Week In Politics: Obama And Drone Strikes

Melissa Block speaks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss highlights from the national security speech delivered by President Obama on Thursday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we mentioned, President Obama's commencement address comes the day after he delivered an hour-long speech on national security. The president talked about redefining the effort away from what he called a boundless global war on terror. Here to talk about what they heard in the president's speech yesterday are our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: We heard the president say yesterday, America is at a crossroads. He said we're making decisions that will define the type of nation and world we leave to our children. And in much of the speech, he talked specifically about drone strikes. David, you first, what shift, if any, did you hear in what the president had to say?

BROOKS: Crossroads is a bit hyperbolic. There are a couple of phases to the war on terror. I would say there was the militant super aggressive phase, what you might call the Dick Cheney phase, first three years. I think the big shift happened early in the second Bush term when Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley got involved. And that was the big shift, beginning to scale it back to something more normalized.

And we've made progress since then in getting it to be normal. And in general, President Obama has rhetorically shifted a lot, but substantively shifted very little. And so I think he's continued the second Bush term, but making sensible adjustments. And I think this speech is a series of sensible adjustments - trying to get the drones out of the CIA toward the Defense Department, which seems appropriate, trying to scale back the level of general alarm of threat.

So I'd say the big shift happened in the Bush years, but this is a sensible continuation of getting things back to a normal footing.

BLOCK: Interesting, though, that point that you raised about shifting it from the CIA to the military wasn't actually embedded in the speech itself. He didn't actually talk about that.

BROOKS: Right. And it's merely a preference, so we're not for sure. But I think most people accept the idea that the CIA going around killing people with these weapons is not the natural home for this program.

BLOCK: E.J., what about you? What evolution did you hear, if any, in the president's remarks?

DIONNE: Well, I think it was an adult speech that treated Americans as serious conversation partners and, indeed, there was a protester, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, who had interrupted the speech and it was fascinating. The president really treated her as a serious interlocutor and came back to her at the end of the speech. And I thought it was actually very significant that he really, as you suggested, said the global war on terror, which was never a very good formulation in my view because you don't wage war on methods of violence.

He said that's behind us. And he had a very complicated phrase but it's actually quite precise. He said it's a series of persistent targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists. It's a very Obama pragmatic, practical thing to say. I think that he moved in certain directions without fundamentally changing. He went back to the effort to close Guantanamo, but he did not announce its closure.

He put restrictions in the use of drones, but said we still needed to use them. So I think there'll be critics from the left and the right, but I think it was a classic balanced Obama kind of speech.

BLOCK: You mentioned the protester, Medea Benjamin, and we have some tape of this exchange. Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and she was shouting about Guantanamo and civilians killed in drone strikes and at first, in one of her several interruptions, we heard the president respond this way.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Why don't you (unintelligible)?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: You said you'd release those 86 prisoners (unintelligible)

OBAMA: Why don't you sit down and I will tell you exactly what I'm going to do.

BLOCK: And then a bit later, I believe it's as she's being removed from the room, he said the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.

OBAMA: These are tough issues. And the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.

BLOCK: David, let me ask you about this. I mean, does this illustrate the fine line you're talking about, sort of the shift away from Bush administration policies, many of which have been embedded also in the Obama administration's term?

BROOKS: Yeah. First, let me say I think Code Pink are reprehensible narcissists, by the way. They interrupt these events continually. This is not the proper to have protest.

DIONNE: It's free speech, David. It's a free country.

BROOKS: Well, and there's also such a thing as civility and respect.

BLOCK: She's a known quantity. She was still allowed into the room or someone didn't even know she was there.

BROOKS: The situation in Guantanamo, I remember speaking to someone in the Bush administration where they said, you know, it never occurred to us we could announce the closer of Guantanamo before we found a place for the people. We did things in the wrong order. So they've announced the closure without finding a place.

But I think this is a problem that both administrations and certainly this administration has been aware of. The evidence is tainted. You can't let these people out because they are dangerous. So there's just a series of horrible problems that the Bush administration had, that the Obama administration has on this and on drones. Drones are a very problematic use of force and yet they are effective.

And you're thrown in these circumstances, in these horrible circumstances where you've got no bad options and I think they're dealing with it quite rationally...

BLOCK: No good options.

BROOKS: No good options.

BLOCK: No good - if there were no bad options, it would all be (unintelligible), wouldn't it?

BROOKS: That's column writing. And so, I do think they're doing quite a mature job of this.

DIONNE: Could I just say, one of the reasons it's been so hard to close Guantanamo is because Congress - and this is really a problem in both parties - Congress keeps saying, well, you can't move them here. Well, if we can't move them to a secure facility inside the United States and you can't find countries to send it to, it becomes more difficult to close Guantanamo. And so, I think that Obama, with what he said, is trying to bring some pressure back.

It's an issue he kind of dropped for a while and he's picking it up again.

BLOCK: David, very briefly, last word to you. I just want to have your reaction to the reaction from Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia after the speech, who said that terrorists will see the president's speech as a victory. We are changing course, he said, with no clear operational benefit. Does he have a point?

BROOKS: That's just politics. Ridiculousness. There's no change of course here. Show me the substantive change of course. It's just another chance to do that same old line that Democrats are weak. President Obama has not been weak on terror. There's just no substance to that and so I would regard that as a cheap shot.

BLOCK: And E.J., you get the last word. We have a few seconds left.

DIONNE: You know, I actually agree with David so I'll just let it stand there.

BLOCK: There are no bad choices right now. David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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