The Magazine

Drones Are Not Enough

Getting counterterrorism policy wrong.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Photo of Ali Khamenei

As menacing as ever: Ali Khamenei

Has Barack Obama been a good counter-terrorist president? On the left, and even on the right, we usually hear a resounding “yes”: Obama has maintained, sometimes amplified, the programs that really keep us safe (predator drones, expansive use of domestic intercepts, unsavory intelligence liaison relationships, and rendition). Some on the left may be disturbed by the president’s actions, but their moral indigestion is contained by the belief that Obama is still better than George W. Bush. And after SEAL Team Six went for the kill in Abbottabad, the right posed few questions about the action, or the way the administration and the Central Intelligence Agency have characterized the supposedly diminishing al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two leading Republican presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, aver that the president appears weak, especially to the regime in Tehran. But apart from highlighting how weak presidents tempt our enemies, they have not really questioned Obama’s counterterrorist credentials. 

That’s a mistake. Since September 11, 2001, Washington has been enamored of the idea that the principal terrorist threat to the United States comes from “independent” actors like al Qaeda. Whereas George W. Bush at least combined this analysis with his recognition of an “Axis of Evil” (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were highlighted for their support for terrorism as well as their appetites for weapons of mass destruction), Barack Obama has assiduously avoided underscoring state sponsorship of terrorism. His minions may occasionally say unkind things about Pakistan and the Islamic Republic, but the president has steered clear of depicting the military junta in Islamabad and the clerical regime in Tehran as terrorist threats to the United States. Even after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is responsible for the nuclear program as well as terrorist operations, was caught trying to orchestrate a bombing run on the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, the administration chose not to dwell on the incident—the first time, so far as we know, that any foreign state has planned a possibly mass-casualty terrorist attack in the U.S. capital. The White House quickly turned the discussion of retribution back to sanctions—the president’s preferred method of responding to Tehran on the nuclear issue, human-rights violations, and now, it seems, terrorism. 

But by doing so—by not talking loudly about the increasing evidence of a longstanding alliance between Iran and al Qaeda, by not talking more openly about the horrendous problem we have with Pakistan, and by intentionally misrepresenting the nature of al Qaeda and the alliances among Islamic militant groups—the president has turned a blind eye towards probably the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States over the next decade: state sponsorship of “independent” Islamic terrorist groups and the likely partnering of Iran and Pakistan against the United States. 

The president and the counterterrorist cognoscenti in his administration may think they are doing the country a favor, since focusing on state actors conjures up war. The White House has exchanged the “global war on terror” for a smaller, supposedly safer, more manageable confrontation with “extremists.” But strategically and tactically, little of what the administration is doing makes sense. We are more likely to find ourselves in a state-to-state confrontation precisely because of Obama’s intentions and methods.

Let us look at Iran. Although the administration and our European allies appear to be getting much more serious about rigorous sanctions against the Islamic Republic because of its quest for nuclear weapons, the White House has shied away from the possibility that Tehran will respond with terrorism, not negotiations. Perhaps the most stubborn wish in U.S. foreign policy has been the three-decade-old bipartisan determination to engage with and moderate the Islamic Republic. Ever since Ali Khamenei put on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mantle as guardian of the revolution, Western observers have wanted to describe him as “pragmatic” and “moderate,” even though his outpouring of virulently anti-American speeches, let alone the crackdowns and killings he’s unleashed at home since 1999, might engender skepticism. Iran’s much vilified and lampooned president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is probably less hardcore—even on the villainy of world Jewry—than Khamenei is. Unlike the fallen reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who could rage against the United States and the destructiveness of Western culture but also wax envious about the ethical sensitivity of occidental thought and the democracy-bred decency of Americans, Khamenei has never once emitted a smidgeon of affection, empathy, or even old-fashioned, highbrow Persian distaste for the United States. 

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