Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 6, 2009

An exegesis on the words of John (Brennan)

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 6, 2009

Below I have excerpted most of the second half of Mr. Brennan’s CSIS speech from earlier today.  The long preface — not provided here — is available from Foreign Policy and worth your reading.  His answers to questions, and any deviation from text,  are available  by listening to the CSIS webcast.

In the following Mr. Brennan sets out  five-points which he claims will distinguish this administration’s approach to counterterrorism. My preliminary exegisis — really just  a stream-of-consciousness — is shown in blue italics.


SO THERE SHOULD BE NO DOUBT. As the President has told us privately and as he has said publicly, this administration “will do everything in our power to keep the American people safe…with certainty that we can defeat al Qaeda.”

At the same time, the President understands that military power, intelligence operations, and law enforcement alone will never solve the second, longer-term challenge we face: the threat of violent extremism generally, including the political, economic, and social factors that help put so many individuals on the path to violence. And here is where I believe President Obama is bringing a fundamentally new and more effective approach to the long-term obligation of safeguarding the American people. This new approach has five key elements.

So does violent extremism — whether religious, ideological, nationalist, or otherwise — replace “terrorism” as our target?

First, and perhaps most significantly, the fight against terrorists and violent extremists has been returned to its right and proper place: no longer defining — indeed, distorting — our entire national security and foreign policy, but rather serving as a vital part of those larger policies. President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not be defined simply by what we are against, but by what we are for-the opportunity, liberties, prosperity, and common aspirations we share with the world. 

We fell into the trap purposefully set by our adversaries.  We  self-defined  ourselves primarily as counterterrorists.  This is the worst of deficit thinking.  We will gain mind-share, market-share, and self-respect by reclaiming an America which advocates the hopes and dreams of humanity.

Rather than looking at allies and other nations through the narrow prism of terrorism-whether they are with us or against us-the administration is now engaging other countries and peoples across a broader range of areas. Rather than treating so many of our foreign affairs programs-foreign assistance, development, democracy promotion-as simply extensions of the fight against terrorists, we will do these things-promote economic growth, good governance, transparency and accountability-because they serve our common interests and common security; not just in regions gripped by violent extremism, but around the world.

The Peloponesian War continues to teach.  When Athens reduced its moral leadership to nothing more than military advantage it lost battles, treasure, and influence.  Acting out of fear or vengeance   Athens too often  squandered its strength.  But there were also periods of confident leadership that might have preserved Athenian ascendence. John Brennan sounds a bit like a latter-day Nicias. I hope he will end up better.  I am tempted to compare the President to the supremely gifted Alcibiades, but the surface similarities mostly serve to emphasize that we live in a very different time and place.

We see this new approach most vividly in the President’s personal engagement with the world-his trips, his speeches, his town halls with foreign audiences-where he addresses terrorism directly and forcefully. At the same time, terrorism is recognized as one of the many transnational challenges the world will face in the 21st Century. We saw this in his speech in Cairo, where he spoke of a “broader engagement” with the world’s Muslims, including the issues important to them: education, public health, economic development, responsive governance, and women’s rights.

Here are the values we advocate and for which we would be known.

Indeed, it was telling that the President was actually criticized in certain quarters in this country for not using words like “terror,” “terrorism” or “terrorist” in that speech. This goes to the heart of his new approach. Why should a great and powerful nation like the United States allow its relationship with more than a billion Muslims around the world be defined by the narrow hatred and nihilistic actions of an exceptionally small minority of Muslims? After all, this is precisely what Osama bin Laden intended with the Sept. 11 attacks: to use al Qaeda to foment a clash of civilizations in which the United States and Islam are seen as distinct identities that are in conflict. In his approach to the world and in his approach to safeguarding the American people, President Obama is determined not to validate al Qaeda’s twisted worldview.

It is tempting to be defined by what we hate.  It is almost always more attractive to be defined by what we love.

This leads directly to the second element of the President’s approach: a clear, more precise definition of this challenge. This is critically important. How you define a problem shapes how you address it. As many have noted, the President does not describe this as a “war on terrorism.” That is because “terrorism” is but a tactic-a means to an end, which in al Qaeda’s case is global domination by an Islamic caliphate. Confusing ends and means is dangerous, because by focusing on the tactic, we risk floundering among the terrorist trees while missing the growth of the extremist forest. And ultimately, confusing ends and means is self-defeating, because you can never fully defeat a tactic like terrorism any more than you can defeat the tactic of war itself.

