The Realist Prism: To Draw Down War on Terror, Obama Must Turn Rhetoric Into Action

The Realist Prism: To Draw Down War on Terror, Obama Must Turn Rhetoric Into Action

In his speech yesterday at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama offered a detailed and comprehensive vision of how he plans to wind down the global war on terrorism. Perhaps inspired by the continued and growing criticism from his political base that his maintenance—and expansion—of executive powers inherited from the George W. Bush administration was setting troubling precedents for future chief executives, Obama announced his interest in limiting the legal basis for any future president's ability to wield vast national security powers. He also outlined a "second go" at closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay; his first effort, heralded with such fanfare only hours after he took the oath of office in January 2009, withered away against the realities of both domestic and international politics.

First, Obama explicitly redefined the war on terror in favor of a clear focus on al-Qaida and its affiliates—the organized networks that retain the capacity to plan and execute complex operations against the U.S. and its interests. Immediately after 9/11, there were those who had advised the Bush administration to keep the focus squarely on al-Qaida, already an enemy of most of the major powers, rather than substituting a more amorphous concept of terrorism as the target. Of course, being an al-Qaida "affiliate" often is often in the eye of the beholder. Al-Qaida’s exact relationship with the Somali al-Shabab insurgency, for instance, or with some of the groups operating in the North Caucasus, is not always crystal clear, but there is sufficient evidence of linkages that could be used by Washington as justification for including them as part of the target set.

Second, the speech seems to imply that as part of the redefinition of the war on terror, a much clearer line will be drawn between groups that seek to operate transnationally, which the U.S. will continue to target, versus those that are firmly rooted in local grievances and have no interest in a global focus, with the suggestion that, here, the U.S. involvement might be on a case-by-case basis. The categorization of Hezbollah as a "state-supported" organization further suggests that the Obama administration may be setting the grounds for subdividing the generic "War on Terror" with separate foci for al-Qaida versus other groups, meaning that the U.S. would no longer have a "one size fits all" approach to terrorist organizations. If borne out, this shift away from viewing terrorism as one monolithic force in favor of a more nimble, agile footing would resemble the "jigsaw" approach to combating terrorist groups that Justine Rosenthal had proposed six years ago.

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