I'm pretty sure this wasn't a question that kept folks like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld awake at night. They not only went with declaring a "global war on terror," they used the attacks as an excuse to invade a country that was clearly not involved.
But in retrospect, perhaps the rest of us should have been thinking a bit deeper about this question. Within a week of the attacks, President Bush had signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force that had only one "nay" vote in either house of Congress...Rep. Barbara Lee. With that authorization the country had made its choice. We chose war. And given our opponents and their tactics, some would suggest an endless war.
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Since his election, President Obama has made one significant change in how that authorization is understood. While Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et all saw it as a "global war on terror," Obama has stayed true to the original wording and is waging a "war on al Qaeda and their affiliates." As Attorney General Eric Holder made clear a few weeks ago, it is in that context that they are making a legal case for military tribunals, indefinite detention, and drone attacks against al Qaeda/Taliban leaders.
It is also clear that many on the left who raise the issue of civil liberties in these actions are advocating that what should apply to these decisions is the legal framework of our civil criminal justice system. As I wrote yesterday, the Obama administration has advocated for and used that system on occasion, but has been clear that they are not bound by it based on the war powers provided to the President by the AUMF.
The conversation I think liberals should be having about all of this is whether or not either of these systems are adequate to address the national security issues and constitutional questions that face us today. And I'm extremely frustrated that that conversation is not happening.
I'd suggest that our civil justice system is woefully inadequate to deal with the reality of al Qaeda operations in Pakistan. It seems that some on the left think we should simply ignore that inefficacy. But I question whether or not a President of the United States can do that. I know that Obama takes his role as Commander-in-Chief very seriously.
In the midst of all these challenges, however, my single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe. It's the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It's the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.
On the other hand, if this war is in fact endless, I worry about the precedents being established for what future presidents might do with these war powers (we've already witnessed what Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld did with them).
I've written before that my one hope to cure the current mess is that President Obama will do whatever is necessary to end the endless war. If he can pull that off, perhaps this one can be settled. But I suspect the same questions will surface in the future. I think its time we had the conversation.