Fighting terrorism softly (Opinion)
July 10th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Fighting terrorism softly (Opinion)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of opinion articles about national security by participants in the upcoming Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event which is taking place from July 25-28 in Aspen, Colorado.

By Jane Harman

"Too often since 9/11," then-Sen. Barack Obama said during the last presidential campaign, "the extremists have defined us, not the other way around." In a major counterterrorism policy speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, Obama vowed that would change if he became president. "We will author our own story," he said.

Credit: Wilson Center

Unfortunately, one of the greatest security threats to this country continues to be the hijacking not only of our airplanes, but also of our national narrative.Many Americans think that the United States' primary role in the world is the projection of military might. And while the "hard power" represented by drone strikes and aircraft carriers is essential to our security, living and portraying our values is as - if not more - important in the long run.

The terrorists on the so-called "baseball cards" that the president and his advisers review before authorizing drone strikes are already beyond the point of no return -responsible either for directly killing Americans or inciting others to do so.

But what about the young people who perhaps see the aftermath of a drone strike and are still trying to decide whether or not to strap on that suicide vest? Whose story do we want them to hear? Ours or that of the extremists?

While the drone program is an effective tool to combat al Qaeda, "whack-a-mole" alone won't keep us safe. We need to win the argument.

Unfortunately, showcasing our values to the world has become increasingly difficult given Congress's lack of cohesiveness and eroding support for foreign aid. Blame-game politics has shifted the emphasis from creative ideas to crippling ideology, making it nearly impossible to raise and debate some of the toughest issues facing this country today.

As a result, we are perilously close to losing control of our own narrative, allowing extremists to slip in and define what we believe in and what we stand for in the post-9/11 world. Foggy laws and a lack of information surrounding targeted killings, preventive detention, and interrogation techniques have made it far too easy for terrorists to shape and spread their own story. And they will continue to use any stains on our record (think: Abu Ghraib) as ammunition.

So how can we "author our own story”?

One of the most powerful ways to project American values and define our interests is to display generosity and compassion in the wake of natural disasters. While the primary role of the military should not be to oversee recovery efforts after an earthquake, our extraordinary competence at staging disaster relief allows the US to puts its best face forward for those who might not otherwise see it.

At a panel on security resilience at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok last month, I outlined how the United States had the chance to showcase its better angels after several recent disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the Thai floods, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster.

Following these catastrophes, the U.S. provided more than just "hard" assistance designed to save lives. In Thailand, Americans and Thais packed and delivered food, donated blood, and gathered supplies together. In Japan, U.S. forces cleared rubble from schools. And in both places, Americans opened their homes to displaced colleagues and children.

These efforts had a direct impact on U.S. relations with the affected countries. Japanese Cabinet office polls registered record levels of public goodwill towards the U.S. after the rescue efforts, and 85% of Japanese viewed the United States positively in Pew's annual Global Attitude Project survey in 2011 - up from 66% the year before.

Ironically, our best foreign policy tool may be our generosity. Building trust both with citizens and governments after natural disasters can help increase future collaboration on other key issues-with counterterrorism topping the list. The capture of Indonesian-born terrorist Hambali, who was seized in Bangkok by Thai authorities, in many ways exemplifies the importance of establishing and maintaining these liaison relationships.

The war against al Qaeda and its affiliates is new in so many ways: Our enemies don't wear uniforms, the battleground isn't clearly defined, and the conflict is potentially never-ending. Still, some old war lessons might apply.

In a new book called “Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War,” political science professor Andrew J. Polsky draws on numerous historical examples to show that presidents at war are not as powerful as they think. Once conflict begins, they find themselves constrained by their earlier decisions. "I claim not to have controlled events," Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter during the Civil War, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Just as presidents lose control over events during wartime, they can also have difficulty holding on to a coherent narrative.

One of the biggest surprises of Barack Obama's presidency is that the cerebral law professor has emerged as an extraordinarily strong commander-in-chief, successfully targeting many of the world's most dangerous terrorists. Meanwhile, for the eloquent leader who promised to "author our own story," winning the war of words has become an even greater challenge.

While the president can't control every contingency on the ground, he (and Congress) has a responsibility to craft a winning narrative. When we fail to step up and define ourselves, the extremists will be happy to do it for us.

Jane Harman, a nine-term Congresswoman and former ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Zana Quander

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    June 3, 2019 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  2. Marketing

    I'm not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I figured I'd

    February 27, 2014 at 1:46 am | Reply
  3. Eddie Fonseca

    Billy Joel wrote a song called in a New York State of Mind that spoke of his love of the Big Apple from it's different cultures, to it's fantastic tourism scene which draws tourists from across the world as everyone gazes up on the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Towers. When terrorist's attacked the World Trade Towers on that dark day in American history, as thousand of innocent lives where sent to their death's we blamed innocent Muslims Americans for some crazy Muslims believe of America. As America and the world turned on Muslims American's we seem to forget that Bush started this war between America and the Middle East, instead of using the Military to kill more innocent people in the Middle East Obama decided to focus his attention on understand their culture and figuring which Arabs were responsible for the deaths of innocent Americans on 9/11. This why as American's we should not always use violence to solve problems but understand other cultures, and come to solutions which better our nation and keeps our citizens safe and let freedom prevail for all Americans and the rest of the world for years to come.

