John Kerry on Misconceptions in Fighting Terrorism

The Boston Globe reports that John Kerry has blasted Republican foreign policy in a speech at a speech at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. As is common for the news media covering complex ideas, the report hardly does Kerry’s ideas justice. These ideas aren’t really new as Kerry had issued similar warnings even before the war. Kerry had also written about the dangers of terrorism well before 9/11, when most Republicans were in denial regarding the problem and blocking Democratic efforts to take action.

Perhaps with a growing number of Americans realizing that George Bush’s foreign policy has made us less safe and has made al Qaeda and other foreign enemies stronger, more will finally pay attention to Kerry’s views on foreign policy. As the news report fail to really convey the ideas presented, I have posted a portion of Kerry’s speech under the fold. This portion begins with Kerry discussing four misconceptions on fighting terrorism.

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.

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  1. 1
    FDS says:

    Kerry’s idea of foreign policy was to hire a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers like Joe Wilson and others. Now, dems want to start a Peace Corps to fight terrorism.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    That is not what John Kerry is saying at all.

    It is a shame that close minded Republicans consistently choose to misrepresent what non-Republicans say as opposed to responding to their actual ideas.

    The reason for this is obvious. They are unable to back up their ideas or refute Kerry’s ideas, so they are forced to resort to distorting what Kerry says and hope that people don’t hear Kerry’s actual message over all their noise.

  3. 3
    Keenan says:

    Ron, you know you rank really low on the Rethugs hit list when they send someone as pathetic as FDS to berate you! Oh well, we all can’t be Greenwald. I completely agree with Kerry, btw.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:


    This status thing in the blogosphere is getting complicated. So I not only have to worry about page loads, number of links, and number of feedburner readers, but now I have to watch the quality of conservative comments? I guess I need to try harder to attract a higher quality troll here 🙂

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