With the White House claiming it was on top of the global terror threat, the oversized-type front-page headline in the weekend Financial Times suggested a different story.
It read: “Yemen terror summit called.”
The lead paragraph reported: “Western governments have convened a top-level meeting for this month to discuss strategies to counter Yemen’s growing role as a recruitment base for terrorists in the wake of last week’s failed attack on a U.S.-bound airliner.”
Good move, if overdue. As most of the world knows by now, Yemen has emerged as a new safe house for al Qaeda operations. The terror sponsor trained the would-be Christmas Day bomber there. Among those who helped confirm the young zealot in his radical faith was the same now-Yemen-based cleric who apparently recruited the Fort Hood shooter. The Yemeni government lacks control over much of its own territory and is so unstable that many wonder if it might not be vulnerable to an al Qaeda takeover. And as Yemen sits at the entrance to a major chokepoint in global trade, the Red Sea, the major industrialized nations all have a stake in stopping the al Qaeda advance there.
So the summit is a good idea, exactly in keeping with president’s call for global cooperation in the anti-terror effort. The only problem is the United States did not call this summit. The United Kingdom did.
Perhaps there is a deep game going on here. But the president did not mention the summit in his weekend address, which was devoted to the terror challenge. As of Sunday afternoon, no hint of it had appeared on the White House or State Department websites. The FT story suggests no U.S. involvement, at least in a leadership capacity.
The British government may be working closely with the U.S. government on summit planning, of course. Washington may be deferring to London for the making of public announcements – the U.S.-U.K. long-standing “special relationship” in action once more. Except that the Obama Administration has made a point of snubbing the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his government every chance it gets, including such gratuitous and diplomatically incomprehensible slights as returning a bust of Winston Churchill that the British government had leant to the White House as a statement of solidarity following the 2001 attacks.
Instead of marshalling nations to drive the terrorists from their latest lair, the administration devoted the weekend to insisting that the American people should consider the Christmastide breakdown of defenses against airline bombers no big deal. As the White House’s counter-terror point man, John Brennan, told Meet The Press (and in similar words most of the other Sunday talk shows), “Every other day the system has worked this year.”
Al Qaeda had a different take. In their statement claiming credit for the bungled Christmas attack, the terror network crowed that they had “dealt a huge blow to the myth of American and global intelligence services and showed how fragile its structure is.”
This administration seems to have made a practice of not listening to anything it finds inconvenient to hear. But for once they should remove their iPod plugs from their ears and catch the beat of something other than rhapsodies to themselves and their top man.
The shift from the Bush forward strategy against the terror threat – what that administration called the Global War on Terror – to a more passive, law enforcement oriented approach is a strategy for catastrophe. It means that we are depending on the intelligence services always getting it right, and, as the al Qaeda statement so helpfully points out, that is too much to ask of them.
It isn’t just that our spies and analysts missed the 9/11 attack, or that they found non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Forget that in the Cold War they didn’t see the fall of the Soviet Union coming, or that, earlier, they didn’t know the Soviets were putting missiles in Cuba until they were there, or that they didn’t anticipate the building of the Berlin Wall, or that the first Soviet atomic explosion completely surprised them. No, failures of our modern intelligence agencies go back to the birth of those agencies in the Second World War. As America’s senior commander, George C. Marshall, told interviewers a decade after the war, the intelligence services “let me down every time in everything. They never told me what I needed to know.”
The point here is not to dump on the CIA, DIA, NSA, or any of the other U.S. spy bureaucracies. It is to acknowledge that, as dedicated and sophisticated as their people may be, these institutions have limits – severe limits – in what they are capable of doing. The administration’s shift away from a forward strategy (excepting, for the time being at least, in Afghanistan) to a Fortress-America-style wait-until-they-see-the-whites-of-their-eyes-so-we-can-arrest-them strategy makes the nation too vulnerable to the intelligence community’s inherent weaknesses.
As we enter the new year, the nation will be safer if the administration puts aside its breathtakingly inappropriate grudge against the British and its contempt for all things associated with its predecessor, acknowledges we are in a global war against terror networks, and from Gitmo to Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen acts as though it means to win. In 2009 it passed through infancy and adolescence. In 2010 the nation needs the administration to grow up.