There’s such an uproar every time terrorists fail to carry out a serious attack on the United States, you have to ask what’s going to happen if, or when, they finally succeed. The printer-cartridge parcel bombs discovered on their way to Chicago are just the latest example, following on the fizzling SUV in Times Square last May and the crotch-burning dud bomb in a guy’s underwear on a flight to Detroit last Christmas. All were close calls, to be sure, but all flopped, or were stopped, before any lives were lost. And yet, in each case the American rabid right, much of the supine American press—and the terrorist propaganda machine—united in acting as if the bad guys had scored big.
After the underpants incident in December, President Obama continued his vacation in Hawaii, which was intended to project an image of cool assurance, but got spun as neglect instead. When Times Square did not happen in May, Obama addressed it more quickly in public, but still got pilloried. With the parcel bombs, he pretty much broke the news himself.
The president’s point man on counterterrorism, John Brennan, has tried repeatedly to restore a little perspective. “We must resolve, as a nation, as a people, that we will go forward with confidence, that we will resist succumbing to overreaction, especially to failed attacks,” Brennan told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington back in May.
Did anybody listen? Far from it. If the Tea Party movement and the debility of the Democrats show anything, it’s that, “as a nation, as a people,” we are not going forward with confidence and we always succumb to overreaction. Jon Stewart tried to put his finger on the phenomenon at the Rally for Sanity on Saturday. “If we amplify everything,” he said, “we hear nothing.”
What those of us still paying attention need to understand—and what Brennan has tried to get across—is that all this heavy breathing and largely self-generated hysteria is a huge strategic liability. Publicity is the central pillar of terrorism, and when failed attacks generate almost as much attention as successful ones, the bad guys have ever-greater incentives to try and try again. The shame of failure, once a potent force in terrorist circles, no longer applies.
But overreaction is only part of the problem. Obama’s counterterror strategy, like so many of his policies, was brilliantly conceived and executed up to a point—but that point was the way it played, or didn’t, with the American public. Notwithstanding speeches by the president, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and by Brennan, among others, most people have next to no sense of how the strategy is supposed to work, or that it actually is working. And because of that, with the new Congress likely to be sniping at every initiative and throwing up diplomatic roadblocks at every turn, Washington is once again going to be playing the bad guys’ game of exaggeration and overreaction.
The CSIS talk by Brennan, who was one of the grand old operatives at the Central Intelligence Agency and is “completely at the center of all things important right now,” as his host told the audience, was delivered the day before the president formally issued his national-security strategy on May 27. As such, it unrolls the definitive blueprint for the American approach to terror. But what we’ve seen since is how quickly that approach can be blurred, even obliterated.
Obama and Brennan understood that the first challenge is to stay focused on the specific threat, which is Al Qaeda and its affiliates, narrowly construed and specifically targeted. This is not a war on “terrorism,” which Brennan rightly termed “a tactic,” or on “terror,” which Brennan called “a state of mind.” It’s not a fight against Muslims, certainly, or even against jihadists or Islamists, since all of those terms impute a religious identity to people who are “nothing more than murderers,” as Brennan put it.
“We have a clear mission,” he said. “The United States will disrupt, dismantle and ensure a lasting defeat of Al Qaeda and violent extremist affiliates.” To that end, “every tool of American power, military and civilian, kinetic [meaning guns, bombs, Predator drones, Hellfire missiles, etc.] and diplomatic” will be used. Brennan vowed that “to deny Al Qaeda and its affiliates safe haven, we will take the fight to [them] wherever they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.”
And so the administration has done. In fact, when it’s just a matter of killing people kinetically, as it were, there’s actually considerable bipartisan consensus on the Hill right now, and there might continue to be in the future. But it’s the broader context that’s been impossible to sell, trying to isolate Al Qaeda’s murderers from the mass of Muslims, and trying to recast the American government and American society as knowing the difference.
For a while, Obama’s mere presence as the first black American head of state helped enormously. It gave the lie to a lot of Al Qaeda propaganda and it continues to shore up the image of the United States in some parts world, which is nothing short of miraculous after all the damage done by George W. Bush. Yet it’s fair to say that there are a lot of Americans these days who feel nostalgic for Good Ol’ Bush the good ol’ boy, a simple man with simple solutions. (DO YOU MISS ME YET? reads a popular sweatshirt with a picture of Bush on sale in Washington, D.C.)
Brennan told his audience that if terrorists strike our communities “it is our choice to either respond wisely and effectively or lash out in ways that inflame entire regions and stoke the fires of violent extremism,” which would be a pretty good description of the foolishly misguided and egregiously misrepresented invasion of Iraq in 2003. But we should never forget how popular that lashing out was at the time, and how ready the government and the press were to make excuses for it. People who really don’t much care about the rest of the world, and Americans do not, really don’t much care who gets hurt when they get angry.
We can fault Obama for losing touch with that sort of public sentiment, and we should. He loves to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, who talked about summoning “the better angels of our nature.” But Obama seems to have forgotten that when Lincoln said those words in his first inaugural, his political enemies didn’t rise to his call, they started the Civil War. All of America’s enemies thought Lincoln naive, and they were delighted at the spectacle of division then, as they are now.
Certainly when it comes to counterterror strategies, Obama’s attempts at rhetorical and diplomatic nuance are overwhelmed by the deluge of highly amplified bigotry on the airwaves. When Rush Limbaugh and affiliates croon on about the threat of “Islam” while talking about “Imam Hussein Obama,” they are, in fact, ignoring the real bad guys so they can take cheap shots at the president of the United States. They not only get away with it, they get rich in the bargain. Apparently that’s what passes for patriotism these days. In any case, it’s great mood music for terrorists.
Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD, chosen by The New York Times as a notable book of 2009.