Recasting the War on Terrorism

Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 6:10 am


Buoyed by high expectations for the first year of Barack Obama’s administration, an informal coalition of progressive national-security and civil-liberties experts are urging the president-elect to redefine the war on terrorism.

Eight years of the Bush administration’s approach to counterterrorism have yielded two open-ended and bloody wars; a massively expanded security apparatus, and spending on defense far outpacing outlays on domestic programs, even during a crisis-plagued economy.

Yet while liberals have spent much of this time opposing the Bush administration’s agenda, many of their proposals for Obama go beyond merely rolling back President George W. Bush’s policies — withdrawing from Iraq, shuttering the Guantanamo Bay detention complex, abolishing torture — to offer new areas of emphasis, like stabilizing Afghanistan, an Arab-Israeli peace and a re-envisioned balance between security and liberty.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Through white papers delivered to the Obama transition team, new reports and interviews with reporters, this loose affiliation of progressives is saying it has a real opportunity to recast the U.S. effort against terrorism in fundamental ways.

Consistent with the broader progressive agenda of achieving global security through multilateral cooperation, economic development and respect for human rights, the past few days have seen a series of proposals urging rejection of the Bush administration’s militarism. To the degree these various progressive groups have a concerted goal, it’s to influence the transition with specific liberal ideas for new directions in the war on terrorism.

“Not just his rhetoric,” said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch, “but in the promises he’s kept — his vote against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, [which] was quite important — Obama has made clear he has a very different approach in mind to counterterrorism than the [Bush] administration has taken.”

Mariner’s organization, one of the leading global human-rights groups, released a report Friday listing 11 recommendations for Obama. Chief among them: sign an executive order restricting the CIA’s interrogation practices to the same Geneva Conventions-compliant standards of the U.S. military; repudiate Justice Dept. memoranda that reserved for the president the authority to approve torture and indefinitely detain suspects in the war on terrorism; close Guantanamo and begin trials of its inmates in civilian courts, and create a commission to investigate human-rights abuses.

The Obama presidency provides “an opportunity for this to be implemented,” Mariner said. “There’s a broad recognition of a change of course needed by this new administration — particularly as it’s the one that has, in many ways, signaled it wants to make dramatic changes. There’s almost a perfect storm of possibility for change.”

In the two weeks since his election, Obama has sent a number of signals that he intends to move quickly on reversing much of the Bush counterterrorism agenda. “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that,” the president-elect told CBS News’ Steve Kroft Sunday on “60 Minutes.” “I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture, and I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”

Some of the expected front-runners for Obama’s cabinet have sounded similar themes. Eric Holder, the former Justice Dept. official believed to have the inside track for attorney general, gave a speech at the liberal American Constitution Society in the spring that unequivocally rejected torture and Guantanamo and waxed almost metaphysical about the importance of a re-imagined counterterrorism approach.

“Let me be clear,” Holder told the lawyers’ association. “I firmly believe that there is evil in the world, and that we still face grave dangers to our security. But our ability to lead the world in combating these dangers depends not only on the strength of our military leadership but our moral leadership as well. … To recapture it, we can no longer allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. We must evaluate our policies and our practices in the harsh light of day and steel ourselves to face the world’s dangers in accord with the rule of law.”

As welcome to liberals as such statements are, an impromptu coalition of civil-liberties and national-security organizations joined forces, beginning in July, to deliver a then-prospective Obama administration with a coordinated agenda.

More than 25 organizations, including the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, the Gun Owners of America lobby group and the well-heeled Washington law firms of Arnold & Porter and Crowell & Moring, united under the aegis of the Constitution Project, a progressive legal foundation, to present a one-stop-shopping resource for both the presidential and congressional transitions. Titled “Liberty and Security: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress,” the 62-item report was released Tuesday.

Its agenda is not dissimilar with Human Rights Watch’s. High on its list are ending torture, indefinite detention and rendition; restricting the FBI’s ability to obtain communications without a court order; rolling back this year’s changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that civil libertarians believe contravene 4th Amendment’s privacy guarantees; curtailing the president’s ability to issue so-called signing statements that unilaterally exempt him from obeying laws, and strengthening Congress’ exclusivity over declaring war.

Becky Monroe, policy counsel for the Constitution Project, explained that her organization began in late spring asking veterans of previous administrations what was most helpful to their work of staffing a new government. The general answer: consolidation.

