Does Obama’s speech mean the return of morals in the American war on terror? Stricter rules for drone warfare, his push to close Guantanamo and bringing down the curtain on the Bush years at first glance seems like a new beginning. But the truth is: America is still caught in the logic of the Bush era.
Modern man has two types of morals, philosopher Bertrand Russell once noted: one that he preaches and another that he uses but does not preach.
Barack Obama is not only a modern man; he is the most intellectually provocative U.S. president in a long time. He gives a security policy keynote speech that in some places resembles a moral philosophical seminar; he is a commander in chief who not only explains and defends his policies but also criticizes them — who could have imagined this from the Bushes, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan?
And yet, posing the question of proportionality was long overdue: Why has the U.S. killed thousands of people in drone attacks over the past 10 years, quietly, via remote control, in foreign territory and without a trial? How can a nation that calls itself “the land of the free and the home of the brave” find itself in an endless “war on terror” and still hold 166 people prisoner in Guantanamo, the no man’s land of international law?
A President Trapped in Realpolitik
How one evaluates Obama’s answers depends on the acceptance of the second Russell layer of morals, simply called realpolitik in the political realm. A U.S. president is always part of the security and military apparatus that has grown over years and decades and in whose logic and practice moral questions play a subordinate role. He must in addition demonstrate strength and resolve — qualities that Obama, in the meantime, can frequently only embody rhetorically due to the blockade in Congress.
If we see Obama as a politician with a narrowly limited scope of power, he opened doors with his speech: He declared the “war on terror” as the world knows it from the Bush years virtually over. In so doing, he has laid the foundation for a less hysterical but also withdrawn America almost 12 years after Sept. 11, 2001.
With the new initiative to close Guantanamo, Obama, regardless of how small the prospects of success may be, has strengthened his will to position the U.S. again in the framework of international law. The announced limitation of the drone war through a stricter set of regulations is a necessary course correction after years of an uncontrolled shadow war.
And yet, even the practical politician Obama would have been thought capable of doing more. On the deciding question of how he would like to deal with the Guantanamo prisoners whom he considers not chargeable and at the same time too dangerous to release, no suggestion came from him, no affirmation of a constitutional procedure.
The Logic of the War on Terror is Still Far Too Present
Even the justification of the drone war seemed weak; despite or because of all articulated self-doubt, they are “effective” and serve American interests, the protection of its own citizens. The argument is not only questionable in moral theory: Does the radicalization of Pakistanis, Afghans, Yemeni and Somalis due to such attacks ultimately serve the realization of security for America in reality? Would the U.S. accept China, Russia or Iran violating the sovereignty of other nations with drone attacks? And what is the value of a commitment to a limited drone war if the government continues to fulfill the role of investigator, judge and executioner?
Considering these shortcomings, Obama’s putting an end to the Bush years remains incomplete. The U.S. continues to lay claim to the role of the leader who can ultimately define its own rule in the war on terror. The moral that Obama preaches may promise a reformed America. But the moral that he uses is still deeply interwoven with the logic of Sept. 11, 2001.