Anthony Cordesman is a former director of intelligence assessment for the U.S. secretary of defense’s office and a recipient of the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal. He now holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He gave RFE/RL Washington bureau chief Heather Maher his thoughts about U.S. President Barack Obama’s May 23 national security speech.
RFE/RL: Did this speech do what President Obama hoped, which was recast America’s fight against terrorists and make his policies more transparent to Congress and the country?
Anthony Cordesman: I think the president opened a debate. The fact is that people who see terrorism as a serious threat, and particularly as a serious threat in very simplistic terms, are going to have to listen to more than one speech to change their perspective. The people who want an instant end to any kind of U.S. action that involves the use of force obviously didn’t listen during the president’s speech because they interrupted the president towards the end of it.
But if you look at what he said, I think he focused on issues which many people in the counterterrorism world would agree with. You can’t focus on a monolithic Al-Qaeda anymore. It is a matter of looking at extremism, and extremism that is sometimes violent. It has to be nuanced. You are talking about targeting individual movements. You do need partners because you are dealing with such a complex world and you can’t act militarily everywhere, and you do need diplomatic engagement. But is this going to end all of the president’s problems in communicating with the Congress or the issue of terrorism? The answer is very clearly "no."
RFE/RL: Are the new, higher standards for U.S. drone strikes -- someone must be a "continuing, imminent threat" versus just "a significant threat" -- going to make that much difference?
Cordesman: I think the problem that is raised in the president’s speech, which is raised every time that you go to a specific, [is] whenever you talk about individual [terrorist] movements, you have to ask yourself, "What is it the movement is trying to do?" And the difference between "imminent" and "nonimminent" is something where you never really know. [Osama] bin Laden was not seen as an imminent threat in terms of a direct, specific threat, until [Al-Qaeda] actually attacked and hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
And I think this is going to be the problem. The president perhaps put more restraints on the use of drones, but as he pointed out in his speech, they often are the best mechanism for striking terrorist groups that otherwise would have a sanctuary. And you’re really going to have to apply those rules movement by movement and case by case. I think that is one of the themes of his speech that people won’t pay enough attention to, because if you are going to target, you can’t be generic.
RFE/RL: How significant is it that he appeared to signal his willingness to establishing an independent review board or special court to oversee the choice of U.S. targets?
Cordesman: Well, there already has been a great deal of oversight. I think the problem is here: What kind of oversight? One problem you have is when the environment consists of the people who want to do it, in which case it’s inherently permissive. It is a nightmare for anybody in the special operations world to try to deal with anything that attempts to be a legal process. Combat -- and the president made this point in his speech -- [and] dealing with foreign threats does not allow you to assemble the equivalent of case law and people who have legal backgrounds simply are not prepared to deal with much of anything else. Can you make the review process better? Probably, but then the problem gets to be how serious -- and in this case, how imminent -- is the threat going to be? Because assembling too much evidence means often missing the target or reacting too slowly.
RFE/RL: Obama called closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay a matter of national security and asked opponents in Congress to see it that way. He’s already decided to lift the moratorium on sending Yemeni detainees home -- will he take more unilateral action on this matter if Congress won’t cooperate?
Cordesman: The problem he faces is the problem in law -- that is the question you really have to ask both senior [lawyers] on [Capitol] Hill on the committees that oppose this, and then the White House counsel. Of course there is the congressional power of the purse, and that really matters. It’s not something where I believe the president can simply act on his own without it creating a legal problem. Whether he chooses to do that is another question entirely.
But I think he made a good case that this is not the way to deal with the problem. Essentially, parking people indefinitely with no clear procedure for either reintroducing them to the country involved or punishing them legally, at a cost of $1 million a prisoner a year, is not going to be a major step forward in fighting terrorism.
RFE/RL: The president said that someday this war against terrorists, like all wars, must end. Will there come a day when the United States isn’t fighting terrorist groups, and if so, how far off is it?
Cordesman: So far we have no idea when it’s going to happen. The truth is that the forces at work here have not gotten better. He talked in a way about dealing with the causes of terrorism. Well, the problem is that every measure he outlined can’t work. You can’t deal with the massive pressures of population increase, the sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite, there isn’t something U.S. diplomats or U.S. aid can do that can deal with the fact that young men in many developing countries face something like a 40 percent unemployment rate. You can’t deal with the whole problems of simply hyper-urbanization, just to name one of the many causes involved.
The fact is that extremism is likely to be with us for decades. It will change in form, it will be a threat that is intense or limited depending on factors we can’t predict today. You can talk about it ending, but the fact is that history doesn’t end, violence doesn’t end, war doesn’t end, and extremism doesn’t end; and I think the president made a promise which neither he nor history can keep.