On Thursday, Barack Obama is planning to deliver a speech focused on two of the most contentious topics of his administration. But it could also be an opportunity for him to "re-boot" his administration's entire approach to fighting terrorism. Officials who have given details to the media say the speech — to be delivered at National Defense University in Washington — will discuss drone attacks, and specifically the legal rationale for using them, which became a heated topic in Congress in recent months. Obama will also move beyond that to discuss the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and will "frame the future of our efforts against Al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents."
That sounds like a pretty sweeping agenda for a simple policy speech, but it might signal a large sea change in America's counterterrorism efforts. With the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan nearly complete, fighting foreign terrorists basically comes down to two options. Once a terrorist is identified, American troops either kill the suspect with a drone strike, or they arrest him and throw him in a military detention. (American citizens enter a completely different maze of legal complications.) Yet, both of those options get less attractive by the day. (And detention is already a dead end. No new prisoners have been added to Guantanamo in years.)
As The New York Times's Scott Shane points out in today's paper, drone strikes are on a clear downward trend, with the volume of attacks declining in Pakistan and Yemen, and all but eliminated in Somalia. Increased scrutiny of the program has led to increased criticism and at the very least, the attention has forced the president to define his terms more clearly. (That's one of the goals of Thursday's speech, which was delayed for a few weeks.) Congress and the public have demanded the President spell out the circumstances under which drones can be used, and he has begun to answer the question. But that's also made it more difficult to launch attacks without a clear justification.
As for Guantanamo, there's been little progress on Obama's campaign promise (from his first campaign in 2008) to close the prison. An ongoing hunger strike among detainees, combined with the decision to not treat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, has reignited the debate about whether we should still have the prison at all. Perhaps it will finally be time to make a plan for withdrawal — and actually follow through on it.
So if Guantanamo closes and drone strikes became a rarity, what happens to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups overseas? Targeted attacks won't end, but they could be put to more effective use, allowing the U.S. to rebuild some of its goodwill in the countries that have been hardest hit. And counterterrorism could revert back to that scary old notion of "law enforcement" rather than a military problem, beginning to change Obama's foreign policy legacy from one of targeted killing to contained operations. More spy operations, more arrests, and fewer bombs. Will Obama have the political strength to rein in his own power and still stay strong on terror and foreign policy? Tune in Thursday to find out.