- 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.