President Obama delivered a major counterterrorism speech this afternoon laying out America’s modified approach to this ever-dangerous issue. In it, Obama has once again made a run at closing most of Gitmo. He also is beginning to move the use of drones away from CIA and back to the Defense Department.
Both moves reflect the White House’s political understanding that with the military winding down our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans simply want to put the issues of terrorism on the back burner and move on with their lives. Sadly, this issue is not going to be so simple, and it is not going away – wishful thinking aside.
The United States is having trouble coming to grips with the long-term nature of our fight against terrorism. It is a fight without boundaries or borders. It is also a fight within Islam over modernity – we back the modern, and that makes us a target.
From the bombings in Boston to the gruesome hacking death of a British soldier in London, the viciousness of this struggle marches onward. It is also growing to be a narrowly focused base of conflict. There will be no more 20 hijackers. We are dealing in cells of two or three at best, connected every so tenuously to whatever variety of the Al Qaeda-oriented movement they so desire.
What you are seeing in the White House moves are the strong desire to take this from a military conflict and move to a lower-key, more law-enforcement oriented challenge. This is an argument we have been having since 9/11. We are having it again for a good reason. Terrorism is on the knife’s edge of military and police action.
I believe both approaches are necessary, and they are best reflected in the way the military refers to it – low-intensity conflict. In regular English, we are at guerilla war with the AQ adherents and neither military nor law enforcement alone are going to solve the problem. It is going to take a combination of the two to get the job done. Our constant obsession over government legal code – Title 10 (military), Title 50 (intelligence) and others – is a fine example of lawyers arguing over the liability of a house fire while the house is burning. This new world we live in is different and 20th century rules don’t apply.
One of the White House moves – to take the drones away from CIA – is welcomed news to professional intelligence officers concerned about the “paramilitary” dominance of the place. However, this is only a positive if CIA resources can be directed toward assisting Homeland Security in its efforts to track down the radicalized small cell units and “singletons” traveling abroad to receive training.
Finally – and this is the most important part of our new war against terrorism – we simply need to better support our state and local first responders. They are the true law enforcement arm of the fight. We can kill’em overseas and spy on’em over here and abroad, but the first responders must have good information to do their jobs. They are going to take the heat first, not the secure bureaucrats in DC thinking great thoughts.
So, the President’s speech today is not without merit. It is the first step to a longer term effort in this low-intensity conflict with terrorism. But, paraphrasing a 20th century leader, this is not the beginning of the end. It is simply the end of the beginning.