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Week In News: Obama's Foreign Policy Pitch
Originally published on Sat May 25, 2013 5:39 pm
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up, a novel of village life amid the daily violence of war-torn Chechnya. But first, President Obama sets a new course in the war on terror.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.
LYDEN: James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Hi there, Jim.
JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Jacki.
LYDEN: So the president's speech on Thursday - very interesting - suggests that we end the concept of what used to be known, Jim, as the GWOT, the global war on terror. But what does this mean, if anything?
FALLOWS: I think it means something quite important. Indeed, I would argue this is the most important foreign policy speech Barack Obama has made as president. And it doesn't mean - of course, declaring an end to the war on terror doesn't mean there will be no more attacks on American people and American soil. We saw the counterpart of that in Britain in this horrific assault this past week. It doesn't mean there will not continue to be anti-terrorist and terrorism activities around the world.
But I think what it does mean is an end to the open-ended boundless state of permanent emergency, which justified activities around the world and at home, which in the long run, as the president argued, are at odds with the nature of American liberty and democracy.
LYDEN: Hmm. So you've been anticipating a speech like this, wow, for quite some time. About seven years ago, you wrote that it's time to end this. And you said that standing war can be justified for several reasons, but none of them makes sense in America's efforts to defend itself against a terrorist attack. Why is that?
FALLOWS: There was a very apropos quote that - from James Madison that the president used in the speech this week saying that in the long run, perpetual war is at odds with the continuation of liberty. Didn't use exact those words, but that was the argument. And through the ups and downs of its history, the United States has obviously faced terrible challenges before, whether the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln suspended certain constitutional liberties or World War II when Franklin Roosevelt did the same thing.
But those were all finite activities and not the idea of a state where you could never have any conclusive victory. And therefore, none of the emergency measures could never be ratcheted back as well. I think there had been a fear that because no president, as this one pointed out, could ever guarantee perfect safety against terrorist attacks, just as he cannot guarantee an end to murder or drug crimes or whatever else. He was afraid to declare that it was time to go back to a more normal existence.
So I do admire the fact that this president was willing to take the risks and say it's time to restore the constitutional balance of our civic life.
LYDEN: So in taking America off this perpetual war footing, it sounds like President Obama's now calling for a different kind of defense. And I would think that that would have consequences perhaps in (unintelligible) foreign aid, different kinds of diplomacy, a more calculated response to terrorism. But in this political climate, how realistic is that?
FALLOWS: I think that probably, the practical implications of what the president is saying are probably going to be not that surprising or different. As he pointed out, there are going to be some drone strikes that go on, even though he's going to try to regularize the process. And Guantanamo, he's going to try to close down, although that'll be difficult. Still, I think the fact that we're calling it something different is a step that is worth noting.
LYDEN: Let's talk about Guantanamo, Jim. The president said we can't compromise our basic values and then in particular talked about the continuing detention of prisoners at Gitmo. Are we going to be able to undo that?
FALLOWS: That - we - certainly, we can't undo the effect that Guantanamo's had on America's standing in the world over the past decade-plus. And anybody who has spent much time outside the United States, you just - it's impossible to overestimate how often this comes up in people's conversations about the United States now. But I think the two things that are possible are, first, to find ways for the president to try again to bring these prisoners back into the normal justice system, both civil and military, that has proven itself robust in trying people and keeping them in jail.
And also, one particular part of the Guantanamo situation now is a suspension on repatriating people to Yemen in particular, which the president has suspended because of conditions there. I think he is now under pressure to get those people moved back again.
LYDEN: Hmm. James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog and catch his recent profile of California Governor Jerry Brown at theatlantic.com. Jim, as ever, thank you very much.
FALLOWS: Thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.