Likewise, the President does not describe this as a “global war.” Yes, al Qaeda and other terrorists groups operate in many corners of the world and continue to launch attacks in different nations, as we saw most recently in Jakarta. And yes, the United States will confront al Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists so that it enjoys no safe haven. But describing our efforts as a “global war” only plays into the warped narrative that al Qaeda propagates. It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world. It risks setting our Nation apart from the world, rather than emphasizing the interests we share. And perhaps most dangerously, portraying this as a “global” war risks reinforcing the very image that al Qaeda seeks to project of itself-that it is a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate. And nothing could be further from the truth.

Our adversaries have used us to amplify their credibility.  We will no longer be as generous.

Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against “jihadists.” Describing terrorists in this way-using a legitimate term, “jihad,” meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal-risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself. And this is why President Obama has confronted this perception directly and forcefully in his speeches to Muslim audiences, declaring that America is not and never will be at war with Islam.

Words matter.  We should be careful with the words we use and how they will be heard.  We should be especially careful when we are using words unfamilar to us.

Instead, as the President has made clear, we are at war with al Qaeda, which attacked us on 9/11 and killed 3,000 people. We are at war with its violent extremist allies who seek to carry on al Qaeda’s murderous agenda. These are the terrorists we will destroy. These are the extremists we will defeat.  

Even as the President takes a more focused view of the threat, his approach includes a third element: a broader, more accurate understanding of the causes and conditions that help fuel violent extremism, be they in Pakistan and Afghanistan or Somalia and Yemen.

The President has been very clear on this. Poverty does not cause violence and terrorism. Lack of education does not cause terrorism. But just as there is no excuse for the wanton slaughter of innocents, there is no denying that when children have no hope for an education, when young people have no hope for a job and feel disconnected from the modern world, when governments fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, then people become more susceptible to ideologies of violence and death. Extremist violence and terrorist attacks are therefore often the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation, and hatred.

Therefore, any comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors-the conditions that help fuel violent extremism. Indeed, the counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan apply equally to the broader fight against extremism: we cannot shoot ourselves out of this challenge. We can take out all the terrorists we want-their leadership and their foot soldiers. But if we fail to confront the broader political, economic, and social conditions in which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream. Indeed, our failure to address these conditions also plays into the extremists’ hands-allowing them to make the false claim that the United States actually wants to keep people impoverished and unempowered.

It is important to note that these factors not only help fuel violent extremism but also contribute to a wide range of national security threats – from other types of organized violence and sociopolitical instability to resource competition. And addressing these factors will help the United States deal with a wide range of threats, including violent extremism.

We deploy strategy to shape the “battlefield” to our advantage.  The very best strategy still requires operational capacity and tactical competence, but the shaping of the environment should make operational and tactical success more likely.

This is why the President’s approach includes a critical fourth elementthe recognition that addressing these upstream factors is ultimately not a military operation but a political, economic, and social campaign to meet the basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people: security for their communities, education for children, a job and income for parents, and a sense of dignity and worth.

The extremists know this; wherever governments are unable to provide for the legitimate needs of their people, these groups step into the void. It is why they offer free education to impoverished Pakistani children, where they can recruit and indoctrinate the next generation. It is why Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza provide so many social services to the poor even as they commit heinous acts of terror. It is why the terrorist warlord in Somalia can so easily recruit a destitute teenager who sees nothing but a future of poverty and despair.

Evil depends on — really thrives on — indifference.

President Obama understands that successfully defeating these extremists over the long term requires breaking this bond-exposing al Qaeda as nothing but the death cult that it is and isolating extremists from the people they pretend to serve. Often, the extremists do this themselves. Time and again, their barbarism, brutality, and beheadings have provoked backlashes among ordinary people, from Afghanistan under the Taliban to al Qaeda in Iraq and increasingly in Pakistan today.

Going forward, people must come to see that it is the likes of al Qaeda and the Taliban, Hezbollah, and Hamas-not the United States-that is holding their aspirations hostage; that of all those al Qaeda has killed, most have been Muslims; that the murder of innocent civilians, as the President said in Cairo, is not how moral authority is claimed, but how it is surrendered; that the future offered by extremists is not one of peace but violence, not of hope and opportunity but poverty and despair.  

But… there are aspects of US power and policy that play into the mythology of America-as-Crusader-Nation.  In the Q&A session Mr. Brennan was more forthcoming and self-critical.  It is a tough and vulnerable honesty that must be maintained.   Stephen Decatur famously remarked, “My country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right;  but our country, right or wrong!” And so it is especially valuable to loyally and lovingly admit error.

