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Published: 8/6/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

Obama’s wishful thinking

The war on terror isn’t over yet, and the President should not act as if it is.

GUEST EDITORIAL

The State Department has closed 19 embassies for a week, fearing terrorist attacks. Hundreds of prisoners, including al-Qaeda members, have escaped in prison breaks in Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are holding 67 non-Afghan prisoners, many of whom can’t be tried in court but are too dangerous to release.

Meanwhile, President Obama says he wants to “refine and ultimately repeal” the mandate Congress has given him to fight the war on terror. What’s going on?

The central al-Qaeda leadership has been weakened, not least by the killing of Osama bin Laden. As Mr. Obama noted in a May speech, “there have been no large-scale attacks on the United States” since 9/​11 — a period of relative safety that few thought likely in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks.

At the same time, as he noted, al-Qaeda affiliates are emerging in many nations beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, homegrown terror remains a danger, and “unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.”

Throughout his tenure, the President has been reluctant to build a legal framework that would assume the fight against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups might go on for a long time. He proposed closing the prison at Guantanamo — rightly, given its poisonous effect on the United States’ image — but opposed options to hold prisoners taken in future operations. That may be one reason so many alleged terrorists have been killed during his time in office, and so few captured.

It helps explain the quandary the United States faces with non-Afghan prisoners when it transfers control of the prison at Bagram air base to Afghanistan. The United States is holding prisoners of war without fully acknowledging the war.

The President also has sought to minimize U.S. involvement in dangerous countries as much and as quickly as possible. He failed to negotiate a follow-on force in Iraq, where violence is again spiraling out of control. He has resisted engagement in Syria, where vicious brigades associated with al-Qaeda are establishing beachheads.

He has provided little help to Tunisia or Libya, where emerging democracies are struggling to contain Islamist militias. He surged troops to Afghanistan but simultaneously announced a timetable for their withdrawal, which is under way.

Mr. Obama’s preferred approach has been to rely on intelligence and drone strikes. But last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said “the President has a very real timeline” for ending drone strikes in Pakistan, “and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”

The State Department later qualified his statement, but Mr. Obama has supported the sentiment. He said in May: “This war, like all wars, must end.”

Mr. Obama is right to worry about the corrosive effect of perpetual war on civil liberties. But like all other wars, this one will end only if one party is defeated or both agree to lay down their weapons. Neither appears likely anytime soon.

The President’s eagerness to disengage, while understandable and in sync with U.S. public opinion, may in the end lengthen the conflict. His hope of fighting the bad guys as antiseptically as possible, with drone strikes and a minimal presence, may prove to be forlorn.

Mr. Obama is right that military tools aren’t enough in a conflict such as this. But his promise of “patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya” through nonmilitary means — the proper strategy — is not being kept. The vacuum will be filled, and not to America’s liking.

— Washington Post



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