PUBLISHED:April 14, 2008

Conference explores strategies for next administration in the war on terrorism

April 14 — An interdisciplinary conference April 10-11 explored strategies the new presidential administration can employ to effectively confront terrorism.

“Combating Terrorism: Charting the Course for a New Administration” brought together experts from the top levels of the military, intelligence, diplomatic, legal and academic communities to address topics such the role of the international community in combating terrorism; the prosecution of alleged terrorists in federal courts; the “extraordinary rendition” of alleged terrorists; domestic spying; the accountability of private military contractors; and the role of lawyers in these issues. Three keynote events provided further insight into the future of U.S. foreign policy in the war on terrorism, the state of homeland security, and the state of political development in Iraq.

Iraqi ambassador lists errors, lauds surge
Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraqi ambassador to the United States since 2006, expressed deep gratitude for American intervention in Iraq which, he said, “the bulk of Iraqis” also welcomed. While he extolled the positive results of the 16-month-old troop surge in combating the insurgency and securing communities, he dubbed efforts until then poorly managed and often “disastrous.”

The advice of many “well-informed, well-educated Iraqis” was not heeded, and the United States invaded Iraq without fully understanding what they were “getting into” and what needed to be done, he said. In particular, the administration failed to understand how international sanctions had strengthened Saddam’s regime, while devastating the social fabric of the country, leaving corruption endemic and ingrained.

The invasion, with insufficient force to maintain law and order, followed by the disbanding of the army, and the effective disbanding of the police, plunged Iraq into “lawlessness,” which gave rise to the insurgency and allowed Al Qaeda to gain a foothold in a country that had already gone through two wars, said Suaida’ie.

“A whole generation of young people knew nothing except fighting,” Sumaida’ie said. “They were full of anger, had no skills, and the only thing they knew was violence and aggression. It was in this environment that Iraq was plunged into lawlessness without the protection of any safety network to protect the ordinary citizens and communities.”

The Coalition Provisional Authority’s treatment of Iraq as an occupied country was also disastrous, he continued, as it cast the nascent government in the role of collaborators and the terrorists and insurgents in the role of freedom fighters, a view fanned by Arab and Al Qaeda media. “To this day we cannot remove the stain — we are still fighting this label of occupation.” Mistakes were compounded when the U.S. pushed for elections while ethnic and sectarian tensions were still overly volatile, leading to “a dysfunctional parliament and a dysfunctional government,” he said.

The pattern of awarding major contracts for services and infrastructure in Washington and then allowing them to be subcontracted without oversight meant that U.S. tax dollars were spent with little effect, said Sumaida’ie. In the communications context it led to the loss of the “public information war,” he said, leaving the government unable to counteract the messages of “Saddamists” and anti-American voices from other Arab countries. “It’s not surprising to see why we are in the mess that we are.”

Emphasizing that the counterinsurgency tactics employed since the surge have been remarkably effective in eradicating safe havens for terrorists and securing communities, Sumaida’ie said that Iraq is not on an “upward spiral.”

“Iraq is the product of thousands of years of living side by side, he said. Once the stresses and strains of their circumstances are reduced, Iraqis themselves can reach accommodation. … We are not suddenly going to be transformed into a tranquil and prosperous society. This will happen over time — slowly, incrementally, but surely.”

Speakers list priorities for combating terrorism
Likening terrorism to an international social disease, Sumaida’ie said that it must be fought at its source. “By the time a suicide bomber is moving towards his target, it’s already too late. The smart thing to do is to stop him from even thinking about it — to stop the schools and the educational system and the parental guidance and the culture and environment that breed that bomber.” He called for the United Nations to make it mandatory for member countries to create laws and instruments to combat terrorism in this way. While defending freedom of expression, he called for approaches to limiting media which incites terrorism.

During another keynote discussion, Duke University public policy scholars and political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Bruce W. Jentleson explored how the next administration can shape U.S. foreign policy for the continuing war on terrorism. They agreed that the highest priority should be given to avoiding a catastrophic terrorism event — the very real threat posed by a suitcase bomb or otherwise technologically “super-empowered” individual. They also agreed on the need to continue to adapt military doctrine, training, capabilities, and force structure to fit the counterterrorism duties, as global challenges increasingly take the form of “asymmetric warfare.”

With early victories in Afghanistan eroded, America needs more allied partners “buying into the hard parts of the mission,” said Jentleson who, with Feaver, directed a research project funded by the Carnegie Corporation called “Wielding American Power: Managing Interventions after September 11.” The mission itself, he suggested, should address political, economic, and civil-action objectives — areas where the U.S. can learn from NATO allies — in addition to military objectives.

Feaver, who worked as the special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council staff at the White House, said the next administration must build a stable, bipartisan legal foundation or framework for the war on terror, both domestic and international, and focus on the area of public diplomacy.

“The next administration must make more progress on the war of ideas than this administration has,” said Feaver. “President Bush recognized the importance of that early on, but no one is satisfied with the level of progress.” The United States has to understand what cultural, nationalistic, and economic conditions exist and may be fomenting terrorism, added Jentleson.

Paul Rosensweig, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), predicted a shift in counter-terrorism strategy and activity from one that is primarily defensive to one that is offensive, focused on the active disruption of terrorism.

“In other parts of the government, they’ve been actively disrupting terrorism for some time,” said Rosensweig, detailing activities that have disrupted financing and communications networks and forced terrorists to travel the world carrying both messages and funds. In such a climate, passenger data regarding credit card numbers and traveling companions which is supplied to carriers prior to travel — so-called passenger name records or PNR — becomes very important. “PNR allows us, through link analysis, to link people on watch lists to unknown individuals,” he said. Passenger data is currently an issue high on the transatlantic agenda, he observed.

Principally organized by Scott Silliman, executive director the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security (LENS), the conference was co-sponsored by LENS, the Center for International and Comparative Law, and the Program in Public Law at Duke Law School, and was financially supported by other Duke organizations.