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Harold Koh’s Speech at the Oxford Union

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 9:09 PM

Earlier today, former State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh gave a talk at the Oxford Union, entitled “How to End the Forever War?”  His remarks begin as follows:

Thank you, Mr. President and Members of the Union, for inviting me here to speak. I am honored to return to this University, where I first came 38 years ago, and to this Union, where over the centuries, so many thoughtful individuals have discussed and debated so many serious issues

As your President said, until a few months ago, I had the honor of serving for nearly four years as Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State, giving advice to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton on issues of both international and domestic law. For four years, my job was to promote, ensure and defend the legality of the foreign policy of the United States of America.

But tonight, let me emphasize that what I say here represents my personal views. After four intense years, I have many friends in all branches of the U.S. government who work extraordinarily hard, every day, on the most difficult problems facing U.S. foreign policy.  In particular, I support President Obama and the current Secretary of State John Kerry and I wish them success. But tonight, I speak only for myself, not for anyone in the State Department or the U.S. government.

Only four months from now, this coming September 11, the United States’ armed conflict with Al Qaeda will turn twelve years old.  That is eight years longer than the Civil War or World War II, and nearly four years longer than the Revolutionary War.  So much ink has been spilled on such topics as torture, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and drones, that this conflict has come to feel like a Forever War: it has changed the nature of our foreign policy and consumed our new Millennium.  It has made it hard to remember what the world was like before September 11.

Now that I have returned to the academy, I tend to hear three common misperceptions from friends on both the left and the right: first, that what some call the Global War on Terror has become a perpetual state of affairs; second, that “the Obama approach to that conflict has become just like the Bush approach;” and third, that we have no available strategy to bring this conflict to an end in the near future.  Tonight, let me reject all three propositions.

Let me ask what the real question is that faces us, suggest the right approach to addressing it, and outline three elements of an answer.  In a nutshell, our question should be: “How to End the Forever War?”  Our Approach should be what I would call: “Translate, not Black Hole.” And our three-part answer should be: “(1) Disengage from Afghanistan, (2) Close Guantanamo, and (3) Discipline Drones.”

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