge, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "At a time when we need resolve the most, we’re sounding retreat. We show this lack of resolve, talking about the war being over.” Graham’s Republican colleague Sen. Tom Coburn added, “I see a big difference between the president saying the war’s at an end and whether or not you’ve won the war.” Political commentator Charles Krauthammer called Obama's claim "that the tide of war is receding" the Dorothy doctrine. "Obama would return us to pre-9/11 defenselessness—casting Islamic terror as a law-enforcement issue and removing the legal basis for treating it as armed conflict—by pretending the war is over," Krauthammer wrote.

However pithy, criticism of this type reflects a profound misunderstanding or deliberate misportrayal of "war," using it for partisan potshots rather than strategic clarity. In reality, the "global war on terrorism" that the Bush administration declared after Sept. 11 was an ineffective and misguided construct from the beginning and hasn't gotten any better with age.

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