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Yemen threat puts Obama counter-terror approach in new light

It wasn’t exactly “mission accomplished” but just over two months ago, President Barack Obama told Americans that while the effort to “dismantle terrorist organizations must continue, this war, like all wars, must end.”

Yet the events of this week could complicate Obama’s efforts to decouple his anti-terrorism policies from the language of the “War on Terror.”

With the brisk withdrawal of U.S. government personnel from Yemen at dawn Tuesday, the State Department’s warning of an “extremely high” risk of a terrorist attack in that country, and another U.S. drone strike in Yemen overnight, the landscape looks different today than it did on May 23 when Obama delivered his major terrorism address at the National Defense University.

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In that speech, Obama set out to persuade Americans that they ought to think differently and use updated labels to describe the effort against al Qaeda: “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 that threaten America.”

Reporters pressed White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday about whether Obama had been premature in signaling a ratcheting down of the war on terror back in May, with one reporter asking, “With nearly two dozen embassies and consulates being closed, is it fair anymore to say that core al Qaeda is on the path to defeat?”

Another reporter questioned whether the 2012 Obama campaign’s “bin Laden is dead” mantra gave false re-assurance to voters. 

Using phrasing similar to that in Obama’s May 23 speech, Carney explained that “as al Qaeda core has been diminished through the efforts of the United States and our allies, affiliate organizations -- including in particular, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- have strengthened.”

He also told reporters, “The president has been clear that the threat from al Qaeda very much remains … .Nobody should be under any illusion that that threat still exists.”

And State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki on Tuesday told reporters that it is “inaccurate” to call the withdrawal of personnel from Yemen an “evacuation.” 

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“This is a reduction in staffing,” Psaki said, adding, “we still have a presence in Yemen, the U.S. government does, the State Department does, we will still be able to provide some services, obviously some limited staff may limit that. And we’ll continue to evaluate.” 

In his May address Obama said, “Not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

And he very deliberately set the clock back to the era before Sept. 11, 2001: The current threat, he said, is “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists.” And he added, “the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”

Obama’s National Defense University speech wasn’t a declaration of victory. He did not promise a world in which there’d be no terror attacks on Americans. In fact, he included several cautions: “make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth.”

And, he noted the obvious: “Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror.”

Yet despite those disclaimers, Obama argued that not only is “war” no longer the right term to describe efforts against al Qaeda, but that since the threat is diminishing and since U.S. “super-max” prisons are secure, it’s finally time to close Guantanamo and put some of the detainees in federal prisons.

“The U.S. government still doesn’t have any criteria for determining what terrorist groups are part of the al Qaeda movement and what ones aren’t, for determining which ones are globally focused in terms of wanting to run operations against the United States and which ones are primarily local,” said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University. “And because we still haven’t identified who is and who isn’t the enemy, it’s really hard for the U.S. government to tell the American people exactly what the problem is.”

Reaction from leading Republicans to that May 23 address was stinging. Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., said that “to somehow argue that al Qaeda is ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible.” He argued that al Qaeda is “expanding all over the Middle East” and in North Africa.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney piled on, calling Obama “just dead wrong on the status of the threat” from al Qaeda and disputing Obama’s judgment that the struggle against al Qaeda is winding down. “The threat is bigger than ever,” Cheney contended.

No matter how earnest Obama’s hopes were in that May 23 speech for closing Guantanamo and redefining counter-terrorism, the past few days’ events don’t seem to move him and Congress closer to his goal.