A Closer Look At Obama's Counterterrorism Strategy, Legacy

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the 2016 American Nobel Prize laureates in the Oval Office of the White House Nov. 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
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The president travels to Tampa today, the military’s special operations headquarters. There he will meet with the troops and speak about his administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd asks American University professor Stephen Tankel (@stephentankel), a counterterrorism expert, to assess the Obama legacy, and also what to expect from the Trump administration.

Interview Highlights

On the White House’s report on use of military force

“What the president and his team have put out is really a compendium of a lot of the different legal bases, domestic and international, for both where they are conducting military operations, and also why and how they have been able to use force in the ways that they have. So explanations for why the United States is on the ground in Afghanistan, why it is providing support to the government in Somalia or Libya and launching airstrikes, things of that nature, and both explaining sort of how they go about prosecuting the use of force and the legal basis for it.”

On transparency in drone strikes

“I think he’s attempted to address it. I don’t think he’s addressed it to the satisfaction of many of his critics. There is obviously a tension when using drone strikes, especially when using them in countries where sometimes our partners have specifically requested that we not acknowledge these strikes. That was part of the deal with Pakistan, initially. It was part of the deal with Yemen as well, and so that creates transparency issues. The fact that the drones were, initially, being flown often by the CIA as opposed to the military, that also creates transparency issues. And again part of that is by design and because of what our partners in some cases have requested.”

On the legacy of Obama’s strategy

“I would challenge that conclusion that his policies have led to the expansion of extremism and I certainly don’t think that it’s going to be the case by simply using more force you’re going to reduce extremism, certainly not by re-instituting torture would you reduce extremism. But I think part of what the president is trying to do here is to set a precedent in terms of transparency going forward, to show why what they have done is legal and also to show what the legal limitations are to potentially make it more difficult to go further in some areas, and again, also, set that precedent for communicating with the American public to the degree possible about what informs these decisions and what the legal bases are.”

“I think there certainly have been some successes and if you judge it on the ability to eliminate leaders and also to keep the homeland safe from major transnational attacks then one would dress it successfully. At the same time, certainly we’ve seen an expansion of terrorist groups across the Middle East and North Africa. One could criticize some of the ways in which the Obama administration has reacted to the Arab uprisings, but I think it’s important to remember that the Arab uprisings which created sort of a lot of the new opportunities for these groups to spread were a long time building. So, I’m not sure that there would have been much that the Obama administration coming in in 2009 could’ve done to stop the Arab uprisings in 2011, so I think that context is important.”

“I can’t say whether President Obama considers himself a war president. I think it would be hard for history not to see him as one. He as presided over war for the entirety of his presidency, in Afghanistan, where we still have troops on the ground, and really waging a new kind of war. And I think one of the questions that we’ll look back on historically will be whether the Bush and really the Obama administrations were — the time in which the concept of what it meant to be at war or at peace became clouded in ways that we’ll be working to unpack for years to come.”

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