WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama set out Thursday to redefine the U.S. fight against global terrorism, but despite calling for a more targeted rather than “boundless” theater of global operations, he left out the specifics and timelines for action, by which his success or failure could be measured.
Here are some critical questions Obama did not raise or answer in his address at the National Defense University:
Guantanamo Bay timeline
Obama renewed his call for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay camp for terrorist suspects in Cuba.
But he did not provide a timeline for doing so, other than saying that if the camp were open 10 or 20 years from now it would be antithetical to the values of the U.S.
The president appears to have learned a lesson from his first term, when, in one of his first acts as president, he ordered the camp closed within a year.
His failure to follow through remains a blemish on his presidency.
Detention without release
Obama also did not specify exactly what he plans to do with Guantanamo Bay inmates who are deemed too dangerous to release but who cannot be tried because evidence against them came from coercive interrogations and is not admissible in court.
Even if most Guantanamo inmates are shipped out, a small number of such detainees face detention without trial in perpetuity and no legal framework yet exists to govern their plight.
Obama simply said he was “confident” that the issue could be worked out according to the rule of law.
When will the war end?
The president warned that a “perpetual” global war against terrorism would be self-defeating for the United States.
Though urging the adoption of new strategies to tackle burgeoning franchises that pledge allegiance to al-Qaida but are not in its command structure, as well as homegrown radicals, he did not put an end date on the war on terrorism.
Still, Obama’s critics quickly accused him of “winding down” U.S. antiterrorist operations that have been in place since the September 2001 attacks, and accused him of not taking the diffuse global threat seriously enough.
Opacity on drones
Obama gave his most public, detailed, justification of the U.S. drone war against al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups, yet left many questions unanswered.
He did not, for instance, say that he would cede the right to use drone strikes as he sees fit, despite unveiling new guidelines for their use.
Though admitting he was “haunted” by civilian deaths in drone strikes, Obama did not give details on how many unintended victims there have been. But he did argue there was a “wide gap” between government assessments of casualties and those of independent groups who say thousands of civilians may have died.
It also remained unclear whether the White House or the Pentagon will in the future confirm details about suspected drone strikes. Previously, government spokespeople have refused to release any details of the covert program to journalists when asked to confirm reports of strikes reported by authorities in countries such as Pakistan or Yemen.
Obama did not, as some observers had expected, announce that the CIA role in drone strikes — mostly over Pakistan — would be ceded to the U.S. military, likely because operations by the agency remain classified.
The president also did not define the concept of an “imminent threat” to U.S. security that he says a terrorist suspect must pose to be the target of an American drone strike overseas.
Some human rights groups say the term is elastic and unspecified and leaves the government far too much latitude in mounting drone strikes overseas.