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Obama’s Kinder, Gentler War On Terror

I never got around to commenting on President Obama’s statement about the failed Christmas Day bombing, and the subsequent memorandum and review summary about the terrorist attack.

First, let me say that it was a very assured speech, the best Obama has been on the subject and the kind of statement I would very much have liked to hear after 9/11. Obama acknowledged that intelligence and security screening cannot possibly react in advance to every potential terrorist attack. And he said pretty clearly that he would not reduce himself or his nation to hysteria in the face of efforts by a tiny, marginalized band of extremists.

And we know that the vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda. But it is clear that al Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations not just in the Middle East, but in Africa and other places, to do their bidding. That’s why I’ve directed my national security team to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits. And that’s why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death –- including the murder of fellow Muslims –- while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress […]

Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children.

And in this cause, every one of us — every American, every elected official — can do our part. Instead of giving into cynicism and division, let’s move forward with the confidence and optimism and unity that defines us as a people. For now is not a time for partisanship, it’s a time for citizenship — a time to come together and work together with the seriousness of purpose that our national security demands.

That’s what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism. That’s how we will prevail in this fight. And that’s how we will protect our country and pass it — safer and stronger — to the next generation.

I actually do believe these words matter, and they put terrorism in the proper context, as a law enforcement issue and not one that turns us into mewling little children and succeeds in its goal to frighten a population. Indeed, it’s far better to witness someone talking forthrightly about the challenges of coping with extremism in the world than a group of Republicans who think saying the word “terrorism” more is a means to fighting effectively. Instead, we have a President talking about values and not changing our society to fit a national security mindset, and rejecting the fear-mongering of an earlier age. Not only that, he took responsibility for whatever mistakes that were made, a refreshing bit of candor that was sorely lacking under the previous Administration.

Even some of the steps he’s deciding to take in the wake of the Christmas bombing, viewed from 10,000 feet, look smart. Changing the terror watchlisting standards could actually work, especially because the infamous misspelling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name had nothing to do with him having his visa revoked by the State Department, since the intelligence information received would not have risen to the level of revocation, under current standards.

Nobody’s saying that the security and intelligence policies created under a Bush Administration that had a knack of destroying everything they touched couldn’t do with some streamlining. At the same time, so many of the policies ordered as a corrective to the Abdulmutallab incident are not in sync with Obama’s pronouncement not to relinquish values in the face of attempted terror. The policy of targeting international passengers who fly from or through countries on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is straight-up profiling, and not entirely advisable if you want to convince Muslims to embrace “open democratic society.” Such actions, along with full body scanners, are an over-reaction to what happened on Christmas Day.

Calling the struggle a war, which Obama was baited into and also seems to believe, is misleading, and gives bin Laden the stature he has always craved and doesn’t deserve. And the idea that we are not succumbing to a siege mentality is curious, given the other actions taken in the “war on terror”:

This is irreconcilable with an administration that has pursued indefinite detention, a two-tiered legal system for trying suspected terrorists, and now an ethnic profiling system for Muslim travelers that will do little more than strengthen al-Qaeda’s narrative of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and alienate Muslims the president claims he wants to “engage on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.” His administration, while outlawing torture, is studiously protecting its legal architecture, so that it might rise like a corpse in a George Romero film the next time the GOP takes the White House. What are these, if not policy positions driven entirely by the kind of fear the Obama Doctrine was created to disperse?

The president has not abandoned the high-minded rhetoric of the Obama Doctrine. But he has abandoned virtually all the substantive policy positions it was created to defend, leaving the administration with a shrinking patch of ground perpetually under siege from Republicans who want to turn the United States into a country that tortures people suspected of crimes and denies them any semblance of due process. It’s impossible for me to see how the president isn’t on the verge of squandering the “new beginning” with Muslims communities he claims is vital to preserving American security.

Glenn Greenwald said virtually the same thing earlier this week, that the two-tiered justice system makes a mockery of the “rule of law” and significantly weakens our hand from a moral standpoint in fighting terrorism. Seeing how many former Bush officials are enamored of the Obama approach to fighting terrorism just leads you to the conclusion that the words and the tone, while important, pale in front of the actions.

Meanwhile, what’s most crucial here continues to be what is left unsaid. The most telling part of the press briefing with Janet Napolitano and John Brennan came from, as expected, Helen Thomas:

MR. GIBBS: Helen.

Q: Was there an outside contractor used or security in Amsterdam? And also, what is really lacking always for us is you don’t give the motivation of why they want to do us harm.

MR. GIBBS: Why don’t you take the first part, and then, John, you can address the second.

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: The screening at Schiphol Airport was done by Dutch authorities. And they did the screening that was described to you earlier this afternoon. The hand luggage was screened, the passport was checked, he went through a magnetometer. But it was done by Dutch authorities.

Q: And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.

MR. BRENNAN: Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents. What they have done over the past decade and a half, two decades, is to attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.

Q: And you’re saying it’s because of religion?

MR. BRENNAN: I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that uses the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.

Q: Why?

MR. BRENNAN: I think this is a — this is a long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.

Q: But you haven’t explained why.

It’s true, they haven’t, and neither did the previous Administration. And that’s because of how it often relates to American foreign policy. We now have a very salient example of this in the case of Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian who murdered 8 CIA officers in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. Al-Balawi very explicitly cited civilian deaths as the impetus for his extremism:

So why did al-Balawi, a seemingly trusted agent, switch sides? The Jordanian intelligence sources who spoke to TIME speculate that al-Balawi had become enraged at the Americans for killing a high number of civilians in their hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. And al-Balawi, who felt partly responsible for these deaths because of his role in pointing out the targeted villages in which al-Qaeda militants had been hiding, may have been consumed by guilt. “It’s very possible that he decided to take revenge for the death of these Muslim civilians,” says a senior Jordanian official.

Al-Balawi further talked openly about his path to radicalism, and cited not only civilian deaths in Afghanistan (and Iraq) but the ongoing plight of Palestinians in Gaza as reasons for his hatred.

As Juan Cole says:

A viable Palestinian state, a US withdrawal from Iraq, and an end to the Afghanistan war would do more to drain the swamp of al-Qaeda collectively than all the intelligence reviews and reorganizations in the world.

A kinder and gentler war on terror which includes the same blind spots about the Muslim world and the same fear-based, surveillance state response to potential attacks doesn’t make America safer.

P.S. Paul Campos has written the definitive take on all of this, in my view. It starts with a little parable about him playing basketball with LeBron James.

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David Dayen

David Dayen