New Paradigms Forum
December 13, 2010
by Christopher Ford
In remarks given in January 2010, the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism policy, Daniel Benjamin, declared that a critical test for anyone’s counter-terrorism (CT) polic[ies] is “to see how they emerge from contact with a genuine terrorist event.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Benjamin gave relatively high marks to the Obama Administration of which he is a part, though he admitted that the “underwear bomber” episode of December 23, 2009 – which we shall discuss further below – showed that some of its most important “operating assumptions were no longer adequate.”
Benjamin is hardly wrong that how a government handles “a genuine terrorist event” is certainly an important test of CT policy. Members of the public, however, might place a higher premium upon the prevention of such events in the first place. It is the ambition of CT policy, after all, to be prophylactic, rather than just effectively responsive. Particularly in light of U.S. authorities’ confusion and failure to act – despite being warned ahead of time, by the underwear bomber’s own father, of the perpetrator’s jihadist predilections – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was rightly derided for having smugly proclaimed after the failed attack that “the system worked.” Napolitano seems to have meant that the government’s response to the incident went “properly, correctly and ... very smoothly,” but of course being merely responsive to attacks is obviously inadequate.
Rather than assessing U.S. operational readiness, however, this essay will focus upon questions of CT prioritization, and the place of counter-terrorism within a philosophical or ideological framework that shapes approaches to governance. These issues of conceptualization and prioritization can have real relevance to policy effectiveness, but the connection is indirect. Nevertheless, since it remains useful to assess governments’ broad philosophy of CT, let us explore such matters through the prism of the Obama Administration’s first year or so in office.
I. “We are extraordinarily fortunate ....”
It is no doubt true, as the old saying has it, that it is better to be lucky than to be good. And, so far, President Barack Obama has been notably lucky. On not one but two highly-publicized occasions, terrorists have successfully positioned themselves to cause terrible domestic mayhem on Obama’s CT watch – but in both cases their bombs have failed to ignite. On December 23, 2009, a Nigerian man with ties to al-Qa’ida terrorist networks in Yemen failed to ignite plastic explosives hidden in his underwear as he sat aboard Northwest Airlines’ Flight 253 from Amsterdam on its descent into Detroit. On May 1, 2010, a Pakistani-born naturalized U.S. citizen apparently sponsored by the Pakistani Taliban left a sport-utility vehicle full of explosives sitting in New York City’s famous Times Square; the detonators he had fashioned to set off this car bomb, however, failed to work properly. In both cases, even a little bit more technical competence on the terrorists’ part could have had grave consequences. Either incident, moreover, could have been the first major terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. (A third incident, in which a jihadist U.S. Army major apparently inspired by an al- Qa’ida cleric in Yemen killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas in November 2009, seems not to have had dramatic political consequences – perhaps because “only” 13 persons died, or because the perpetrator’s chosen method, a shooting spree, no longer horribly shocks Americans inured to such incidents occasionally occurring in schools, post offices, or other locations for more banal reasons of mental instability.)
So the Obama Administration is certainly lucky. (As Daniel Benjamin put it, “we are extraordinarily fortunate.”) George W. Bush managed to avoid presiding over any follow-up to the disastrously unexpected terrorist attacks of September 2001 – which killed nearly 3,000 people in the space of a few minutes, precipitated profound changes in U.S. domestic security policy, plunged the United States into its current war in Afghanistan, and contributed to the advent of the Iraq War as well. The vigorous, hard- nosed, and quite uncompromising CT policies that President Bush employed in order to prevent further attacks, hunt the al-Qa’ida perpetrators around the world, and mobilize the formidable U.S. national security establishment for a wide-ranging “global war on terrorism,” however, have long been excoriated by Barack Obama for being unnecessarily harsh, or worse. The Obama Administration has gotten as much political mileage as possible out of appearing to follow a less heavy-handed approach, and especially in this context, U.S. officials must now feel profoundly grateful that, thanks to terrorist bungling, Obama has twice escaped presiding over America’s first real “9/11” follow-up attack. Being lucky, certainly, is something.
