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Defining the fight, Part 1: A Disconnect

14/08/2009

G WOT, SAVE, GWOT + Long War, Overseas Contingency Operation Now What?

John Brennan, the assistant to the President for homeland security and counterterrorism, gave an important speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC to, as Brennan put it,

…outline the President’s efforts to safeguard the American people from the transnational challenge that poses one of the greatest threats to our national security—the scourge of violent extremists who would use terrorism to slaughter Americans abroad and at home.

This post discusses who the enemy is. Part 2 will examine the White House’s view that this is not a ‘global war’. Part 3 will take a hard look at President Obama’s decision not to use the word ‘jihadist’ to describe the enemy. After three posts that criticize this new approach, part 4 will lay out what I did like about Brennan’s speech – and there are quite a few things I liked.

Brennan’s speech was ripe with details, but this post will focus on the heart of the matter – how the US will define the ‘enemy’. As Brennan correctly explained, ‘How you define a problem shapes how you address it’. He continued:

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.

As someone who has spent a lot of time and energy pointing out our government’s failure to understand this basic point, I was thrilled to hear Brennan say this (except for that part where he calls war a ‘tactic’).

Unfortunately, these wise words do not translate into a full understanding of the threat environment. Right after recognizing that terrorism is a means to an end, Brennan explained we are still just focusing on terrorism. Instead of including an understanding of ideas and broader movements in our policy process, Brennan assures us we are just fighting al Qaeda and its allies.
I celebrate the end of our use of ‘War on Terror’ and I understand the Obama administration rightly feels the need to distance itself from the rhetoric of Bush and friends, but this new approach has a ‘disconnect’ between its logic and the resulting policy.

We see this disconnect again during the Q&A, when Brennan uses ‘terrorism’ as the yardstick to assess groups like Hamas and Hizballah rather than their goals.

If terrorism is a means to an end (‘global domination by an Islamic caliphate’), shouldn’t we be looking at other Islamist movements that advocate the same thing and use different means that may also threaten the security and interests of the US? I am thinking about movements like Hizb ut Tahrir and even the Muslim Brotherhood, whose motto is:

Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope

These are groups that are largely ‘political’, especially the Brotherhood, but they certainly support violence against Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, not to mention suicide bombings against Israelis. The head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammad Mahdi Akef, has called Osama bin Laden a ‘mujahid’ and said, ‘When he [bin Laden] fights the occupier then he is a mujahid, and when he attacks civilians, this is rejected’ (Al Sharq al Awsat, 25 May 2008 via BBC Monitoring – Admittedly, the Brotherhood is not a monolith and Akef came under fire from some in the Brotherhood for this comment, but the movement widely conforms to basic precepts regarding imperative of Islamic governance that are strikingly similar to the ‘end goal’ of al Qaeda…to be continued in another post).

Does this mean we should be waging a war against the Muslim Brotherhood? Probably not, but it does mean we should recognize the existing state of confrontation and formulate policy accordingly. Does it mean that we shouldn’t talk to the Brotherhood or even groups like Hamas? I actually agree with President Obama that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to anybody, but there is a fine line between dialogue and empowerment and if we pursue the former with these groups, we must also avoid the latter.