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Kerry Calls for New Approach to Fighting Terrorism

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Location: Washington, DC


Kerry Calls for New Approach to Fighting Terrorism

Today, Senator John Kerry delivered remarks at Johns Hopkins University National Security Symposium with the American Security Project, on fighting terrorism and how we can make our country safer. Kerry addressed the current debate of "are we safer now than after 9/11" and laid out his argument for new framework for defeating terrorists, addressing head-on the ways in which the policy in Iraq has hurt us in this effort.

Below are his remarks, as prepared:

The American Security Project has a simple goal—to restore bipartisan, real thinking about America's security interests and to communicate those interests directly to the American people.

And what we've all witnessed just over the last two weeks has been a case study in exactly why we need the American Security Project. The debate over America's security has focused on a single question: "Are we safer now, today than we were on 9-11?"

This is a classic campaign over-simplification. It's the wrong question to ask because 1) it's subject to different interpretations and 2) it tells you nothing about the future.

Some can answer "yes of course we're safer" because of increased airport security, a revamped FBI, and improved intelligence coordination. Others will say "no" and point to an increase in nuclear weapons, failing states, jihadists, and violent anti-Americanism.

And you know what? They're all right.

Are we individually safer? In certain situations, yes. But are we collectively, as a country, more secure? Profoundly not. But the question that we ought to be debating, the question that America needs us to wrestle with, is not "are we safer than we were the day the Twin Towers fell?" The real question is: nearly six years after 9-11, are we as safe as we should be? And what must the next president do to get us there?

This much is clear: We are not yet doing all that we should be. We are clearly losing ground in the fight against terrorists worldwide. We have created more terrorists than we have killed. We are more isolated internationally. We are more divided domestically. And more than at any time in modern history, our forces are stretched to the breaking point.

The question of our present state of security is not simply an academic one, designed for think tank analysis. It's the essential challenge before our country today. Americans deserve -- and policy-makers must demand -- a better debate—and that's precisely why the American Security Project was founded.

In recent years, Washington's preferred currency for discussing national security has too often been cleverly sculpted sound bites, full of simplistic sloganeering, and calculated to scare people—not inform them. Often light on strategic thinking, sometimes light on truth, these sound bites - or slogans - are geared to polarize and obscure rather than galvanize and inform. It is no surprise that six months after the invasion of Iraq, 7 in 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9-11. That didn't happen by accident - and it provides a window into the poverty of our political discourse and our failure to communicate reality to the American people. We have to do a better job. We cannot accept a dialogue that—willingly or otherwise—obscures the reality of the threats we face and drowns out the real choices for making America safer.

The truth is that at a time of historic challenge, our struggle remains strikingly ill-defined. We are long overdue for a strategy that offers better answers to such basic questions as who, precisely, are we fighting? What is the nature of the battle? What is our strategy for victory? What role can our military effectively play? How important is America's moral authority in this struggle? How will we isolate radical Muslim extremists from the world instead of having them isolate us from our own allies?

The truth is also that far too much of what has been said and written in recent years about the fight against terrorists has been based on several dangerous misconceptions. Building a winning strategy requires us to expose and discard some of the faulty thinking that has undermined our efforts.

What are these myths and misconceptions? There are four principal fallacies that led us into this disastrous war in Iraq—and one that is still being used to justify our presence there today.

The most obvious is the notion that defeating terrorists is primarily a military effort focused on nation-states. The phrase "war on terror" purposefully brings to mind troops deployed to fight armies in battle. And this very mindset tempted the Administration to choose traditional targets like Iraq instead of hunting down non-state actors in Afghanistan. In fact, we now know that some in Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon initially considered bombing Iraq first instead of Afghanistan because military planners couldn't find enough Taliban targets to bomb—a vivid illustration of the flaws of an exclusively military-driven, state-centered approach divorced from the actual threats we faced then and still face today.

Make no mistake, the military clearly has a role to play -- sometimes even against another government. Exhibit A is Afghanistan -- where we were right - and we were unified - in overthrowing a regime that harbored the terrorists who attacked our homeland. But this is the exception. Don't take my word for it. There's a reason why the Army's own counterinsurgency manual written by General Petraeus makes clear that using massive military force risks playing into our enemies' hands. And Osama Bin Laden himself has declared that his strategy is to "provoke and bait" the United States into protracted "bleeding wars" that drain our resources and our national will while painting us as the aggressor in the eyes of the Muslim world. He's gotten exactly what he wanted in Iraq.

And we know that conventional military force is not the most effective way to destroy terrorists hiding out in sovereign nations. Getting that job done largely falls to our intelligence agencies and special operations forces, and it will always hinge on coordination with countries where terrorists hide - exactly the areas in which we are the least equipped to work effectively. Why does that matter? Because make no mistake, if an attack on America is ever hatched in a Pakistani neighborhood in London, we won't be bombing Buckingham Palace—we'll be working with MI5 to hunt down the perpetrators.

