Pulse of the Peninsula: On Memorial Day, recall costs of war

Pulse of the Peninsula: On Memorial Day, recall costs of war

This Memorial Day, we honored those who have given their full measure, made the ultimate sacrifice, so that we could live in freedom.

It’s always been hard for me to rectify glorifying war that is implicit in Memorial Day – equating being a soldier to a level of noble heroism that far outstrips the honor we pay diplomats and peacemakers, even though they put themselves in harm’s way and many, like Chris Stevens, have made the ultimate sacrifice, too.

Remembering the importance of our diplomats – and how miserably Congress has failed them by cutting back funding for security – makes our grand marshal this year all the more worthy of the honor. Sgt. Elliot B. Lichtenstein, a 2006 graduate of Great Neck North, joined the Marines in 2007 and served as an embassy security guard in Russia, the Philippines and Kosovo.

We make war a noble cause, but too often, that nobility is exploited. As President Jimmy Carter said, we like to think that all our wars are just, but as we have come to know, that is not always true. Politicians have used patriotism to rattle sabers and rally troops and bring us into war for their own political purpose.

On the eve of Memorial Day, President Barack Obama delivered one of the most important speeches and policy pronouncements of his presidency – of any presidency –  outlining a new vision and way forward regarding counterterrorism, addressing drone strikes, closing Guantanamo, and a way to balance national security with civil liberties. 

Most significantly, Obama announced an end of the perpetual, universal, borderless War on Terror, effectively stealing back from terrorists the victory they had exacted since 9/11, when the Bush/Cheney administration unleashed policies that contradicted the very rights and freedoms they claimed the terrorists hated and that our soldiers have died defending. Bush, you might recall, used 9/11 to unleash the policy of pre-emptive war, a contradiction of international law and US principles going back to our founding.

“So America is at a crossroads,” Obama declared. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”

Obama would like to return to pre-9/11 hysteria, before fear (and strategically timed red alerts) were used to manipulate the populace and policy. In so doing, Obama has offered to do something that it is said no President would ever do: relinquish power, by asking for Congress to repeal or modify the Authorization to Use Military Force [AUMF] it granted to George W. Bush. 

“Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama declared.” So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Obama also challenged Congress to shut down Guantanamo, which along with Abu Ghraib has been the greatest recruiting tool for terrorists and the greatest contradiction to the fundamentals of American principles of justice and rule of law. “Given my Administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.”

The president, significantly, said that we have had terror before 9/11 – Oklahoma City, the Achille Lauro, attacks on our embassies and the military base in Beirut, for example – and there is no way to eradicate terror completely. But terror is a tactic, not an army, a nation or a government. 

 “We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11,” he said. “With a decade of experience to draw from, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions – about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them.

“These questions matter to every American. For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, exploding our deficits and constraining our ability to nation build here at home. Our service-members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf. Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. 

From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our children…. 

“Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror,” he said. “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom. And that begins with understanding the threat we face…”

Speaking to an audience of 300 people at National Defense University, Fort McNair, he said, “In an age in which ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.”

Obama has been most criticized (by his own base) for his use of drones and a “kill list.” Along with 60 percent of Americans, I actually support the drones program and agree with the way Obama outlined its use as an alternative to more conventional military intervention, or even the kind of Special Forces attack that was used to kill Osama bin Laden. 

“Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted, lethal action is the use of conventional military options. As I’ve said, even small Special Operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies; unleash a torrent of unintended consequences; are difficult to contain; and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict. So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.

“So yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life….”

I must confess, I have more confidence that the Obama administration would be more responsible in its use of drones than George W. Bush/Dick Cheney or Mitt Romney or John McCain. But the application of the rule of law should not depend upon who is in an office – you can’t have a Unitary Executive when you like the guy in office but withdraw executive powers when you don’t, like a president with the power on his own say-so to designate a person an “enemy combatant,” eligible for “enhanced interrogation” (torture) and locked up in Guantanamo for the rest of his life, without charges or trial.

