from Think Tank
Since the failed bombing attempt against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas, the Obama Administration’s public rhetoric has slid from its immortal opening error—“the system worked”—back toward the American mainstream of signaling toward terrorists. Since the Reagan Administration, this has generally involved public resolve and threats of retaliation, to reassure Americans that their government is on the case and to warn terrorists that they inevitably will face death or capture if they plot against the United States. On Saturday, Obama spoke to Americans and presumably also to Al Qaeda recruits in Yemen when he threatened, “All those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know: You too will be held to account.”
The language caught my ear because over the holiday break I have been reading an excellent academic study of American strategic communication toward Al Qaeda, “U.S. Counter-Terrorism Strategy and al-Qaeda: Signaling and the Terrorist World-View,” by Joshua Alexander Geltzer, who is now a law student at Yale, after earning a doctoral degree in war studies at King’s College, London, under the tutelage of James Gow, one of the better academic security analysts of his generation. Warning: The book is very expensive; probably best for those who can charge it to the office somehow.
The purpose of Geltzer’s study is to analyze American communication with Al Qaeda, by deed and word, particularly since 9/11, and to explore the degree to which American signaling to terrorists has been self-conscious; what the hypotheses behind this communication strategy seem to be; how the strategy has conceptualized the intended terrorist audience; and, of course, whether it has been effective. (I don’t think I’m giving away the ending by reporting that the author’s conclusion is … um, no.)
Geltzer not only reviewed the public record—speeches by Presidents Clinton and Bush, and by other key actors such as former Vice-President Cheney—but he also conducted a number of on-the-record interviews with intelligence officials and counterterrorism policymakers from both the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Among other things, he has produced a fascinating and chilling thread of narrative history of the Iraq war’s casus belli. He documents richly the consensus among Bush Administration decision-makers, outside of a few realists such as Richard Armitage, that among other purposes, it was necessary to invade Iraq in order to send a general deterrent signal to all terrorists in the Middle East. Geltzer quotes Henry Kissinger’s rationale for advising Bush to carry out the Iraq invasion: “We had to go in there … to make clear that challenging the United States had disastrous consequences…. Afghanistan was not enough to make that point.”
To a great extent, Geltzer argues, the Bush Administration fashioned its terrorist signaling strategy in reaction to what Cheney, in particular, considered to be the “provocative weakness” of Clinton Administration signaling; that is, Cheney and others of like mind truly believed that the United States had meaningfully invited 9/11 by failing to respond more forcefully to the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks against U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen. (Al Qaeda’s rhetoric does take note of the American withdrawal from Lebanon during the nineteen-eighties, ordered by President Reagan, and America’s retreat from Somalia, ordered by President Clinton.) At the same time, however, Bush Administration signaling contained much continuity from Clinton-era signaling, Geltzer shows. In this combination of change and continuity, he finds that the Bush Administration’s “basic framework for counter-terrorist signaling” involved ten elements:
taking action, signaling a change, using force, demonstrating capability, showing resolve, exhibiting relentlessness, intimidating state sponsors, promoting democracy, visibly hardening defenses and showing success.
Geltzer notes that it is “worth considering” what sort of audience would have been most responsive to the Bush Administration’s approach:
Such an audience would have been deterred or dissuaded by an active America, and intimidated by a changed America. That audience would have been eager to avoid America’s use of military force, and would have been impressed by America’s demonstration of its massive capability. Resolve on America’s part would have suggested to that audience that opposing the U.S.A. was bound to prove futile, and relentlessness on America’s part would have led that audience to seek any way to avoid America’s fury. America’s focus on state sponsors suggest that the audience would have possessed a state-centric perspective, and America’s efforts to promote democracy imply an audience characterized by a democratic vision of government…
What type of audience do these characteristics describe?….The audience would have been, or resembled, a state… [and even more so] the U.S.A. itself. That is, the audience that appears to have been in the minds of American policymakers as they crafted their counter-terrorist signals was one akin to America as audience.
This is a rhetorical tour de force. Perhaps it’s also a little too neat to be completely convincing. Terrorists do interact with states, including Al Qaeda terrorists. Terrorists can be deterred and intimidated. Al Qaeda operatives have certainly changed their decision-making at times because of the hardened defenses they confront, notwithstanding their repeated return to civil aviation, even as that task gets harder. But as a breath-catching take on the problem of unexamined, ineffective, domestic-driven American signaling to terrorists, whether of the nascent Obama or entrenched Cheney type, Geltzer’s work is very impressive.
Obama is obviously a gifted communicator; he is also said to be an enthusiastic poker player. Surely we have a President who is qualified to think through more productively than his predecessors the conundrums of his own signaling, intended and unintended, to the terrorists whose actions will do much to shape his Presidency.