Marc Lynch

Moving past the GWOT ain’t easy

The last few days have offered some sharp lessons in how the Obama administration is trying to move beyond the "Global War on Terror" framework it inherited from its predecessor… and how hard it is to really do so.  First, there’s the leaks that the forthcoming National Security Strategy will drop the central focus on ...

The last few days have offered some sharp lessons in how the Obama administration is trying to move beyond the "Global War on Terror" framework it inherited from its predecessor… and how hard it is to really do so.  First, there’s the leaks that the forthcoming National Security Strategy will drop the central focus on militant Islam in favor of a more general concern with violent extremism. Second, there was the farce of a Qatari diplomat smoking in the bathroom, initially reported as an attempted shoe-bombing and thus triggering a premature ejacula…um, ahem, an excited discourse about Obama’s allegedly weak approach to the terror threat. And then there was the distressing news that the administration had approved the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen currently in Yemen.

I’ve got several lengthy papers coming out soon on exactly these topics, so I don’t want to go into too much depth at this point. But the conjunction of these three stories really does nicely capture some truths about the administration’s strategy and its limitations. 

First, the National Security Strategy. The shift away from a focus on "militant Islam" and jihad in favor of the pursuit of a broader relationship with the Muslim world which is not refracted through the distorting lens of counter-terrorism has been a consistent and appropriate theme of the Obama administration’s rhetoric. His speech in Cairo set the agenda, and this strategic concept has been echoed, accepted and developed across the administration as an effective and appropriate approach. By 2006, vast majorities of Muslims had come to believe that the U.S. was waging a war against Islam, validating al-Qaeda’s narrative and vastly complicating American foreign policy objectives and security. Both the late Bush administration and the Obama administration have prioritized the strategic goal of undermining that narrative and distinguishing between the violent extremists of al-Qaeda and the vast mainstream of the Muslim world. That’s the right strategy, and it has been working. 

I would of course expect this to be represented in the new NSS. Obama’s team clearly wants to reduce the rhetorical focus on al-Qaeda, to deny it the publicity which the movement craves, to build better relations with the Muslim mainsteam, and to allow al-Qaeda’s internal Muslim opponents the space to crush it without the distraction of a smothering American footprint.   The shift to a focus on violent extremism is not a new development — doesn’t anyone remember the G-SAVE (Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism) from the late Bush administration? — but the Presidential transition and Obama’s clear rhetorical leadership has helped it stick. This is one of the strongest parts of the administration’s strategy; it has been mostly effective at marginalizing al-Qaeda, and it has helped rebuild relations with the Muslim mainstream.

But a lot of people here really, really don’t want to let the 9/11 "war on terror" framework go.   It’s the framework for an entire political discourse and language, and even the political identities forged in the post-9/11 environment. Every time there is a terrorist incident, or a failed terrorist attack (Christmas Day), or a non-terrorist attack which the media breathlessly reports, you instantly see this deep hunger for the war on terror manifest — obviously on the political right, from Fox News to the blogs and the politicians, but just as much through the mainstream media and political sphere. The war on terror offered a clear, simple, potent framework which hasn’t yet been replaced, and the reflexive response to anything which might revitalize that framework is as predictable as it is frustrating. 

Yesterday’s airplane incident demonstrates just how hard it is to move away from the war on terror framework. The initial report that a Qatari diplomat had tried to set off a shoe bomb spread like wildfire through the media, blogs and Twitter. The correction that he had just been sneaking a smoke in the bathroom came in soon enough, but not before it had already been embraced and deployed in defense of the GWOT. A typical response: 

A diplomat from a moderate Muslim country tries to blow up an airliner? The Obama administration would have us believe that this has nothing to do with ideology, and that there is no pattern here.

There’s a pattern all right, and it is all about ideology… just not quite as intended. The toxic political environment and the eager exploitation of such incidents for political advantage make it difficult to institutionalize the new strategy at home, whatever its real security and foreign policy benefits. If and when there’s actually a successful attack — which sadly seems inevitable at some point — it’s going to be difficult to maintain balance and stick to the strategy.   

Which brings me to the final point:  the administration has actually been pursuing the real campaign against al-Qaeda extremely vigorously, and has evidently embraced the legal philosophy underpinning the GWOT— far too much for my taste. The escalating use of drone strikes under this administration, and other increasingly aggressive efforts against al-Qaeda in a number of theaters, is the vital flip side of the administration’s rhetorical downplaying. The report about the authorization of a strike against Awlaki has crystallized attention to the point that the administration continues to broadly accept the notion of a global war on terror in which any suspected terrorist can be targeted for death without legal due process. In his speech last May, President Obama forcefully defended the need to combat violent extremists such as al-Qaeda from within a firm commitment to the rule of law:  

We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. 

But the targeting of suspected terrorists by drone strikes takes place outside the rule of law and without any due process, with neither checks and balances nor accountability. The vigorous campaign against alleged al-Qaeda figures around the world should be reassuring to those on the right who claim to believe that the administration isn’t serious about the threat.  But it should be profoundly worrying for those of us who agreed with the president that restoring the rule of law was an essential part of a balanced, long-term strategy for dealing with terrorism within a broader grand strategy. I accept that these are tough choices, and that it is essential to keep intense and quiet pressure on al-Qaeda even as the rhetorical focus shifts in support of that strategy. But I also think that even if done in a pragmatic and well-intentioned way, the seeming acceptance of the Bush administration’s legal philosophy of the war on terror is an exceedingly dangerous hole in the President’s own articulated strategy.

More later.  

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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