Slip Sliding Away

Estranged friend Eli Lake emails me an interesting piece he wrote today for (deep breath) The New Republic about the backstory behind Sunday’s U.S. raid in Syria to kill al-Qaeda in Iraq rainmaker Abu Ghadiya. It’s a solidly reported piece, advancing the emerging narrative that the Bush administration has declared the authority to attack al-Qaeda targets in sovereign, and even allied, countries that lack the willingness or capability to go after al-Qaeda itself. Eli’s most important finding is that the administration has formally delegated the authority to take unilateral action in such countries to Petraeus at Centcom.

Eli’s final graf contains this questionable assertion about Barack Obama, though:

The big mystery now is whether the next administration will dismantle this policy or permit Petraeus to follow it to fruition. Obama has said nothing about Sunday’s strikes in Syria (a silence that has rightly earned him taunting from the McCain campaign). On one level, this new policy conflicts with Obama’s stated desire for opening up diplomatic channels to places like Tehran and Damascus. On the other hand, this is precisely the type of policy that he has repeatedly promised at least for Pakistan, whose territory is believed to host Osama bin Laden: If America has actionable intelligence on al Qaeda leaders, and the country housing those terrorist sits on its hands, we will act. His campaign rhetoric has now become the official war policy he will inherit. Is this a development that pleases him?

I think this is half a point — or to put it another way, it’s a real question to ask the Obama people. But I’ve asked the question, and have something of an answer. When I did my piece about Obama’s approach to al-Qaeda in Pakistan earlier this month, the answer I kept getting was that Obama was talking about a specific set of conditions for taking unilateral military action against very senior al-Qaeda operatives in the Northwest Frontier Province — that is, Usama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their coterie. The destruction of al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL) safehavens, in other words, is one thing; an al-Qaeda in Iraq facilitator in Syria is quite another.

I suppose you could say it’s a slippery slope, but it’s only a slippery slope if you let it slip. AQSL is an order of magnitude more strategically significant a target than Abu Ghadiya. That’s not to say Abu Ghadiya is an unimportant target. It’s to say that the calculation of risk changes in important ways when talking about eliminating bin Laden/Zawahiri/AQSL and when talking about anyone else. And it’s also to say that it wouldn’t be inconsistent to draw such a distinction.

Previous post

Chief of Staff was Abu Ghraib officer!!

Next post

File a bar grievance against U.S. Senator/convicted felon Ted Stevens

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman