John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.