National Security Policy and Politics

Two articles in the June 12th New York Review of Books remind of us of the gulf between our politics and the reality of what is needed to manage the threat of terrorism. Is it hopelessly naive to think about what the Obama campaign could do to overcome this gulf? Or should it concentrate on beating McCain on the established terrain and transforming it once in office?

Two articles in the June 12th New York Review of Books remind of us of the gulf between our politics and the reality of what is needed to manage the threat of terrorism. Is it hopelessly naive to think about what the Obama campaign could do to overcome this gulf? Or should it concentrate on beating McCain on the established political terrain and transforming it once in office? Few questions of campaign substance will be as pivotal as this.

McCain’s national security experience and expertise is almost exclusively military. His argument that the surge worked ignores that it achieved few of the political milestones laid out for it. McCain was not heard in dissent from the administration’s policies that have nearly snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Can Obama in effect concede McCain has expertise in checkers when in fact we are engaged in chess– and Obama’s wisdom in understanding what game is being played trumps McCain’s narrow expertise that will inevitably be misapplied?

In February, EJ Dionne pointed to McCain’s identification of “radical Islamic extremists” as the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century” — that is, for the next 92 years, as a policy premise that renders all other international and domestic concerns secondary, and invited observers to question whether this was intellectually defensible or whether it was Bush-like misplaced ideological certainty. Continuing the current militarized approach to counter-terrorism is likely to make the “transcendent challenge” a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the antithesis of hope.

Details on dealing with terrorism at the jump…

One, by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, highlights the security deterioration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also the abject failure of the Bush administration to develop

any coherent or effective medium- and long- term strategies for reducing the attractiveness of the jihadi ideology among young muslims around the world.

In its doctrine that emphasizes the need to marshal all aspects of national power (economic, cultural, political, etc. as well as military) in the service of political-military goals, and its counter-insurgency doctrine that emphasizes the need to strengthen civil society and provide multi-dimensional security and hope, the U.S. military is way ahead of George Bush or John McCain in their orientation to dealing with terrorism, but this theoretical disposition has not been translated into effective policies in part because the non-military parts of the US government have either been under-resourced (State, AID, international information and cultural exchange activities) or mismanaged (CIA) or both. While Special Forces and other military capabilities may be needed at times to deal with terrorist camps to disrupt terrorist operations, if things get to this point it should be an indication of failure of the non-military aspects of policy.

In 2004, Democrats made much of Bush failures in homeland defense (e.g. port security) and counter-terrorism (e.g. the failure to catch Bin Laden), but appeared to gain no political purchase, because of a widespread assumption that Republicans are the security party and because of specific Republican attacks on Democrats as soft and unpatriotic. Obama is more articulate than John Kerry, and is unburdened by support for the Iraq adventure, but even so any attempt to suggest the importance of non-military means (even while also upholding the option of unilateral strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, as Obama has) will invite attacks for being “soft.” Perhaps the folly of Iraq adventure has finally created an opening for this discussion. While most political tacticians would see explicating this as risky in our sound-bite era, some re-framing of the issue will be needed to counter the McCain “experience” advantage. The Obama campaigh should be looking for ways to test alternative approaches to this reframing between now and the convention.

The second NYR article, by Georgetown Law professor David Cole (unfortunately not available online except by subscription), compares the British and US domestic response to terrorism and the relative respect for civil liberties. Cole points out that Britain has faced a greater threat domestically, but has been more measured in the restrictions that have been placed on liberties. Moreover, the British political and legal system has been more effective in checking overreaches of executive power. There has been little of the poisonous politics practiced by the Bush administration, which has painted any questioning of its policies as unpatriotic, and which manipulated Congressional policy debates (for example on the establishment of the Homeland Security Department) to create fodder for attack ads.

One of the political shibboleths that has masqueraded as policy analysis since 2001 has been the notion that counter-terrorism efforts before 9/11 were flawed because they were too focused on law enforcement. This is mostly nonsense. The CIA disposition not to share with the FBI had nothing to do with law enforcement, and the supposed wall between national security and criminal information was something that grew up in practice but was not required by a law-enforcement focus. Internationally, it is much easier to build cooperation against violent acts in a criminal and intelligence frame than as a matter of politics or warfare.

On this point, Cole cites testimony following the London transit bombings by British former counter-terrorism official

Tom Parker, who “insisted that the most important thing about the British approach was its determination to treat terrorism as a crime — not as an extraordinary military threat.” This reflected learning from the negative example of the British militarization of Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, the British policing model does not translate directly to the US situation. Because of our 18th century political system, we have tens of thousands of police agencies — in Britain they all report to one place. Despite these differences, we need to learn from the European experience. If we ever do face a serious domestic terrorist threat, the only way to contain it will be with very aggressive domestic intelligence and law enforcement measures, including not just surveillance but active operations with informants and other mechanism that have serious potential for abuse. Certainly domestic and foreign intelligence need to be integrated, in a way that cannot happen by putting domestic surveillance on a par with foreign intelligence, which seems to have been the instinct of the Bush administration. Rather, all intelligence on individuals needs to be put under more disciplined and transparent policy control. No democratic polity can survive unless such powers are constrained by transparent policies and overseen by strong institutions not creatures of those in power at the moment, and the US cannot escape responsibility for some rule of law in how it treats citizens of countries with which it has relations. (The corruption of a politicized judiciary is a key concern here.)

In other words, the reality is that we have not recently faced a significant domestic terrorist threat (the KKK was a terrorist movement, but never mind), that aggressive law enforcement (on the model of organized crime task forces) is precisely the right frame for dealing with such a problem should it emerge, and that institutional reform would be needed for success. Because of the increased inter-penetration of the foreign and domestic spheres, even dealing effectively with foreign terrorism requires changes to domestic practice well beyond what has been accomplished by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to date.

A candidate saying this would surely be attacked as being insufficiently vigilant and trying to live in a pre-9/11 world, when of course it’s the attackers who are out of touch with reality. So on this complex issue it’s best to wait until after the election.