John Brennan picked a deeply symbolic day to end the “war on terrorism.”
On August 6, 2001, Brennan, then a senior CIA official and now President Obama’s assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, “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,” he recalled to an audience Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. It was a reference to a CIA analysis, called a President’s Daily Brief, that the 9/11 Commission uncovered as a key warning that an attack by al-Qaeda was likely.
Eight years later, in his first speech since joining the Obama administration, Brennan annulled several key aspects of the so-called war on terrorism — starting with both the name and the idea that the United States was involved in any sort of “global war.” Brennan said Obama will subordinate counterterrorism to “its right and proper place” as a “vital part” of the administration’s national security and foreign policies, but not the lion’s share of them. Saying he was careful not to elevate al-Qaeda to a greater position of importance than it deserved, Brennan linked the rise in support for extremists to problems of global governance, economic crisis and social stratification and said the administration would make a concerted effort to address what he considers those extremist root causes.
Above all, Brennan emphasized that the United States was not locked in a struggle with the world’s billion Muslims. He derided al-Qaeda’s self-presentation as a “highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate,” and said that the administration would abandon the use of the word “jihad” in reference to al-Qaeda, since the term carries “religious legitimacy” in the Muslim world that al-Qaeda’s “murderers… desperately seek but in no way deserve.” David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, has recently argued in an influential book that the United States has insufficiently distinguished between implacable enemies and those who fight out of opportunism, desperation or other, non-eschatological reasons.
Brennan used that insight to explain the basis for the Obama administration’s approach to global governance, stability and development assistance. “Any comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors — the conditions that help fuel violent extremism,” Brennan said. Military, intelligence or law-enforcement actions are unable to confront those conditions, which he said include the “basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people” for prosperity, education, “dignity and worth,” and security. “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,” Brennan said.
While Brennan said it would ultimately be up to governments and civil-society institutions in the Muslim world to “isolate” al-Qaeda, he said the role of the United States was to help strengthen “the capacity of foreign militaries and security forces” and judiciaries; to make “substantial” increases in foreign aid to fight poverty and promote global health and food security; and to demonstrate the ability of “diplomacy, dialogue, and the democratic process” to solve “seemingly intractable problems.”
By contrast, the Bush administration dismissed the idea that poverty and social injustice contributed to terrorism, and contended that a more fundamental root cause was political tyranny in the Middle East. While it pushed autocratic allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to take certain liberalizing steps, it focused more on building the outlines of democratic states in countries it sent the U.S. military to occupy, Iraq and Afghanistan. “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists,” Bush said in 2006, and several steps he took — such as authorizing the CIA to perform “enhanced interrogation” and approving indefinite detention without trial at places like Guantanamo Bay — led Muslim democracy activists to view U.S. material or even rhetorical support as counterproductive.
Brennan did not renounce a variety of military, intelligence, financial and law enforcement measures to combat al-Qaeda and unspecified “other terrorist groups.” He said vaguely that Obama had encouraged his foreign-policy and security team to “be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative” at going after terrorists, and Brennan added, with “certainty,” that the United States would defeat al-Qaeda. Brennan did not spend much time discussing Afghanistan, the war theater where Obama has recently ordered 21,000 new troops and may soon face a request to order the deployment of more. He said U.S. forces were “pushing the Taliban out of key population areas in Afghanistan so we can prevent the return of al-Qaeda to that country,” although Obama announced the troop increase as a measure to confront al-Qaeda directly.
Asked by TWI whether measures like CIA drone strikes in Pakistan overemphasized killing al-Qaeda members at the expense of alienating a population vulnerable to exploitation by extremists, Brennan said that the Obama administration debated those issues intensely. Interagency meetings feature the questions, “What are the implications, if we take this [counterterrorism] step, what’s it going to do on the political front, on the economic front, on the social front?” Brennan said. “What we don’t want to do is just have a bunch of CT [counterterrorism] people in a room saying, ‘OK, what can we do here.’” Kilcullen and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security have argued that the drone strikes, which have intensified this year, represent a greater long-term cost to national security than counterterrorist benefit.
Brennan would have been Obama’s CIA director had concerns in the blogosphere over statements he made in support of rendition — the extrajudicial transfer of detainees from one country to another — led him in November to pull his name from consideration. In the speech, Brennan took pains to denounce waterboarding and unspecified interrogation “practices” that “have been rightly terminated and should not, and will not, happen again.” He did not use the word “torture,” and ducked a question from Eli Lake of The Washington Times about whether he supported a classified annex to a forthcoming government-wide interrogation field manual that might contain harsher interrogation recommendations than allowed under the Geneva Conventions — rules Obama has insisted apply to interrogations policy.
He also dodged a question from TWI about the part a recent report from several government inspectors general suggested he may have played in the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance programs, saying “I’m not going to go into sort of what my role was in that instance because a lot of those activities are still considered classified and not in the public domain.”
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