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Archive for January, 2008

The Wrong Track on Terror

[Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.]

America needs to develop a rational policy for dealing with terrorism.

Almost everything we are doing today is counterproductive. Our actions and attitudes create more radical Muslim terrorists and encourage moderate Muslim passivity toward those terrorists and their operations.

Let us accept, for a moment, as true the Bush administration’s claim that the techniques and tools that diminish our civil liberties at home and our reputation abroad are worth it because they have stopped terrorist attacks. Even then the argument fails, for such actions represent a tactical response to a strategic threat. They may stop the occasional attack, but they won’t address the fundamental issue.

Unless we find ways to counter not just the attacks but the movement that spawns them, there will be no foreseeable end to this problem.

Of course, we should continue to detect and disrupt terrorist plots. But the key to long-term success against fundamentalist Muslim terrorism is to weaken our enemies and empower our moderate friends in the Islamic world. One priority should be strengthening our intelligence liaison relationships.

It is extremely difficult to maintain productive ties with foreign intelligence services if relations between the two countries involved are not strong and mutually respectful. Our post-9/11 policies have turned many of our former friends against us. When we re-establish and strengthen our traditional alliances, our intelligence liaison relationships will prosper – and our ability to fight terrorism will be much improved.

In an increasingly decentralized terrorist environment, our intelligence liaison colleagues can penetrate terrorist organizations far more easily than Americans can. After all, they look, think and speak like the people they’re targeting.

It may take many years to soften the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism and diminish moderate Muslim indifference to that phenomenon. But when moderate Muslims begin to perceive the radicals to be a threat to them, the radicals will lose – and this can happen fairly quickly. Note how abruptly Iraqi Sunnis turned against al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007.

But Iraq presents a problem for us in this endeavor. As long as we have a military presence there, we will catalyze radical Muslim anger and suspicions about our motives. President Bush’s talk of “bringing democracy” to the Middle East doesn’t help, as it is often perceived as a further example of Western imperialism. And wherever we go in the Muslim world, we tote the unwelcome baggage of renditions, overseas CIA prisons, waterboarding, Guantanamo and military tribunals.

Thus, we cannot deal with Muslim attitudes by telling them how to behave. It will be more productive for us to get our own house in order through the restoration of full civil rights and the cessation of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” We can then present ourselves to the world as a model worth emulating.

Because of our long history of commercial, educational and diplomatic relations with the Muslim world, there are many Americans who know a great deal about terrorism and Islam. They can be of great service in this cause, and we need to listen to and learn from them in a climate that doesn’t intimidate them.

That requires new national leadership that will not only entertain but also encourage dissenting views and differing ideas. Any other approach will serve only to impoverish our search for the best policies.

In the meantime, our domestic counterterrorism programs concentrate on what happened on 9/11. What are we doing to protect an increasingly vulnerable national infrastructure? Like old generals, we are fighting the last war in a world that is rapidly changing. We have created a bloated and inefficient homeland security apparatus and have vested primary responsibility for our security from terrorism in the FBI – a law enforcement organization that does not have the culture or the structure for the counterterrorism job. We still need a domestic intelligence agency along the lines of Britain’s MI5.

There is much to do, and no time to lose.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, as executive assistant in the director’s office and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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