This week several House committee chairmen wrote to President Obama criticizing the decision to bring accused Somali terrorist Ahmed Warsame to New York to be tried in a federal court. Legal and military experts dispute the core claims of the letter. Its complaints come as Congress debates radical provisions in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act which would give this and future presidents fewer options, not more, to use against terrorism suspects. They represent an odd choice for politicking, as the administration’s approach to the Warsame case and counterterrorism more broadly have drawn strong support from editorial boards and public opinion.
While public ire with government on economic issues stays in the headlines, less-noticed is strong public support for the Obama administration’s competent handling of national security. Competence, pragmatism and real progress – from counterterrorism, to moving to end wars, to leveraging the strength of partners – have proven effective counters to the decades-old cliché of progressives’ political disadvantage on national security. Recent polls – from pollsters across the political spectrum –confirm the trend which began at the beginning of the administration – suggesting that extreme and personalized attacks on security issues are failing to reach a public focused on economic security and pragmatic results.
Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was prosecuting Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame for terrorism-related charges in the federal court in New York City. Warsame, who is perceived to have been a connector between al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia's al Shabaab, was reportedly seized in April and held aboard a U.S. Navy ship for two months. National security experts welcomed the decision to bring Warsame to New York for federal prosecution, but it has sparked a surprising reaction from the right. Evoking controversial but unrelated state court decisions, and experience gained not in law enforcement but on television, some Congressional conservatives responded by calling for the use of military commissions, which have proven at best ineffective at prosecuting terrorists and at worst harmful to America's counterterrorism efforts. By contrast, the administration's comprehensive, effective approach to has drawn the support of key experts, editorial boards and public opinion.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, experts in and out of government are reviewing the successes and mistakes of the approach to counterterrorism that has dominated the decade. Yesterday, the Obama administration released its first National Counterterrorism Strategy outlining its overall approach to combating terrorism. It highlights the need for whole-of-government efforts that go beyond any one agency or tool; for partnerships built on trust between nations and within our own society; and for standing strongly with our own institutions and values to face terror with resilience. These lessons have been outlined again and again by experts in terrorism and national security. New polling this week also showed that the American people clearly prefer this results-oriented approach to doubling down on failed policies of the past.
As Congress’s role in war-making decisions is highlighted by the debate around Libya and the War Powers Act, today the Senate Armed Services Committee is working on legislation that would have drastic consequences for presidential power and national security. The committee is finishing the markup of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA is meant to serves as the legislative blueprint for America’s defense policies. However, provisions reportedly being considered by the Senate committee include un-debated changes to America’s counterterrorism policies and presidential authority that run counter to security experts' views. An expansive Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) would give any president wide ranging authority without oversight from Congress, reference to world events, or an expiration date.
This week a nonpartisan group of retired generals and admirals wrote to Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, expressing their national security concerns. Additionally there are a number of other defense issues that have already been debated and decided upon but that the House version of the bill tries to override. These provisions do not represent a serious plan for America’s national defense.
Tonight, Republican candidates for president meet in New Hampshire for a primetime debate. The debate will likely not focus on foreign policy and national security issues. As the Associated Press reports, "The daring nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan draws a sharp contrast between President Barack Obama and a field of potential Republican challengers who have comparatively scant foreign policy experience." The AP compares the "lack of international experience in the prospective GOP field compared with the president, a Democrat who has spent more than two years overseeing two wars and, more recently, military action in Libya." It further states that, "None of the Republicans weighing candidacies is a foreign policy heavyweight, and all are working to boost their credentials by traveling to distant lands and weighing in on overseas matters."
Leon Panetta’s confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense begin as the Pentagon – and our core security and defense objectives – face significant transition. Solid ground has been gained in the in the fight against al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have been killed, their networks have been disrupted and experts assess the continuing threat to be “real, but not catastrophic.” Meanwhile America’s military, which has fought admirably for a decade, remains engaged in multiple wars and is in need of a sustainable strategy. Budgetary pressures and the demand for stronger civilian partners demand a strategic long-term review and hard choices about role and mission. This is an important time for effective leadership at the Pentagon.