Being lucky isn’t a strategy, however, and Obama’s CT policy deserves to be judged on the basis of its substantive merits rather than its good fortune. The debate over the operational effectiveness of current CT may be followed in other fora, but one can get some window into the new administration’s commitment to CT from an exploration of its underlying psychology. At the level of public political posturing, the story told by the Obama Administration is relatively straightforward, but a closer examination reveals that there is nothing conceptually simple about the current U.S. approach to counter-terrorism. The encounter between the Obama Administration’s political meta-narrative and the complexities of developing and implementing CT policy in the real world is fascinating and complex.
II. Shifting Paradigms
After 9/11, of course, the United States for a time adopted a strategy of counter- terrorist “war” – and it seemed, at least for a while, really to have meant it. The conceptual (and legal) paradigm of warfare was transposed from its traditional state-on-state context to the new environment of CT operations against non-state enemies that were deemed to have taken up arms against the United States, and who therefore could appropriately be met with war-type responses. Backed by legal theories explicitly predicated upon the war paradigm, this approach underpinned essentially all of the most important (and controversial) post-9/11 initiatives of the U.S. Government.
Much has been written elsewhere debating the legal and policy merits of the various policies embraced by the Bush Administration, but for present purposes it must at least be conceded that whatever one’s conclusions in this regard, the “war paradigm” approach unquestionably bespoke an intense focus upon CT as a top – indeed, essentially the top – national priority. This was emphatically not merely the usual vapid public policy rhetoric of “war” – an ultimately quite conventional attempt to signal political commitment by invoking the military trope of combat – as one had seen it employed in the longstanding U.S. “war on drugs” or the yet older “war on poverty.” Instead, after September 2001, counter-terrorism was really felt to be war: a war the United States could not afford to lose. Threat perceptions were extraordinarily high, and U.S. officials displayed a correspondingly high willingness to act vigorously, expeditiously, and sometimes mercilessly to forestall further catastrophes.
By this yardstick, the Obama Administration is far less focused upon CT than its predecessor. It will not admit any diminution of focus and effort, of course, and depicts itself as simply doing CT “smarter.” It is clear, however, that the near-absolute prioritization of CT illustrated by the Bush Administration’s “war paradigm,” especially in its first term, is no longer present. This is not necessarily a criticism, for some such shift was probably inevitable. The crisis-driven intensity of America’s focus upon CT after 9/11 was politically and psychologically unsustainable over the long-term, especially in the absence of follow-on attacks. (Ironically, therefore, the very success of Bush Administration CT may have contributed to its political undoing.) If the United States is settling into a “new normal” of an ongoing CT struggle against non-state actors – a struggle qualitatively different both from traditional state-on-state war and from the law enforcement-focused approaches of peacetime – it is perhaps appropriate that we figure out a CT policy that can be maintained indefinitely. This requirement of potentially infinite sustainability may require toning down some of the initial intensity of the post-9/11 war paradigm, even as it also quite precludes a return to the complacency and inattention of the pre-9/11 politico-legal order.
The CT-focused post-9/11 national security agenda largely defined the Bush presidency, even coloring how senior officials reacted to mistaken reports from the U.S. Intelligence Community about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The United States had been in a “peacetime” CT mode, the argument went, until shocked out of its passivity by the slaughter of 3,000 people on that fateful September morning by men wielding only hijacked airliners, not even actual weapons at all. This, the Bush Administration felt, could not be permitted to happen again, especially with regard to WMD – with which terrorists could, of course, inflict harm on a vastly greater scale. Long-term deterrence relationships with well-established nuclear powers such as Russia were one thing, but WMD in the hands of “rogue regimes” and vicious non-state actors was quite another. After 9/11, no extremist of any stripe could be allowed to get into a position to administer an attack with WMD. As the 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction put it, “[w]e will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes and terrorists to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.” The concept of preemptive counter-WMD defense used to justify the Iraq invasion of 2003 was, therefore, in some sense a logical extension of, or corollary to, post-9/11 CT policy.
