ANSWER responds to President Obama’s speech at the National Defense
President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University today was another
exercise in misdirection and illusion regarding the administration’s
unprecedented use of drone military strikes that have killed more than 5,000
people, the majority of whom were civilians, including a large number of
Under pressure from a growing international grassroots protest movement
demanding the end of drone strikes and the closure of the Guantanamo torture
center, Obama’s speech was crafted to address both issues.
He acknowledged that civilians were killed by his drone strikes and said that
he would be “haunted” by their deaths, but he made it clear that the strikes
Although he spoke far more eloquently than George W. Bush, the president used
the Bush-created legal architecture to permit the president to kill anyone,
anywhere if he labeled them as a terrorist. Obama said that his previously
secret “legal basis” for targeted killings was actually the Authorization of
Military Use Force (AMUF) that Bush rammed through Congress shortly after the
September 11, 2001 attacks.
Demagogically he called again for the closure of Guantanamo, which has been
labeled a torture center by the United Nations. He said that the failure to
close the facility was seen by the whole world as a “flouting [of] the rule of
law” by the United States. But he neglected to say that he has refused to use
the vast authority of the presidency to actually close Guantanamo. Rather he is
placing the blame on Congress rather than acting.
In addition to refusing to take immediate action to close Guantanamo,
President Obama stated that he would not end the policy of indefinite detention.
He in fact stated that he has tasked an official to find a place in the United
States where people can be held indefinitely without charges. He further
referenced America’s “supermax” prisons. These brutal facilities, in which
prisoners are kept in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, also meet most definitions
of torture, a practice Obama claims to have “banned.”
Old wine in a new bottle
For almost the entirety of his presidency, Obama has sought to shield his
“War on Terror” policies from even some of the most basic scrutiny. In fact,
information on many of these programs has only been released after significant
criticism has been raised. More than anything, President Obama’s May 23, 2013,
speech must be seen as a direct response to the individuals and organizations
who have consistently been challenging the actions of the administration on
these issues. It is unavoidably clear that the firestorm of criticism around
drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay Prison, and the extent of domestic surveillance
created a climate in which Obama was forced to defend his policies.
The president outlined a number of policies, many of which had already been
revealed in their broad outlines, and attempted to give them a new gloss.
Further, the president made several statements that seem to be contradicted by
his actions. In other words, despite all the hype, the president is attempting
to codify many of the “war-time” measures that erode our civil liberties and
perpetuate imperialist brutality abroad.
For instance, President Obama claimed that his administration has “banned
torture” despite the fact the force feedings being carried out by individuals
directly under his purview have been classified by the American Medical
Association as torture. The president also made several interesting admissions,
one being that in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater the U.S. government
reportedly only attacks leaders of Al-Qaeda. Whether that is true or not, it is
a clear admission that in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “signature strikes” – which
have been responsible for thousands of deaths, including many civilians – will
“Only 55 known militant leaders have been killed in Pakistan, representing
just 2 percent of the total deaths” caused by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan,
according to the New American Foundation.
President Obama, in response to major criticism, did state the need to close
Guantanamo; the president also stated that he wants to find a way to eliminate
the Authorization of the Use of Military Force as a justification for terror
policies. This is after he used the AUMF to conduct a mostly secret worldwide
conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. It seems highly convenient
that, after such a huge amount of damage and suffering were caused, in
retrospect the president criticizes the AUMF.
While there is much to dissect in his speech, the bottom line is that
President Obama is attempting to respond to criticism of his war on terror
policies while creating a new framework to institutionalize many of these same