Translation: “No”

On Fox News Sunday this week, Chris Wallace asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the capability of Al Qaeda to mount attacks on the United States:

The President said that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks against the U.S. homeland. Does Al Qaeda still have that kind of operational capability to plan and pull off those kinds of attacks?

Gates: They certainly have the capability to plan … .

Gates went on to discuss how Al Qaeda has arguably “metastasized,” with elements appearing elsewhere in the world, uncontrolled by Al Qaeda in Western Pakistan, but trained and inspired from there. He told Wallace that he thought Al Qaeda is “a very serious threat.”

But, the “capability to plan”? Who in the world doesn’t have the “capability to plan”? The better answer to Wallace’s question would have been “No.”

What Gates described is an Al Qaeda very different from the one that attacked the United States on 9/11. It’s more an idea than an organization, an idea that America-haters the world over are drawn to when American leaders tout Al Qaeda as a top threat. Anyone around the world can declare themselves a part of “Al Qaeda” and most of our media and political leaders will believe it, becoming needlessly fearful just because of the label.

With the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan this week, President Obama and Secretary Gates had to discuss Al Qaeda. But they could have done more to show world audiences that Al Qaeda is weakened, and that terrorism is a weaker tool against the United States and the West than it was.

While maintaining the vigilance necessary to prevent any attack, issuing these more moderate kinds of communications would reduce the attractiveness of terrorism to potential terrorists. Smarter, more subdued communications is as important a part of strategic counterterrorism as directly fighting today’s terrorists.

Later in the interview, Gates smartly deflected Wallace’s questions about how the new administration eschews “war on terror” rhetoric. Nicely done.