Marc Lynch

Al-Qaeda in the New National Security Strategy

Al-Qaeda in the New National Security Strategy

The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy is about to be unveiled today. I got hold of an advance copy of it yesterday, and then joined about a dozen other people at the White House to talk about it with three senior administration officials (on background). It’s an impressive document, and goes a long way towards providing a coherent framework for American foreign policy and national security which makes sense of what the administration has been doing and offers a roadmap to where it wants to go. From my perspective, the most interesting — and strongest — part of the NSS deals with the administration’s new approach to al-Qaeda. The most problematic is the gap between its strong commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law and its practice thus far with regard to things like drone strikes.

The NSS lays out "a comprehensive strategy" in what it repeatedly calls a war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, one "that denies [al-Qaeda and its affiliates] safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity." It defines this in narrow terms: "this is not a global war against a tactic — terrorism or a religion — Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’ida, and its terrorist affiliates." It places this war within the perspective of broader foreign policy concerns, and warns against overreaction to terrorist provocations — pointing out, correctly, that al-Qaeda’s strategy hopes to trigger such American overreactions, leading to counterproductive political responses and interventions which drain our resources, alienate our friends, and radicalize Muslims around the world. Much of the NSS can be read as a multi-level, robust strategy to prevent such self-defeating responses, while doing everything actually necessary to disrupt and defeat the threat which actually exists.

The strategy outlined in the NSS closely tracks what I describe in detail in my forthcoming CNAS paper on the subject, which Spencer Ackerman describes briefly here. This robust strategy makes a mockery of the political attacks against the administration for ignoring the threat posed by al Qaeda or "pretending that we are not at war" (in the words of Dick Cheney, the man most responsible for supporting al Qaeda’s strategy by falling into their every trap and fueling their narrative at every opportunity). Its practice largely follows and builds upon the course corrections of the last two years of the Bush administration, which quietly abandoned most of the failed policies of the 2001-2006 period. It actually expands some of those practices — notably the drone strikes, but also the aggressive campaigns against safe havens in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. At the same time, it takes advantage of the Presidential transition and Obama’s personal appeal to reap the gains of a fresh start with other countries and publics. And its Global Muslim Engagement strategy seeks to build robust relations with Muslims around the world on issues beyond terrorism, denying al Qaeda the ability to define their relations with America and to argue that America is at war with Islam. This broader Muslim Engagement is somewhat underplayed in the NSS, though, placed in a minor supporting role rather than as the key part of the overall strategy against al Qaeda which it is — an issue I discuss at some length in the forthcoming June CNAS report. It is also beginning to adapt to the seeming new pattern of attempts to target the U.S. homeland, as previewed in John Brennan’s appearance at CSIS yesterday.

The NSS doubles down on the President’s May 2009 National Archives speech, insisting that "we need durable legal approaches consistent with our identity and our values." I was delighted to see such a vigorous and prominent place for these concerns, which were central to the Obama campaign and administration’s rhetoric. But, as I pressed the senior administration officials on yesterday, there are serious concerns about whether the U.S. is actually meeting those commitments. If they seriously believe that demonstrating our commitment in practice to civil liberties and the rule of law is vital to our national security — which I think they do believe, and which I do believe — then how can they reconcile that with the way drone strikes are being used, with the perpetuation of Bush era practices governing surveillance, with the use of military commissions, and so forth?

Some of these problems aren’t really their fault, given the toxic political environment and the determination by many of their opponents to politicize terrorism and make every aspect of it a wedge issue. They can’t easily create a durable legal foundation without Congress or the courts. They have done many things which they can do unilaterally, such as the ban on torture, and they are slowly emptying out Guantánamo by finding takers for its detainees. But nevertheless, this seems to me to be a dangerous hole in the overall strategy which needs more careful attention and higher priority in their deliberations — on a case by case basis, and as part of the overall strategy.

Overall, then, I am very pleased with the new National Security Strategy. It marks a clean break with the past. In 2006, the NSS declared America’s war with "radical militant Islam" to be the single most important overarching framework for its relationship with the world. The 2010 NSS clearly meets that threat, but defines it far more narrowly and places it within a much broader context. I will leave it to others to work through its arguments about the domestic and economic context, the adaptation to rising powers and the recognition of declining American primacy, the concern with nuclear proliferation and disarmament, and more. From my perspective, the new NSS gets the big things right and offers a clear and effective framework for American foreign policy and national security in the coming years…. even as potentially dangerous potholes can be seen in the road ahead. (Sorry for that last line… I got stuck in traffic on the Beltway on the way to the meeting in the White House, and potholes are on my mind.)