‘Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror’ – a GPS special premieres 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET this Sunday
By Stephen Yates, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Stephen Yates is former deputy assistant to the vice president for national security affairs (2001-2005) and currently CEO of DC International Advisory. The views expressed are his own.
Approaching 12 years since the 2001 attacks, the threat of terrorism remains very real, but what to do about it still very much in dispute. The truth is, neither the Bush nor the Obama approaches could eliminate the threat of terrorism. No truly plausible policy is capable of achieving that outcome. Instead, the key challenge – from either partisan perspective – is to deter terrorist enablers and constrain terrorists' freedom of action.
The threat of terrorism has always been with us, but at times it is seen as a greater or lesser risk, or more a foreign vs. domestic risk. While 9/11 did not change everything, it certainly did change American perceptions of who terrorists are, the means they are willing to employ, and the clear and present danger terrorists pose to the U.S. homeland.
Car bombs, hijackings, and kidnappings of the past paled in comparison to the impact of the casualty figures and targets hit on 9/11/2001. That shocking reality catapulted counter-terrorism to top priority status in U.S. foreign and domestic policy for much of the balance of the decade. Those enabling the safe harbor and financing of terrorist networks were declared as complicit as the terrorists themselves in the violence they perpetuate. Expansive use of all manifestations of American power were to be employed in preventive self defense.
The overriding objective of American policy from 2001 forward was to prevent another 9/11 or worse – another 9/11 with weapons more destructive than hijacked aircraft. Primarily the task was seen as keeping weapons of mass terror from falling into the hands of those most plausible and eager to engage in a mass terror attack on us. Al Qaeda, as perpetrator of the 2001 attacks, was a clear target, but not the only threat.
Through the 2008 presidential campaign cycle and beyond, the definition of the enemy and nature of the threat was minimized. The global war on terror was no more. Instead, we would wind down wars, focus on the capture or killing of “core al Qaeda” leaders, engage non-al Qaeda adversaries in dialogue, and avoid reference to a broader ideological and political movement dispersed beyond Afghanistan/Pakistan and the war in Iraq.
While critics may find fault in the Bush administration's post-9/11 approach (and they certainly have) reasonable analysts must surely also acknowledge the emerging consequences of the Obama administration’s retreat from a war on terror.
Some Obama critics and defenders are quick to point to aggressive use of drones, the raid on bin Laden in Pakistan, and the fact Guantanamo remain open as indicators of administration toughness or continuity of Bush policy. Unfortunately, such assertions miss the significance of both presidents’ very different diagnoses of and prescriptions for dealing with the ongoing threat of terrorism.
True, the Bush administration did not get right every element in its response to 9/11 under emergency circumstances. But similar judgment applies to the Obama administration’s response to Bush policies under non-emergency circumstances. Over the last dozen years, much progress has been made in response to the terrorists’ war on us. Unfortunately, that has come at great cost and been accompanied by an expansion of the geographical reach and political influence of the ideological forces fueling the war on us.
However, by speaking in these terms I’m touching upon a controversy that should not remain 12 years since the 2001 attacks – who is our enemy and what is required to counter it?
To many, the enemy is an extreme and activist ideology that seeks the marriage of mosque and state, by any means necessary, including mass murder and maiming of civilians should their leaders stand in the way. This terrorist war on us was declared decades ago and is likely to be a multi-generational struggle in which all support for the enemy must be countered – ideology, intelligence, politics, finance, and security.
To others, the enemy is a collection of individuals who can be captured, killed, prosecuted, or otherwise managed by using the legal and security institutions present where the terrorist resides.
The contending approaches can be reduced to favoring warfare or lawfare.
Yet regardless of ones predisposition in this debate, we will remain at an unacceptable risk of near term attack without an honest assessment of a few fundamental challenges:
1) Who is the enemy, what does it seek, and by what means?
2) Are we at war or is the current threat simply another manifestation of violent crime?
3) Are today’s terrorists predominantly disaffected individuals in search of the means to act out, or is there an organized movement seeking out disaffected individuals to use for its own violent purposes?
Until commonsense prevails in response to these questions, we will not appropriately organize our government and deploy the means required to meet the challenge – and our homeland will remain at greater risk of terrorist attack than its citizens should accept.