Yesterday, I posed five questions I hoped President Obama would address in his speech. Here are some quick reactions. (I don't yet have an "as delivered" transcript, so everything here is subject to correction.)
I'd give the speech an A+ for honesty, style, symbolism, impact, and moral seriousness, and a B+ for precision on the key legal issues. Overall, let's call it an A-.
Here's the really important and new stuff:
Start with the non-legalistic, non-nitpicky headlines: It was an excellent speech. The president sounded serious and looked serious. He spoke for 45 minutes -- he didn't make jokes or waste any time; it was a "roll up your sleeves and get to work" kind of speech.
The single most important point he made was this: The drone and special operations war should not and will not last forever -- and we need to find concrete ways to bring it to an end, not expand it.
Specifically, the president pledged to engage Congress to refine and ultimately repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and said expressly that he will not sign any laws that seek to expand the existing mandate to use force.
He acknowledged that the threat posed by terrorist groups today -- not just the threat posed by "core" al Qaeda, but by terrorists in general -- is, while real, not on the 9/11 scale. Today, he said, the threat is more like what it was throughout the 80s and 90s.
He also -- for the first time, I think -- directly acknowledged the deeper rule-of-law concerns underlying the debate about targeted killing. He took a firm stand against the "all terrorists must be eliminated by force" school of thought, stating that "not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation-states."
Lots of good lines here. For instance, "We have to be mindful of James Madison's warning that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings nor stamp out every danger to our open society." And: "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance, for the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it."
There's much more to be said, but I'll save it for later. For now, let's gets nitpicky: Did the president answer the questions I posed in this week's column? Let's take them one by one.
1) Mr. President, what -- if any -- limits do you believe the 2001 AUMF imposes on the use of military force, and what basis does Congress (or the public) have for evaluating whether your administration is respecting those limits?
The speech didn't directly address this question, though by implication, the president's statement that the AUMF needs to be refined and ultimately repealed rather than expanded suggests that he feels the AUMF creates very few limits -- and that as a matter of policy, as well as law, we are at a point where we need to shift away from such effectively unbounded authority.
As for how Congress or the public will know what limits are observed, the president asserted that Congress is briefed on every single drone strike. I wondered: Would members of Congress -- or the relevant oversight committees -- agree? Every single drone strike, whether carried out by the military or the CIA? As ever, the devil's in the details. I wonder what level of detail Congress gets and precisely who is briefed.
As for the public, well, we're still unfortunately stuck in "trust us" mode. And I actually do trust this administration -- but I still think "trust us" ain't good enough. The president said that he has now signed classified policy guidance addressing "clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability" for the use of military force against terrorists. Why no unclassified version of that?
My biggest disappointment: no discussion in the speech of creating any additional external oversight, or increasing transparency.