Ever since he declared his opposition to dumb wars, but not all wars, more than a decade ago, President Obama has wrestled with the practicalities of how to keep the country safe from terrorist threats while preserving civil liberties and constitutional values. The conflicts inherent in those questions were on display again Thursday in his speech at the National Defense University.
It is arguable that Obama would not be president were it not for the speech he delivered in October 2002 in which he outlined his opposition to the impending war in Iraq. His disapproval, in contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vote to authorize the war, opened a vein of support on the left that crucially helped him the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Less noticed was what else Obama did in that speech in Chicagowhich was to avoid positioning himself too far to the left as an antiwar politician. “Although this has been billed as an antiwar rally,” he said in his opening comments, “I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.”
It seemed a simple and obvious point, but as Obama’s presidency has shown, there is frequently a gap between rhetoric and results.
Obama has delivered a series of major addresses on war-related themes as president. They include the speech he gave here in Washington in May 2009, in which he vowed to chart a path different from that of former president George W. Bush; the “new beginning” speech in Cairo in June 2009, outlining his hope for a fresh relationship with the Muslim world; his speech at West Point in December 2009, calling simultaneously for a surge of troops in Afghanistan and a deadline for ending that conflict; and his speech in Oslo eight days later, in which he made the case for just wars as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
In each instance, Obama articulated challenges and policy choices while expressing his desire to strike the right balance between living up to the nation’s highest ideals while aggressively countering the very real threats to national security.
That was the case again Thursday. But it came after four years in office and with a record to defend. Thursday’s speech reflected a president who appeared to have been thinking intently about how he will be remembered by history and who wanted to rebalance, though not necessarily reset, his adopted course.
The speech came at a time when he has been under fire for his administration’s extensive use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, a practice that goes beyond anything any previous president has done. It also came amid revelations that his administration had attempted to criminalize the work of reporters in its effort to plug leaks. He was also obviously mindful that he has failed to fulfill an early campaign promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama’s many facets also were on display in Thursday’s speech: liberal idealist, civil libertarian, constitutional scholar, pragmatist and, perhaps most relevant, commander in chief in the middle of a war.