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Bessent: Barack Obama's speech on national security is welcome and overdue

President Barack Obama reacts to a woman yelling

President Barack Obama reacts to a woman yelling at him from the back of the auditorium as he talks about national security at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. (May 23, 2013) (Credit: AP)

The case for a fundamental shift in the nation’s approach to combating terrorists that President Barack Obama laid out Thursday — including a call for Congress to refine or even repeal the 2001 authorization for the use of military force — was both welcome and overdue.

The nation is still threatened by terrorists. Boston and Benghazi made that painfully clear. But the existence of a few individuals scattered around the world who would do harm to this nation doesn’t justify a forever war of global reach.

We’ve achieved important successes in the war on terror. Osama bin Laden and most of his lieutenants are dead. Al Qaida is splintered and scattered. The Taliban has been ousted from power and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. Combat in Iraq has ended. The threat has changed, so our response should too.

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“America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” Obama said. “We must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.”

In an effort to start a national conversation about that key pivot, Obama talked Thursday about some of the most controversial elements of the war on terror, including drones, targeted killings and the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He made a case for a continued reliance on drones, insisting they’re both legal and effective. But the administration finally acknowledged Wednesday that four American citizens are among the thousands of people who’ve been killed in drone strikes abroad. That should hammer home the need for greater transparency about when and where drone strikes are ordered, and a much clearer legal framework for determining who is targeted.

Obama promised both those things yesterday, as well as more limited use of the unmanned aircraft. But we’ve heard that before. Congress should make sure he delivers on his promise of restraint and oversight.

Obama also launched a renewed effort to close the prison at Guantanamo, something he promised to do as far back as the 2008 campaign for president. This time, he has to find a way to get it done.

His decision to end the moratorium on sending detainees cleared for release back to their homes in Yemen is a good start. And Congress should do its part by lifting the restrictions it imposed on detainee transfers to third countries, or to a super-maximum security prison somewhere in the United States.

Unfortunately Obama offered no solution for the most intractable problem of all: What to do with detainees at GITMO who may have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but can’t be prosecuted because evidence against them has been tainted. They may have to be released. Locking people away forever without charges or trials is about as un-American as it gets.

Unraveling the legacies of a dozen years of unconventional warfare won’t be easy. But it has to be done.

And sharpening the focus of the nation’s counter-terrorism campaign is necessary to meet the threat we face today.

This speech should have been delivered in prime time. It’s an important message the country needs to hear.

Tags: Guantanamo Bay , Drones , Barack Obama , national security , terrorism , united states

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