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May 28, 2013 4:57 PM Can’t See the Forest For the Pine Straw

By Ed Kilgore

If Peter Baker’s reporting is at all accurate, then the vast majority of reporters and observers who covered the president’s National Defense University remarks last week as a “drone policy speech” (the heading Baker’s own New York Times gave to the speech transcript), or as a collection of hastily-assembled talking points responding to “scandals,” really did miss the bigger story:

The pivot in counterterrorism policy that President Obama announced last week was nearly two years in the making, but perhaps the most critical moment came last spring during a White House meeting as he talked about the future of the nation’s long-running terrorism war….
[N]ow, he told his aides, he wanted to institutionalize what in effect had been an ad hoc war, effectively shaping the parameters for years to come “whether he was re-elected or somebody else became president,” as one aide said.

Even the “drone policy” aspect of the speech was part of a much larger issue:

Ultimately, he would decide to write a new playbook that would scale back the use of drones, target only those who really threatened the United States, eventually get the C.I.A. out of the targeted killing business and, more generally, begin moving the United States past the “perpetual war” it had waged since Sept. 11, 2001. Whether the policy shifts will actually accomplish that remains to be seen, given vague language and compromises forced by internal debate, but they represent an effort to set the rules even after he leaves office.

Far from a tactical manueuver revolving around the day’s or week’s or month’s news, it now appears the speech began as and never stopped being presidency-defining:

While part of the re-evaluation was aimed at the next president, it was also about Mr. Obama’s own legacy. What became an exercise lasting months, aides said, forced him to confront his deep conflicts as commander in chief: the Nobel Peace Prize winner with a “kill list,” the antiwar candidate turned war president, the avowed champion of transparency ordering operations over secret battlegrounds. He wanted to be known for healing the rift with the Muslim world, not raining down death from above.
Over the past year, aides said, Mr. Obama spent more time on the subject than on any other national security issue, including the civil war in Syria. The speech he would eventually deliver at the National Defense University became what one aide called “a window into the presidential mind” as Mr. Obama essentially thought out loud about the trade-offs he sees in confronting national security threats.

You can certainly argue the speech didn’t meet its lofty goals, and most obviously Obama can’t really “define” his presidency with a speech if the news media refuse to buy it as definitional. But it was clearly another example of obsessive Obama-watchers examining every step and failing to understand where he was trying to go.

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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