Friday, May 24, 2013

President Obama's Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy, Part II

"It's my drone dream to ride [drones] like ponies." - Vicky Kelberer (paraphrased)

Yesterday I wrote about how monumental President Obama's speech at the National Defense University was, and how significant it would be for U.S. foreign policy going forward. President Obama did a wonderful job speaking, even going off script to specifically address Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin's diatribe. Ms. Benjamin's outburst - which ultimately led to her being escorted out of the room - was directed at the drone strikes that have, along with successfully killing known terrorists in the past, killed and maimed many innocent civilians. President Obama, in a striking, unorthodox move, halted his speech and spoke out almost in agreement with Ms. Benjamin, acknowledging the flaws of the drone program and vowing to renew his vigor in closing Guantamo Bay along with reducing the use of drone strikes.

Medea Benjamin interrupting President Obama

To play devil's advocate with myself, however, one cannot help but be skeptical of President Obama's speech to some degree. In typical presidential rhetoric, he skirted specific details on exactly when the war would end. As he said towards the end of the speech, "Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school, immigrants coming to our shores, fans taking in a ballgame, a veteran starting a business, a bustling city street, a citizen shouting her concerns at a president." These are wonderful uses of the mode of emotional appeal, but paint a somewhat vague picture - don't all of these things already happen? The problem with terrorism is that victory is immeasurable for the most part. Attacks can be thwarted, and when they are, it should be considered a victory. But in the "war" on terror, these are merely victories at battle. It is inconceivable to think of a time when radical individuals set on causing harm to innocent people around the globe do not exist - they have been enmeshed with history since the beginning of mankind. It's one thing to say that we will shift our policy away from conventional warfare and begin to focus more efficiently on specific terrorist threats, but going beyond that assertion seems foolhardy. In closing his speech with this type of language, President Obama is leaving the doors wide open for an actual timeline on things such as drone policy, troops abroad and the privacy of Americans when it comes to government surveillance.

And in what can only be attributed to unfortunate timing, President Obama's speech coincided with one of the most gruesome and brutal terrorist attacks Great Britain has seen in years. Just a day before the president's speech, Islamic radicals drove their car into a plain-clothed soldier on the streets of London before getting out and hacking him to death with machetes, eventually beheading him. The suspects - all of Nigerian descent - have been detained, and luckily the attack didn't claim more lives. However, the attack does serve as a glaring reminder of what remains in the world. Nigeria is in the midst of a bloody fight against members of Boko Haram, a radical terrorist organization that has been terrorizing the country since 2009 and has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck has declared parts of the country in a state of emergency, enabling the military to essentially have free decision-making abilities and to wage an all-out war against the insurgents, exacerbating the situation even further. It will easily be months before Nigeria has stabilized itself, and that isn't even mentioning the insurgencies in Mali and Somalia, nor is it mentioning the Taliban's increased bombings in Iraq or the election-related bombings over the past month in Pakistan.

Drummer Lee Rigby, killed in London this week

In my opinion, President Obama has done a tremendous job at balancing the emphasis on fighting terrorism around the world and the emphasis on reducing our military footprint in such volatile regions. Drone strikes, as I said yesterday, have played a major role in that. And while President Obama's speech yesterday was monumental, and is significant in reshaping U.S. foreign policy going forward, it left much to be addressed. Obviously, President Obama doesn't have all the answers. Nobody does. But if according to President Obama's standards, victory is measured by everyday things that take place all across this country already, we need to begin to rethink our definition of victory.

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