Two things seem clear. One is that the “war on terror” designation, never very useful in my opinion, has been retired. The other is that there will be much less identifying of terrorism with radical Islam, and more generic phrases like “violent extremists” will be much more in use.
Identifying who the enemy is by a name that identifies his/her reason for action is more useful. Certainly not all Muslims are terrorists nor is all terrorism driven by an interpretation of Islam. But Islamists justify their actions in a particular, theologically coherent way that makes them identifiable. That group has carried out most of the worst attacks on the United States in the past decade, and so is an identifiable cohort of actors.
Regardless of how one identifies terrorists, the idea is to use more tools in the U.S. government tool box to combat terrorism, something that is important going forward. What seems to be lacking at this point is a clear articulation of what U.S. strategic interests are and how these multiple tools will be used. Maybe that will be forthcoming when the policy itself is unveiled.
“It needs to be much more than a kinetic effort, an intelligence, law enforcement effort. It has to be much more comprehensive,” said John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, who will address the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. “This is not a ‘war on terror.’ . . . We cannot let the terror prism guide how we’re going to interact and be involved in different parts of the world.”
That is true, but it is hard to decipher what that will mean. One of the key places where the new strategy will be tested is in Somalia, where Secretary Clinton has met with the provisional leadership and promised increased support. But so far the promises seem to involve only ammunition and logistical support and somewhat vague and unfulfillable promises to sanction Eritrea for support of al Shabaab in Somalia.
So, what would the new policy change in Somalia? To me, that is a key question because it would force the administration to really articulate what it means. How would the other tools beyond military support be deployed, and to what end? That is the question that needs to be asked all across Africa, particularly, but also Latin America. The idea sounds good (and is good) but the implementation is what will actually define it.
The current discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. I have long told U.S. military audiences that the military has been pushed into too many new jobs for which it is not the best qualified, a premise that many active duty officers agree with.
But the problem has been that few other government agencies can and will go to the places the military will, either with J-Cets or other types of deployments. Given that, the resources have shifted to the military, making it harder for other parts of the government (State, USAID etc.) to do more because their resource base has not grown. So there is a downward cycle. Without resources they cannot or will not participate, and without participation they cannot get resources allocated.
How that resource allocation piece is redesigned will be key. But there has to be an over-arching policy architecture that guides the resource allocation, the types of engagement and to what end. The Bush administration struggled mightily with this with little success and only at the end of its time. For Obama to move beyond that, he will need more than a new vocabulary. He will have to find where the tools fit and what they can be used for, and that is a much harder task.