Charting a New Course on Terrorism

President Obama offered a comprehensive review of U.S. counterterrorism policies since 9/11, while vowing to ratchet down the violence and acknowledging harm done to America’s principles and image. Still, many details of his plans remain fuzzy and follow-through far from certain, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

In his speech at the National Defense University on Thursday, President Obama made one of the most sensible, realistic, thorough and truthful statements about terrorism and counterterrorism from any senior official, let alone a president.

The speech was not a piece of oratorical artwork, and it probably will not have the popular resonance of many of his other utterances. But in the sheer quality of its substance, the speech was one of his best.

President Barack Obama prepares to take the stage as he is introduced at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The welcome and needed main message was that the United States must and should get off the track of waging a “boundless ‘global war on terror.’” Accompanying that message was an accurate description of the terrorist threats that do and do not endanger U.S. interests.

The President explained how the main problem is not what is left of the core al-Qaeda group but instead some parts of an assortment of foreign offshoots as well as radicalized individuals in the United States. Many of the foreign groups, including some that have adopted the al-Qaeda brand name, are primarily focused on local matters and do not pose any significant threat to U.S. interests.

Mr. Obama was candid in what can and cannot be done in countering terrorism. We “cannot erase” violent extremism. He talked of some of the vulnerabilities that are unavoidable, including the dangers faced by U.S. diplomats serving in trouble-prone places such as Libya.

The President, in multiple ways, made clear the inherent trade-offs involved in many aspects of counterterrorist policy. This included his discussion of the pros and cons of establishing either a special court or an oversight board to pass judgment on proposed drone strikes against terrorist suspects, while evidently remaining open-minded himself about the different options.

It also included his reference to the need to strike a balance between security and “preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” This aspect of the speech was a needed antidote to the tendency to think about counterterrorism in absolute terms and doing whatever is necessary to provide security.

A needed antidote to the tendency to think of a “war” on terrorism involving military force as a first-choice tool was Mr. Obama’s reference to the many different instruments of statecraft that contribute to counterterrorism even if they are not labeled expressly as such.

Especially welcome was his forthright discussion of the need to address “underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” He included under this category the promotion of democracy, foreign assistance, and — of particular note — the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

What the President said about the detention facility at Guantanamo was admirably blunt and indicated a welcome use of what executive authorities he has to get closer to the goal of closure. He discussed how the original purpose of the facility was to keep detainees beyond the reach of any law and how this ignoble objective has hurt U.S. foreign relations by fostering a perception of U.S. disregard for law. He also correctly said that the congressional restrictions on movement from detainees out of Guantanamo “make no sense.”

The speech serves also as another refutation of the myth that Mr. Obama claims to have dealt a fatal blow to international terrorism. The myth seems to have been born during last year’s election campaign amid subliminal fears of Mr. Obama’s opponents that whatever successes his administration has had against terrorism might win him votes.

The myth has underlain the silliness about talking points on the Benghazi incident, allegedly doctored so as not to contradict the mythical claim about having defeated terrorism. It also underlies some more recent silliness about the White House supposedly wanting to “punish” the Associated Press for stories that indicate there is still a terrorist threat out there.

What the President actually said near the beginning of this week’s speech was, “Make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists.”

When he mentioned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he said nothing about his own decision-making but instead attributed the raid’s success to the planning and professionalism of U.S. Special Forces and to “some luck.” Even then, he acknowledged the downside of the raid in the form of a “severe” negative impact on relations with Pakistan.

The speech does implicitly remind the listener of some of the negative aspects of the Obama administration’s use of armed drones. One of those aspects is unnecessary opacity and slowness in lifting that opacity. It was only the day before the speech that the administration, in a letter from the Attorney General to a Senate committee, finally acknowledged all of the U.S. citizens who had been killed, intentionally or otherwise, by drones.

The White House released, as an accompaniment to the speech, a fact sheet describing criteria and procedures to be used in deciding on additional strikes from armed drones. The release is a positive step toward more transparency and gives us the fullest sense yet about the policy and how it is implemented.

But the complete policy guidelines remain classified, the fact sheet is vague on several points, and it raises as well as answers questions. For example, it states that the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. persons. How can a threat that is “continuing” also be “imminent,” except perhaps for a short time before the threat is finally executed?

In other places, such as in describing review procedures when a U.S. citizen is involved, the fact sheet essentially says that things will be done legally without specifying the legal principles and standards to be applied. In offering assurances that noncombatants will be protected, a lengthy footnote says that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants” but doesn’t really eliminate the possibility that many such males will be so deemed.

The biggest hurdle to full implementation of a sensible and defensible counterterrorist policy is probably not these remaining problems in the administration’s use of drones but instead the insistence of others, especially in Congress, that counterterrorism is a “war” in which military force is the preeminent tool, the grievances and conflicts that feed extremism are disregarded, the trade-offs involved in buying security are brushed aside, and the stain of Guantanamo is retained.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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5 comments on “Charting a New Course on Terrorism

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    The reality has become more surreal than the movie, and the visuals more vicarious than the camera’s perspective. The eye-witnesses never saw what happened, but nobody doubts the narrator, who didn’t receive credit. The whole thing reminds me of one of those film noir classics where the denouement is more bewildering than the plot.

