ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

Kicking the Puppy

Rebutting The 'Over-The-Horizon' Approach to Fighting Terrorism

By Michael Tanji

Richard Clarke, former US counterterrorism czar, challenges the logic of the war in Iraq in an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News by calling it a diversion in the real fight against terrorism. This oft-repeated mantra, if I may be allowed to milk the metaphor, borders on animal abuse.

Suppose we assume that in the wake of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 there was no pre-determined plan to attack Iraq in retaliation, as some have alleged. Were things to hold true to form, how would we have figured out who to target in a global counterterrorism strategy?

The normal process of assessing threats to US national security would surely have ground on, albeit at an accelerated pace. An august assembly of intelligence community experts would work through available information and leverage their collective wisdom to come up with a short list of targets. Despite the fact that Iraq fell squarely into that category in 2000 – per the State Department’s own Patterns of Global Terrorism report - we are to believe that at the end of a rigorous vetting, Iraq would not have made the cut.

Why? Well, Iraq was a secular state of course and Saddam no friend of hyper-religious bin Laden. At least that was the consensus assessment of the wise men of the intelligence community at the time. That Iraq has long been a sponsor of terrorists, including al-Qaeda, is an issue well documented many times over. In the late 90s Clarke himself said he was fairly well convinced that if the Clinton administration counterterrorism strategy pushed too hard – imagine that – bin Laden would flee his Afghanistan hideout and “boogie to Baghdad.”

Once a baseline of states and related actors was established, work would continue as various most-likely and most-dangerous scenarios were evaluated.

Counterterrorism experts talked about the supposedly far-out approach to the 9/11 attacks. In reality, the 9/11 attacks were not so unthinkable; they were essentially a do-over for al-Qaeda since their earlier attempt to use airliners in terrorist attacks - “Project Bojinka” – was foiled in the Philippines in 1995. Airliners have been a part of the terrorist’s toolkit for decades, so 9/11 was very firmly in the most-likely category.

What about most-dangerous? A thorough examination of the terrorist threat at the time would almost certainly have considered what terrorists would have done with a weapon of mass destruction. Former CIA bin Laden unit chief Michael Scheuer recently pointed out in the Journal of International Security Affairs that the US intelligence community had known since the mid-1990s that al-Qaeda was actively pursuing the acquisition of just such weapons. In 1998 Clarke’s own staff assessed that al-Qaeda had “almost certainly” acquired VX. What anti-American regime did the CIA and every western intelligence agency believe had WMD?

Apparently for some, one plus one plus one equals two.

As a thirty-year veteran of the federal bureaucracy and given his position at the nexus of counterterrorism information in the US government, Mr. Clarke knows that the scenario outlined above is not only realistic; it is probably a more accurate than any memoir to date due to the government’s penchant for going-with-what-it-knows, which is the application of outdated processes and rote analysis, even during a crisis. As the counterterrorism czar for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, it was his job to make as strong a case as possible about the threat posed by groups like al-Qaeda. The Clinton administration’s record on terrorism speaks for itself and Clarke’s efforts at explaining the terrorist threat to the Bush administration was so compelling he was made “cyber” terror czar. The security of cyberspace is not a trivial issue, but it is worth noting that the sum total of people killed by terrorists over the Internet is zero.

One could argue that the war in Iraq has exacerbated the terrorist problem, but that’s an issue more closely related to the lack of pre-war planning for the post-war period than a misaligned counterterrorism strategy. Splitting hairs? Hardly. The war in Iraq has brought to light the folly in continuing to believe in outdated theories on how the dark, seedy underbelly of the world actually works. In today’s Washington we cannot achieve a bi-partisan success even though our lives depend on it; al-Qaeda and its ilk achieve multi-partisan success every day, worldwide.

The endless repeating of the Iraq-as-distraction meme is not merely tiresome; it reeks of a bad propaganda campaign. Its sister slogans: “Iraq would never work with al-Qaeda” and more recently “Iran would never support Sunni terrorist/insurgent groups,” if repeated often enough, are supposed to convince people that retrenching to the homeland (or “over the horizon”) is the strategy of choice. The evidence to the contrary piles up outside the doors of the consultancies and think tanks the nay-sayers now occupy, but they continue to cover their ears and chant “I’m not listening.” The current administration has not executed a picture-perfect counterterrorism campaign. But try to imagine a campaign composed and executed by a future administration that might consider tapping these individuals for positions of responsibility in 2008.

Saying Iraq is a diversion in our campaign to dismantle al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is like saying the campaign in the Pacific endangered our ability to defeat the Nazis. The war against terrorism is global, multi-faceted, and inexorably inter-linked to myriad nations, groups and individuals – anyone who can lend a hand. If September 11th and the years that have followed have taught us anything it is the depth, power and resilience of these networked organizations. If anything encumbers our ability to defeat the enemy, it is our strategy of fighting a network with an org chart.

Clarke closes his article thusly:

The truth: If not for this administration's reckless steps to push America into war - and strategic blunder after strategic blunder that has satisfied the blood lust of the enemy - fewer evildoers would follow us home like the dogs that they are.

Yes, turning down chances to seize bin Laden when given the chance, launching the odd cruise missile, and deploying an under-manned military force and letting them fall victim to Muslim extremists – where have we heard that argument before – did everything to deter the 19 September 11th hijackers.

It is obvious that mistakes have been made in our effort to defeat terrorists, but making the world inhospitable to them – either through inducements, coercion or regime change – is not a distraction, it is rightly our focus.