Fighting Terrorism Softly

Written for the Aspen Security Forum, July 25-28

Jul 10, 2012
By

"Too often since 9/11," then-Sen. Barack Obama said during the last presidential campaign, "the extremists have defined us, not the other way around." In a major counterterrorism policy speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, Obama vowed that would change if he became president. "We will author our own story," he said.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest security threats to this country continues to be the hijacking not only of our airplanes, but also of our national narrative. Many Americans think that the United States' primary role in the world is the projection of military might. And while the "hard power" represented by drone strikes and aircraft carriers is essential to our security, living and portraying our values is as - if not more - important in the long run.

The terrorists on the so-called "baseball cards" that the president and his advisers review before authorizing drone strikes are already beyond the point of no return ---responsible either for directly killing Americans or inciting others to do so.

But what about the young people who perhaps see the aftermath of a drone strike and are still trying to decide whether or not to strap on that suicide vest? Whose story do we want them to hear? Ours or that of the extremists?

While the drone program is an effective tool to combat al Qaeda, "whack-a-mole" alone won't keep us safe. We need to win the argument.

Unfortunately, showcasing our values to the world has become increasingly difficult given Congress's lack of cohesiveness and eroding support for foreign aid. Blame-game politics has shifted the emphasis from creative ideas to crippling ideology, making it nearly impossible to raise and debate some of the toughest issues facing this country today.

As a result, we are perilously close to losing control of our own narrative, allowing extremists to slip in and define what we believe in and what we stand for in the post-9/11 world. Foggy laws and a lack of information surrounding targeted killings, preventive detention, and interrogation techniques have made it far too easy for terrorists to shape and spread their own story. And they will continue to use any stains on our record (think: Abu Ghraib) as ammunition.

So how can we "author our own story”?

One of the most powerful ways to project American values and define our interests is to display generosity and compassion in the wake of natural disasters. While the primary role of the military should not be to oversee recovery efforts after an earthquake, our extraordinary competence at staging disaster relief allows the US to puts its best face forward for those who might not otherwise see it.

At a panel on security resilience at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok last month, I outlined how the United States had the chance to showcase its better angels after several recent disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the Thai floods, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster.

Following these catastrophes, the U.S. provided more than just "hard" assistance designed to save lives. In Thailand, Americans and Thais packed and delivered food, donated blood, and gathered supplies together. In Japan, U.S. forces cleared rubble from schools. And in both places, Americans opened their homes to displaced colleagues and children.

These efforts had a direct impact on U.S. relations with the affected countries. Japanese Cabinet office polls registered record levels of public goodwill towards the U.S. after the rescue efforts, and 85% of Japanese viewed the United States positively in Pew's annual Global Attitude Project survey in 2011 - up from 66% the year before.

Ironically, our best foreign policy tool may be our generosity. Building trust both with citizens and governments after natural disasters can help increase future collaboration on other key issues--with counterterrorism topping the list. The capture of Indonesian-born terrorist Hambali, who was seized in Bangkok by Thai authorities, in many ways exemplifies the importance of establishing and maintaining these liaison relationships.

The war against al Qaeda and its affiliates is new in so many ways: Our enemies don't wear uniforms, the battleground isn't clearly defined, and the conflict is potentially never-ending. Still, some old war lessons might apply.

In a new book called “Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War,” political science professor Andrew J. Polsky draws on numerous historical examples to show that presidents at war are not as powerful as they think. Once conflict begins, they find themselves constrained by their earlier decisions. "I claim not to have controlled events," Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter during the Civil War, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Just as presidents lose control over events during wartime, they can also have difficulty holding on to a coherent narrative.

One of the biggest surprises of Barack Obama's presidency is that the cerebral law professor has emerged as an extraordinarily strong commander-in-chief, successfully targeting many of the world's most dangerous terrorists. Meanwhile, for the eloquent leader who promised to "author our own story," winning the war of words has become an even greater challenge.

While the president can't control every contingency on the ground, he (and Congress) has a responsibility to craft a winning narrative. When we fail to step up and define ourselves, the extremists will be happy to do it for us.

This article first appeared on CNN.com's Security Clearance. 

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