Obama offers a promise on Guantanamo but no direction

President Barack Obama speaks at the National Defence University, Washington DC 23 May 2013 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Obama cannot point to any reason his promise to close Guantanamo might now become a reality after five years of failure.

President Barack Obama says America is at a crossroads over its approach to terrorism.

In a passionate and intellectually powerful speech, he made it clear which path the US should take.

One of the centre pieces was a renewed commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.

But as so often, there was no clue how he would get there, how he would overcome the hard politics that has stopped him for the last five years.

Mr Obama's basic argument was that the huge threat of the 9/11 attacks was no longer the problem.

Not a cure-all

America would face a low-level sort of terrorist threat - small regional groups and home-grown extremists.

But if the country did not seek to define the scope of the threat, the threat would define the country.

Mr Obama's message was that even as terror will continue it should not haunt the national imagination.

There was also a sense that he too had over-reacted, had to take a step back. Many on the right will hate that message and see it as complacent and insufficiently militant.

So, he proposed new rules on drone strikes, which would be less common, and said there would be more public scrutiny.

In a telling phrase, he said that without such scrutiny, "it can also lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism."

In the future, civilian casualties have to be avoided at all costs and drones would only be used when terrorists posed an imminent threat to the US and couldn't be captured.

There are new rules too for Guantanamo.

The ban on sending prisoners back to Yemen would be lifted and there would be a new effort to send prisoners to trial.

If the right will not go along with this, the left will not be particularly happy either. A heckler challenged him in the hall and outside protesters told us that he was still at war.

Not mere obstructionism

There is something very familiar about all this.

Indeed, it goes straight to the heart of what, to me, is the central mystery of the president's second term.

He calls on Congress to help, knowing full well they won't.

This is not mere obstructionism - many Republicans disagree with his whole view of terrorism.

So Mr Obama is not just making excuses. No-one should doubt his commitment to close Guantanamo Bay prison - it was one of the very first orders he signed on the day he took office.

But he cannot point to any reason the old promise might now become a reality after five years of failure.

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