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John Brennan Outlines Obama’s Counterterrorism Strategy

Live from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, here’s John Brennan, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, articulating the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. I’ll be liveblogging the speech and, unless the Fail Whale foils me, tweeting it as well.

… and we’re off. First part of the speech: counterterrorism reform. Obama’s refocused on “a new era of engagement with the world, including committing the United States to a new partnership with Muslims around the world—a partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” Keeping the American people safe is Obama’s most important responsibility. Nonproliferation, food security, cybersecurity. Repudiating torture and ending the Iraq war and “defeat[ing] al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Praise for Secretary Clinton’s new diplomacy. Praise for Secretary Gates’ procurement reforms. Praise for Secretary Napolitano’s homeland security strategy. Praise for Jim Jones and FBI Director Bob Mueller. He seems like he’s speaking above them all, even if he doesn’t mean to.

Some gruesome terms. “Mayhem and destruction that terrorism wreak… Seen close friends and good intelligence officers…killed and maimed.” And references the August 6, 2001 PDB: “Eight years ago this morning I read warnings that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike inside the U.S., but our government was unable to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history that would occur on 9/11. ” He softens the blow by faintly praising the Bush administration — and then more forcefully praising the military.

“Tactics such as waterboarding were not in keeping with our values… and should not, and would not, happen again.” A “recruitment bonanza” for terrorists. Remember, Brennan would have been CIA director if not for doubts about how he was soft on torture.

NSC honcho Denis McDonough is here, looking at his mobile device…

Brennan is upset with the national security debate. Neither a “wholesale dismantling” of the Bush approach nor a “wholesale retention.” No “absolutist approach” nor “rigid ideology.” Obama’s views are “nuanced, not simplistic.” OK, but what’s that mean…

[Obama] understands that preventing terrorists from slaughtering the innocent sometimes requires making very difficult decisions—deployment of military forces, authorization of sensitive intelligence activities, the handling and disposition of terrorists that we capture and detain; and the policies we make and the measures we take to protect our homeland.

Immediate “near-term” challenge of “destroying al-Qaeda and its allies. (Immediate! Near-term!) Why we’re in Afghanistan — because “al-Qaeda is actively plotting to attack us again.” But al-Qaeda is in Pakistan. “These are facts to be dealt with.” Are we really dealing with them?

Al Qaeda and its affiliates are under tremendous pressure. After years of U.S. counterterrorism operations, and in partnership with other nations, al Qaeda has been seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less experienced and less capable individuals. It is being forced to work harder and harder to raise money, to move its operatives around the world, and to plan attacks.

Safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal area, with its capabilities “leveraged” by allies in “the Arabian Peninsula, from East Africa to the Sahel and Maghreb regions of North Africa.”

Push the Taliban out of “key population areas” in Afghanistan to prevent its return. Confronting al-Qaeda “directly” in Pakistan — a reference not just to partnership with Pakistan but drone strikes as well.

“We have presented President Obama” with unspecified ” a number of actions and initiatives against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.” Other terrorist groups? Obama has encouraged his team “to be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists.” Like what?

New focus on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools for the military. For the intel community:

we are continuing to adapt and strengthen the intelligence community by expanding human intelligence; strengthening operations; enhancing the workforce with improved linguistic and cultural skills; filling intelligence gaps; improving collaboration across the intelligence community; and promoting greater coordination with foreign intelligence partners.

“Certainty that we can defeat al-Qaeda.” Certainty!

But these are near-term challenges, Brennan says. The long-term challenge: “the threat of violent extremism generally, including the political, economic, and social factors that help put so many individuals on the path to violence.” Economic and social factors are indeed a departure from Bush, who dismissed the idea that those factors contributed to radicalization. Here Brennan says military force is a category error as a tool. Don’t subject foreign policy to a counterterrorism prism:

Rather than looking at allies and other nations through the narrow prism of terrorism—whether they are with us or against us—the administration is now engaging other countries and peoples across a broader range of areas. Rather than treating so many of our foreign affairs programs—foreign assistance, development, democracy promotion—as simply extensions of the fight against terrorists, we will do these things—promote economic growth, good governance, transparency and accountability—because they serve our common interests and common security; not just in regions gripped by violent extremism, but around the world.

“Personal engagement with the world.” Reference to the Cairo speech and how Obama spoke to Egyptians in terms Egyptians want to hear. It’s good, he says, that Obama was criticized for not talking enough about terrorism.

Why should a great and powerful nation like the United States allow its relationship with more than a billion Muslims around the world be defined by the narrow hatred and nihilistic actions of an exceptionally small minority of Muslims? After all, this is precisely what Osama bin Laden intended with the Sept. 11 attacks: to use al Qaeda to foment a clash of civilizations in which the United States and Islam are seen as distinct identities that are in conflict.

No more “war on terrorism.” It would focus on tactics & confusing ends and means. Self-defeating because you can’t win a war on a tactic. Similarly, no talk of a “global war” which “plays into the warped narrative that al Qaeda propagates. It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world.” But global operations against al-Qaeda will continue. That just sounds like rebranding.

Brennan makes a wonderful point about not using the word “jihadist.”

Describing terrorists in this way—using a legitimate term, “jihad,” meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal—risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself.

Forgive my editorializing, but that’s an excellent point, and something you hear from Muslims all over the world — calling al-Qaeda “jihadists” pays them an ill-deserved tribute. That’s a David Kilcullen insight as well.

the counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan apply equally to the broader fight against extremism: we cannot shoot ourselves out of this challenge. We can take out all the terrorists we want—their leadership and their foot soldiers. But if we fail to confront the broader political, economic, and social conditions in which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream.

Notice it’s not just the approach of changing regional politics, but meeting “the grievances of ordinary people”: “security for their communities, education for children, a job and income for parents, and a sense of dignity and worth.” Where governance is weak on these fronts, extremists step in.

Indeed, it is people in these countries, not the United States, who ultimately will isolate these extremists: governments that provide for the basic security and needs of their people; strong and transparent institutions free from corruption; mainstream clerics and scholars who teach that Islam promotes peace, not extremism; and ordinary people who are ready to choose a future free from violence and fear. Still, the United States can and must play its part. For even as we condemn and oppose the illegitimate tactics used by terrorists, we need to acknowledge and address the legitimate needs and grievances of the ordinary people those terrorists claim to represent.

I wonder how U.S. allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan read that ” strong and transparent institutions free from corruption” part.

This is the ultimate goal for the end of the struggle, and it’s pretty metaphysical: “the most effective long-term strategy for safeguarding the American people is one that promotes a future where a young man or woman never even considers joining an extremist group in the first place; where they reject out of hand the idea of picking up that gun or strapping on that suicide vest…” He’s defining this as beyond the “struggle” because it’s really about enlightened U.S. engagement around the world, particularly as it helps strengthen global governance and economic prosperity, particularly in at-risk areas.

For the first time since 9/11, a senior U.S. official acknowledges the need for “negotiations to achieve the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security” in a counterterrorism context, even this reconceived one.

He ends on a note Janet Napolitano has emphasized as well: “And at home, we know that we can rely on the extraordinary capabilities of the American people to be fully engaged in our shared effort to protect ourselves. We will not live our lives in fear, but rather in confidence, as we strengthen our ability to prevent attacks and reduce our vulnerabilities wherever they exist.”

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