President Obama's speech on counterterrorism on Thursday won rave reviews among some who seemed to see it as a return of the liberal constitutional law professor who ran for president in 2008 with the promise of ending many of the Bush-era policies he ultimately ended up keeping. MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who had soured on Obama earlier in the week, said Obama was at "the top of his form — speaking logically and authentically." On how to balance security with liberty, The Washington Post's Greg Sargent writes, "The speech was the most ambitious and detailed effort to answer this question that he has yet attempted." Andrew Sullivan says the context of the speech is critical: returning the country to normality, so we can have a realistic counterterror strategy. Sullivan writes, "That's the promise of his presidency: the healing of a giant wound to this country's psyche and values." National Security Network executive director Heather Hurlburt writes that "Barack Obama the thoughtful law professor and long-range strategist is alive and well." She asks:
When have we last heard a president argue not just with a heckler but with himself, laying out the pros and cons of several counterterrorism practices that have come to define his presidency? When did we last hear a president offer the public options on how to respond to a national security concern – increased oversight for targeted killings – and critique them both?
Obama did lots of things Bush did not do — he acknowledged that our counterterrorism policies can create enemies in places where we desperately need allies, he dismissed the term "global war on terror" as too broad, he said that just because "a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance," he said we need to "discipline our thinking" so we don't "grant Presidents unbound powers."
A New York Times editorial praised the speech as "the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks." The most? Or was it the one the Times liked the most? Bush's announcement of the invasion of Iraq is just one speech that seems more consequential so far. While the tone might have been refreshing, maybe we should wait to see Obama's follow-through? Yes, Obama promised this would not be a war without end, but he did not say when the end would come. A Pentagon official told the Times' Charlie Savage and Peter Baker that it could be 10 or 20 years, and the Times' Mark Mazzetti reports the Obama administration expects it to go on after Obama leaves office. Which means we'll have 7.5 years of Bush war on terror followed by 8 years of Obama war on terror networks. And Obama merely floated ideas for some kind of body — either a court or an oversight board within the executive branch — to provide oversight of who gets killed by drones. And the court, senior administration officials said on Thursday, would be like the FISA court, the secret court that approves surveillance warrants for national security purposes. It does not have a reputation for being exceedingly skeptical of the executive branch. Of this oversight idea, the Times editorial says, "Obama said he had constitutional and operational concerns about both ideas, but he did not contemptuously dismiss them as some of his advisers have done in the past." That's a pretty low bar to clear.
National Journal's George E. Condon Jr. writes that "In part, Obama is selling nuance here. And, politically, nuance is always a tough sell." Except with an audience for whom nuance is your No. 1 selling point.