Obama Administration Needs New Approach to Battling al Qaeda

National security law expert Glenn Sulmasy makes 4 national security proposals.

An alleged Al-Qaeda suspect is held in a detention area by US soldiers during an operation to search for suspects in the village of Sufeit south of Baquba, Iraq.

An alleged Al-Qaeda suspect is held in a detention area by US soldiers.

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Our public discourse about the war on terrorism has become stale and mired in hyperbole. The nation needs a new way ahead in the armed conflict against al Qaeda.

More than seven years after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, some argue over the various memorials scheduled, others argue whether we reacted properly, while still others vehemently condemn the approach taken by the Bush administration. However, the public debate is void of any fresh, new ideas and ways to move the country forward in the conflict of our generation.

This lack of vision in our public debate and discourse was particularly apparent as the 2008 presidential race drew to a close. We were deluged from both parties with debates, commercials, and solicitations for money, but still no new ideas were being presented on how to win the "war on terror." Neither candidate truly put forth the "way ahead" in fighting international terrorism. In fact, the problems with the Guantánamo Bay detention facility are almost never discussed. The incoming Obama team needs to initiate a new doctrine embraced by policymakers in both the administration and the new Congress. This is not a partisan issue but rather one that we as Americans, and as a nation that promotes human rights, must rally behind to regain the initiative in conducting world affairs. Regardless of the reasons why, our standing among friends and foes alike has been tarnished.

A new doctrine with four major components needs to be considered by the political branches of our government, and sooner rather than later. These components, explained in great detail below, include changing the name of the war; morphing the military commissions into a permanent, standing national security court; leading the call for an international convention to review the Geneva Conventions and protocols to determine whether, and how, the conventions might be updated to better meet the needs of handling the detainees captured in the war; and applying a "surge" strategy in Afghanistan.

  • Change the name of the war: The term "war on terror" has created ambiguities strategically, tactically, and legally. Although terrorism as a means of warfare should be universally condemned, the war America fights is against al Qaeda—not the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades, the Shining Path, or even Hamas. Al Qaeda has declared war on the United States, attacked our homeland, and continues to support international warfare against the United States and the West.
  • The fight against al Qaeda must be distinguished from the condemnation of terrorism as a whole. Call the war what it is (both de facto and de jure): the War Against al Qaeda. This change of the name will help focus our efforts from a strategic level. We can win a war against al Qaeda. It gives a "face" to the entity we fight. It enables us the chance to defeat this enemy and to declare victory at some point. As it now stands, the nebulous "war on terror" sounds all too similar to the "wars" on poverty and drugs. While noble in effort, none of these are "winnable" in the general understanding of American conflicts. Tactically, changing the name of the conflict permits our forces to fully understand the nature of, and to fight, an identifiable enemy. It helps coalition and U.S. forces to know whom it is exactly they are fighting. This will permit decision makers in Washington to sharpen their efforts to provide adequate resources, armaments, and funds to the ongoing war. Legally, this titular change affords a more concrete jurisprudential foundation to detain, interrogate, and adjudicate crimes against the international terrorists. The ambiguities as to the status of the detainees, as compared with traditional POWs, remains a sore point with our allies. This will help remove some of the cynicism, both domestically and internationally, about whom it is we are detaining and will detain in the future.

    • National Security Courts: President-elect Obama has expressed a desire to close Guantánamo Bay as a detention center. As this conflict increasingly appears to be a generational war, we need a standing terrorist court to better handle the cases now awaiting trial as well as to provide an enhanced framework for the detention and interrogation of future al Qaeda suspects. As I have written elsewhere, a natural maturation from the Military Commissions Act would be a hybrid court—a mix of both the military commissions and the Article III federal courts to best meet the needs of our country. The war itself is unique—it requires a mixture of both a law enforcement response and a military response. These are hybrid warriors in a hybrid war—thus, the need for a new hybrid court to better detain, interrogate, and adjudicate their cases.