    The cold war ended, leaving an unchallenged superpower convinced that the evisceration of society’s obligations to its own members, tax laws to benefit its wealthiest vultures, a defense industry desiring only more demand for what should have become obsolete, and a financial sector deriving fabulous profits from an industry that manipulated abstract commodities like a game of three card monty. These same entities were infused with the think-tank fantasies of geopolitical dominance of the world’s petroleum and mineral resources mediated by carte blanche support for expansionist policies of our “ally” in the Middle East, systematic destabilization of any sovereign government that resisted, and the delusional notion that Russia and China would stand by mesmerized by our ability to achieve “shock and awe” with marvelous new weapons. The first Gulf War was much like the Luftwaffe’s trial run in the Spanish Civil War, devastating the Republican forces with its Condor Legion. Hubris was not wasted on the cheerleaders back home. That was our version of Guernica.

    As “full spectrum dominance” emerged, hand in hand with the Project for a New American Century, the authors of the policies collaborated at home and abroad to distill as much profit as the runaway engine of war economy could haul. Cheering the war abroad, they broke the bank at home, and are still bewildered that now, the Russians have moved warships into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Chinese are biding their time until it is ripe to take back Taiwan. We can still blow stuff up, but we can no longer bankroll whatever policy we choose in the Middle East, let alone the entire Pacific. The game is over, and we brought it on ourselves. The corporations who wanted this lobbied for policies that drained the war chest. Now, they want us to bail them out. But they sent our jobs to…China.

    Our foreign policy has been based on a “heist”, just like that Kubrick film, “The Killing”. In the last scene, the suitcase full of money falls to the tarmac behind the waiting airliner, bursts open, and clouds of money are blown to oblivion. Our “foreign policy” has achieved approximately the same result. Sorry if I spoiled the ending.

  2. Paul G. on said:

    The boy who cried wolf. Let us see how he actually acts; his words, as well demonstrated by his track record, are totally, meaningless. To determine what he really means I usually use an inverse formula. That is, he may do the opposite of what he says, and blame Congress for getting in the way.

    On the bright side it sounds like he and his advisers may have finally come to the self evident conclusion that his whole “war on terror” is counter productive, and is creating more enemies than can be killed. Will they follow through and how strongly is the question?

    The Boston bombings and the Woolwich atrocity may have finally woken these brilliantly ponderous and thick minds up to the fact of blowback. When people, who you have allowed into your country and sheltered, get so pissed off they attack you, it is time to wake up and smell the gunpowder.

    He has on the other hand gradually gotten rid of most of Bush’s neo-cons., the guys who believe in “perpetual war”. Petraeus was the last out the door. The biggest problem, which I really can’t see changing, is his subservience to Netanyahu.

    On turning the drones over to the military from the CIA, good idea. The CIA is to the military as the Gestapo was to the Wehrmacht. The CIA is totally over the top ruthless, opaque and sometimes out of control untrustworthy. Just ask the Nicaraguans. Better yet take the missiles off them and just stick to surveillance.

  3. Berry Friesen on said:

    So the President has “implicitly” acknowledged the obvious? That blow-back happens?

    This will be inconsequential. It’s simply a variant of “the world is a dangerous place” cliche. Henceforth, the public discussion will include a vapid recitation of the importance of being “careful” and “rigorous” in our application of “standards”. The President is very good at that sort of thing but it is all window-dressing.

    What remains undiscussed are events on the ground – those situations, threats and actions to which the U.S. is purportedly responding with drones and other counter-terrorism capacities. Those “events” include the myriad classified activities of special operations military personnel, CIA field agents, and their many unofficial collaborators (including so-called terrorists). This Administration is only increasing its reliance on that array of “assets” yet none of that can be discusssed; it’s all secret.

    Fact is, when it comes to terrorism (whether in the U.S. or elsewhere), the U.S. government is playing both ends against the middle. And we in the middle have no way of knowing what the hell is going on, or who is doing what. Were they our “terrorists” or somebody else’s?

    Paul, when will you write about that?

  4. Peter Loeb on said:

    This analysis and that of Robert Parry indicate the shocking drift to the middle of so-called “left” or self-styled “progressive” analysists.

    American foreign policy is simply illegal. For an in-depth analysis of inter-
    national law, See Michael Byers’ WAR LAW (Grove Press, 2005, available in paperback). This brief work also contains the complete text of the UN Charter,
    a document which the US signed and ratified and which this nation participated in moulding. This is not a question of “the left” or some (?)
    (perhaps insensitive) “critics” who haven’t gotten “with the program”.That
    program seems to be the portrayal of some “god” who the liberal
    center has annointed as our constitutional and very “political” savior.

  5. The Jaded Prole on said:

    I was pleased that President Obama said that the AUMF should be “replaced” and that he would not choose to expand that mandate. What surprised me was his stated desire to transfer control of the drones and their use from the CIA to the Army, admitting that the “War on Terror” and the program of extra-judicial assassination has been run by the CIA.