SA: So Brennan lays out these two important considerations. Basically, he divides the way in which Obama conceives of counterterrorism into near-term and long-term considerations, and he places the destruction of al Qaeda as a near-term conception. That’s something that you just never ever heard from the Bush administration—there was this thing called ‘the long war,’ or at one point the global struggle against violent extremists, which was an interesting and good term that came very close to getting to some of the stuff that Brennan talked about yesterday, but was abandoned as soon as it was rolled out. But never did you hear in eight years that the struggle against al Qaeda was going to be something that was actually winnable in a fairly predictable period of time.
And then there’s a longer question of placing counterterrorism alongside other policy considerations about development, about providing security for populations in at-risk parts of the world where extremism can fester, about strengthening security forces and institutions that can allow people political expression, economic prosperity. Brennan talked about food security—my god, this was never something that was placed in the pantheon with counterterrorism! He spoke very eloquently about Hamas and Hezbollah, speaking with a clear eye about the acts of terrorism they perpetrate, but also saying, there’s a reason that people flock to these organizations, and it’s not just an ideological one. It’s not just an issue of political tyranny, or even enthusiasm for political tyranny. It’s the fact that, who else is providing free health care for people in Gaza, or in southern Lebanon. And it talks a lot about what you might call demand-side support for terrorism.
That’s really amazing. And the question has got to be, to what degree are discreet counterterrorism steps going to [aggravate the things] that Brennan and the rest of the Obama administration are arguing contribute to support for terrorism? I asked him about drone strikes – this is something that Kilcullen and my friend Andrew Exum have written about in The New York Times. What’s the greater utility? Is it killing the terrorist, or is it preventing the 15 people around him who would be injured in the drone strike from having a reason to cleave themselves from the government of Pakistan and against the United States? And Brennan gave an answer that was a real transactional trade-off, not anything that was hindered by ideology or by not thinking this through, but saying ‘This is a really difficult problem. Whenever we’re considering an action like this, we get people who have nothing to do with the discreet terrorism action, and we try to think through what are the second-, third-, fourth-order effects of this, and then we make a decision.’ And that struck me as a mature answer, an answer that didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence, that recognized that there really are trade-offs here—it didn’t try to minimize them, and didn’t pretend that they’ll always get it right. And that’s going to be something that I think is the obligation of the press to really follow up on.
And similarly, if we’re going to increase foreign aid, we should put some pressure on the idea that poverty is that important a contributing factor to global terrorism. There’s been some great work over the years about how the people who become members of al Qaeda specifically, as opposed to terrorist or insurgent groups that are more locally focused, aren’t destitute people. These are people often with graduate degrees. These are not the wretched of the earth; these are vanguard fanatics. Where the programs that Brennan was talking about will require scrutiny is the question of whether they’re dealing with root cause issues or they’re being sold to the American people, who might be more skeptical about this, as discreet actions to go after precisely those terrorists. There’s a difference between going after the hard-core radical international terrorist and going after the conditions that he’ll exploit in order to become successful, and that difference is going to have to be bird-dogged and studied and teased out. And it’s the responsibility of a skeptical press corps and a diligent press corps to do that.