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Counterterrorism After Bush: Towards A Progressive Approach

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Over at the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman has taken the pulse of a number of self-described "progressives" on their opinions for a new path on U.S. counterterrorism policy as the sun sets on the Bush era. Not surprisingly, at the top of the list is a desired rollback of many of the policies put forth by the Bush White House that were rooted in moral rot, such as the use of torture. But there's a steady blend of both common sense and innovation put forth in the article.

One thing I am pleased to see getting some play is the idea that law enforcement needs to play a role -- perhaps a leading role -- in any anti-terror effort. At some point during the Bush administration, the notion that law enforcement -- agencies that investigate, infiltrate, identify and prosecute - was too wimpy an approach, that only the blunt instrument of military force was applicable. Ackerman's respondents thought otherwise:

Still others urged a broader theoretical reconception of the war on terrorism. "Counterterrorism should be a law-enforcement accountability, not military," emailed Jesse Wendel, a veteran of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, and his co-blogger, the pseudonymous Minstrel Boy, who said he is a U.S. Navy Seal veteran of Vietnam. Both blog at the popular Group News Blog, which Wendel publishes.

"Treating terrorists as military targets gives terrorists enormously too much credibility," they contended in a co-signed email. "Terrorists are not nation-states; they are criminals and should be treated like the murderers they are, without giving them a political platform or publicity. The military is not trained to hunt civilians worldwide. The military is trained to kill targets in a kill-zone."

I'd add that law enforcement agencies are also obviously better attuned to rooting out criminal networks, halting arms trafficking, and investigating cash flow to terror cells. These criminal activities form the wide fabric of what makes terrorist networks function, and law enforcement agencies are simply more pre-disposed to unravel them. A re-engaging of this approach to terrorism dovetails nicely with the "scalpel, not a hatchet" approach that President-Elect Barack Obama has pledged in other policy arenas. It's a tactic that precisely aligns with his sensibility, and, I'd posit, a tactic that would gain substantially more support from the international community than Bush's brand of insensate militarism.

Of course, I wouldn't cast the liberal approach as peacenik, either. A refocusing of attention, and military intervention, in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region has been strongly called for by the left. Taylor Marsh makes the case in the Ackerman piece:

"Counterterrorism in the Obama administration has to begin with the Af-Pak region immediately," she said, referring the to Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. "First, we need limited additional deployment of forces into Afghanistan. Afghan cities must be made more stable, through working with NATO countries, or we're going to have more problems not fewer with regard to terrorism. Because focusing on Pakistan alone, the jihadists will simply cross the border where we're not building security. The Af-Pak region deals with two countries of varying complexities and unique challenges for Obama -- but neither country can be dealt with in a vacuum."

Elsewhere, there are suggestions that run the gamut, from global (ie, ramping up the Israel-Palestine peace process) to the local, encouraging cultural exchanges to help win the battle for "hearts and minds."

One section of the piece that really rang out in my mind, however, were these two paragraphs:

More than 25 organizations, including the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, the Gun Owners of America lobby group and the well-heeled Washington law firms of Arnold & Porter and Crowell & Moring, united under the aegis of the Constitution Project, a progressive legal foundation, to present a one-stop-shopping resource for both the presidential and congressional transitions. Titled "Liberty and Security: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress," the 62-item report was released Tuesday.

Its agenda is not dissimilar with Human Rights Watch's. High on its list are ending torture, indefinite detention and rendition; restricting the FBI's ability to obtain communications without a court order; rolling back this year's changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that civil libertarians believe contravene 4th Amendment's privacy guarantees; curtailing the president's ability to issue so-called signing statements that unilaterally exempt him from obeying laws, and strengthening Congress' exclusivity over declaring war.

I think that if you need an indicator of how bad things have gotten in the Bush administration, it's that some of these agenda items have come to be seen as being solely advocated by progressives. Bans on torture and extrajudicial detention, protections from unlawful searches and seizures, adherence to the separation of powers -- these are mainstream concepts that should be widely embraced across the political spectrum. Did you ever imagine we would come to the point that sticking up for Congress' right to declare war would come to be known as a tent pole in liberal policy advocacy? Those rights are defined in the Constitution, for Heaven's sake!

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Recasting the War on Terrorism [The Washington Independent]