The Obama Administration clearly has no desire to be defined by CT imperatives, and Obama has invested a vast amount of political capital in not being seen as being anything like George W Bush in this regard. Preventing terrorist attacks is hardly seen as unimportant, but the new administration clearly has higher priorities than CT, particularly as it pursues its domestic political and economic agenda. As a consequence, CT has, in practice, moved noticeably down the list of U.S. policy priorities.
III. Plus ça change ...?
The situation is far from simple, however. One still relatively little-remarked story of Barack Obama’s presidency is the extent to which he has not adopted an entirely new approach to CT. For all the new administration’s ostentatious political distancing from Bush Administration CT “excesses” it is striking how little change there has been in all but the political atmospherics – especially by comparison to President Bush’s somewhat exhausted second term.
In fact, the White House’s ostentatious repudiation of the “excesses of the past few years” represents a triumph of message over substance. The Obama Administration has not closed the Guantánamo Bay detention facility as it promised to do, and still seems likely to continue detaining some terrorist combatants indefinitely without trial. Other terrorist suspects, it turns out, will be tried by military commissions of the sort Obama angrily decried on the campaign trail and promised to close, the procedures of such tribunals having been only slightly tweaked since Bush days.
Harsh interrogation practices such as “waterboarding” the very highest-value terrorist prisoners – a grim technique of simulated drowning – have not been used on terrorist suspects under Obama, but these practices had already long been stopped under Bush. Obama’s Justice Department says it will prosecute CIA interrogators for interrogation abuses, but it turns out that this will only apply to any who can be shown to have exceeded the permissive guidelines adopted by the prior administration. (Waterboarding by the book, in other words, apparently incurs no prosecution.) And a much-touted plan to try key al-Qa’ida figures such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) in U.S. civilian courts seems to have fallen into confusion and disarray. Media reports now even indicate that the Obama Administration has rediscovered the virtues of legally-unaccountable detention centers. With the Supreme Court having changed existing legal precedents in this regard concerning Guantánamo, the administration is said to be considering an expanded program for detaining terrorists at Bagram in Afghanistan because – as the Los Angeles Times recounts officials confessing – it has “few other places to hold and interrogate foreign prisoners without giving them access to the U.S. court system.”
Meanwhile, with Obama-era politics having generally publicly turned against detentions, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “renditions” reportedly continue to help supply captured foreign terrorists to foreign governments that may have their own idea about interrogation standards, while airborne drone vehicles launch missiles and drop bombs on terrorist suspects in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia with notably greater frequency than under George W. Bush. (If one does not wish to hold and interrogate such persons, it is apparently felt more expeditious simply to kill them. This was, in fact, apparently the reason for at least one attack: U.S. officials told the media that terrorist leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was simply killed by U.S. Special Operations forces in Somalia in part out of “uncertainty over where to hold him” if he had been captured.) Obama’s expanded program of targeted killings via drone aircraft is clearly testament to the continuity of at least some “war paradigm” thinking in U.S. CT policy. As Daniel Benjamin told Congress recently, “we must continue to take the fight to al- Qa’ida and its allies wherever they plot and train.” Interestingly, the Obama Administration recently added a U.S. citizen – an American-born radical cleric now active in Yemen – to the CIA’s list of international terrorists the Agency is permitted to capture or kill. This is allegedly the first U.S. citizen to be put on the CIA’s hit list.
Broad electronic surveillance for terrorist suspects has also continued under President Obama, pursuant to legislative authorities President Bush acquired in his second term in an effort to regularize much of the warrantless monitoring program begun by the National Security Agency (NSA) with Bush’s authorization after 9/11. Additionally, the Obama Administration has continued longstanding practices of invoking the “state secrets” privilege to quash sensitive civil court litigation. Indeed, in May 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would seek a law allowing domestic law enforcement officials to interrogate terrorism suspects without being subject to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda rules that would otherwise require a suspect to be informed of his constitutional rights and given the opportunity to refuse to answer absent the presence of legal counsel. “We’re now dealing with international terrorists,” Holder proclaimed, so the United States needs “something that is flexible and is more consistent with the threat that we now face.” All in all, on the level of specific CT policies and approaches, the Obama Administration would seem to represent more continuity than change.
