Reform the Reforms
By Adam Garfinkle | May 25, 2011
Bin Laden’s death is an important inflection point in what used to be called the War on Terror. In a part of the world where politics are sharply polarized as “us against them” and highly personalized as well, leaders cum symbols mean a great deal in terms of recruitment and morale. Moreover, replacing bin Laden at the head of al-Qaeda will not be easy. He had charisma, the capacity to raise large sums of money, and the ability to unify an under-institutionalized organization made up of fanatics from many countries. The factionalism that has characterized al-Qaeda all along could now tear it apart.
Bin Laden’s death does not end the struggle with Salafi terrorism, however. There has been a certain decentralization of terror operations in recent years, what some refer to as the franchising of al-Qaeda. The security implications of this remain unclear, so we must remain vigilant. Beyond that, however, the psychological closure afforded by bin Laden’s death can enable us to change several policy directions that have gone astray in the last ten years.
First, we should shut down jihadi websites whose servers are based in the United States. Many will be amazed to learn that we allow such sites to function, but thanks to wrongheaded Justice Department policies, we do. As we turn the volume down on jihadi messages, we need to turn the volume up on our own counter-messaging to the Muslim world. Both phases of communications competition will require focused leadership, which is precisely what we have lacked in this area for the past decade.
Second, we should rethink the major reforms of the post-9/11 era: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence. Both “reforms” were poorly conceived and implemented. Both have introduced gratuitous layers of bureaucracy that do nothing to enhance the relevant organizations but instead slow everything down.
Third, we must roll back the institutionalized paranoia that has overtaken us since 9/11. Obviously our security procedures were too lax before 9/11, but we have really overdone it since. Having to take off our shoes before boarding airplanes; frisking elderly Irish nuns to prove we’re not profiling; messages above our highways reading “report suspicious activity”—all such nonsense communicates to would-be attackers that it is easy and economical to terrorize Americans. These self-inflicted wounds do not deter attack; they invite it, even as they sap the optimist spirit that is one of America’s greatest assets.
Finally, we need to examine unsentimentally the pattern of failures at the CIA. That it took the abundantly resourced American intelligence community nearly a decade to find this horrible man is an embarrassing case in point—one among many. Hopefully, the trove of documents and hard drives taken from bin Laden’s compound will help us reconstruct his movements since the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, and we will use the opportunity to rigorously uncover and repair the flaws in CIA sources and methods. That would be not a moment too soon.
Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.
War on Terror: The End? A Symposium.
David Rieff: Fighting the Last War
Jacob Heilbrunn: Death of the Bush Doctrine
Adam Garfinkle: Reform the Reforms
Michael C. Desch: How Much Does Osama Matter?
Ivan Eland: Declare Victory and Come Home