Barack Obama’s much-anticipated Thursday address about national security policy delivered in the sense that all the big controversies got their moment in the spotlight. There was an official acknowledgment (and attempted justification) of the drone program the United States has used to dismantle much of al-Qaeda and other terrorist operations worldwide, earning enmity from human rights groups and foreign leaders in the process. Obama called for an institutional framework to legitimate the process, suggesting Congress create a secret court or some other entity to sign off on attacks before they take place. This is unlikely to satisfy Libertarian critics of the policy, but it’s a marked shift from an administration that had barely acknowledged the program’s existence in the past.
The speech also included a fresh plug for closing the extremely controversial U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where dozens of inmates are maintaining a hunger strike and suffering under a brutal force-feeding regime all the while. But most notably of all, the president offered an overarching narrative for the foreign policy of the past few years and urged restraint ahead, while simultaneously reaching out to regain the trust of his base of liberals (some of whom have taken to comparing him to George W. Bush for what they see as a litany of excesses). Indeed, much of the address was defensive in posture, laying out the moral rationale for killing Americans abroad (which the White House acknowledged for the first time this week) and citing the specter of attacks prevented by aggressive drone use. Obama also took pains to defend his first amendment credentials and the recent controversy over the government’s subpoenaing of journalists’ phone records as part of leak investigations.
“I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable,” he said. “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”
Even if the timing of such a major address is arguably beneficial to a White House that would prefer to move on from the I.R.S. scandal that has been consuming the capitol, the president engaged his critics at length, in what we might call an attempt to reclaim his identity as a constitutional law professor whose rise was predicated in part on strong civil libertarian credentials. Of course, that was complicated by a heckler from the anti-war group “Code Pink” who used Obama’s old job title against him, demanding he apologize and change his policies. “Abide by the the rule of law!” she yelled at one point. “You’re a constitutional lawyer!”
But Obama, despite struggling to continue after the disruption, found a generally sympathetic audience. Nonetheless, Republicans in Congress were quick to lash out at his suggestion that drone strikes be ramped down with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan next year. What’s more, the Rand Pauls of the world are unlikely to be swayed by his earnest attempt to find a legal basis for killing citizens, even those engaged in combat abroad. So this was no game-changer, per se, in that it is unlikely to reshuffle the dynamic on Capitol Hill. But it does represent engagement on issues that were previously deemed untouchable, and sets the tone for what might be a substantive debate on how to reorient an immense national security apparatus.