c.2013 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — The pivot in counterterrorism policy that President Barack Obama announced last week was nearly two years in the making, but perhaps the most critical moment came last spring during a White House meeting as he talked about the future of the nation’s long-running terrorism war. Underlying the discussion was a simple fact: It was an election year. And Obama might lose.
For nearly four years, the president had waged a relentless war from the skies against al-Qaida and its allies, and he trusted that he had found what he considered a reasonable balance even if his critics did not see it that way. But now, he told his aides, he wanted to institutionalize what in effect had been an ad hoc war, effectively shaping the parameters for years to come “whether he was re-elected or somebody else became president,” as one aide said.
Ultimately, he would decide to write a new playbook that would scale back the use of drones, target only those who really threatened the United States, eventually get the CIA out of the targeted killing business and, more generally, begin moving the U.S. past the “perpetual war” it had waged since Sept. 11, 2001. Whether the policy shifts will actually accomplish that remains to be seen, given vague language and compromises forced by internal debate, but they represent an effort to set the rules even after he leaves office.
While part of the re-evaluation was aimed at the next president, it was also about Obama’s own legacy. What became an exercise lasting months, aides said, forced him to confront his deep conflicts as commander in chief: the Nobel Peace Prize winner with a “kill list,” the anti-war candidate turned war president, the avowed champion of transparency ordering operations over secret battlegrounds. He wanted to be known for healing the rift with the Muslim world, not raining down death from above.
Over the past year, aides said, Obama spent more time on the subject than on any other national security issue, including the civil war in Syria. The speech he would eventually deliver at the National Defense University became what one aide called “a window into the presidential mind” as Obama essentially thought out loud about the trade-offs he sees in confronting national security threats.
“Americans are deeply ambivalent about war,” the president said in his speech, and he seemed to be talking about himself as well.