Monthly Archives: May 2013

Some brief thoughts on terrorism and President’s Obama’s speech

Thank you to everyone who’s been asking about over the past couple months.  As some of you may know, I was under contract to finish a book by the middle of May, and that had to take precedence for a while.  Since I’m moving apartments in a few weeks, things will get little touch and go over the next month as well, but I hope to begin posting regularly again soon.

With that said, a lot has happened since my last post in March.  As I begin to prepare my materials my terrorism course next semester, here are some thoughts on the subject:

As someone who teaches about terrorism every couple of years (this is a better way of describing me than as the “terrorism expert” that media outlets tend to label me when I do interviews!), I was certainly engaged in the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed in April.  I ducked some interview requests this time, however, because I didn’t have a lot to say when the investigation was still ongoing.  An academic who teaches about global terrorism is not a forensic analyst after all.  Not to criticize those who did share their opinions in the media, but there was little to say other that, based on past attacks and attempts, the perpetrators were probably Muslim men under thirty who are either foreign nationals or second generation residents?  Efforts against terrorism take many forms – from policymakers and bureaucrats across dozens of government agencies to airport security personnel, the intelligence community and the military.  In this case it was the first responders and law enforcement who were front and center, and they performed amazingly.  All the rest of us could do was speculate.

On the other side of the spectrum from the tactical law-enforcement side of things are considerations about how we fight terror as a grand strategy – a subject addressed yesterday by President Obama in what I believe will later be viewed as one of the most important foreign policy speeches of the decade. The speech, rhetorically at least, ended the war on terror as we think of it.  This is especially true in terms of desire expressed by the President to revoke the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed in the wake of 9-11 and provided a blank check for the executive branch to engage in military actions around the world.  More than anything, this authorization IS the War on Terror as it is generally understood as a global initiative to unilaterally and forcefully pursue would-be terrorists.

The President also reiterated a desire to close the prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, the ultimate symbol to the world of the dark side of American efforts over the last dozen years.  It will be interesting to see if these things will ever get any traction in Congress, but with the rise of a somewhat more libertarian-leaning Republican Party, there is more hope than ever that the future will see a certain “return to normalcy” for US foreign policy.

The President also discussed the future of drone strikes.  It was encouraging to see the President appreciate advocate setting more checks and balances on the use of drones and suggesting that their usage will be much more limited in the future.  At the same time, he highlighted that drone strikes, in fact, claim less civilian lives than would likely be the case were other types of military action taken – and less lives than if nothing were done and Al Qaeda-types were free to organize, operate openly, and add to the death toll of tens of thousands of innocent people they have killed since 9-11.

Displaying an enormous amount of thought and nuance, the President repeatedly emphasized, however, that none of these issues is clear-cut.  It was clearly an emotional moment when the President described how he keenly he felt the weight of his decisions and admitted that the civilian deaths that have resulted from US efforts “will haunt us as long as we live.”  The contrast with those preaching violent Islamist terrorism could not be clearer.  Sadly, or perhaps I should say happily, the contrast with the previous administration could not be clearer either.