Editorial: Obama’s decisive break from the ‘war on terror’

In a historic speech, the President called time on the era of perpetual war – at last

We thought we knew what the foreign policy of an Obama presidency would look like: his pledge before the 2008 election to close Guantanamo was a welcome sign of his intention to discard the reckless, bellicose and repressive policies of George W Bush and turn over a new leaf.

Yet the Guantanamo promise ran into the sands; the war in Afghanistan dragged on, and the goodwill he acquired through avoiding new troop commitments was wasted by his reliance on deadly drones.

Drone attacks mean far fewer coffins coming home draped in the Stars and Stripes. This is a good thing: reducing the number of casualties in war is desirable. Yet drones have also strengthened anti-American feeling in causing thousands of deaths. With more than 100 Guantanamo prisoners now on hunger strike, protesting at their foundering hope of release, and with far more drone-related blood on his hands than his predecessor, Mr Obama’s claims to have made a clean break with the legacy of George Bush seemed threadbare.

But in a major speech this week, the Obama of his first presidential campaign was reborn, toughened by his exposure to four years of Washington realpolitik but with his ideals intact. The Guantanamo pledge was renewed, even if it sounded disturbingly reminiscent of his plea for gun control, which ended so badly. He confronted the moral deficit incurred through his reliance on drones and vowed, while continuing to use them, to apply far more stringent controls to their use, doing everything possible to avoid civilian deaths.

Above all, Mr Obama called time on the era of perpetual war. His insistence that Colonel Gaddafi’s war on Libya’s rebels was a problem for Europeans to address, his refusal to be sucked into the Syrian conflict or a campaign against Iran, his deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, his pivot to Asia – even his brilliant speech to young Israelis some months back, advising them there is a solution for the Middle East: all these were straws in the wind. But now he has spelled it out. We have entered a new age.

There are those on both sides of the Atlantic who will decry this message. The “war on terror” has not been won, they will say; America is in full retreat; the only superpower has called time on its ambitions, leaving Europe and the rest of a deeply troubled world floundering and leaderless.

We do not see it like that. The “war on terror”, and the invasion of Iraq in particular, was unwinnable, grotesquely misconceived and fatally counterproductive: this was never a war that could be definitively won because the enemy was not a nation state but a fanatical state of mind. As such, many of the victories were Pyrrhic.

With this speech the world has entered a new era, and we should be thankful that Mr Obama, despite all his past tribulations and failures, has kept faith with the convictions that first brought him to power.

There is one other particular lesson to take from his speech. Knowing American military engagement is diminishingly unlikely, we must make our leaders understand that for us, too, military intervention is a last resort. If, with those constraints, we can take strides towards bringing peace, William Hague’s dream of a British foreign policy that claims the moral high ground might have a hope of realisation.