It’s difficult for an American president to govern through nuance especially when it’s necessary to persuade a majority of the people that certain actions are essential for national security. And effective persuasion usually requires clarity.
That’s how you arrive at President George W. Bush’s stark formulation “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” after Sept. 11 and much of that sprang from it.
But if President Obama’s newly recalibrated counterterrorism strategy as outlined in his speech Thursday demonstrates anything, it is his penchant for nuance.
It’s a tendency required by the times. After more than a decade of two large-scale wars, Americans long ago hit the kind of war weariness that made them open to the notion of downsizing what Obama’s predecessor had described as a global war on terror that could last decades.
But there are still enemies who seek to wage an asymmetric fight against the U.S. Thus the need for the kind of complex U.S. approach — in short nuance — that can be hard to explain or easy to misstate in the Twitter era.
For an example of this nuance, just take Obama’s new guidance for when the U.S. will target individuals for destruction by drone. In the past, a terrorist suspect could apparently be targeted for that fact alone.
But the administration’s new guidance, according to a White House fact sheet, requires that a suspected terrorist only be targeted if he’s a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.”
That’s a distinction that’s difficult to imagine the Obama administration’s immediate predecessor making, with its more cut and dried approach.
But part of Obama’s appeal to many Americans when he was first elected in 2008 was his promise of a smarter approach to counterterrorism than Bush’s, one that would improve the U.S.’ image abroad. That was a vow that appeared challenged, at least when it came to the Obama administration’s controversial use of drones.
Obama greatly expanded the use of the remotely controlled unmanned vehicles, with their Hellfire missile payloads, far beyond anything that occurred under Bush. The result? Growing anger towards the U.S. in unstable places like Pakistan and Yemen and in other nations with Islamic majorities across the region.
While the use of the high-tech weapons has engendered outrage elsewhere in the world, Americans have mostly embraced the tactic.
Recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support drone attacks on terrorist suspects. Civil libertarians and human-rights activists like Code Pink protester Medea Benjamin who interrupted the president’s speech Thursday may question the killing by drone of U.S. citizens abroad or of the innocent but that doesn’t appear to be a majority concern.
It’s this widespread support of U.S. drone warfare among the public that has given Obama the latitude he has enjoyed until now to increasingly conduct these attacks. The president didn’t mention in his speech the popularity of the drones with Americans among the reasons for continuing their use. Americans’ support of the use of drones certainly has made this part of his counterterrorism policy easier than it would be otherwise.
Ironically, the one part of his counterterrorism policy in which Obama showed the least nuance has arguably been the most vexing — his campaign promise to close Guantanamo, freeing those detainees deemed as not dangerous while transferring the rest to the U.S. mainland for trial.
It’s not by choice, of course. He ran into fierce congressional resistance when he first tried to make good on his promise in 2009 shortly after entering the White House and all indications are that Republican lawmakers will do their best to thwart him again. And with most Americans agreeing with them that Guantanamo should remain open, their chances of winning are probably better than Obama’s.