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Something really novel happened in Washington yesterday. A number of really smart people were brought together in one room to hear, discuss and ask questions about some of the tough issues that will be shaping the future security of the United States.

Here is what was so unusual: There was no bloviating. No sign waving or roaring chants. No red, white and blue banners or overly patriotic backdrops adorning the room. And unlike other gatherings in Washington or around the country, there were no hurled insults or overt pandering “red-meat” lines to the crowd. Talk about refreshing!

The gathering was GWU’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security annual program, “Securing Our Future,” which brings together a range of current and former national, homeland and cyber security experts from the public, private and academic sectors to share their insights on the state of affairs in various security issues.

While all of the day’s programming was valuable and informative, there was a question by the GWU Center’s Director, Frank Cilluffo, to a distinguished panel of national security experts that was accurately compared to having Mount Rushmore speak on the issue. His question to the panel: “Can you describe what success looks like with long, challenging and unconventional wars the United States is fighting against Al Qaeda and ISIL?”

Cofer Black, the legendary former CIA counterterrorism leader, explained that those looking for victory parades with pretty French girls throwing flowers over victorious soldiers would be disappointed. “That is not going to happen,” he said.

Matthew Olsen, the former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), now President of IronNet Cybersecurity, shared that, “We won’t see success for quite some time. This is a long-term fight.”

Olsen elaborated that success will come about as both Al Qaeda and ISIL slowly degrade in their capabilities, but it will be a “slow destruction” and not as fast as anyone would like.

As revealing as those two distinguished gentlemen’s remarks were, it was former U.S. Treasury official and frequent CBS News contributor Juan Zarate who offered three clear metrics to measure success, including:

  1. Movements by Al Qaeda or ISIL cannot influence or disrupt U.S. strategic interests in that portion of the world.
  2. U.S. allies in the region have the ability to contain the threat that these two organizations pose.
  3. The ideology that Al Qaeda and ISIL put forward cannot be regenerated elsewhere and take root.

For the first time in a long time, it was great to hear some really solid thinking and analysis about the measures policymakers, security analysts, taxpayers and warfighters and their families have been seeking. To date, there has not been a lot of definition or clarity about what success looks like in an area of the world where success seems as out of the ordinary as a peaceful day.

The current environment in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere is by no one’s objective measure anything close to success. To date, the only success metrics we’ve had have been built around banner backdrops; a number of arbitrary dates on a calendar and the always-remembered and often-quoted campaign promises. None of those have any redeemable value when the stark reality of the operating environment with Al Qaeda and ISIL is as tenuous as it is today.

In their hour appearance at the GWU program, Zarate and his veteran national security peers dramatically elevated the analysis and insight we need to better communicate to the American public about a long, costly fight that is going to last longer still. None of the candidates running president for have offered such insight. Their audience-pandering sound bites of rage will not advance us towards the success we all want.

Yet, for one afternoon in Washington, it was great to hear some really smart people offer the metric we need. My hope and prayer is that those metrics can be achieved sometime in my lifetime. For now, I’d just be content to find a presidential candidate who is smart enough to listen to what Juan, Matthew and Cofer had to say.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More