“This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises.”
— President Barack Obama, May 23
Nice thought. But much as President Barack Obama would like to close his eyes, click his heels three times and declare the war on terror over, war is a two-way street.
That’s what history advises: Two sides to fight it, two to end it. By surrender (World War II), by armistice (Korea and Vietnam) or when the enemy simply disappears from the field (the Cold War).
Obama says enough is enough. He doesn’t want us on “a perpetual wartime footing.” Well, the Cold War lasted 45 years. The war on terror, 12 so far. By Obama’s calculus, we should have declared the Cold War over in 1958 and left Western Europe, our Pacific allies, the entire free world to fend for itself — and consigned Eastern Europe to endless darkness.
John F. Kennedy summoned the nation to the burdens of the long twilight struggle. Obama, agonizing publicly about the awful burdens of command (which he twice sought in election), wants out. For him and for us.
He doesn’t just want to revise and update the September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which many conservatives have called for. He wants to repeal it.
He admits that the AUMF establishes the basis both in domestic and international law to conduct crucial defensive operations, such as drone strikes. Why, then, abolish the authority to do what we sometimes need to do?
Because that will make the war go away? Persuade our enemies to retire to their caves?
This is John Lennon, bumper-sticker foreign policy — Imagine World Peace. Obama pretends that the tide of war is receding. But it’s demonstrably not. It’s metastasizing to Mali, to the Algerian desert, to the North African states falling under the Muslim Brotherhood, to Yemen, to the savage civil war in Syria, now spilling over into Lebanon and destabilizing Jordan. Even Sinai, tranquil for 35 years, is descending into chaos.
It’s not war that’s receding. It’s America. Under Obama. And it is precisely in the power vacuum left behind that war is rising. Obama declares Assad must go. The same wish-as-policy fecklessness from our bystander president. Two years — and 70,000 dead — later, Obama keeps repeating the wish even as the tide of battle is altered by the new arbiters of Syria’s future — Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. Where does every party to the Syrian conflict go on bended knee? To Moscow, as Washington recedes into irrelevance.
But the ultimate expression of Obama’s Dorothy Doctrine is Guantanamo. It must close. Must, mind you.
OK. Let’s accept the dubious proposition that the Yemeni prisoners could be sent home without coming back to fight us. And that others could be convicted in court and put in U.S. prisons.
Now the rub. Obama openly admits that “even after we take these steps one issue will remain — just how to deal with those Gitmo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but who cannot be prosecuted.”
Well, yes. That’s always been the problem with Gitmo. It’s not a question of geography. The issue is indefinite detention — whether at Gitmo, a Colorado supermax or St. Helena.
Can’t try ‘em, can’t release ‘em. Having posed the central question, what is Obama’s answer? “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved.”
That’s it! I kid you not. He’s had four-plus years to think this one through — and he openly admits he’s got no answer.
Because there is none. Hence the need for Gitmo. Other wars end, at which point prisoners are repatriated. But in this war, the other side has no intention of surrender or armistice. They will fight until the caliphate is established or until jihadism is as utterly defeated as fascism and communism. That’s the reason — the only reason — for the detention conundrum. There is no solution to indefinite detention when the detainees are committed to indefinite war.
Obama’s fantasies are twinned. He can no more wish the detention away than he can the war.
We were defenseless on 9/11 because, despite bin Laden’s open written declaration of war in 1996, we pretended for years that no war against us had even begun. Obama would return us to pre-9/11 defenselessness — casting Islamist terror as a law enforcement issue and removing the legal basis for treating it as armed conflict — by pretending that the war is over.
It’s enough to make you weep.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.