Not Doing 'Whatever It Takes'

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Not Doing 'Whatever It Takes'

May 24th, 2013 4 min read

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Jim Talent is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Shortly after the president’s speech yesterday, a friend of mine who is an expert on counterterrorism e-mailed me the following: “That speech was pretty much every constitutional-law class he ever taught. A moral argument with himself.”

I couldn’t have said it better. The speech raises more questions than it answers. Herewith, some observations:

The speech asserts that, because al-Qaeda’s centralized planning capability has been degraded, the threat of a large scale, 9/11-style attack on the United States has been reduced. That ignores the fact that, after American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, al-Qaeda in the region will likely reconstitute itself, at least in the southern provinces of the country. If the president has a plan to prevent that, he has yet to tell anyone what it is. It also assumes that the networks that al-Qaeda and its associates have established in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula will be unable or unwilling to plan or assist in a high-casualty attack on the United States. But why not? In his speech, the president said that these groups are concentrating on local targets. That may be true now, but how will we make sure it doesn’t change in the future?

On this point, there is an underlying reality which the president should have addressed. During the first 150 years of the Republic, the oceans protected the American homeland from sudden, devastating attacks. In the information age, that strategic reality has changed; today, rogue states or sub-national movements can launch cyber, biological, or even nuclear attacks directly against the United States, even with limited resources. To this point, the Obama administration has been vocal but not effective on the cyber danger, and it hasn’t begun to deal with the other threats. Nothing in the president’s speech changed that.

The president explained that, because the terrorist conflict is winding down, he wants the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), essentially a declaration of war against al-Qaeda and associated forces, to be changed so that the United States is not on a perpetual “war footing.” He should probably have mentioned that to Michael Sheehan, his assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Just one week ago, Sheehan testified before Congress that “[the administration is] comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured. Right now . . . it serves its purpose. In my judgment, this is going to go on for quite a while, yes, beyond the second term of the president. .?.?. I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

The strongest part of the speech was the president’s defense of deploying drones against terrorist targets.  But the context was the president’s evident but vague discomfort with how drones are being used. According to President Obama, he will only use drones when there is a “continuing and imminent” threat to the American people, and only when there is a “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed. Does this mean that if there is a “continuing and imminent” threat to the American homeland that a drone attack could stop, but more than a near certainty that foreign civilians would be killed if drones were used, the president would not act?

Is this a change from our past policy? How are we to know whether a change has now occurred, since the administration has never said what our past policy is? Why did the United States recently put a new drone base in Niger if the president is planning to limit their use? And how does  the spread of terrorist networks to the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Syria, Libya, and other areas suggest less need for drones? If drones are as effective as the president has claimed, and if there are now more targets spread over a broader geographic area, doesn’t that mean we should use drones even more?

Four years ago, the president signed an order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo. Then, over time, he made a de facto reversal and kept the facility open. Now he says that he wants to close it again, but the only concrete policy he offered as an alternative was transferring some of the detainees to Yemen.

The president’s angst over Gitmo comes from his concern about the very real conflict between America’s belief in due process and the fact that giving due-process rights to terrorists is both impractical and, from a security standpoint, unwise. But how will the conflict be resolved by sending the terrorists to Yemen? The Bush administration already tried that option and, according to the Director of National Intelligence, almost 30 percent of former detainees returned to militant activities after they were released. The truth is that Yemen doesn’t have the money, inclination, or capability to monitor detainees adequately. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the president correctly notes is active and dangerous, is located in Yemen and was founded by former Gitmo detainees (and a Yemeni jihadist who escaped from prison there). And if the concern is for fairness and due process, does anyone believe that the government of Yemen will protect the rights of detainees who are transferred there?

Finally, the president failed completely to mention the elephant in the room: the fact that our government is busy reducing the capabilities of American armed forces. Over the last four years, the president (and Congress) have cut almost $1.5 trillion from baseline defense budgets, to the point where the United States is now scheduled to spend $100 billion less on defense, in nominal dollars, in 2020 than it spent in 2010. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta described the last round of cuts (the sequester) as “devastating,” and indeed they are. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army has curtailed training for 80 percent of its forces; half of Marine combat units will be below minimal acceptable levels of readiness by the end of the year; two-thirds of the Navy will soon be less than fully mission-capable; and the Air Force has ceased operations for a third of its fighter and bomber force.

Four years ago, the president gave another speech at the National Defense University.  In that speech, he promised that:

This nation will maintain our military dominance. We will have the strongest armed forces in the history of the world. And we will do whatever it takes to sustain our technological advantage, and to invest in the capabilities that we need to protect our interests, and to defeat and deter any conventional enemy.

Whatever else can be said about America’s national-security policy, the government is certainly not now doing “whatever it takes . . . to invest in the capabilities that we need to protect our interests, and to defeat and deter any conventional enemy.” If that doesn’t change, it won’t matter how the president chooses drone targets or what happens at Gitmo. Policy means nothing without the power to back it up.

—Jim Talent served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.

First appeared in National Review Online.