By Tom Hayden
President Obama speaks about his administration’s drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, May 23, 2013.
President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on counterterrorism revealed a commander-in-chief increasingly worried about political criticism of his Guantanamo detentions, his penchant for secrecy and his drone warfare policies. Where Obama has shielded his policies on the basis of external terrorist threats, he now is responding to critics who threaten to upset domestic support for those policies abroad.
In past years, Obama has defended himself against attacks from neo-conservative hawks and senators like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham, who charged him with being “soft” on terrorism. But today, while defending his military policies as constitutional, the president was promising to wind down the “forever war,” sharply reduce drone attacks, repatriate detainees to Yemen, and move again to close Guantanamo. When disrupted by Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, Obama spontaneously said that Benjamin was “worth paying attention to,” and was “willing to cut the young lady who interrupted [him] some slack because it’s worth being passionate about.”
Code Pink's Medea Benjamin, center, demonstrates during President Obama's speech at the National Defense University in Washington, May 23, 2013.Such a gesture will hardly pacify Code Pink or the president’s antiwar critics. But their criticisms have become a factor in the national debate. To criticize the president’s speech as “nothing new” is to miss the primary reason for which the speech was given: to explain a careful withdrawal from the Global War on Terrorism paradigm, the heinous impasse at Guantanamo, and the massive secrecy around drones.
The President was cautious in explaining his pivot toward de-escalation, mindful that incidents like Benghazi or the Boston Marathon bombings can block his de-escalation path, or at least complicate it severely.