President Obama's recent speech on counter-terrorism policy defended drone strikes while suggesting a new determination to close Guantanamo. To undermine the narrative of international terrorists, he must show that force is a less efficient tool than the observance of universal values and the rule of law.
Terrorism hasn't worked out too well for President Obama. He can hardly have predicted at his inauguration on 20 January 2009 that over four years later he would be making the kind of speech he did on 23 May 2013, defending drone strikes and still talking about closing down Guantanamo.
The False Choice Between Our Safety and Our Ideals
Despite his best efforts to break clear, terrorism has dogged his Presidency, offering some highs, like the death of Osama bin Laden, but more lows. It has been an unwelcome and persistent guest at the political table, clamouring for attention at the expense of other issues that Obama sees as more important, and forcing him to compromise the fundamental principles on which he was first elected. He has found that facing down 'the false choice between our safety and our ideals,' as he put it at his inauguration, is more complicated than he had imagined.
At the start of his first term, President Obama inherited several issues related to terrorism: a deep-seated hostility and mutual suspicion between the United States and the Muslim world; a continued threat from Al-Qa'ida and other international terrorists; a failing war of 'necessity' in Afghanistan and a failed 'war of choice' in Iraq; the legal and political quandary of Guantanamo, and an explosion of government spending on security.
His instincts were to mend fences with the Muslim world; review the options in Afghanistan and decide how to bring the fighting to an end; finish the war in Iraq; close Guantanamo, and shift the emphasis of government spending towards restoring the US economy.
In fact, rather than resolving these problems and moving on, Obama has actually added to his list of terrorist woes. In his speech on Thursday he had to argue the legality of his use of lethal drones, describing them as part of the 'just war' to go along with all the other wars that have emerged from the 'global war' against Al-Qa'ida. He also touched on his newest trouble, the highly intrusive investigations of journalists who have published security secrets, most notably the details of a sensitive counter-terrorist operation in Yemen.
Obama's counter terrorist policy in 2009 was founded on the belief that if America stuck to its values and treated the rest of the world with respect, the social and political tensions on which terrorists fed would die down. He would abandon the assertive and interventionist policies of his predecessor and instead seek genuine partnerships with other States, based on common interests. At home, he would aim to build an inclusive society as a national expression of what he hoped for the world, and so undermine the terrorist narrative of discrimination and injustice.
Back then, this seemed quite possible. It was reasonable to think that by encouraging movement in the Middle East process, ending the war in Iraq, banning torture and closing Guantanamo, the President would remove many of the irritants that had exacerbated the terrorist threat. His speech in Cairo in June 2009 offered 'a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world'. But although this new and unexpected face of America threw its terrorist opponents temporarily off balance, it did not take them long to recover. Certainly, the threat seemed real enough when Najibullah Zazi was arrested in September 2009 for planning to attack the New York subway system after training in Pakistan, and later that year when Abdul Farouq Abdulmuttalab came close to bringing an airline down over Detroit, having been supplied with the bomb by an Al-Qa'ida group in Yemen.
Falling Back on Hard Security Responses
Obama was drawn back to the kinetic counter terrorist policies of his predecessor as much by domestic factors as by the reality of the threat. The Republican majority in Congress was keen both to justify the widely criticised security approach of President George W. Bush, which they saw as a factor in the collapse of their public support, and to attack Obama for being weak on security and an inadequate Commander-in-Chief.
Obama therefore chose a middle road between the all-out military approach of his predecessor, and the do-as-you-would-be-done-by approach advocated by the liberal wing of his party. His policy focused on improving the capacity and co-operation of international partners; using surgical strikes against specific targets by Special Forces and drones rather than deploying regular troops, and trying to build public resilience to the threat of terrorism while doing what he could to protect the homeland, all the while keeping an emphasis on the rule of law.
On the international front he has been relatively successful. The United States once again plays a leading role in designing and promoting the legal framework under which the international community conducts counter terrorism work. Indeed the State Department was the principal organiser of a new grouping of twenty-nine states plus the European Union, founded in late 2011, designed to accelerate international progress on issues such as countering violent extremism and promoting the rule of law.
