Loose Canons

The War on Terror Drones On

A whack-a-mole strategy is hardly enough -- especially if Republicans continue sitting this one out.

By 10.3.11

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With the untimely (i.e., too long delayed) death of Anwar al-Awlaki, Sheriff Obama has another notch in the grip of his six-gun. Obama has to be credited for the operation that killed Awlaki, just as he should take credit for the operation by Dev Group -- the formal name for "the Jedi," SEAL Team 6 -- which killed Osama bin Laden.

Obama has significantly increased the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, i.e., drone) attacks against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. And according to various reports, the Awlaki attack benefitted from both the NSA's monitoring of terrorist communications and the intelligence gathered by the UAVs hunting for Awlaki.

In the February TAS, I wrote about the unresolved legality of an American president ordering the killing of an American citizen such as Awlaki. I will leave it to others, especially my scholarly friend Andy McCarthy, to further debate that point and drive our legal system to a solution. But there's an equally important question we need to resolve: Is the underlying strategy the right one for us to employ in a war that is no nearer to ending than it was on September 12, 2001?

The answer is a qualified yes because of two fundamental facts about terrorist groups.

First is the fact that terrorist groups are cults of personality, killers following a charismatic leader. Those such as bin Laden and Awlaki attract and indoctrinate followers to do their will. "Lone wolf" terrorists do not pose the danger that terrorist leaders do because, though they may cause massive damage as did Timothy McVeigh, by definition they do not organize and propel terrorist networks that pose an existential threat to the United States.

By decapitating the terrorist networks, we can reduce -- and have reduced -- the networks' abilities to function.

Which leaves us with the second fact: no matter how many of these terror leaders we kill, there will be others who replace them and some will succeed before we can kill them. New leaders will arise and focus their terrorist followers -- as Awlaki did -- on operations as large as they can organize or encourage directly. Awlaki's reach was not as great as bin Laden's but his intent in the Fort Hood massacre, the unsuccessful Christmas Day underwear bombing, and the equally unsuccessful Times Square car bombing was intended to do as much damage as his followers could do. Left alive, his cult -- and his reach -- could have grown to a far greater extent and more able to mount more massive and competent attacks.

The unending rise of terrorist leaders is one of the flaws in the whack-a-mole strategy. It first became evident in the 2004 Bush-Kerry campaign.

After 9/11, President Bush declared a "global war on terror," which sent liberals into a paroxysm of definitional denial. How can you declare war on a tactic, they argued, which is all that terrorism is? They had a point.

In October 2004, Kerry said: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." Kerry's "nuisance" comment drew Rudy Giuliani to say that the idea we would tolerate some level of death and destruction was positively "frightening."

Kerry saw terrorism as a law enforcement problem, not an existential struggle. President Bush's response said, "See, I couldn't disagree more. Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorists, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world."

In a New York Times interview that month, Kerry said: ''I think we can do a better job of cutting off financing, of exposing groups, of working cooperatively across the globe, of improving our intelligence capabilities nationally and internationally, of training our military and deploying them differently, of specializing in special forces and special ops, of working with allies, and most importantly -- and I mean most importantly -- of restoring America's reputation as a country that listens, is sensitive, brings people to our side, is the seeker of peace, not war, and that uses our high moral ground and high-level values to augment us in the war on terror, not to diminish us.''

Bush's strategy -- to stay on the offensive indefinitely against "terror" -- wasn't that different from Kerry's. Both placed us on the strategic defensive by not connecting the terrorists to those who made their attacks possible. The nations that sponsor terrorism were left unscathed. If you add Bush's policy to Kerry's, the sum is Obama's strategy.

SO WHERE SHOULD we go from here? We have to continue the "whack-a-mole" strategy now, and for the foreseeable future. But to do that will not produce victory against Islamic terrorism.

The Republican candidate debates haven't focused on the issue yet but they should, and quickly. Only Newt Gingrich has called for a serious debate solely on that subject. But Gingrich -- like the other eight (or is it nine?) -- hasn't said what strategy he would employ to win the war.

Imagine, if you can, a debate in which three questioners faced off with the candidates. The Dream Team of questioners would consist of a few men whose knowledge and strategic thinking about the issue of winning war and ending the threat of Islamic terrorism is known for its clarity: Former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers and -- since this is, unfortunately, a fictional debate -- me. Here are the most important questions the candidates should have to answer:

From Mr. Rumsfeld: "How would you structure and employ America's military and intelligence capabilities to end the threat of Islamic terrorism? Give us at least three specific points in your answer."

From Gen. Myers: "In my book Eyes on the Horizon, I wrote that 'The nations that sponsor terrorism must stop. Compelling states to stop supporting terrorists will often require military activity, which will be inherently controversial.' Do you agree that we have to end state sponsorship of terrorism and, if so, how would you do it?"

From me: "The war in which we are engaged is in two parts: a kinetic war, which we are fighting in places from Afghanistan to Yemen and more; and an ideological war which we haven't yet begun to fight. How would you win the ideological war against the Islamists?"

President Obama's defense strategy is to fight a "hands-off" war, with drones killing terrorists and rhetoric apologizing for America to the rest of the Islamic world. It is a delaying action, aimed at keeping the war off the front pages until after the election. And while all of our political energy is being used to debate why so many Texans are without health insurance, Obama's failure to engage and defeat our principal enemies in a decisive war increases the dangers we face now and will face forever until we change the strategy or lose the war.

Leadership isn't only about how to reduce the bloated federal budget. It's about explaining to the American people -- to paraphrase Jefferson -- in words so plain and firm as to command their assent. In an election, Jefferson's "assent" means demonstrating adherence to a leader by voting for him, not just against the other guy.

With Florida's acceleration of the primary election schedule, there is little time for candidates to focus on anything. But if they fail to focus on this debate, they will default to Obama and leave us leaderless on the most fundamental issue affecting America's future.

How, gentlemen, can we "win the future" if we first do not secure it?

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.