“We were acting more as a convener,” she said, since “so many different groups were coming forward with different documents” outlining their vision of a recalibrated liberty-security balance.

The resulting coalition intends to present “members of the transition team [and] staffers on the Hill” with the report, Monroe said. “Further down, we want to set up experts with meetings” with transition staffs, she said. While Monroe didn’t say so, such meetings could go a long way toward landing liberal security and civil-liberties experts jobs in the all-important middle tiers of the federal government.

Beyond the formal reports, the constellation of progressives in and outside of Washington have no shortage of ideas for Obama to take up.

“A successful counterterrorism agenda for the new administration needs to place a high priority on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a senior White House policy aide in the Clinton administration who is now executive director of the progressive American Jewish organization, J Street. “If the new president is looking for a single bold strategy that can not only weaken extremist non-state actors, undermine the pull of state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran and bolster the governments of allied moderate states, he need look no further than active efforts to promote a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. President-elect Obama’s victory provides the best opportunity in a generation to repair the U.S. image and restore its leadership in the world, enabling it to rally the world to defeat the forces of extremism and terror.”

Richard Smith, an Army veteran of Afghanistan who is now a member of the progressive veterans’ organization VoteVets, urged a less conventional approach to the Afghanistan war that Obama has pledged to reprioritize.

“I’d like to see a specific effort in the agricultural sector,” Smith said in an email. “Often, the guys who fire a [rocket-propelled grenade] at a [U.S. military base] or convoy aren’t Taliban loyalists, but farmers who have felt pocketbook pain as a result of poppy eradication. The Taliban offer them a little something, and they get to feed their families for a few days. Basically, destroying poppy to defund the Taliban also helps them recruit. However, the areas were poppy is currently cultivated (particularly Helmand province) was once famous for pomegranate orchards. If we can provide agricultural assistance and help develop an export market for Afghan pomegranates, I think it would be a great benefit to the [counterinsurgency] effort.”

Taylor Marsh, a progressive political analyst and former radio host, also urged a renewed counterterrorism focus in South Asia. “Counterterrorism in the Obama administration has to begin with the Af-Pak region immediately,” she said, referring the to Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “First, we need limited additional deployment of forces into Afghanistan. Afghan cities must be made more stable, through working with NATO countries, or we’re going to have more problems not fewer with regard to terrorism. Because focusing on Pakistan alone, the jihadists will simply cross the border where we’re not building security. The Af-Pak region deals with two countries of varying complexities and unique challenges for Obama — but neither country can be dealt with in a vacuum.”

Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami and a blogger at, argued for a greater U.S. cultural re-engagement with the world, including a removal of visa restrictions on foreign graduate students. The U.S. needs “way more exchange programs,” Froomkin emailed. “We win both ways — they come here and learn we’re OK (or even wonderful); we go there and learn the language and culture and learn how not to step in it….”

Still others urged a broader theoretical reconception of the war on terrorism. “Counterterrorism should be a law-enforcement accountability, not military,” emailed Jesse Wendel, a veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and his co-blogger, the pseudonymous Minstrel Boy, who said he is a U.S. Navy Seal veteran of Vietnam. Both blog at the popular Group News Blog, which Wendel publishes.

“Treating terrorists as military targets gives terrorists enormously too much credibility,” they contended in a co-signed email. “Terrorists are not nation-states; they are criminals and should be treated like the murderers they are, without giving them a political platform or publicity. The military is not trained to hunt civilians worldwide. The military is trained to kill targets in a kill-zone.”

Similarly, Matt Stoller, the progressive netroots activist and blogger with OpenLeft, said he hoped the Obama administration heralded an end to “security theater” — using a term coined by cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier that means ostentatious but ineffective displays of increased security.

Schneier himself, reached in London, was skeptical that security theater would be eliminated. “Imagine you’re an elected official,” said Schneier, the chief security technology officer for BT, the British telecommunications corporation. “You can either exaggerate the threat or downplay the threat. If you exaggerate [to say], ‘We must do all these things,’ and you’re wrong, no one notices. You can even claim you’re right.

“But if you downplay a threat,” Schneier continued, “and you’re wrong, you’re out of a job. So it’s the natural propensity for anyone to overplay the threat. It makes you look strong.”

