The Briefing

A Beautiful & Tragic Speech

Monday, June 10, 2013

On May 23, President Obama offered this assessment of the changed strategic environment.

From Benghazi to Boston.... we recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. ... Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. …[W]e have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. …[I]f dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

This conclusion is open to the charge of wishful thinking, and in the days following the president’s speech that charge was often made.  It is notable that after the London bombings of 2005, after the Fort Hood killings, after the Woolwich murder and the Boston atrocities, there were always persons who wished to believe that the terrorists responsible were really no more than deranged or alienated individuals with no operational connection to al Qaeda.  More than one newspaper has been embarrassed by jumping to this conclusion and the president is giving a hostage to fortune by doing the same thing.

But wishful thinking is not the problem; sometimes our hopes are fulfilled and our fears unwarranted.  The real flaw in the president’s speech lies in its strategic assessment.  The strategic reason we must align our efforts with law is not that now we can afford to do so, but rather that establishing the rule of law is our war aim.  And the reason this is so has to do with the underlying and evolving nature of our vulnerability, which is changing the nature of war.

This is a point that is so continually missed that it may make sense to review it, once again.

Commenting on the president’s speech in The New Yorker, John Cassidy recalled something British comedian Terry Jones had written more than a decade earlier:

With most wars, you can say you’ve won when the other side is either all dead or surrenders. But how is terrorism going to surrender? It’s hard for abstract nouns to surrender.

Like most people, I imagine, Cassidy thinks that victory is the defeat of the enemy.  If terror is a state of mind — an “abstract noun” — it cannot be defeated.  But victory in warfare, unlike in football or chess, is not the defeat of the enemy.  It is the achievement of the war aim.  Certainly we should have learned by now, after Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, that you can kill a lot of the enemy and still not achieve the war aim.

Cassidy concludes,

In Woolwich, as in Boston last month, the attacks, heinous as they were, appear to have been petty plots cooked up by disaffected local youths who had turned to radical Islam but who had little or no contact with organized terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda. While such attacks can succeed in spreading terror, they pose no significant threat to the state. In what sense, then, can they justify putting (or keeping) the country on a permanent state of war footing?

If by “war footing” one means mass conscription and the complete overhaul of our industrial base as in World War II, then we are hardly in such a position.  But if one means simply reforming our laws and our military practices to cope with a novel threat then it is not hard to justify putting us — and keeping us — on that kind of war footing.  We just have to understand what kind of war it is.  Above all, we have to comprehend the relationships among global terror networks, the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and the protection of civilian populations from predation and catastrophe — relationships the NDU speech ignores.

We are fighting for a victory that the president quite movingly described as not

measured in a surrender ceremony on a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street…[the] refutation of fear that is both our sword and our shield.

This eloquent speech, coming after two years of thought and debate, and coinciding with what he hopes will be the culmination of his struggle to defeat al Qaeda within the law, bears within it all the elements of tragedy.  The speech conveys no sense that the president realizes — or that he realized, as he seemed to, in his 2009 Archives address — the strategic problem that law is one crucial element in solving.  Owing to advances in international telecommunications, rapid computation and the development of markets in weapons of mass destruction, terror is becoming more like war, and warfare is morphing from the spasms of mass kinetic force to the chronic threats of terror. Despite our wishes, we are at war and this kind of war will not be ended by a unilateral declaration of victory.

Yet we go on, refusing to reform our military and its training and deployments, captured by a picture of war that bears little resemblance to the realities we face.  If we haven’t learned anything about the changing nature of war in Iraq — if the only answer to our bloody fiascos there is that we shouldn’t have engaged Iraq in the first place (the “lesson of Vietnam” answer) — then the legacy of this administration, like that of its predecessor, will be to make us more vulnerable than we need to be at a time when our vulnerabilities are inexorably increasing.  President Bush gave us strategy without law; President Obama must not give us law without strategy.