c.2013 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, in one of the most significant speeches of his presidency on Thursday, did not simply declare an end to the post-9/11 era. He also offered a vision of America’s role in the world that he hopes could be one of his lasting legacies.
It is an ambitious vision — one that eschews a muscle-bound foreign policy, dominated by the military and intelligence services, in favor of energetic diplomacy, foreign aid and a more measured response to terrorism. But it is fraught with risks, and hostage to forces that are often out of the president’s control.
From the grinding civil war in Syria and the extremist threat in Yemen to the toxic U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan with no clear sense of what comes afterward, there are a multitude of hurdles to Obama’s goal of taking America off “perpetual war footing.”
One of the most daunting is a sprawling wartime bureaucracy that, after nearly a dozen years, has amassed great influence and has powerful supporters on Capitol Hill. It will be difficult to roll back what has been a gradual militarization of U.S. foreign policy, even in an era of budget cuts for the Pentagon.
Nor can Obama escape his own role putting the U.S. on a war footing. He came into office pledging to wind down America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but within a year had ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and oversaw a significant expansion of the Bush administration’s use of clandestine drone strikes.
“We have no illusions that there are not challenges,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who wrote Obama’s address. “But we should not be defined by our role in terrorism, by the airstrikes we order or the people we put in prison.”
Of all these threats, Rhodes said the White House was most worried about a surge of extremism in the wake of the Arab Spring. And yet the bloodiest of those conflicts, in Syria, reveals the limits of Obama’s policy. He has steered clear of U.S. involvement, despite signs that extremist groups with ties to al-Qaida are making gains.
Amid this uncertainty, it was telling that neither the president in his speech nor his aides afterward made firm declarations about where the U.S. could carry out targeted killings, or about whether drone strikes would be carried out by the Pentagon or the CIA.