Still, Schneier expected Obama to represent a significant improvement over Bush in the counterterrorism realm. “He’ll do a lot of good things to make us truly safer,” he said. “Will he eliminate the [Dept. of Homeland Security's] color-coded threat system? Probably. Will he rollback airport security to pre-9/11 levels? Probably not. Will he make our foreign policy more sensible? More likely. Fund intelligence fully? Most likely.”

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter



Comment posted November 20, 2008 @ 8:12 am

The more agricultural approach to the followers of the Taliban is right. (Kandahar is the center of pomegranate production not Helmand but Helmand was a cash crop area since the 1960s with cotton, peanuts, melon, vegetables etc. (and there is still a government cotton gin in Helmand built by the British in about '65, but none of these crops are getting support from our aid program and central Helmand, the largest irrigation system in the country mostly built with our support between '46-'79 has fallen to the Taliban because of our failure to follow through on projects stated in 02. And the military cannot “win the hearts and minds”of these farmers. They are seen as a non-Muslim foreign military occupational force in support of a marginal central government that many farmers see as an extension of the Soviet occupation…not liberators.Since 02, our military presence has grown, become more obvious, killed more and more civilians as “collateral damage”, not supported the ag sector which is the center of the economy and thus supported the recruitment of many of the young unemployed farm laborers into the Taliban movement. We must attempt to redirect our efforts away from our military occupation and focus back on the economy. But it may be too late after too many mistakes and misdirections and blunders.

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Comment posted November 20, 2008 @ 10:21 am

Terrorism is a CRIME against humanity in general and people in particular.

Defining terrorism as a crime opens the way for ALL the worlds police forces to fight it. It lowers the cost of the solution. It taps into existing organizations, methodologies, and will necessarily promote cooperation among nations. It depoliticizes the solution by stopping the war vs peace debate. It stops the preemptive war nonsense which has lead the US to be, in reality, a rogue nation and an aggressor.

Had the US chosen this route initially instead of the “War on Terrorism” it would have been more successful.

When is the world going to learn that the military is a poor tool when fighting gorilla warfare. It is an especially poor tool when fighting fanatics that are willing to use suicide as a tool. Does anyone remember Viet Nam? Did 9/11 need an army? How will the armed forces protected the US from another 9/11? The answer of course is by taking away the Constitutional rights and the Posse Commitatus act, which is exactly what is occurring.

Further the military solution is way too narrow to defeat the us vs. them, rich vs. poor, have vs. have nots that is the seed bed of terrorism.

We need to get food, health and economic factors into the areas that globalist economies have passed over. We need to demonstrate to these areas and the whole world that we are willing to help them to a better life that terrorism will never lead to. We need to convince mothers that they will be able to raise their children safely in a world that needs education not guns. We need to convince national leaders that we are willing to help without the price tag of either occupation or political dominance.

In short caring humanitarian aid coupled with local police forces supplemented by agreed to and asked for international police force intelligence organizations is the way to win a war on terror, not bombing, shooting and occupation.

Comment posted November 20, 2008 @ 11:40 am

Traffic is in fact more of a threat to the security of the U.S. than every terrorist act ever conducted or attempted against the U.S..

Comment posted November 20, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

The vote against the MCA was good. But the Obama capitulation on FISA in June? Exceedingly disappointing.

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Comment posted November 24, 2008 @ 12:06 am

If you guys think anything will change in the M-E, think again.

The article is a JOKE for even mentioning the possibility. And as for “Change we can believe in”, early indications, judging by Obama's appointments so far, it appears that the only change between Obama and GWB, will not be substantive, but mostly of style.

Not a numbskull like you
Comment posted November 24, 2008 @ 8:06 am

If you guys think anything will change in the M-E, think again.

The article is a JOKE for even mentioning the possibility. And as for “Change we can believe in”, early indications, judging by Obama's appointments so far, it appears that the only change between Obama and GWB, will not be substantive, but mostly of style.

Progressives Expect Obama to Recast Terrorism Fight |
Pingback posted April 29, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

[...] Spencer Ackerman has a terrific piece up today that brings together the opinion of an informal coalition of progressive national-security and civil-liberties experts are urging the president-elect to redefine the war on terrorism. The piece at Washington Independent is important, getting some of us on the record on what’s important going forward in fighting terrorism, long before President-elect Obama and his administration are sworn in. [...]

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