Fortunately, the American Security Project's own survey shows that the American people are way ahead of the narrow Washington political debate: most Americans now believe that "the war on terror will be won primarily through the aggressive use of intelligence and law enforcement." They believe that "Military force should be used in a limited and precise way." They're just looking for an honest dialogue about how to get there.

The second misconception - driven largely by political expediency—is that top Al Qaeda leaders like Bin Laden don't really matter. Eliminating them won't end the terrorist threat. But Osama Bin Laden, alive and well, stands as a monument to the world that extremists can escape and defy the most powerful nation on earth. And this madman continues to inspire - if not plan - more attacks. So we must redouble our efforts to deny al Qaeda leaders sanctuary in the lawless tribal areas — starting by asking more from Pakistan in return for the billions of dollars of counterterrorism aid. We cannot allow failure to simply be explained away-- not in Islamabad, and certainly not in Washington.

The third fallacy is the simplistic notion that all those extremists who hate us are fundamentally similar. Sun Tzu said, "if you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a setback." Our failure to appreciate the difference between a secular dictator and a religious terrorist led us into an invasion of Iraq that diverted our attention from those that attacked us. Even today, many politicians lump together dozens of competing factions into an undifferentiated "they" that includes Sunni and Shia, religious and secular, friends and sworn enemies alike. We've got to know our enemy in order to defeat them.

Fourth--it is a misconception that torturing prisoners, as we saw at Abu Ghraib, and detaining them indefinitely, as we are now at Guantanamo Bay, are effective ways of fighting terrorism. In fact they define the word "counterproductive." Just this week, a federal appeals court struck down part of the President's detainee policy as having —and I'm quoting judges here—"disastrous consequences for the Constitution and the country." It should disturb all of us that a proposal to double Guantanamo is considered red meat for Republican primary voters. Our military leaders tell us that torture does not yield better intelligence. And as Colin Powell has said, the world is beginning to doubt the moral authority of our fight against terrorism—our most precious asset in winning the war of ideas.

The final and currently most pressing misconception is that by fighting the enemy in Iraq, we will not have to fight them here. This is a dangerous illusion, and a false choice of epic proportions. The National Intelligence Estimate warned that Iraq has become a primary recruiting tool for terrorists worldwide. The CIA recently put it simply: "our presence in Iraq is creating more members of Al Qaeda than we are killing in Iraq." In fact, our current strategy in Iraq today rests on circular logic: we're staying there to prevent the very chaos and failed state that we uncorked by going there. We're staying to prevent what they are succeeding in doing because we are there. We have to break this cycle.

Taken together, what do these misconceptions tell us? For one thing, that Iraq is a case study for how not to defeat the terrorists. We diverted resources from the hunt for Bin Laden to invade Iraq, which had no operational ties to Al Qaeda. We diverted our attention from North Korea, which had nuclear weapons, and Iran, which is closer to acquiring them, to be consumed by Iraq, which had no weapons of mass destruction. Once we were there, we underestimated the insurgency, and lost the trust of the Iraqi people by failing to grasp the moral and non-military dimensions of our mission. Now we find ourselves stuck, refereeing a bloody Iraqi civil war that no American army, no matter how brave and skillful, cannot resolve.

Every day that we continue on this same path is a day that we play into the terrorists' hands. Bin Laden has stated that he wants to subject America to what the Soviets experienced in Afghanistan. Only it turns out that our "bleeding war" isn't in Afghanistan—it's in Iraq. To begin fighting terrorism more effectively, we need a change course in Iraq. And we ought to start by listening to General Petraeus, to every other military commander, to the Secretary of State and even to the President himself. They have all told us that there is no military solution to the violence in Iraq. There is only a political solution.

Despite the President's escalation of the war ostensibly to provide "breathing room" for Iraqi politicians, it's now clear that we're unlikely to see any substantive political progress before the end of this year. Kurds are blocking the oil law, Shiites are blocking plans to reintegrate Baathists into the government, Sunnis are demanding broad revisions to the Constitution. If Iraqi politicians fail to deliver, then those Republicans in Congress who are giving the Iraqis until September to make real political progress should be prepared to join Democrats in helping to end this war.

The fact is that no American soldier should die for an Iraqi government that cannot—or will not—do its part. Instead of bringing Iraq together, this government has become little more than a fig leaf for Iraqi politicians to pursue sectarian interests.

If we're serious about a political solution, we need a fresh start. Prime Minister Maliki should immediately fire all ministers not committed to political reconciliation and replace them with those who are. And the governing coalition should be realigned to isolate extremists and empower moderates.

We must also leverage Prime Minister Maliki's personal political future by making it clear that this truly is his last chance. If shaking up the government does not produce meaningful political progress in short order, if Maliki proves unwilling or unable to deliver results, a new leader should be given a chance.

