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Obama redefines war on terror

The president focuses on Al Qaeda and on repairing America’s image in the Muslim world.

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“The term ‘global war on terror’ came to represent an overambitious enterprise encompassing too many objectives, and it ended up sounding hubristic and defining the US for some foreign audiences in a way that did not advance our purposes,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “The term GWOT will be hard to kill, but there’s a reason we haven’t heard President Obama or anyone else in the new administration use it.”
As one retired senior military officer says, the term “war on terror” “connotes ‘old think’ and one of the most powerful messages that the new president can send is that we are approaching international issues with a fresh approach and a new level of sophistication.”

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Now, Mr. Jenkins says, we are more likely to hear references to “battling” or “combating” terrorism – words that take the ideological edge out of the fight, putting it more on par with combating crime.

In his first visit to the Pentagon Wednesday, Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff talked broadly about Iraq and Afghanistan but also about a global strategy for combating extremist ideology, says a senior defense official.

After the meeting, Obama told reporters of his message to the Joint Chiefs that he intends to spread the burden of securing US interests to other agencies.

“We have for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power,” Obama said.

Looking beyond the military

A common thread of Obama’s actions so far is “a shift away from terms and tools that are overly militaristic,” says Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s director of counterterrorism and intelligence studies. The trend now, says the former FBI analyst, will be toward an “all-elements-of-national-power approach to combating terrorism” including law enforcement, intelligence, financial tools, and diplomacy.

Underscoring the growing role that illicit drugs are playing in financing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Mr. Levitt says agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration will play a larger role in the new counterterrorist strategy.

But, he adds, that does not mean the new administration will be “soft” on terrorism. The military will be used when appropriate, he says, citing Obama’s call for more troops in Afghanistan and last week’s missile strikes in Pakistan.

Still, Obama is also signaling that he expects an America that lives by and promotes its values to be its own best ally in fighting extremism. Al Qaeda’s top leadership already seems rattled by a popular new American president whose middle name is “Hussein,” counterterrorism experts say. And by going on an Arab network and addressing the Muslim world in his inaugural address, Obama has shown he understands the importance of the president’s role.

Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were comfortable with the Bush administration’s more confrontational rhetoric, says RAND’s Jenkins. Resisting that language, he says, may be one of the best ways over the long run of defeating them.

“Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are desperate to engage Obama in their narrative,” Jenkins says, “and so far he’s showing us he’s not going to do that.”