Friday, May 24, 2013

What Have We Learned?

As we put the final touches on today's work and get ready to enjoy three days off, we have three things on our minds: the school year is ending, this is Memorial Day weekend, and President Obama's speech on national security and the drone program on Thursday was a stunningly frank and necessary next step in America's path forward.

What Americans hopefully learned from the President on Thursday reminds us of some of the parting words of wisdom we've given or received at the end of school years past. Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly may have been the first major member of the media to understand those words of wisdom that President Obama was imparting - wisdom many Americans have yet to truly grasp.

Whatever your personal political beliefs are, based on both the speech on Thursday and the series of actions the President has set in motion – drafting an official drone policy, admitting responsibility for killing innocents with our drones, publicly taking responsibility for initiating the end to Guantanamo – it should be obvious to anyone with a solid grasp of foreign policy that the era of "perpetual war" in America is finally coming to an end.

This era won't be ended by President Obama alone, though.

As Dave Weigel brusquely but accurately pointed out Thursday afternoon, President Obama called out Congress for their laziness, cowardice, and incompetence in mishandling their responsibilities for ending this era. Congress has known about these drone strikes - "every strike," as President Obama admitted on Thursday - yet has done almost nothing to increase their oversight over the program.

Congress has also done nothing to curtail the document that is at the root of this perpetual war state, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the AUMF - until recently, when Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff stepped up. Instead, they've wasted their time attacking the President and playing politics, making our security situation weaker by gutting necessary security funding, while making it nearly impossible to settle already complex problems like Guantanamo.

As Greg Sargent and others have rightly noted, President Obama's speech and actions are a massive, yet ultimately imperfect, attempt to finally reconcile America's national security policies and actions with the values we claim to have. Yet it's an effort no one else on the national level has had the courage to seriously attempt since those policies and actions were split in 2001. Presient Obama's reconcilliation effort is being punctuated sharply by his plan to end this era not by increasing the powers of his office, but by actually LIMITING the powers of the office of the President, through actions like increased oversight of the drone program by Congress.

There's one other thing Americans learned from President Obama yesterday, with some help from anti-war protester Medea Benjamin.

Ms. Benjamin interrupted Mr. Obama three times during one of the most important policy delivery speeches this President has ever made. While he may have been a bit frustrated by her interruptions, he LISTENED to her, and even directly addressed some of her questions.

In addressing Ms. Benjamin's questions about civilians and the costs of the lives of those we've killed through drone strikes, President Obama said, "It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live…" That includes the death of the 16 year old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

That the President of the United States would not only show respect to a common citizen who interrupted him during a major speech, but that he answered her questions with humility, honesty and humanity is a lesson that every one of us should never forget: We are NEVER too important, no matter who we are, to address the honest concerns of those for whom we are responsible.

The era of perpetual war is ending. This is not the same country it was thirteen years ago. Hopefully, we can all take what we've learned and make it better.

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