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May 23, 2013 4:21 PM A Speech Being Chased By Memes

By Ed Kilgore

The president’s speech today at the National Defense University on counter-terrorism policy (advance-billed as a “drone policy” speech or a “Gitmo” speech by many) was a much more wide-reaching and complex address than most observers, friendly or hostile, seem to have expected. And that is why a lot of the media coverage you’ll soon see will focus on one or another narrow “news” item while ignoring the bigger picture.

When I first read the piece, I thought: Wow, the president just officially called off the Global War On Terrorism. I tweeted that, and was immediately informed from several directions that No, that’s not news; it’s been a dead letter since at least 2009. But since Barack Obama isn’t the kind of president who throws celebrations on aircraft carriers, and probably also wanted to avoid a news hook Republicans would use to call him “weak on terrorism,” the implicit abandonment of the GWOT “frame” was never announced in the way 99% of the public would have noticed. So maybe it is a big deal. After a few minutes of feeling simple-minded, I noticed that’s exactly how TPM was headlining the speech (though the underlying article by Julie Pace and Lara Jakes followed most “experts” in writing almost exclusively about drones and Gitmo).

In other words, interpretation of the speech will be reminiscent of the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant, with many memes chasing the many angles the speech supports. Many Republicans will treat the whole thing as an effort to distract attention from “scandals,” and/or as an effort to trivialize the Benghazi! and AP/Fox “scandals” as part of a much larger struggle with complex problems the administration is facing. Many civil libertarians will denounce the speech as one that disingenuously rationalizes and insincerely half-apologizes for drone strikes, First Amendment violations, and detention policies that are simply a continuation of Bush policies with slightly different rhetoric. And the unusual tone of the speech—a more-in-sorrow-than-in-righteous-anger discussion of tough decisions and balancing acts—will be praised or panned depending on the observers’ politics, for the most part.

One thing is fairly clear: the speech poses a challenge to congressional Republicans that may not be that easy for them to meet, distracted as they are and as divided as they tend to be on national security policy these days. As Slate’s Dave Weigel quickly noted, Obama four times shifted responsibility for current dilemmas at least partially to Congress: on drones (where he insisted the appropriate congressional committees have known about every single strike); on embassy security; on the 9/11-era legal regime that still governs anti-terrorist efforts; and on Gitmo (where Republicans have repeatedly thwarted effort to transfer detainees to U.S. prisons). But like critical reporters, Republicans, other than neocons who want GWOT not only to be maintained but intensified, will probably tear off tasty chunks of the speech and masticate them noisily, or just dismiss it all and get back onto the crazy train of Scandalmania ‘13.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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