3 Questions Left Unanswered on National Security

A few days ago President Obama gave a speech outlining his plan to reform national security policy. The speech was an eagerly anticipated follow-up to his campaign promises to close Guantanamo Bay and reform Bush-era policies. The speech also ended a four-year silence about drone strikes. If President Obama follows through with his stated commits, this represents a huge step forward. But it also highlights three unanswered questions about the direction of our country’s military.

In one of the most candid moments of his presidency, President Obama explained that the War on Terror should not operate under the legal paradigm of traditional war. He therefore promised to lead an effort to “reform or repeal” the 2001 AUMF resolution, as well as refusing to sign any geographical extension of the AUMF. This is a long-awaited bit of good news.

But President Obama’s word choice on this point is a bit equivocal. President Obama suggested that his administration may be satisfied with a compromise – merely reforming the AUMF. But reforming the AUMF is not enough. War between sovereign states is fundamentally different than our counter-insurgency operations. If we at all view the War on Terror as a “global war,” we create allowances for our military to act without Congressional oversight or judicial review of lethal force. Therefore, the AUMF must be repeal in its entirety, without compromise.

In his speech, The President also eloquently argued that drone strikes save American lives, reduce American troop losses, and minimize civilian casualties. But none of these points are the real points of objection for NGOs like Amnesty International or the ACLU.

President Obama claimed to have a deeply-rooted commitment to Congressional and public oversight of drone policies. Unfortunately, we cannot take this claim at face value. While President Obama’s speech represented a rare public discussion of the subject, it leaves unanswered the question of how he is going to advance transparency on drone strikes. There has only ever been one Congressional hearing on the use of drones, and the administration refused to send anyone to testify. The Justice Department has previously denied Congressional access to memos about targeted killings. If President Obama is committed to transparency on drone strikes, the burden is on him now to show it.

Finally, President Obama urged Congress to repeal sections 1027 and 1028 of the NDAA, which effectively ban prisoner transfer outside of Guantanamo Bay. This commitment is another welcome sign. But it also foreshadows a coming political conflict. The past few years the NDAA has renewed with indefinite detention clauses, (1021/1022) and this past year with transfer bans (1027/1028), all without the protest of the administration.

If President Obama is going to make good on this promise, he will have to weight in on the NDAA debate in a way that he hasn’t in the past. The past two years, his administration has hinted that he would veto any military appropriations that legalized indefinite detention – but the President never made good on that threat. This year, he will have to take drastic action, possibly by vetoing a version of the bill. We can only hope that President Obama makes good on this commitment to close Guantanamo.

President Obama’s speech represented a huge step forward on national security policy. Not only did he discuss policy advancements, he ended the long silence of his presidency on Guantanamo Bay and Drone Strikes. Moreover, he deeply committed himself to turning back unjust policies. While questions remain, we can only hope he makes good on those commitments.

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