But obviously a successful strategy for defeating terrorists involves more than just seeking resolution in Iraq. We need a comprehensive new approach to the entire region and the notion of a "war on terror."

Many of our best thinkers in the private sector and the Pentagon now speak of fighting terrorism as a "global counterinsurgency" The goal of counterinsurgency operations is far more than just killing insurgents. Ultimate success depends on winning over the local population and isolating the extremists. Applied to global terrorism, this leads us to focus on winning a global "information war," and turning "the street" against Al Qaeda wherever they seek a base of operations.

As we've seen in Iraq, this struggle cannot be won by military means alone. Again, it's the Army's new counterinsurgency manual that tells us "the more force used, the less effective it is." Successful counterinsurgency relies on every tool in our national arsenal—economic, political, military - and perhaps most importantly recognizes the power of our ideas.

It's the Tip O'Neill doctrine applied to a dangerous world - successfully fighting a global counterinsurgency recognizes that, just like politics, all terrorism is local. That means looking beyond catch-all phrases like "Islamo-Fascism" that obscure more than they illuminate. After all, Al Qaeda is, as the theorist David Kilcullen says: "sixty different groups in sixty different countries who all have different objectives."

We must be prepared to respond each situation differently, to adapt as our opponent adapts, and to tailor our response to the local conditions that give rise to terrorism. In some places, that means local development projects and television broadcasts. In others, it means visits to sheikhs in their tents and—when necessary—it means firing Cruise missiles at high value targets.

Some policymakers like to say we need to stay on the offensive against the terrorists. They tend to equate "offense" with military force. But we must never forget that we are fighting a battle within Islam for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere.

Al Qaeda understands that we are fighting an information war: they quadrupled their output of propaganda videos last year and take advantage of some 4,500 different jihadi websites. And we know that Al Qaeda's #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged Al Qaeda in Iraq to stop mass-murdering Shia civilians because he worried it would hurt Al Qaeda's reputation among moderate Sunnis. Today the sobering reality is that, in many quarters, we are losing a public relations battle to a gang of cave-dwelling mass-murderers.

Hezbollah understands that we are fighting an information war. After provoking Israel into a war last summer, do you know what Hezbollah did? They marked with their party flags all the houses that had been damaged—claiming them for Hezbollah to fix. As David Kilcullen said, "that's not a reconstruction operation—it's an information operation."

To succeed in this arena, we must regain our moral authority. Our actions matter more than our words: no Madison Avenue PR firm or public diplomacy czar can make the Arab world forget Abu Ghraib. This self-defeating tendency continues today at Guantanamo—which has become a catchphrase in every language for the perceived lawlessness of America's fight against terrorists. These policies amount to a unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas.

Understanding today's struggle as a global counterinsurgency makes clear the dangers of attacking Iran. At a debate last week, most of the Republican candidates seemed almost eager to use nuclear weapons preemptively. We can hope that this was political posturing, but just this weekend, Senator Lieberman advocated military strikes into Iran to disrupt insurgent networks. We all understand the threat Iran poses to the United States, and to our ally Israel. None of us accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. But my guess is Osama Bin Laden would love to see us bomb Iran, because it would stoke anti-Americanism, because it would weaken moderates everywhere, because it would unite the Islamic world against us.

These are the outcomes which smart, thoughtful, careful planning can help us avoid. My hope is that we can expose the misconceptions that have led us astray—and replace them with a better frame for understanding the threat we face. That is a primary mission of the American Security Project: to foster a national security dialogue worthy of our best traditions, and to shape a policy to tackle today's challenges that is equal to the statecraft that led us through yesterday's.

Five years into the Cold War, a Democratic President and a Republican Congress had already worked closely together to create a sustainable strategy for winning the Cold War. We had the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the UN, and the IMF. George Kennan's "Sources of Soviet Conduct" and SAIS founder Paul Nitze's NSC -68 clearly defined the enemy, the battlefield, and the strategy for victory. That generation created a bipartisan foreign policy framework that guided our actions for decades under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

Today, more than five years after 9-11, an effective strategy for fighting terrorism remains elusive—and there is precious little bipartisan trust on which to reach and sustain a truly national consensus.

That, my friends, is the tough work ahead of us. Just as getting out of Iraq has proved far more difficult than getting in, rebuilding a new bipartisan foreign policy will prove far more difficult than shattering the old one. But that is what this moment requires of us—vision, understanding toward those who hold honest disagreements, clear and critical thinking, and above all honesty with the American people. If we stay true to these principles, then perhaps five years from now, instead of asking "are we safer?" we can share together in the satisfaction of knowing that all of us—Democrats and Republicans alike—have worked together to do all that we could to make America as safe as it can be.


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