- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under Secretary of Defense.
Any critique by the New York Times of President Obama’s policies certainly merits attention. The Times hit the president hard on his policy of personally choosing targets for drone assassinations. Indeed, the president may have gone too far by emulating Lyndon Johnson’s practice of choosing bombing targets in Vietnam. But his basic approach to the question of combating al Qaeda and its related organizations is necessary, though not sufficient.
Islamic terrorists are in fundamental ways no different from the anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The anarchists also operated from a loosely connected network of independent cells in a host of Western and Central European states. They too sought to maximize their impact by striking at targets that were both highly visible and highly symbolic. President William McKinley was among their many prominent victims. Finally, like al Qaeda, their ideology was a blur of fuzzy long term ideas about how the world should be organized. Their immediate objective was to sow mayhem wherever possible so as to undermine established governmental institutions.
The international community responded to the anarchists by banding together to eliminate as many of them as possible. There were no niceties towards these criminal bands that bound the hands of military forces or law enforcement agencies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Anarchist offices were raided and destroyed; while many anarchists were arrested and tried, many others were shot on the spot.
President Obama has recognized that only by decapitating the al Qaeda leadership can he begin to quash this international criminal enterprise. He has also been far more flexible about the detention of prisoners than most observers and his supporters expected him to be. Nevertheless, the president needs to calibrate his own personal involvement more carefully than he has done until now.
While the president should not flinch from making critical decisions about certain targets, American citizens for example, he should not commit Johnson’s error of getting too involved in the choice of those to be killed. The intelligence community and the military should be trusted to make the right call on who should be targeted; the president should back them up by taking full responsibility for their decisions. In this respect the Times is correct; President Obama has fallen victim to the White House disease called micromanagement.
In any event, decapitation of a hydra-like organization can only be a beginning and is certainly not an end in itself. The administration has not developed a policy that would dissuade people who are prepared to die for their cause from actually doing so. A strong and flexible military, not one that is perceived to be in decline — and that is how publics worldwide perceive America’s military — must complement the clandestine work of other government agencies. In addition, America must work with other like-minded states to wean away potential recruits to fanatical Islam by providing educational institutions that are alternatives to madrasas. At the same time the West should pressure friendly states, especially in the Arabian Gulf, to cease funding those madrasas.
Expanding the war on Islamic terrorism beyond the killing of a relatively small number of individuals is a challenging task that has yet to be accomplished. The president deserves credit for approving the apprehension and assassination of key terrorists, but he must not lose sight of the ultimate objective this war: the suppression, if not elimination, of the latest manifestation of a so-called ideology whose main and mindless purpose, as it was of the anarchists, is nothing more than to cause maximum death and destruction wherever possible.
John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.
Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.
His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).
Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”
In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.| Rational Security |