And that’s why Obama proposed a policy that calls for more oversight for the drone program (indeed, he claims that Congress was notified in advance of every strike) and some kind of judicial review – no one person should have control over a “kill list”. In this, Obama is looking past his own presidency, to whoever might hold the office.

And I don’t see the difference between a US citizen or non-citizen in terms of who can be targeted by drone strikes, just as I don’t see the difference between the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay being entitled to being charged and tried for their alleged crimes (innocent until proven guilty being the underlying principle).

I agree with Obama’s statement, “But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team..

“But the high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens. This threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life. Alongside the decision to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way, the decision to use force against individuals or groups – even against a sworn enemy of the United States – is the hardest thing I do as President. But these decisions must be made, given my responsibility to protect the American people.”

Obama has proposed important changes to the drone program. A drone strike should be a last resort and a response to “imminent” threat. There should be some judicial review – even trial in absentia in which the Administration lays out its evidence and its case. 

On this Memorial Day, Obama reminded us “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”

Indeed, our national security also depends on diplomacy and foreign aid – two areas that Republicans mock and stop through denying funding (which was a significant factor in the Benghazi deaths).

“So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia,” he said.

“This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears.

“Success on these fronts requires sustained engagement, but it will also require resources. I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures – even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.

“America cannot carry out this work if we do not have diplomats serving in dangerous places. Over the past decade, we have strengthened security at our Embassies, and I am implementing every recommendation of the Accountability Review Board which found unacceptable failures in Benghazi. I have called on Congress to fully fund these efforts to bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges.

“But even after we take these steps, some irreducible risks to our diplomats will remain. This is the price of being the world’s most powerful nation, particularly as a wave of change washes over the Arab World. And in balancing the trade-offs between security and active diplomacy, I firmly believe that any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers we face in the long run.

“Targeted action against terrorists. Effective partnerships. Diplomatic engagement and assistance. Through such a comprehensive strategy we can significantly reduce the chances of large scale attacks on the homeland and mitigate threats to Americans overseas,” Obama said, but then turned to the matter of homegrown terrorism. 

“As we guard against dangers from abroad, however, we cannot neglect the daunting challenge of terrorism from within our borders.

“… this threat is not new. But technology and the Internet increase its frequency and lethality. Today, a person can consume hateful propaganda, commit themselves to a violent agenda, and learn how to kill without leaving their home. To address this threat, two years ago my Administration did a comprehensive review, and engaged with law enforcement. The best way to prevent violent extremism is to work with the Muslim American community – which has consistently rejected terrorism – to identify signs of radicalization, and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence. And these partnerships can only work when we recognize that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family. Indeed, the success of American Muslims, and our determination to guard against any encroachments on their civil liberties, is the ultimate rebuke to those who say we are at war with Islam.”

And here’s where he addresses the need to balance national security with civil liberties including insuring a free press, the so-called “Fourth Estate,” with the responsibility to be the watchdog on government, by calling for Congress to adopt a shield law for journalists (he has already asked his administration to review its policies toward journalists).

“Indeed, thwarting homegrown plots presents particular challenges in part because of our proud commitment to civil liberties for all who call America home. That’s why, in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, and build in privacy protections to prevent abuse. That means that – even after Boston – we do not deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence. That means putting careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information, such as the State Secrets doctrine. And that means finally having a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counter-terrorism efforts and our values may come into tension.

“The Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society. As Commander-in Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

“Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach. I have raised these issues with the Attorney General, who shares my concern. So he has agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and will convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns as part of that review. And I have directed the Attorney General to report back to me by July 12th.”

“All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing. “

The way to best honor the 1.3 million men and women who have died in in wars since the founding of this nation.is to uphold and affirm the values for which this nation stands.

“On this Memorial Day, and every day, let us be true and meet that promise.  Let it be our task, every single one of us, to honor the strength and the resolve and the love these brave Americans felt for each other and for our country.  Let us never forget to always remember and to be worthy of the sacrifice they make in our name,” Obama said in his speech at Arlington National Cemetery.

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