Another take on Obama’s big speech

Editor's Note: Nicholas Burns is GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist. He writes a bimonthly column on the international issues that shape our world.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Reaction to President Barack Obama’s ambitious speech on terrorism at the National Defense University last week continues to dominate discussion in Washington. And, much of it has been negative, even caustic.

Obama has been accused by critics from the right and left of raising big issues — how to defeat Islamic terrorism, the use of drones, the fate of Guantanamo — but not providing a clear way forward for the country on any of them.

Instead, as the criticism goes, he delivered a cautious, hand-wringing and even anguished speech that left us wondering where he and we are heading on some of the most important challenges on our foreign policy agenda.

But, consider this more generous view. Obama had the guts to deliver a big speech that ranged over issues that have deeply divided the country. Given the partisan, highly ideological wars that continue to roil our domestic politics, it would have been far easier for him to avoid raising them altogether. But, our best and most serious presidents don’t shy from engaging the public, and in this case the rest of the world, on the most difficult subjects.

Obama took a big swing at the central dilemma in our national security debate since 9/11 — how to go after terrorists that would do us harm without compromising our most important ethical and moral values that are at the heart of our democratic tradition.

In doing so, Obama launched the first round of an ongoing national conversation on whether it is time to end the nonstop, fever-pitch war on terror that has dominated our politics and international strategy since 9/11.

He did not suggest, of course, that we stop fighting the remnants of Al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistan border or other terrorist groups elsewhere that level lethal threats at Americans. But, he did take a giant step toward admitting what no other American politician had dared to say until now — it may be time to rethink in a fundamental way this phase of American foreign policy.

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Here is why Obama is right to ask the question — when will this war end?

As he explained in the speech, more than 7,000 American troops have died in battle since 9/11 along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis, Yemenis and others. We’ve spent over $1 trillion in pursuit of Al Qaeda and other groups, exhausted our brilliant military and overly militarized our entire foreign policy apparatus in the process. In addition, we descended, for a time, to trade-offs in torture, illegal detentions and the indiscriminate use of force that earlier generations of American leaders had rejected.

Where the critics are right is that Obama did not provide in his speech a clearly lit path ahead on some of these complex challenges.

But he was definite about where he wanted us to end up before his time as president expires in just over three and a half years — with Guantanamo closed, a thorough examination of the trade-offs on drones and a better balance between security and civil liberties. These are issues that, obviously, go to the heart of our democracy.

The critics are right in another sense. Obama will have to fill in many of the blank passages in his speech before too long. I see three that are particularly critical to our global reputation and effectiveness.

First, how will the United States end the war in Afghanistan next summer? Will we make a mad dash for the exits, bringing all of our troops home at once? Or, will we, as many in the military and Foreign Service hope, leave a residual force of several thousand troops behind to train the Afghan Army and be ready to strike at the many terrorist groups that can still do us harm?

Obama was silent on this issue last week. But, it would be risky and wrong to leave entirely after we have invested so much time and treasure into that unstable country for twelve years now.

Second, will the president act decisively to shift money and priority to the State Department or acquiesce to congressional cuts in diplomacy and aid? If one urgent priority is to push the executive branch more in the direction of employing diplomacy and statecraft to get our way rather than excessive reliance on the military, it will have to be accompanied by greater resources for a financially strapped State Department.

Third, while the instinct to end the land wars and be cautious about committing the military is prudent and wise, there is a danger in overlearning the lessons of the recent past.

While staying too long in both Iraq and Afghanistan is one recent historical lesson to ponder, that does not mean that all interventions are ill-advised and that the US should take a back seat to others in the volatile but ever vital Middle East.

Syria is a case in point. The US and its allies currently face a strengthening coalition of Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that has our many friends in the region worried. John McCain makes an important point in arguing for a self-confident and energetic American role in that difficult region.

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By introducing these tough, complex issues to the 2013 debate, however, the president has done us all a service.

What we continue to see in Obama is a serious, thoughtful person who, like the rest of us, struggles with the moral and strategic weight of these issues.

There are plenty of lessons of which we must be mindful to protect our reputation and strength overseas. But, we remain fortunate to have a president who thinks deeply, carefully and thoughtfully before he acts.

Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.