John Brennan, Obama's closest adviser on terrorism, and since March 2013 the Director of CIA, leveraged his connections in Washington and the Middle East to improve operational co-operation on terrorism and end the 'catch and release' policies of the then Yemeni President. The President also encouraged Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to build a close relationship with his Pakistan opposite number, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to address the apparent impunity enjoyed by the Al-Qa'ida leadership and other terrorists on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border.
The Arab Spring unravelled some of these relationships, at least for a time, as did the reality of South Asian politics, but overall, Obama has been successful in keeping an international counter terrorist coalition together, even though its future is quite uncertain given the possible new trend back towards state sponsorship evident in the growing sectarian conflict in the Middle East.
The use of Special Forces and drones has had its ups and downs. In purely practical terms, the death of Osama bin Laden and of several other key Al-Qa'ida leaders has all but destroyed the international command and control that Al-Qa'ida had tried to maintain after its ejection from Afghanistan in 2001. Al-Qa'ida is now a loose alliance of groups that focus mainly on local issues and present little if any direct threat to the United States. The narrative and justification for terrorism offered by Al-Qa'ida is also somewhat diluted; and though still potent enough to be invoked by terrorist attackers in Boston and Woolwich, it is unlikely to inspire a new wave of violence. But where the use of Special Forces and drones have let Obama down is by undermining his advocacy of American values and the rule of law as a key element of his policy. While by his recent speech Obama may have been able to convince some lawyers, perhaps even including himself, that this use of force is justified, for much of the world, it is American unilateralism expressed in a new form of extrajudicial killing.
The current use of armed forces and military equipment has also created the impression, both at home and abroad, that the war on terror has no end. President Obama has wanted to dispel this view and put counter terrorism back in the half-seen world where it belongs ever since he took office, and he repeated that objective in his speech. But he has had to tread carefully. Americans still demand total protection against terrorist attacks in a way they would never dream of doing for other forms of violent crime. The reaction to the attack on the Boston Marathon, as awful as it was, should not have been greater than to the cold blooded murder of twenty children and six adults at an elementary school in neighbouring Connecticut just four months earlier. Terrorism has succeeded in the United States - at least insofar as it has made the population fearful out of all proportion to the threat. No politician, unless heading to retirement, can afford to 'go soft' on terrorism.
Getting CT Back onto A More Sustainable and Less Alarmist Footing
In his speech, Obama spoke of the need to 'discipline our thinking and our actions' in relation to current Presidential powers to use force against terrorists; but this might just as well have been a call to regulate the broader emotional response to terrorism. He spoke of the ability of the American people to bounce back from other tragedies, such as 'painful recession, mass shootings, and natural disasters', but although he included examples of Americans who have shown tremendous resilience in the face of terrorism, he has not yet managed to change the way that the great majority of Americans see this threat.
If the President is to end the war, he must persuade the public that by doing so he is increasing their security rather than diminishing it. This remains his most crucial task in selling the policy he laid out on 23 May. He has yet to persuade the majority that it is far better to try terrorists in criminal courts rather than before unconvincing and largely unworkable military tribunals; there should be no argument about the use of torture, indefinite detention or the delay in reading an arrested suspect his rights because their crime is somehow in a separate category than other violent crime. He has to do what all Presidents have found so hard, to lift American attention from local concerns to the broader issues that define their society.
If the President can implement the policy that he envisioned in his speech, he will do much to undermine the narrative that keeps the idea of international terrorism alive. He must follow his innate understanding that force is a far less efficient tool to use against such an amorphous and unpredictable threat than the projection of universal values and the rule of law. The threat from terrorism in the United States is extremely low and it is a good time to get counter-terrorism back onto a more sustainable and less alarmist footing.
Richard Barrett is an Associate Fellow of RUSI, he is also a Senior Vice President at The Soufan Group. He was previously a Coordinator of the Al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations in New York, appointed by the UN Secretary-General.Full biography here.
Richard Barrett CMG OBE
Associate Fellow, Counter-Terrorism