US President Barack Obama set out Thursday to redefine the US fight against global terrorism.
But despite calling for a more targeted and not “boundless” theater of global operations, Obama left the specifics and timelines for action, by which his success or failure can be measured, out of his big speech.
Here are some critical questions Obama did not raise or answer in the address at the National Defense University.
Guantanamo Bay timeline
Obama renewed his call for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay camp for terror suspects in Cuba.
But he did not provide a timeline for doing so — other than saying that if the camp were open 10 or 20 years from now it would be antithetical to US values.
The president appears to have learned a lesson from his first term, when, in one of his first acts as president, he ordered the camp closed within a year. His failure to follow through remains a blemish on his presidency.
Detention without release
Obama also did not specify what he would do with Guantanamo Bay inmates who are deemed too dangerous to release — but who cannot be tried because evidence against them came from coercive interrogations and is not admissible in court.
Even if most Guantanamo inmates are shipped out, a small number of such detainees face detention without trial in perpetuity and no legal framework yet exists to govern their plight.
Obama simply said he was “confident” that the issue could be worked out according to the rule of law.
When will the war end?
Obama warned that a “perpetual” global war against terrorism would be self-defeating for the United States.
Though urging the adoption of new strategies to tackle burgeoning franchises that pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda but are not in its command structure, and homegrown radicals, he did not put an end date on the war on terror.
Still Obama’s critics quickly accused him of “winding down” US anti-terror operations that have been in place since the September 11 attacks in 2001, and accused him of not taking the diffuse global threat sufficiently seriously.
Opacity on drones
Obama gave his most public, detailed, justification of the US drone war against Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups yet but left many questions unanswered.
He did not for instance say he would cede the right to use drone strikes as he sees fit, despite unveiling new guidelines for their use.
Though admitting he was “haunted” by civilian deaths in drone strikes, he did not give details on how many unintended victims there had been. He did argue that there was a “wide gap” between government assessments of casualties and those of independent groups who say thousands of civilians may have died.
It also remained unclear whether the White House or the Pentagon will in future confirm details about suspected drone strikes.
Previously, government spokespeople have refused to tell journalists any details of the covert program when asked to confirm reports of strikes reported by authorities in other countries like Pakistan or Yemen.
Obama did not, as some observers expected, announce that the CIA role in drone strikes (mostly over Pakistan) would be ceded to the US military — likely because operations by the spy agency remain classified.
The president also did not define the concept of an “imminent threat” to US security that he says a terror suspect must pose to be the target of a US drone strike abroad.
Some human rights groups say the term is elastic and unspecified and leaves the government far too much latitude in mounting drone strikes overseas.