Like the "War on Drugs," a rhetorical phrase that the Obama administration has rejected even while continuing to wage the policy it describes, many ongoing activities of the government he presides over came under verbal attack from President Barack Obama this afternoon.
So the president says "journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs," even though journalists are at legal risk—from his administration—for doing their jobs. "History will cast a harsh judgment" on the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, the president warned, even though (in the words of Human Rights Watch's Laura Pitter) "there are still a number of steps the Obama administration could have taken -- and can still take now -- to begin closing the facility and ending indefinite detention without trial."
Obama worries, rightly, that "in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways." And yet at perpetual war we remain, altering our way of life by the day. "The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites." And yet we drone on, boats against the current of international opinion, borne ceaselessly back to the awesome responsibility of wielding lethal power.
There was much to like in Obama's speech today if you like words, and share the broad worries he outlined above. And it is surely true that changing policy becomes easier after you make public arguments about changing policy. But the fact is Barack Obama is the president of the United States, and according to both the Constitution and especially the way executive power has accrued over the past century, Obama actually has quite a bit of latitude to impose his values on the waging of American war. After 52 months in office, it's long since past time to stop judging the man by his words alone.