Yet as much as it speaks tellingly to the imperatives of life in the “new normal” of the post-9/11 world, this substantive policy continuity is not the political narrative of CT in America today – or at least not the narrative advanced and defended by the Obama Administration in describing itself and its approaches. CT is a priority for the new administration, but it is a priority that cannot let itself be ranked too highly, lest Obama fall into a rhetorical and political trap he would have set for himself by adopting and endorsing the reviled policies of a reviled predecessor. Simply put, Barack Obama cannot be Barack Obama – or at least not the “transformative” and “change”-focused Barack Obama he wishes the world to think him – if he does not at least pretend to have a new and more relaxed CT policy than President Bush.
So while actually preventing terrorist attacks remains a key substantive priority, not focusing too much on hard-nosed CT remains for the Obama Administration a key political priority. The aim, it would seem, is to preserve as much of Bush-era CT policies as can be accomplished without seeming to be doing so, and without being held politically accountable for “Bush”-style approaches. This is a delicate political dance, especially in light of the terrorists’ continuing efforts to inflict more large-scale bloodshed, for the public theatrics of Obama’s anti-Bush CT posturing would positively invite a political backlash if the terrorists finally stop being unlucky and eventually manage actually to set off one of their bombs.
IV. Social Welfare and “Values” as CT
The present administration insists that we do not face any tradeoff between “our values” and “our security;” this, we are told is a false choice. The extent of the Obama Administration’s quiet, almost stealthy, ratification of so much of the Bush CT agenda, however, suggests that this doctrine of “false choices” is itself a false doctrine – at least insofar as it is the Obama Administration itself that has helped define Bush policies aimed at “security” as being antithetical to American “values.” In fact, the new administration continues to do what essentially all U.S. administrations have always done: navigate the tension between counterpoised values by making tradeoffs as the circumstances seem to warrant.
As 9/11 has shown us in many ways, what may seem a civil liberties intrusion one day can become a widely-accepted “cost of doing business” after a terrorist horror occurs. Moreover, while the Obama Administration is probably right that we do not face a crisp choice between values and security, this is not necessarily for the reason they contend. The White House story is that to act according to its conception of American “values” is to support U.S. national security; thus it can be maintained that the apparent choice between security and values is a false one. In fact, however, the notion of a value/security dichotomy may be false notwithstanding the fact that Obama is wrong that CT presents no challenge of managing tension between prized objectives that are to some degree incompatible. In truth, after all, it surely is one of “our values” that the citizenry should be protected against industrial-scale mass murder.
At any rate, the White House clearly feels the need to “prove” its theory – the notion, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has put it, of “reaffirming our basic values” as an “antidote against those who join violence” – by making enough showy or at least apparent changes in operational CT conduct that it can claim credit for ending “the excesses of the past few years,” while not changing so much that it can be held accountable for having invited or permitted attack.
Part of the Obama Administration’s story of itself revolves around the need explicitly to construct what U.S. officials describe as a countervailing American answer to al-Qa’ida’s own “narrative” of Islamist jihad. This is not a new insight, insofar as American CT policy has long understood that the struggle against jihadist fanaticism is a war of ideas as much as a war of bombs and bullets. This was why, for instance, President Bush endlessly repeated homilies about Islam really being “a great religion that preaches peace.” His campaign against terrorists was “not a struggle against ... the Muslim religion” – and in effect took the purportedly philo-Islamic position of supporting the true (i.e., axiomatically “peaceful”) interpretation of Islamic doctrine against its perversion by violent jihadists.
Indeed, the Bush Administration’s national security strategy quite openly aimed to demolish ideological appeal of radical Islam by waging a “war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism” in which “supporting moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world,” would help “ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground.” After 9/11, the Bush Administration hoped that the expansion of democratization in the Middle East might serve as its own form of antidote for extremism. Barack Obama was thus not the first U.S. president to claim, in effect, that the choice between values and security is a false one: in its own way, as one analyst has observed, the Bush formulation of the counter- terrorist war of ideas itself served to “collapse the divide between U.S. ideals and U.S. interests in the region.”
