President Barack Obama's address Thursday at the National Defense University was billed as a major policy statement on counterterrorism. Indeed, he announced new guidelines, including potential oversight, for targeted killings, and he revived his effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
But the president's most important message was a long-overdue recognition that it's time to move beyond the perpetual state of war that has existed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
"Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," Obama said. "But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."
He didn't go far enough for anti-war liberals, as evidenced by a persistent heckler in the audience, and some hawkish conservatives accused him of capitulating to terrorists. Both reactions were predictable, and both ignore Obama's challenge: striking an appropriate balance between protecting the nation and upholding its core values.
There's no denying that Obama's accelerated use of unmanned drones has disrupted al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups without risking the lives of U.S. service members. But the unintended civilian deaths that accompany targeted killings have caused a political backlash abroad, possibly inciting more attacks against Americans. Meanwhile, the secrecy surrounding the program and the targeting of U.S. citizens are divisive political issues at home.
Obama defended his use of drones, yet he also said it's time for a renewed focus on diplomacy. He's right.
Strict new rules will be written for the use of unmanned drones outside war zones, he said. As the administration notified Congress last week, those strikes will be limited to those who pose "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans" and ordered only when capture isn't feasible. Finally, the military will assume greater control of the program, which has largely been a CIA operation.
That transfer removes a key obstacle to independent oversight of targeting decisions. Obama says he makes those decisions personally, but those life-and-death decisions shouldn't rest with a single individual. We favor a special federal court, modeled on the panel that reviews surveillance requests in national security cases.
On Guantanamo, Obama promised to use administration authority to repatriate some detainees — a welcome, if belated, move. We agree that U.S. courts are capable of handling terror cases, and federal prisons offer ample security for convicted terrorists. Now, it's time for Congress to end its moratorium on transferring detainees to the United States for trial and detention.
These steps won't eliminate the threat of terrorism, but they offer a new approach for a war-weary nation.