May 27, 2010

US National Security: New Talk, Same Walk

President Barack Obama’s national security strategy has been under construction since before he took office. Finally it’s near public release. The process hasn’t been smooth though, what with several near-misses on US cities and the firing of Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence.

Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser General James Jones will unfurl a new “strategy” and discuss how it “advances our interests around the world.” Judging by John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor, this ride is about to get even bumpier.

Speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan declares, “The president’s strategy is clear and precise. Our enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates. For it was al-Qaeda who attacked us so viciously on 9/11 and whose desire to attack the United States, our allies and our partners remains undiminished. And it is its affiliates who have take up al-Qaeda’s call to arms against the United States and other parts of the world.”

Brennan makes the point of paving the way to indefinite war with the Taliban.

He states again, “We have a clear mission. We will not simply degrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities or simply prevent terrorist attacks against our country or citizens. We will not merely respond after the fact, after an attack that has been attempted. Instead, the United States will disrupt, dismantle and ensure a lasting defeat of al-Qaeda and violent extremist affiliates.”

But with Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan looking less clear by the day, Iraq in doubt, and Brennan’s own testimony riddled with holes, we wonder how clear America’s national security strategy could actually be.

The following contradictions stood out in Brennan’s 20 page, al-Qaeda-centric speech:

“Even more than the attacks al-Qaeda and its violent affiliates unleash and the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans by replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and replacing our tolerance with suspicion; by turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division; by causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world; by turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners. That is what al-Qaeda and its allies want – to achieve their goals by turning us into something we are not.”

Blood and fear are secondary objectives. al-Qaeda’s primary goal is for America to invade or provoke as many Muslim countries as possible. Its attacks don’t aim for “who we are as Americans,” but serve as lures into hostile, resource-consuming environments. Making Americans think they only care about death and destruction may even rank above the actual carnage. Brennan swallows the bait - while admitting it.

“Moreover, we know that al-Qaeda seeks to overextend the United States and drain us militarily, financially and psychologically. I have seen this through my own experience covering al-Qaeda and terrorism over the past two decades. But we will not let that happen. We will always carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.”

A trillion dollars and counting into Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama prepares to ask Congress for another $33 billion - on top of $130 billion - as his surge stumbles downhill. The overall price tag for the “War on Terror” may be unknowable, yet Brennan categorically disregards the notion that al-Qaeda is bleeding America dry. It’s hard to treat him seriously and honestly after making such a false statement.

“We are not only delivering severe blows against the leadership of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, we are helping those governments build their capacity to provide for their own security, to help them root out the al-Qaeda cancer that has manifested itself within their borders and to help them prevent it from returning.”

Al-Qaeda isn’t the cancer in Somalia, Yemen, or even Afghanistan, but a symptom of social instability. Rarely is al-Qaeda the root cause of conflict. This is accepted by many counterinsurgency analysts working in the Pentagon including David Kilcullin, whose voice we can’t hear in US strategy. In Somalia, for instance, America is as much to blame as any dozen factors.

"In all our efforts, we will exercise force prudently, recognizing that we often need to use a scalpel and not a hammer. When we know of terrorists who are plotting against us, we have a responsibility to take action to defend ourselves and we will do so. At the same time, an action that eliminates a single terrorist but causes civilian casualties can, in fact, inflame local populations and create far more problems – a tactical success but a strategic failure."

America currently embodies a policy of tactical success and strategic failure. Two days ago an airstrike in Yemen took out the provincial governor and caused riots. Brennan vows to keep up the pressure on Anwar al-Awlaki - does he mean killing more government officials? Is that what US forces will bring to other countries?

Brennan declares towards the end of his Q & A section, “We’re not an imperialist power. We’re not trying to militarize our relationships with these countries.”

But only after targeting Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond for militarization. He tries to correct this impression several times.

"Through new partnerships to promote development in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, we are working to foster good governance, reduce corruption and improve education, health and basic services, all of which helps undermine the forces that can put the disillusioned and disposed on the path to militancy.”

A glance into Yemen and Somalia suffices to demonstrate the opposite hits closer to the truth. With obligatory millions devoted to humanitarian needs, hundreds of millions continue to flow into military channels. Somalia in particular perches on the verge of collapse, its US-backed government in disarray. Non-military operations are nil, even as weapons and ammo proved useless.

America will still likely resort to air-strikes when/if Mogadishu falls to al-Shabab, revealing the ultimate contradiction: military remains the only means. All the rhetoric is changed, but America’s first priority is striking Yemen, Somalia, and beyond - not healing them. This unsustainable cycle leads to one of Brennan’s central points: preventing home-grown terrorists.

"We've seen an increasing number of individuals here in the United States become captivated by extremist activities or causes."

How does he propose to do so? New security measures, careful use of the word “terrorist,” and preventative action in foreign states. For all the tactical changes, little strategic adaption is evident. The White House is taking take additional measures to disguise and continue wielding the Pentagon’s hammer.

Such a policy is prone to create more militants inside and outside America, not less. Brennan admits “an increasing number of individuals” are becoming alienated by US foreign policy, and yet claims to understand this paradox.

If only Washington acted like it.


  1. Nice to see that is picking you up on a regular basis.

  2. Very grateful for that. Our natural refuge is the international media. Just have to keep spreading.