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Obama, Europe and Counter-terrorism

By Wyn Rees

Conventional wisdom tells us that a re-elected American President has a two-year window of opportunity in which to carry through his agenda before becoming a ‘lame duck’. Obama approaches that halfway stage and mid-term elections are sounding the end of his incumbency. So how will history judge him on the issue of counter-terrorism, that defined his predecessor? George Bush’s presidency was marred by wrangles with his transatlantic allies over the ‘War on Terror’, by Guantanamo Bay and by issues such as ‘extraordinary rendition’. When Obama came into office he promised to overcome the issues that had poisoned transatlantic cooperation and Europe greeted his administration with relief, hopeful that he would transform the relationship.

Those European expectations of a rapid renovation of American policy under Obama were never fulfilled. Indeed, it is questionable whether they were ever realistic in the first place. There were legacy issues from the Bush administration that could not be erased. Obama has found it impossible to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, not least because of opposition from within Congress, and was forced to resurrect military tribunals. He also drew back from prosecuting Bush-era officials that had been complicit in so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, as he feared accusations of political vindictiveness. Undoing the mistakes of his predecessor proved to be a tricky business for even this silver-tongued President.

Yet the gap between Europe and America was wider than the legacy of past disagreements. If Europe hoped for a radical change in policy then it misunderstood the post 9/11 American psyche. Obama was clear that countering the threat from terrorism remained his country’s foremost national security issue. The US has sought to keep the threat from terrorism as far from its shores as possible and to this end has mobilized all of its national security resources. Whilst European countries have been willing to tolerate a degree of risk, based upon their past experiences of countering such threats, America has remained strident in taking the fight to the adversary.

The President’s strategy has been to find ways of fighting terrorism more effectively and at lower political cost. To this end Obama increased substantially the number of targeted killings of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and extended their geographical coverage from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been used to target enemies in inaccessible regions without risking American lives. High profile victims of these attacks have included the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, the internet propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and the alleged al-Qaeda number two Abu Yahya al-Libi. European governments have regarded these assassinations as of dubious legitimacy, in spite of US protestations that the strikes are precise and minimize civilian casualties. European allies have considered the killing of civilians as damaging to the legitimacy of the US campaign and have been critical of the lack of accountability of secret CIA strikes.

It has not just been in the foreign policy domain that transatlantic tensions over counter-terrorism have persisted. Homeland security was a source of friction during the Bush era and this has continued post-2009. Europe has focused on civil liberties and individual privacy, whilst America’s concerns have been directed towards improving security. Europe hoped that Obama would rescind much of the PATRIOT Act but his administration renewed some of the most contentious aspects of the legislation including roving wiretaps, the ability to capture medical and banking records and the so-called ‘lone wolf’ provision that facilitates electronic surveillance. Transatlantic strains over the protection of airline data have refused to go away and differences over the handling of financial information – or SWIFT data – have endured.

President Obama identified his administration with the theme of ‘change’ yet his period in office has witnessed remarkable continuities in transatlantic counter-terrorism tensions. This is because the two sides of the Atlantic have differing priorities and whilst Obama has chosen to prosecute his strategy in different ways, the centrality of the fight against terror has remained. As a consequence, the transatlantic relationship has not been transformed in the way that European governments had hoped. Europe will look upon future Presidential contenders with a more experienced and sceptical eye.

A longer version of this article can be found in:

Wyn Rees, ‘Obstacles to Transatlantic Security Cooperation in the War on Terror’ (chapter 11) in E. Fahey & D Curtin (eds) A Transatlantic Community of Law, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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