America Is Never (Ever, Ever) Ending the War on Terror

Two speeches. Seven countries. One very long war.

Over the past month, two members of the Obama administration have made public statements regarding different aspects of America’s ongoing “war on terror.” The second has (understandably) received much more public attention than the first, but the first says something more important about the ultimate course of that long struggle.

In the more recent of the two statements, President Obama spoke on Thursday about the deaths of two Western hostages, one American and one Italian. The hostages, Obama stated, were killed in “a U.S. counterterrorism operation targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region” this January. The president said “I profoundly regret what happened” and apologized to the families of the victims on behalf of the U.S. government, while also defending the broader thrust of America’s targeted-killing campaign against Al Qaeda and other groups.

Obama’s remarks were the biggest story of the day, splashed across Page A1 of the New York Times. The public reaction to the president’s announcement divided along predictable lines. Those who generally support the methods that Washington is using to wage the war on terror pointed out that there are civilian casualties in any war. Senator Lindsey Graham, in his trademark style, offered the most blunt, straightforward defense:

It’s called war. It’s called war. It’s called war. And you’re not going to stop tragedies like this from happening as long as you’re in a war. This is part of war. You can’t have a war without collateral damage.

Meanwhile, critics of the targeted-killing program contended that this incident put on display many of the existing flaws with Washington’s counterterrorism approach that they had previously described. They argued that the program results in far more civilian casualties than is typically acknowledged, and that when those victims are not Westerners, they are routinely ignored. They argued that a lack of good intelligence means that Washington often does not know whom it is killing in drone strikes. And they criticized the degree of secrecy associated with the program, noting, among other things, that the White House would not even say the word “drone” in its announcement. (For a more thorough analysis of the lack of transparency involved in the targeted-killing campaign, see Rachel Stohl’s essay in the current print issue of The National Interest.)

Obama said in his remarks that he had “directed a full review of what happened” in order to “identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made.” The best bet is that very little, if anything, will change. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko told the New York Times, “I predict that even this episode will have no effect.”

Why will nothing change? For a partial answer, one can turn to a different speech, given two weeks earlier to the American Society of International Law by Stephen Preston, the general counsel of the Defense Department. Preston’s speech was an explanation of the Obama administration’s thinking regarding “The Legal Framework for the United States’ Use of Military Force Since 9/11,” as the title of his address put it. Preston sought to do several things: to review the history of the legal authorizations behind the war on terror; to defend the legality of the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State that has been under way since last August; to discuss the effects of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan; and to “look ahead to the legal framework for counterterrorism operations in the future.”

Various writers, particularly at the blogs Lawfare and Just Security, have picked apart different aspects of Preston’s speech. But its most important facet, as Harvard Law School’s Jack Goldsmith observes, was something that Preston did not say overtly. Rather, it was his tacit “acknowledgment that the Forever War is not ending anytime soon,” and that the Obama administration has effectively given up on its stated goal of repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and ending the war on terror.

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