WASHINGTON, May 24 – President Barack Obama laid out new guidelines for drone strikes and launched a fresh bid to close Guantanamo, warning that a “perpetual” US war on terror would be self-defeating.
Obama told Americans their country was at a crossroads, and must move on from the counterterrorism policies deployed after the September 11 attacks to confront a new era of diverse global threats and homegrown radicals.
He argued that the idea of a “boundless” conflict everywhere radicalism took root, be it in Pakistan or Arab Spring nations or Somalia, was now obsolete.
“A perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said, seeking to shape his second term and his own political legacy in a major speech.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” Obama said, warning that some post-9/11 tactics like enhanced interrogation of terror suspects had “compromised our basic values.”
But he also mounted a firm defense of his covert drone war as legal and just and the best way to confront terrorism plots against Americans, though warned that undisciplined use of the tactic would invite abuses of power.
Obama said he had signed a new policy directive codifying guidelines for the use of US drone strikes because “to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
The guidelines state that drone attacks can only be used to prevent imminent attacks and when the capture of a suspect is not feasible and if there is a “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed.
The rules would follow the same criteria as those used for attacks on US citizens who have aligned themselves with foreign terror groups.
But the administration still has wide discretion to use a covert strategy condemned by some rights groups and civil libertarians.
On Wednesday, the administration said for the first time that it had killed Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen — and that three other US citizens also died in anti-terror strikes abroad.
Speaking at the National Defense University, Obama said that he would be “haunted” for the rest of his life by the deaths of civilians in strikes he had ordered — but had no choice but to act when Americans were at risk.
But he said his policies had been successful in neutralizing the threat of action from core Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, though cautioned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was too risky to become the norm.
Obama also signaled a major new effort to close the Guantanamo Bay camp for terror suspects in Cuba, which he billed as harmful to US interests, too expensive and a relic of a past age of counterterrorism tactics.
He pledged to lift a personal moratorium on transferring Guantanamo Bay inmates to unstable Yemen and promised to appoint senior envoys in the State Department and Pentagon to oversee transfers. Yemen welcomed the announcements.
The president also called on the Pentagon to designate a site on US soil to hold military tribunals for terror suspects now at Guantanamo Bay, and said Congress must now drop efforts to thwart his closure plans.
“I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said.
He offered no solution for inmates deemed too dangerous for release but who cannot be tried because evidence against them was obtained through coercion and may not be admissible in court.
Obama was repeatedly heckled by Medea Benjamin, leader of the Code Pink anti-war group, who shouted : “You are commander in chief. You can close Guantanamo today!”
The president also urged Congress to amend the legal authorization for US counterterrorism operations adopted after the September 11 attacks, saying it did not reflect the evolved threat.
“Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight,” he said.
But Republicans warned Obama’s strategic rethink was premature.
“We are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with Al-Qaeda,” said Senator John McCain.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said Obama had signaled a “retreat from the threat of Al-Qaeda.”
Rights and civil liberties groups mostly welcomed Obama’s speech, but demanded prompt action.
“The time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now, not at some indeterminate future point,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Center for Constitutional Rights praised Obama’s pledge on Guantanamo but added that without immediate steps, he would not escape the “harsh judgment” of history.