-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 13, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 13 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-
The background of Obama’s national-security team, and of his top intelligence officers, has been one of the biggest reality checks that many of his supporters still cannot come to terms with.
Obama’s appointing Leon Panetta, who represents the establishment more than a “clean break,” to head the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA; his assembling a national-security team consisting of people who all supported the Iraq war in the past; his ruling out of any kind of investigation into intelligence officers who helped lay the ground for torture and enhanced interrogation techniques; and his continued application of some of the most criticized pillars of the war on terror have appalled these liberals.
Perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the new administration, Obama’s counter-terrorism tsar John Brennan publicly tried to explain the administration’s counter-terror policies and how they differ from past practices in a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, a leading Washington, D.C., think tank, last Thursday.
Brennan’s talk was especially important since it came after the publication of an article by Panetta in the Washington Post’s Aug. 2 online edition. In this opinion piece, Panetta essentially called on Democrats to recognize that the “reality” of Sept. 11, 2001, is what steered the operation of the George W. Bush administration in the subsequent months and used that to justify not looking into suspected crimes from that period.
“The question is not the sincerity or the patriotism of those who were dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11. The country was frightened, and political leaders were trying to respond as best as they could,” Panetta wrote. “Judgments were made; some of them were wrong. But that should not taint those public servants who did their duty pursuant to the legal guidance provided. The last election made clear that the public wanted to move in a new direction.”
With this, Panetta plainly asked the U.S. Congress not to investigate any past wrongdoings, and justified the CIA senior leadership’s management under George Tenet, who helped design and implement the policy of then-President Bush.
After Panetta’s opinion piece came out last week, criticism of Obama’s national-security policies increased even further. Since it was known that Obama’s national-security team had already decided to continue implementing many of the previous anti-terror policies, the CIA director’s arguments were seen as implying also that the “war on terror policies” of the past administration were legitimate and fair, given the circumstances of Sept. 11. Hence, the remarks by Brennan, who holds the highest staff rank within the White House and has decades of intelligence background at the CIA, were especially important in finally distinguishing the policies of the two administrations.
Yet there is one little problem. Brennan is also known for his association with and support of the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogation” techniques. That was why his name was withdrawn from consideration for the position of CIA chief during President Obama’s transition period.
During his presentation at the CSIS, Brennan summed up the Obama administration’s national-security outlook and conveyed some important messages, saying that the period of the “global war on terrorism” and “war against jihadists” is officially over. In explaining why the United States will also stop using the terms like “fight against the jihadists,” he showed that U.S. intelligence officers and bureaus are finally getting the hang of some of the most important “Islamic” terms, and that they have started to understand some of the intricacies and sophistication of the world they are dealing with.
Brennan acknowledged that calling people jihadists, a term referring to a Muslim who strives to purify himself by fighting with evil forces of the inner or outer world to reach moral heights, is not the best way to describe your enemies. On the contrary, this definition legitimizes their undeserved claims.
Though Brennan still received some harsh questions about his role during the previous administration, he did not let these questions distract him from the main theme of his talk.
In light of Brennan's speech, we now see that America’s new administration is trying to define combating terrorism from a different angle and wants to address it accordingly. For example, Brennan said that there is no global war on terror, adding that such a definition gives ammunition to Al-Qaeda militants, who recruit youngsters with the idea that there is a war between good and evil. The Bush administration confirmed for years that the globe is indeed divided into two, and that people or countries are either with Americans or against them – rhetoric that made many ordinary Muslims swing to the other side. It was amazing to hear Brennan say that this aggressive tone and rhetoric of is now out of date.
Critics of the Obama administration’s national-security policies have, I believe, gone too far in blaming him for continuing with national-security officials of the past. One should rather ask: From where could Obama have brought, all of a sudden, all the capable people needed to run an intelligence agency, or, indeed, the country’s entire national security, which requires experienced people who are familiar with highly sophisticated intelligence techniques and challenges? They could not fall from the sky; they had to come from the field and had to have deep knowledge of the developments of recent years.
U.S. intelligence personnel did what they were asked to do over the past eight years, Panetta said in his op-ed column in the Washington Post. Now, Brennan suggested, their qualifications will have to be put to good use to “promote dignity” in U.S. foreign engagements around the world. Brennan’s name may have disappointed those who expected too much from Obama, but his talk summed up quite well the US officials’ new and better understanding of Islamic terminology and its respectful engagement with the Muslim world.
After seeing years of top American intelligence officials and lawmakers who could not distinguish between Sunni and Shiite, hearing a good analysis and understanding of Islamic terminology and deferential language seems like a very good start.