While today’s theme of the imperative of an anti-jihadist counter-narrative is hardly new, therefore, an idiosyncratic version of it has become quite central to the Obama Administration’s own narrative. Specifically, it is defended as part of the point of present-day CT policy to seem less threatening, for it is imagined that at least striking the pose of a more relaxed, less “Bush-like,” approach will have payoffs in undercutting support for terrorism overseas.
The controversial detention facility at Guantánamo, for instance, has repeatedly been described by Obama Administration officials as a “recruiting tool” for al-Qa’ida – a public relations blemish that vitiates any achievements it may have had by blackening our reputation abroad and “confirming” the Islamists’ false and cartoonish stereotype of a predatory America intent upon oppressing Muslims. President Obama, in fact, has gone to far as to declare that “the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” Guantánamo must therefore be closed – or at least we must make a big show of wanting to close it. (Actual closure, as we have seen, is apparently another matter entirely.)
Ostentatiously seeming to back away from Bush-era CT policy is depicted as being in no way a lessening of CT commitment: to the contrary, it is even suggested, such relaxations are the only way to be faithful to real CT. “Navigating by our values,” says counter-terrorism coordinator Benjamin, “is an essential part of a successful counterterrorism effort.” In this, Benjamin echoes his boss, for President Obama has proclaimed sonorously, if somewhat vaguely, that upholding “our values” in fact “keeps us safe,” and that “our values have been our best national security asset.”
The tag line about “navigating by our values,” of course, is more a bumper sticker than a clear programmatic guide to CT policy. Indeed, the quiet, almost embarrassed way in which Obama officials seem to be ratifying and continuing so many Bush-era CT approaches suggests that they do not fully believe it themselves – or at least that they prize the appearance of “change,” for perception management purposes, more than they prize change itself.
The hope clearly is that if a less aggressive-looking, smiling face is put on CT policies that aren’t actually all that much different from their Bush-era antecedents, al- Qa’ida and other such terrorist groups will find their job much harder. This is possible, but it is still far from proven. And there is at least some reason to be skeptical. To begin with, it is not clear that the Muslim world sees current U.S. policy as being all that different from what came before – as indeed it arguably is not. (This is an empirical question that social scientists, pollsters, and intelligence analysts can presumably help answer.) Even if there is felt to have been great change, however, it seems at present to be more an assumption than a demonstrable fact that a public relations campaign based upon “our values” can provide an antidote to Islamist extremism and a retardant to terrorist recruitment.
Increasing U.S. fears about the degree to which al-Qa’ida and its fissiparous affiliates are said to be recruiting “home-grown” Western terrorists suggests that there may be a sharp limit to how much we can depend upon political atmospherics, or an appreciation for “American values,” to attenuate the appeal of the radicals. If there is any Muslim population in the world that we can be sure pretty well understands the counterpoint “narrative” that our political and economic freedom offers to jihadist brutality, after all, it is precisely such “home-grown” Islamist recruits: they know America surpassingly well, for they are “us.” If “Jihad Jane” (a.k.a. Colleen LaRose from suburban Philadelphia) doesn’t “get” the American narrative, what success can we expect from trying to sell its virtues as a remedy for fanaticism in Waziristan? This is not an argument against developing an improved anti-jihadist counter-narrative rooted in “our values,” but we should not oversell the degree to which such an approach can really revolutionize CT.
Obama Administration officials also argue that poverty, poor education, lack of health care, and a lack of social welfare support are also major “local drivers” for terrorist radicalization in countries around the world, often suggesting that such ills are in fact the real reasons that terrorism exists in the first place. As Benjamin told the International Peace Institute in March 2010, CT policy must be based on more than just military power, intelligence operations, and law enforcement; it must also seek to “eliminate the underlying political, economic, and social conditions that help put so many individuals in situations where they might choose the path to violence.”
