August 5, 2013

THE STATE Department has shuttered 19 embassies for a week, fearing terrorist attacks. Hundreds of prisoners, including senior al-Qaeda operatives, have busted loose in prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. At Bagram air base in Afghanistan, The Post’s Kevin Sieff reports, 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 here?

Without doubt, the central al-Qaeda leadership has been weakened, not least by the killing of Osama bin Laden. As Mr. Obama noted in a May 23 speech at National Defense University, “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 also noted, al-Qaeda affiliates are emerging in many nations beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, home-grown terror remains a danger and “unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.”

From the beginning of his tenure, the president has been reluctant to build a legal framework that would assume that the fight against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups might go on for a long time. He not only proposed closing the prison at Guantanamo, rightly given its poisonous effect on the United States’ image, but he also 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 also helps explain the quandary the United States faces with its non-Afghan prisoners when it transfers control of the Bagram prison 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 assistance 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 underway.

Mr. Obama’s preferred approach has been to rely on intelligence and drone strikes, but last week Secretary of State John F. 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, for example on civil liberties, of perpetual war. But like all wars, this one will end only if one party is defeated or both agree to lay down their weapons. Neither appears likely any time soon, and 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 as forlorn as President Clinton’s similar effort in the 1990s, when the equivalent weapon at his disposal was cruise missiles.

While Mr. Obama is also right that military tools aren’t enough in a conflict like this, his promise of “patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya” through non-military means — the proper strategy — is not being kept. The resulting vacuum will be filled, and not to the United States’ liking.