David Rothkopf

How Obama saved Christmas and the 7 stories we should be watching

U.S. national security is too important to be left to foreign policy specialists, the media or politicians. These are the clear lessons of the Post-Underpants Bomber Era.  Before Christmas and the disturbing revelations of a man setting his balls on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit (rendering himself only slightly more ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. national security is too important to be left to foreign policy specialists, the media or politicians. These are the clear lessons of the Post-Underpants Bomber Era. 

Before Christmas and the disturbing revelations of a man setting his balls on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit (rendering himself only slightly more uncomfortable than those flying economy class), there was at least a feeling that America was regaining her senses following the 8 hysterical years of the so-called War on Terror

But within hours of the bungled terror attempt, we saw once again America’s true vulnerabilities. And while they are linked to intelligence failures, it is not the ones on which the media and the president’s political opponents have focused that are most salient.

Obama’s reaction to the junkbomber incident was precisely right and just what you want from a leader: Dispassionate, thoughtful, and calculated. He gave his team the time to assess the threat, the breaches and the right next steps to take. At least one person in the United States, Barack Obama, seemed to recognize that the objective of terrorism is to promote terror and sought to defuse that effort by handling the threat with the proportionality and common sense that has long been missing from U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

But almost immediately, the foreign policy establishment — acting with the acuity and purity of motives of Tila Tequila squeezing a few extra minutes of undeserved fame out of the untimely death of her "fiancé" Casey Johnson — whipped itself up into a critical lather. Why? Because it was good for America or because it was in their own self-interest?

I’ll leave you to work that out on your own, but here are a few clues:

First, we have seen very few such attempted attacks carried to the stage of that of the underpants bomber in the last decade. Second, we have been successful in foiling many such attacks — successes for which those responsible get little credit. Third, the attempt revealed as much about the genuine and enduring weaknesses of even terrorists affiliated with major league terror operations like al Qaeda as it did about our own counter-terror efforts. Fourth, terrorism by definition is only successful if it produces "terror" — the kind of hysterical over-reaction we are once again seeing — yet this fact does not seem to have resulted in very many critics toning down their hysteria or shrillness. (The Republican Party has the collective cool on these matters of Prissy helping to birth Melanie’s baby in Gone With the Wind. As for the media, given that the "news" networks probably devoted more live news coverage to the balloon boy hoax than were devoted to say, the invasion of Normandy, you recognize that they are actually in the business of emotional over-reaction. In fact, their constant refrain that every event is an earth-shattering pinnacle of human experience that could well be the biggest thing they have ever seen suggests they have more in common with folks in say, Ashley Dupre’s line of work than that of, say, a journalist.)

Most important, however, is that within days of what may go down on record as the world’s first and last attempt at plastic explosive-assisted self-circumcision, news stories kept popping up that underscored the fact that the terror attack paled in significance for those concerned with America’s future to other concurrent global developments. To begin with, the intelligence failures involved were not even the biggest problem of the week for the intelligence community given the devastating blow to some of our most senior field operatives in Afghanistan. 

But the biggest threats to U.S. leadership and security … to our very ability to protect ourselves at home and abroad … manifested themselves in other stories that have simply not gotten sufficient attention among the accusations and inflammations of the holiday season terror frenzy. Like unemployment staying at 10 percent. Or, over the weekend, like China passing Germany as the world’s largest exporter. Or like the fact that our impending health care bill will still not actually fix the financial threats to our system posed by grotesquely under-funded health care liabilities. Or like the fact that the world is far away from solving the biggest security problems it faces from stabilizing Pakistan to stopping Iran’s nuclear program (and thus the WMD proliferation that poses the one great terror threat) to reversing climate change or addressing resource disparities that will trigger many of the wars of the century ahead. (It is worth noting that for America today … the greatest threats to the nation’s future well-being don’t involve things that explode … always the favored topic of foreign policy elites … but rather things that are imploding … like our economy, about which most big time foreign policy specialists haven’t  a clue.)

If one terrorist can in one failed attempt distract America from addressing priorities and will almost certainly lead to further billions and billions being misdirected to the global whackamole game of trying to snuff out the geopolitical pipsqueaks who lead international terror networks it explains more about why terrorists will keep trying than any in-depth analysis of the conditions on the ground in terror-prone regions. 

Thus, what this incident really reminds us is, terrorists only have the power we give them. And that the emotional, the shrill, the over-the-top, the self-promoters, the hyper-political, and the other tummlers responsible for the inside-the-beltway mob mentality are as complicit in the spread of terror as those who are too soft on it. If the president’s rhetoric was slightly too weak for some tastes, he erred in the direction that also weakens our enemies rather than, as did his most vocal critics, the direction that turns operational failures like the one on Christmas Day into strategic successes for the bad guys.

P.S. I’d like to add that not only is the over-the-top nature of the terrorism debate of late done damage to U.S. interests, the appropriate response is not only not more spending, more programs, more rules … but that complimenting the moderate response would actually be improvements to our anti-terror efforts all of which would actually be in the direction of narrowing, focusing and spending less. For example, want to improve Intel sharing? Let’s start with getting rid of the Directorate of National Intelligence, a legacy of Bush’s big government response to 9/11, that amounts to precisely the opposite of what we need: an additional layer of thousands of bureaucrats who actually do not enhance (apparently) our analytical capacity and undoubtedly reduce communications efficiency. The Central Intelligence Agency was created to do all the coordinating the DNI does and easily could do it again if sufficiently empowered? Want another step to improve our intel sharing? How about reducing and eliminating many of the unnecessary levels of information classification that make it impossible for policy makers to actually have access to all the information they need to make decisions? Want another? Heed the advice of former advisor to Dwight Eisenhower General Andrew Goodpaster, who laughed to me during our last intel "crisis" after 9/11 that Eisenhower would have had no patience with it because he knew — from bitter experience during World War II — that intelligence can be useful but expectations must be set at the right level. It was always an imperfect tool and one that could not be perfected. Want another? Let’s get out of the unwinnable mess in Afghanistan and focus some of those resources on directly targeting terrorists, some on better tools for early warning and the rest on the domestic needs that are actually essential to maintaining long-term U.S. strength.  I could go on. But it is clear … when it comes to responding to terror, the lesson of the past decade is that we need to think a lot harder about proportionality and the unintended consequences of our understandable horror and outrage.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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