Cooling It On al-Qaeda

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Fear and dread are the most unhelpful emotions for solving problems. They inhibit logical thinking and deliberate decision. America has returned to a state of fear after eight years of dread that it may happen again. It didn't happen again, though. That should be the starting point for a strenuous effort to get a grip on ourselves before we suffer the consequences of more ill considered actions. Some dispassion is badly needed to review soberly where we are and what is the true nature of any threat we face.

The first point to bear in mind is that the underwear bomber episode, only the second halfway serious attempt at terrorism in the United States since 9/11, should be seen as testament to how limited al-Qaeda's capabilities are. Compared to 9/11 it was primitive and amateurish -- in terms of training, organization, technical skill and the resources needed to set it up. Second, he wouldn't have gotten as far as he did if American security services were minimally competent. There is no point in grand new comprehensive reviews when the ABCs still haven't been dealt with. Our huge counter-terrorism enterprise has computers that don't talk to each other and whose software is so retro that, unlike Google or eBay or Amazon, it can't compensate for a one letter error in a long, unusual name. Obviously, neither Obama nor the 26 intelligence 'chiefs' he shoo-horned into the Cabinet Room for a photo-op meeting have been doing their jobs. The most elementary thing to do after taking over from their inept predecessor was to check what pieces of government were still working -- above all, in the security realm. Instead, Obama filled most senior positions with the same old cast of performers from Bush's failed system, e.g. Brennan, Blair, McLaughlin. Obviously none of them bothered to check. Since Obama resolutely declared that no one was at fault (except for 'the system') and no one will be held accountable, the odds are pretty good that there will be another foul-up down the road. That's just the way organizations work, or don't work. As for his two most senior newcomers, Panetta and Napolitano, they clearly are not up to the job of banging heads and exacting penalties for incompetence. Panetta, by appearances, only seems to get worked up when there is hint that the White House might actually do any harm to his cosseted charges -- including, as we now know, the Blackwater/Xe hired guns who are still doing assassinations under the CIA's aegis.

The third imperative is finally to recognize that, whatever the threat presented by the franchise operation we call al-Qaeda, it can only be neutralized by first class intelligence and police work. Rampaging through Islamic Asia as al-Qaeda's recruiting agent is manifestly counter productive. Finally, we should keep in perspective the magnitude of the threat. Unhappily, we still visualize ourselves besieged by the 20,000 jihadists allegedly indoctrinated and superbly trained by bin-Laden before 9/11. Popular imagery, propagated by our leaders, has heroic patriots in the CIA and FBI pouring buckets of hot pitch and scalding water on the fanatics as they scale the outer walls of our national citadel. The less dramatic truth is that we're dealing with a relative handful of people, those jihadis who have any interest in attacking the US as opposed to changing the politics of their own governments in the region. That is true, too, for the Taliban.

This picture is hard for many to swallow. Our national leaders either see an interest in stoking fear or are fearful of not succumbing to it. Then there is the impediment of the terrorism industry. A national sobering up would mean thousands of cushy positions put at risk, journals folding, grant money drying up, and an army of consultants on the dole. And the President of the United States himself might have to pare the number of people he squeezes into White House for those endless confabs on what to do next.