Friday, May 24, 2013

Obama on counterterrorism: will "redefines" become "unwinds"?

It is true, as Matt Welch avers, that Obama could amend much of what is wrong with the current U.S. response to terror by executive order, without the help of Congress. Also true, by extension, is that much of what is wrong -- excessive use of targeted killings, failure to release those Guantanamo prisoners cleared for release, disproportionate punishment of leakers -- is his responsibility [Update, 5/25: See Joe Nocera today on Obama's responsibility for the continuing hell of Guantanamo].  Also, that while yesterday Obama articulated important intentions -- paring back and ultimately repealing AUMF, closing Guantanamo, finding a way out of the indefinite detention trap -- he was lighter on announced action -- though paring back the drone campaign and transferring it to the military (which he didn't mention, but has signaled clearly through other channels) is certainly significant, as is getting the ball rolling with Yemeni detainees.

And yet, we should not under-emphasize the import -- or the courage required -- in redefining the conflict for the American people, taking us back to the future in our response to terrorism, and warning -- as pointedly as Eisenhower did about the military-industrial complex -- about the dangers of perpetual war.  And in this regard, my response to Obama's rhetoric in his speech redefining U.S. response to the terror threat is, once again, almost Pavlovian. He is so analytical, so precise, so nuanced, and so clear in laying out the threats we face, and the need to balance threats to security and freedom, that I can't help but feel renewed faith in his judgment, and to suspect, with one caveat I'll get to later, that he's balanced his responsibility for U.S. security and for the preservation of our civil liberties and standing in the world reasonably well -- constrained by our divided government, the hysterical existing terms of our national security discourse, an intellectually corrupt opposition, and the institutional machinery of the Pentagon and the security state .

Note the blend of analysis, classification and narrative below, the refusal of triumphalism, the parsing of threats -- Pre-, post- and post-post 9/11; regional vs. U.S.-aimed, terror generally vs. jihad, overseas vs. homegrown:

Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat.  Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.  They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston.  They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11. 

Instead, what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates.  From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with Al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula — AQAP — the most active in plotting against our homeland.  And while none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. 

Unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.  But here, too, there are differences from 9/11.  In some cases, we continue to confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals.  Other of these groups are simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory.  And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.  And that means we’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives — perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks — launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations. 

And finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States.  Whether it’s a shooter at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history.  Deranged or alienated individuals — often U.S. citizens or legal residents — can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad.  And that pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.


So that’s the current threat — lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists.  This is the future of terrorism. We have to take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them.  But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. 

In the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a disco in Berlin; and on a Pan Am flight — Flight 103  — over Lockerbie.  In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center; at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia; and at our Embassy in Kenya.  These attacks were all brutal; they were all deadly; and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow.  But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11. 

Moreover, we have to recognize that these threats don’t arise in a vacuum.  Most, though not all, of the terrorism we faced is fueled by a common ideology — a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.  Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam.  And this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist attacks. 

Nevertheless, this ideology persists, and in an age when ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism can’t depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.  So what I want to discuss here today is the components of such a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.
This is a powerful bid to get beyond the "9/11 changed everything" mindset. The inevitable reflexive neocon cry that he's reverting to a pre-9/11 mindset is rebutted by the precision with which he's laid out current threats.

The caveat to my faith in Obama's judgment is a worry, which time has done nothing to erase, that he's dangerously conflict-averse.  The evidence of this on the domestic front is the vice-grip of sequestration -- which, if left in place, will strangle his domestic agenda in stages. On the security front (as on the domestic), I realize he has to pick his battles. I couldn't say which of the following would have been (or is now) most feasible, but inaction on all these fronts has led to the perception that he's let the opposition block him in the realm in which presidents have relative freedom of movement.  He and Holder could have followed through (and first, better prepared the ground) on their announced intention to try the chief 9/11 suspects in civilian court. He could have vetoed defense appropriations that placed new restrictions on his ability to dispose of detainees. He could have worked around some of those restrictions to start transferring some of the 86 detainees cleared for transfer to other countries, as Laura Pitter points out, and as Obama now says he will begin to do for the Yemeni detainees. And he could have made sure that his attorney general initiated some kind of full-bore inquiry into the U.S. practice of torture.

My trust-with-caveat reaction to Obama is well captured, I think, by a similar qualified expression of trust by James Fallows. affirmed via an exception that proves the rule with respect to the AP phone records seizure: "It is one of the rare times I question not his effectiveness or tactics but his judgment."  Unwinding this, Fallows does presumably question Obama's "effectiveness"  -- and I think that pertains to his ability to face down GOP opposition. 

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