Obama Pilots Drone Policy Through Political Headwinds

US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military pris
US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

During the 2004 campaign, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, made this statement to the New York Times Magazine:

We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they're a nuisance.

As a former law enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it ... to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day. It's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.

Republicans instantly denounced Kerry's statement as "a pre-9/11 view of the world." President George W. Bush said at a campaign rally, "Senator Kerry talked of reducing terrorism to a, quote, 'nuisance,' and compared it to prostitution and illegal gambling. I couldn't disagree more. Our goal is not to reduce terrorism to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terrorism by staying on the offensive."

The Bush-Cheney campaign ran a television ad attacking Kerry for saying that defeating terrorism was "more about law enforcement than a strong military." The ad concluded, "How can Kerry protect us when he doesn't understand the threat?"

Last week, President Obama outlined a new counterterrorism strategy. The effort would no longer be defined as "a boundless 'global war on terror'," Obama said, adding, "Our best counterterrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence, the arrest and prosecution of terrorists." Sounds like... law enforcement!

The president also said, "We have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11." Sounds like... a pre-9/11 mindset!

And President Obama's secretary of state just happens to be that same John Kerry.

The Republican response to Obama's speech was predictable. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said, "The president's speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory." Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said, "The Obama administration's return to a pre-9/11 counterterrorism mindset puts American lives at risk."

Hey, it worked for Republicans in 2004.

The problem is what happened after 2004. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lost popular support. Americans became less and less convinced that war was the answer to terrorism. A decade of war, the president said on Thursday, "carried significant consequences for our fight against al Qaeda, our standing in the world and -- to this day -- our interests in a vital region." It's clear that the president did not think those "significant consequences" were good for the U.S.

The point of the president's speech was to declare an end to the Bush administration's global war on terror. He acknowledged that the threat of terrorism has not disappeared. It has, in his words, "shifted and evolved" to a smaller scale -- like before 9/11.

The U.S. experienced many terrorist attacks before 9/11: on a Marine barracks in Lebanon, on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, on the Khobar Towers military residence in Saudi Arabia, on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The World Trade Center in New York was first bombed in 1993, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. It was treated not as an act of war but as a crime. The perpetrators were apprehended and brought to justice. In other words, Kerry's law enforcement approach to counterterrorism. Is President Obama proposing we return to that?

Not exactly. What the president is proposing might be called "law enforcement plus." "Despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists," Obama said, "Sometimes this approach is foreclosed." Terrorists hide out in remote and inaccessible locations. They are protected by local populations. Other governments can not or will not cooperate with the U.S. What do we do then? The president's answer: drones.

He defended the use of drones ("targeted lethal action'') as an alternative to military intervention. He called drones "the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent human life." Drones, he argued, must be measured "against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations." Like Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Vietnam.

The political movement Obama leads comes out of the bowels of the antiwar movement. He himself first rose to prominence as an opponent of the war in Iraq. Obama's approach to counterterrorism is true to his antiwar roots. "Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions,"' he said, "we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight."

Americans support the use of drones (65-75 percent in various polls), so long as they are not used inside the U.S. The president admitted that drone strikes raise troubling legal questions. He even acknowledged that critics of drone strikes -- like the woman who heckled him during the speech -- had a point ("The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to"). But he insisted that drone strikes continue, albeit with stronger safeguards and more transparency. They are Obama's alternative to Bush's counterterrorism policy of war.

President Obama could not argue for a return to the pre-9/11 mindset. The 1990s were a fantasy decade -- an interwar period between the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the onset of the war on terror in 2001. It was a decade very much like the 1920s, another interwar period. Americans were making lots of money, and we refused to recognize that there were real threats out there. President Clinton tried to warn us, but when he did take action, he was accused of "wagging the dog."

Obama called the 1990s a decade of "complacency." He was right. There's a big difference between the country's mindset now and then. In the 1990s, no one could have imagined 9/11. Now we can.