In his recent speech on terrorism and national security, President Barack Obama performed superbly as explainer in chief, a role in which he often hasn't succeeded. It may not matter much.
However belatedly, Obama offered a cogent policy rationale for his reliance on unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists (with collateral civilian casualties) and revisited the need to shut the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. More broadly, he made a compelling case for moving from a full-time war footing against terrorism to a more nuanced and normal policy.
At the National Defense University in Washington on May 23, he declared that no president can ensure "total defeat" of terrorism and acknowledged the continuing threats to U.S. interests abroad as well as the rise of homegrown extremists.
These dangers, the president said, are reminiscent of the situation in the decades before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 service members, and the Pan Am jet blown out of the sky over Scotland in the 1980s; the first bombing of the World Trade Center or the attack on the USS Cole in the next decade.
Obama did something almost unheard of for a modern U.S. president: He called on Congress to limit his authority under the wide-ranging Authorization for Use of Military Force enacted in 2001.
The speech was a big deal. Still, it probably will have less effect than either the White House or its critics claim. This reflects the political polarization that dominates even national security issues in Washington and the inability to rally a conflict-weary public behind any global issue.
The reactions over the past 10 days have been predictable. Many Republicans and conservatives accused the president of capitulation and of emboldening America's enemies. The left said the change of policy was too little, too late.
There were more measured voices that, on balance, were positive: Colin Powell, the secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, and Harold Koh, the former dean of Yale Law School and State Department legal counsel in the first Obama administration, who privately advocated for a more transparent and less belligerent anti-terrorist policy.
Obama employed some sleight of hand. He chastised those who argue that U.S. military forces on the ground would cause fewer casualties and less ill will than drones. Nobody really makes that argument. And he vowed never to deploy armed drones on U.S. soil.
No serious person believes the administration might launch a drone attack on a tea party gathering in Des Moines. Sen. Rand Paul's rants about this nonexistent danger were a distraction, yet they also brought attention to the real issues and probably forced the president to deal with the matter sooner.
The three cornerstones of Obama's message — ending the formal war on terrorism, a more transparent and much more limited use of drones and closing Guantanamo — all present complications that limit the scope for major change.
Obama said he wants to "engage" Congress on changing the authorization to use military force that critics believe is too much of a blank check. Yet the Democratic strategist John Podesta and others have cautioned that this Congress might make matters worse instead of carefully circumscribing the limits of presidential power. Revealingly, Obama declared that he "will not sign a law designed to expand this mandate further."
The president already has cut back on the use of drones, which have both wiped out much of the al-Qaida leadership and created a backlash against the U.S. around the world. He said he has codified policy guidance for the use of force against terrorists that he will provide to Congress.
Yet, despite pledges of transparency, the document won't be made public. And while the administration talks of turning over all drone operations to the military — rather than the CIA, which is supposed to be an intelligence-gathering agency not a war-conducting one — the change apparently won't apply to the Pakistan-Afghanistan theater for the foreseeable future. Powell says that transfer should take effect right away.
Obama reiterated a powerful case for shutting Guantanamo. Many of the 166 detainees are on a hunger strike and being force-fed. Keeping them there costs $900,000 per inmate, at least 10 times more than it would at a maximum security prison in the U.S. To much of the world, Guantanamo is a shameful Devil's Island.
Still, there are questions about how many detainees can be returned to unstable countries such as Yemen, and congressional Republicans will erect the same roadblocks that prevented the president from shutting Guantanamo four years ago.
"I still think he can do it but he'll have to put all his weight behind it," says Koh, adding that this task should be a main charge of Lisa Monaco, the White House security adviser. Will Obama be willing to expend the huge political capital required to achieve this goal? It's doubtful.
Someday, historians may look back on the National Defense University address as seminal. A year from now, however, it's most probable that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force will be unchanged, the CIA still will be running drones over Pakistan and Gitmo will be open.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.)