This “social welfare theory of terrorism” is now a key part of the Obama team’s narrative of itself. The administration seeks to turn the urgency and drama of CT policy – the mobilizing energies of war! – into the handmaiden of the welfare state, a marketing tool for a broad center-left social policy agenda that only incidentally relates to terrorism. The idea seems to be that if the world only did more to fight poverty, provide education, improve health care coverage, and augment social welfare policies, al-Qa’ida and its affiliates will have “a shrinking pool of recruits.” Daniel Benjamin – who, in rather telling contrast to the line of Bush Administration State Department counter-terrorism coordinators who came from “operational” backgrounds in the military or the CIA, is merely a former journalist who got his start in government as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton – puts this idea quite plainly:
“There is no denying that when children have no hope for an education, when young people have no hope for a job and feel disconnected from the modern world, when governments fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, when people despair and are aggrieved, they become more susceptible to extremist ideologies.”
It is apparently now felt to be part of the job of CT policy – that is, what the Obama Administration now likes to term “countering violent extremism,” or “CVE” – to help meet these basic human needs. Benjamin has argued that “terrorism flourishes where there is marginalization and perceived – or real – relative deprivation.” According to him, therefore, we need to “confront the political, social, and economic conditions that our enemies exploit to win over the new recruits .... we must work to resolve the long- standing problems that fuel those grievances.” That this is, sub silentio, a transmutation of CT into a conventional social welfare policy agenda is quite clear, a point highlighted by Benjamin’s revealing identification of “relative deprivation” as the culprit. Counter-terrorism, he seems to suggest, requires government intervention in smoothing out the awkward and provocative peaks and valleys in the global distribution of wealth.
V. Some Reservations
Like the argument about “navigating by our values,” however – a theory with which it neatly fits, especially if one assumes that social progressivism is a core American “value” – this “social welfare theory” of CT also needs to be understood to have sharp limits. It is far from obvious, for instance, that poverty and other deprivation translate in any direct or clear way into Islamic radicalism.
The lack of a clear causal link in this regard is visible, in part, in the fact that terrorism is not strongly or simply correlated with poor or neglected populations. The Economist magazine’s list of the 20 countries with the lowest gross domestic product (GDP) per head in 2007, for example, does include the terrorist breeding grounds of Afghanistan (number 8) and Somalia (number 13). It also, however, includes an additional 18 countries, some of which are in notably worse shape even than those two. And neither Afghanistan nor Somalia, in fact, appears among the 18 countries with the worst scores on the “human development index” compiled by the United Nations Development Programme. There are many poor countries, and many more poor people. Only a tiny minority of these people are terrorists, and the incidence of such radicalism is highly unevenly distributed, even within the sorry global demography of the desperate and deprived.
Among the ranks of the most dangerous jihadist terrorists of whom we are presently aware, moreover, there seem to be remarkably few people pushed into radicalism by poverty and such things as the lack of Obama-style healthcare reform in their native countries. The 9/11 hijackers were for the most part educated, middle class boys from “good families” in Saudi Arabia (and in one case Yemen). The father of the recent “underwear” bomber is a wealthy banker, while the Times Square bomber apparently had an MBA degree and is the son of a Pakistani Air Vice Marshal. (The Ft. Hood gunman, for his part, was a trained psychiatrist with by all accounts a fairly comfortable life, not to mention full medical care and eligibility for retirement pension benefits from a military career funded by the U.S. taxpayer.)
Al-Qa’ida is famously headed by Usama bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Saudi engineering dynasty who himself studied economics and business administration at elite schools and may have gotten a degree in civil engineering. His second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a middle-class Egyptian surgeon whose father was a chemistry professor and whose mother is said to have come from a wealthy clan. Today, the newest star in the jihadist firmament, a cleric linked to multiple recent attempted attacks, is Anwar al-Awlaki – the well-educated, American-born son of a one-time Yemeni government minister. None of these people fits the profile of someone radicalized by his government’s failure to pursue welfare state policies with sufficient vigor.
The Taliban may recruit miserable peasants for its operations on the ground in Afghanistan or Pakistan, in other words, but if today’s most problematic and dangerous international terrorists have any characteristic socia
Christopher A. Ford was formerly Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at Hudson Institute.
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