Indeed, it is people in these countries, not the United States, who ultimately will isolate these extremists: governments that provide for the basic security and needs of their people; strong and transparent institutions free from corruption; mainstream clerics and scholars who teach that Islam promotes peace, not extremism; and ordinary people who are ready to choose a future free from violence and fear. Still, the United States can and must play its part. For even as we condemn and oppose the illegitimate tactics used by terrorists, we need to acknowledge and address the legitimate needs and grievances of the ordinary people those terrorists claim to represent.

This is an expression of honest humility with which I agree and which I expect will attract some criticism.  The violent extremism that we confront is not really of our creation and fundamentally does not have much to do with the United States.  Rather we are a convenient excuse and pliable symbol to deploy.  The extremism that is fueling violence  is the outcome of historical, cultural, and demographic factors that will be resolved in ways that we can help or hurt, but over which we are not in control.

Which leads to the fifth and final part of the President’s approach-integrating every element of American power to ensure that those “upstream” factors discourage rather than encourage violent extremism. After all, the most effective long-term strategy for safeguarding the American people is one that promotes a future where a young man or woman never even considers joining an extremist group in the first place; where they reject out of hand the idea of picking up that gun or strapping on that suicide vest; where they have faith in the political process and confidence in the rule of law; where they realize that they can build, not simply destroy-and that the United States is a real partner in opportunity, prosperity, dignity, and peace.

It is, again, a matter of long-term strategic engagement.  There will be tactical wins and losses, but this approach will play to our strengths and amplify their weaknesses. Too often in the last seven years we have let the adversary define the battlespace, especially in the information war.  We will no longer play to their stereotypes or reinforce their conceits.  We will lead with our substantive strengths and expose their real weaknesses… in ways and terms that will persuade the broader world.

That is why President Obama is committed to using every element of our national power to address the underlying causes and conditions that fuel so many national security threats, including violent extremism. We will take a multidimensional, multi-departmental, multi-national approach.

We will use our military power, not only to take down al Qaeda and its allies, but to train and build up the capacity of foreign militaries and security forces-as we are doing from Iraq to Afghanistan to Africa-because if these militaries and security forces can uphold the rule of law, if these countries can take responsibility for their own security, then militias, warlords, and terrorists will find it harder to win sympathizers and recruits with the false promise of security and stability. So the President has increased funding to help build the capacity of foreign law enforcement, border security, and judiciaries.

We will use our power to demonstrate that seemingly intractable problems and legitimate grievances can be resolved through diplomacy, dialogue, and the democratic process. That is why we are supporting national elections in Afghanistan and helping to protect the rights of all Afghans. That is why the President has made clear that our relationship with Pakistan is grounded in support for Pakistan’s democratic institutions and the Pakistani people. That is why we support an Iraqi government that promotes national unity and is nonsectarian. And that is why the administration is aggressively pursuing negotiations to achieve the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.   

We will also use our economic power to promote opportunity and prosperity. This will help restore people’s hope in the political process and in legitimate institutions. In Afghanistan, this means a dramatic increase in our development efforts-working with the government to end corruption, improve the delivery of basic services and build an economy that isn’t dominated by drugs. In Pakistan, it means a billion and a half dollars in direct support to the Pakistani people every year for education, health care, and infrastructure, as well as opportunity zones to spark development in the border regions. And we are harnessing our economic power to make substantial increases in foreign assistance generally-including poverty reduction, global health, and food security-not as a crutch for societies in need, but as a catalyst for development, good governance, and long-term prosperity.

Apologies to both you and Mr. Brennan.  This was pounded out in less than 20 minutes.  Such is blogging.  I hope your commentary and analysis will be more thoughtful.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 6, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

Hey Phil given time constraints great job! Just a few points! First Islam is a Western religion and like Christianity largely spread by the sword as plenty of historical documentation shows.

Second, what is the line about training other nations military? Hey that is what got US into Viet Nam! I argue that the sale of conventional arms by US makes US the leading merchant of death. We sell arms they get used not always for the right reasons. Counter insurgency builds and we end up training troops and then intervening. I argue for an entirely new foreign policy where the civil agencies and state get the funding DOD used to get and see if better chance of peace. DOD takes all the air out of diplomacy and the other elements of national power. Maybe we should adopt Marius GAIUS refoms and just pay for the military of our allies? Should we train and equip non-allies? Is Iraq a future ally? No way IMO! What was the intent of this rollout of a message with first the Secretary DHS and now Brennan? All going on vacation (none should be going) and hoping the words don’t get swallowed up in real world AQ efforts in August or September. At least in August and September of 2001 CIA was stating flatly AQ will be attacking US on our own soil! This speech says still the same threat or a different threat? Seems it is saying no change in threat by AQ since 9/11 if read closely. Why? and is that OKAY? Until end of time?

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