Al-Qaeda

Relevant Excerpts from President Obama's West Point Speech

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, May 28, 2014, 1:12 PM

Not a lot in President Obama's West Point speech that is new on Lawfare-related matters. Here are key excerpts.

On broad counterterrorism strategy:

First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life. (Applause.)

On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

This leads to my second point. For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.

We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us. And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against al-Qaida core and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country.

But sustaining this progress depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job. And that’s why we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police. Earlier this spring, those forces -- those Afghan forces -- secured an election in which Afghans voted for the first democratic transfer of power in their history. And at the end of this year, a new Afghan president will be in office, and America’s combat mission will be over.

Now -- (applause) -- that was an enormous achievement made because of America’s armed forces. But as we move to a train and advise mission in Afghanistan, our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. So earlier this year I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel.

Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaida, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and facilitating French operations in Mali.

A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers there, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.

So with the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors -- Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq -- as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.

On unilateral military action:

Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism. The partnerships I’ve described do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves. When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do, through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our embassies in 1998 to face justice, or drone strikes, like those we’ve carried out in Yemen and Somalia.

There are times when those actions are necessary and we cannot hesitate to protect our people. But as I said last year, in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is no certainty -- there is near certainty of no civilian casualties, for our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.

On transparency:

I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it is drone strikes or training partners. I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts. Our intelligence community has done outstanding work and we have to continue to protect sources and methods, but when we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people, and we reduce accountability in our own government.

On Guantanamo:

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

(Applause.)

And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. (Applause.) That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence -- because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens. (Applause.) America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of conflict, no matter what the cost; we stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere -- which brings me to the fourth and final element of American leadership: our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.