Obama’s terrorism strategy: Avoiding the Groundhog Day curse

Obama’s terrorism strategy: Avoiding the Groundhog Day curse

On the eve of Groundhog Day, it is worth asking whether President Obama’s terrorism policy is facing six more weeks of bitter chill. Obama has been forced to backtrack on several signature initiatives — the commitment to close Guantanamo by Jan. 19, 2010, the commitment to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in lower Manhattan, and the hounding of Department of Justice lawyers from the Bush era over interrogation-related rulings — and it has gotten so bad that over at they are asking whether Obama’s entire terrorism policy is unraveling. It does appear that the triangulation at the heart of Obama’s terrorism policy is in trouble, but it is not yet clear what will replace it.

Since the earliest days of his administration, Obama has attempted a deft triangulation: he has rhetorically framed his terrorism policy as a bold departure from the Bush era, but he has kept the lion’s share of the terrorism policy infrastructure that was operative under the second-term Bush administration. The "change" was dramatized with high-profile moves drenched in symbolism — the promise to close Guantanamo, the promise to investigate "abuses" from the Bush era, the release of inflammatory material over the objections of his CIA director, or the insistence on talking about terrorism with the language of law enforcement rather than war. The "continuity" was played down with quiet steps, like using Bush era arguments against habeas corpus or defending military commissions, and less quiet steps like a robust Predator drone strike campaign.

The triangulation worked as long as the media played along, letting Obama’s caricature of Bush era policies go unchallenged, rebutting the occasional critique from conservatives like Vice President Cheney by listing areas of continuity, and crediting the symbolic changes with all sorts of positive results like the improvement in global polling on America’s reputation.

This triangulation survived the nicks of a number of self-inflicted wounds, most notably the early recognition that the Guantanamo promise had been naïve. But it does not look like it will survive the harsh klieg light attention paid to Obama’s terrorism policy in the wake of the Underwear Bomber.

The triangulation depended on Obama having found the Goldilocks strategy — keeping all the good parts of Bush policies and making changes that only improve, without undermining, those policies. Obama, in reversing course on so many issues, is now implicitly conceding that the counter-terrorism porridge he had been serving was most definitely not "just right."  Indeed, the evidence suggests the contrary — that the promulgation of "treat terrorism as a law enforcement rather than a war problem" produced the very problems Cheney and others worried about.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden documents several vital errors.  First, the rush to Mirandize the Underwear Bomber, and the decision to do so without any input from responsible authorities, deprived officials of the chance to do a meaningful interrogation of the captured terrorist. Valuable and time-sensitive intelligence was lost, and is likely unrecoverable.  Second, the Obama administration had failed to stand up the new interrogation unit it claimed was needed to replace the "flawed" Bush approach,  and the Obama team had not even anticipated that the unit might be needed to interrogate terrorists caught on U.S. soil.

More remarkably, current NCTC Director Michael Leiter revealed in congressional testimony another vital error: in the days prior to the terrorist attack, the analysis units responsible for "connecting the dots" were distracted by the need to implement a 20 percent reduction-in-force — cuts so deep that they would disrupt the effectiveness of any bureaucratic organization, at least temporarily.  The Obama administration has quietly rescinded those cuts and is instead beefing up the analytic capability, but not before the damage to triangulation politics has been done.

To my ear, the most telling indication of the collapse of the triangulation comes from the changed tone from congressional "moderates," centrist Democrats and Republicans who form the base for this Goldilocks approach. On the Democratic side, Senator Feinstein has been subtly but insistently messaging a wake-up call in the form of a warning that more terrorist attacks are in the offing.  On the Republican side, Senator Collins issued a blistering attack on Obama’s terrorism policy.

If Obama has lost Feinstein and Collins, he has lost the political props of triangulation.  But the overall political damage to the president is not fatal for the simple reason that the national security damage done by the policies is not yet irreversible.  The administration has taken some good remedial steps, such as coming clean on the botched interrogation effort, rescinding the NCTC cuts, and changing the venue for the KSM trial.

Moreover, there is reason to hope that the Obama administration is now more focused on uncovering and preventing the next attack than in scoring partisan points with its witch hunts into Bush administration "missteps."

In this hopeful scenario, the Underwear Bomber is a "bing" moment enabling Obama to avoid the other Groundhog Day curse: repeating the same mistakes over and over again.