Republicans are upset about President Obama's May 23 foreign-policy address, yet politics aside, it's hard to say why. "We show this lack of resolve, talking about the war being over," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News Sunday.
But four days later in his Memorial Day remarks, Obama said, "Our nation is still at war."
Why did the earlier speech set off Republicans? He acknowledged that terrorism can never be completely eliminated and that a risk-free society is impossible. He conceded that U.S. military action breeds enemies. He admitted that not every foreign violent organization is a threat to Americans. He even quoted James Madison: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Indeed, Obama said some things that need saying, but will he do what needs doing? More precisely, will he stop doing what shouldn't be done?
The speech provides no reason for optimism. For one thing, his premise is wrong: The U.S. government was on a perpetual war footing before the attacks of 9/11, intervening one way or another in many places. The "war on terror" has just been more visible.
Obama says he wants to understand the roots of terrorism, but he just repeats bromides. "These threats don't arise in a vacuum," he said. "Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology — a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West."
But this implies the "extremist ideology" arose in a vacuum. Obama shows no understanding that Muslim violence has been a response to generations of Western and most recently American efforts to maintain hegemony in the Muslim world. These efforts have consisted in direct overt and covert intervention, backing for brutal and corrupt dictators and monarchs, and enabling of Israel's repression of the Palestinians. From Osama bin Laden on down, the perpetrators of anti-American violence have consistently said so.
Despite Obama's acknowledgement of the dangers, to Americans and others, of perpetual U.S. warfare, one strains to find signs of change in the speech. He says "our response to terrorism can't depend on military or law enforcement alone," but he still envisions a large role for the military: He says the first order of business is to "finish the work of defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces." And, "Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces." But "its associated forces" is a conveniently vague justification for continued U.S. militarism. It goes beyond Congress's 2001 authorization for military force.
While Obama promises only to narrow the use of drones and shift responsibility from the CIA to the Pentagon, we can't be sure even this will happen – or matter. His "presidential policy guidance" is classified, and he reserves the authority to target alleged militants who pose a "continuing and imminent threat" when he decides that other alternatives are unavailable or are too risky. Yet his administration has drained the word "imminent" of meaning
"Before any strike is taken," he added, "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set." But he conceded that his administration has killed an undisclosed number of noncombatants. Independent sources say several hundred have been killed — while entire villages live in terror of the next strike. This will not change.
Remember that administration targets are only accused of planning attacks. There is no due process, and an oversight board would not change that.
Obama defended his killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen on the grounds that al-Awlaki had helped plan attacks, but Obama offered no proof, and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill says the first efforts to kill Awlaki preceded the terrorist plots he is allegedly linked to. And what about the separate drone killings of al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son and other Americans?
Obama also renewed his long-dormant call for closing Guantanamo — but not before the mass hunger strike and force-feedings that the whole world is watching.
This all looks more like legacy preparation than real change in policy. Witness Syria and Iran.
So why are Republicans fussing? Obama said, "We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root."
For Republicans, that's un-American.
This column originally appeared at The Future of Freedom Foundation.