The global war on terror is dead: Long live Obama's surgical, highly targeted alternative

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President Obama outlining the new counter terrorism policy of the administration.
President Obama outlining the new counter terrorism policy of the administration. Photo:

George Bush's expansive global war on terror is dead.

Long live Obama's alternative - the surgical, highly targeted battle.

President Obama last night decided America's longest-ever conflict had to be redefined, otherwise the US would be on a perpetual war footing that it cannot afford, financially or psychologically.

So the White House is offering the world's bad guys a new deal: target America directly and you may be terminated with lethal force.

But if you are just a general threat to non-American interests, you will be chased and harassed but there will be no Hellfire missile while you are asleep in your bed.

So the remnants of al-Qaeda are still in America's cross-hair. But more amorphous regional militants - those whose plots have not taken shape - can breathe a little easier.

Drone strikes are already dramatically down this year and they will become rarer still.

Obama the constitutional lawyer understands that playing God in the Situation Room - deciding who should live and who should die - is not tenable unless the intelligence is watertight and the risk of civilian casualties is close to zero.

Drones will become the weapon of the relatively open and accountable Pentagon, not the secret toys of the shadowy CIA.

US Army Military Police escort a detainee to his cell at Guantanamo Bay.
US Army Military Police escort a detainee to his cell at Guantanamo Bay. Credit: Reuters

The second move to end America's longest war is to eliminate Al-Qaeda's greatest recruiting tool: Guantanamo Bay.

As Obama correctly pointed out:

Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike.

Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?

It is a valid self-criticism because the President realises that holding detainees without charging them is more than counter-productive. It is deeply corrosive to the brand that is America.

Watch: Peace protester removed after heckling the President during his speech:

But President Obama may struggle to achieve his stated goals:

  • He is a weakened and distracted President facing Congressional investigations and political trench warfare.
  • Republicans are already accusing him of selling out on national security. One Senator declared that Obama has just handed victory to the terrorists.
  • Having broken his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, Obama has a credibility problem. Are any of his vows to be taken seriously?

The real test for America's new counter-terrorism strategy will come not when there are small scale attacks like the Boston bombings.

Smaller attacks like the Boston bombs will not test America's new strategy.
Smaller attacks like the Boston bombs will not test America's new strategy. Credit: Reuters

The challenge will be as Syria descends into anarchy, with different factions grabbing chemical and biological weapons.

The challenge will be when Iran crosses the ultimate red line and tests a nuclear device.

What will America do then? Will it keep watching from the sidelines?

Or will President Obama have to re-write the counter-terrorism rule book again and go after the states that sponsor terrorists?

Then Obama's strategy might look remarkably similar to his predecessor's after all.