Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.
President Obama's counter-terrorism strategy, which he unveiled last week in a high-profile speech at the National Defense University, is less off-base than incomplete, reflecting his effort to limit the scope of the problem and the requirements of the response in ways that will prove inadequate to the challenge.
In nearly 7,000 words, Obama expressed ambivalence about whether America was "at war," and he gave short shrift to the contribution of state sponsorship and the ideology of radical Islam that are so central to terrorism.
"Every war has to come to an end," Obama said a mere 150 words into his address, setting an unfortunate tone of retreat and presaging the limited aspiration of the strategy that he would outline.
He documented the cost of our "global war on terror" as more than $1 trillion and nearly 7,000 U.S. troop deaths; echoed Madison's warning that "no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare"; and proposed "targeted action against terrorists" with drones and other measures, "effective partnerships" with like-minded governments, and "diplomatic engagement and assistance" around the world.
Obama's proposals make sense in and of themselves. But his approach creates hazards that are worth a closer look.
First, though the president outlined a counter-terrorism strategy, his address will likely prove to be a morale boost to the very terrorists (both those he named and others) that his strategy is supposed to thwart.
The president trumpeted America's withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, boasted that "the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat," and advised that beyond Afghanistan we should now turn away from a "boundless ‘global war on terror'" and toward "persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
But, while the United States is narrowing its efforts, the terrorists and, most importantly, those who facilitate their work, show no signs of accommodating us – and they will doubt our fortitude now that the president has defined the U.S. path forward in such constrained terms.
That leads to the next problem. The president said almost nothing about, and offered nothing to address, the state sponsors who fund, equip, and protect terrorists across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Obama mentioned "state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah" just once; he never mentioned Iran, the world's most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism; he never mentioned Syria in this context; and he never mentioned state facilitators like Pakistan or Venezuela that harbor terrorists within their borders.
Yet America will never markedly reduce the terrorist threat without confronting state sponsors of terrorism. And it could assuredly reduce that threat by finding ways, for instance, to squeeze those actors financially and better disrupt their provision of arms to terrorists.
Indeed, Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups, and Hezbollah's presence far beyond the Middle East, is a key reason why Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry is so frightening – for Tehran could provide a nuclear weapon to one of its terrorist clients. Syria's sponsorship is among the reasons why Syrian President Bashar Assad's demise could prove so beneficial to Western interests.
Finally, the President said virtually nothing about radical Islam, the ideology that overwhelmingly drives terrorism – other than to reassure his Muslim audiences that the United States is not "at war with Islam." The fact, of course, is that radical Islam, and the states and "scholars" that propagate it, are decidedly at war with the United States, its allies and the West writ large – and no obfuscation can change that reality.
Obama mentioned "extremists" or "extremism" 16 times, purposely avoiding the uncomfortable reality of a religion-based doctrine. In discussing the problem of radicalized Americans, he avoided the issue further by listing, as examples, not just the Fort Hood shooter and Boston Marathon bombers (who were clearly driven by radical Islamist ideology) but also the 1995 Oklahoma City bombers and last year's shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin (who were clearly white supremacists).
What we need is an honest discussion of the ideological problem at hand – one that draws a clear distinction between the values of freedom, democracy, tolerance and pluralism that we cherish and the frightening intolerance and sickening violence that radical Islam propagates.
What we need, more broadly, is not a narrow counter-terrorism strategy that's based on a limited outlook. Instead, we need a comprehensive strategy that addresses the challenge in its entirety, including the elements of state sponsorship and radical Islamist ideology that drive so much of the problem.