    November 17, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  4. Skorpio

    Islam is the root of the problem with terrorism all over the world not just America. Islam absurd theology, violence, discrimination, irrationality, distorted ethical values and immorality is causing conflicts worldwide. Islam is the ONLY COMMON FACTOR among terrorist attacks in the US, Iraq, Spain, Germany, India, Mali, Niger, Turkey, France, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, England, Somalia, Lebanon, Argentina, Bangladesh, Israel, The Netherlands, Yemen, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Sweden, Afghanistan, Russia, Chad, Kenya, Nigeria, Libya, Sudan, etc. etc.
    Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938) modern Turkey founder killed thousands of Islamic clerics (imams, muftis, sheiks, etc) in order to pacify and transform Turkey into a stable and secular nation. He once quoted “Islam, this absurd theology of an immoral Bedouin, is a rotting corpse which poisons our lives.”

    July 21, 2013 at 10:21 am | Reply
  5. Alex

    How can you change the minds of those who want nothing less than to kill you? Passionately?

    Either get them hooked on drugs or re-brainwash them.

    November 29, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
  6. Skorpio

    A pragmatic solution for Islamic violence is a MASSIVE CONVERSION OF MUSLIMS TO CHRISTIANITY or to any other religion except Islam. The best choice could be ANY of the Middle Eastern Arab CHRISTIAN churches which share the same language, culture and traditions as Muslims but NOT their satanic Islamic faith.

    October 13, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  7. lance

    pull out of these arab countries and stop immigration by muslims to america. deport and revoke all citizenship of muslims living in america this should keep us from going to war anymore with them.

    July 11, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  8. Harry Buck

    There can no solution to the terrorist matter without a resolution of Indian Occupied Kashmir and Palestine issues. Period.

    July 11, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
  9. Freize

    The denuclearization of South Asia (Subcontinent) particularly India is imperative.
    Quid pro quo transfer of nuclear technology by USA to third world countries such as India needs to be opposed on moral grounds. Billions of people live in that neighborhood and would be at risk from such catastrophes which I am sure the American people would not like to be a party to. We are all well aware that that region is prone to floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and of course terrorism placing such nuclear installations at tremendous risks. US Congress is urged to reconsider and cancel all the agreements for the transfer of such technologies due “Force Majeure”.

    July 11, 2012 at 10:27 am | Reply
  10. Obelisk ©™


    July 11, 2012 at 10:23 am | Reply
  11. Michelle

    think this article is on track. She should remember, that 1 on 1 contacts and friendships will lead the way toward her outcome as well as aid programs–which should be expanded. Our military should be used as brief insertions for key matters-special force ops, not this endless occupation. Might as well start building some malls and fast food restaurants in Kabul and Kandahar, seriously. Put up some economy housing. Anyway, I approve of the article and I hope she does more than write an article–how can she put these ideas into motion?

    July 11, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
  12. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    The author's approach is at best naive. She says we have to win the argument.

    As the saying goes " A PESSIMIST IS AN OPTIMIST WITH EXPERIENCE", while America' experience with Islamic terror is relatively recent, countries like India, much of the ME, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Europe (Spain in particular), have been at the receiving end of Islamic terror for over a 1,000 years with the aftermath littered all over these countries. In fact most of the countries in the ME, and S.Asia which were predominantly Hindu, Buddhist, Zorastrian etc. are now hardline Islamic nations themselves with absolutely no semblance of their glorious past.

    Coming to the author’s, yet again naive approach to winning the hearts & minds via aid & compassion, it's a well known fact that, even after showering billions in aid countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, the Palestinian territories remain rabidly Anti-US. In fact Pakistan DEMANDS all US aid in UNMARKED containers to be disbursed by their own people. Ironically even during the tragic earthquake and floods the Pakistanis wanted aid in the form of HARD CASH and NOT in terms of much needed supplies like tents, medicines, food etc. The sole evil purpose of that demand (NOT request) was to transfer the money into aiding the Taliban, and adding to their stockpile of Islamic Bombs (self declared) which they are adding as Richard Clarke (NSA Consultant put it) as fast as SAUSAGES!

    Incidentally, other Islamic apologists such as CNN's Mr. Fareed Zakaria also have been advocating the same approach, albeit with much more sinister anti-US, anti-Semite designs!

    In short none of this has ever worked, nor will it ever work!

    July 10, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Reply
    • Say it As You See It

      "Amnesty International has concluded that there is strong evidence that members of India’s Provincial Armed Constabulary were responsible for the Muslim massacre (hundreds of thousands) and the deliberate killing of unarmed civilians during the riots and following days."
      The report added that witnesses had charged PAC officers (all Brahmins and High caste Hindus) of herding Muslims into trucks and later shooting them dead (raping the Muslim ladies, in most cases). Their bodies were then tossed into canals and rivers

      July 11, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
  13. Rocky

    This article is the reason why terrorist will continue to attack the USA. The USA uses too much force, the USA doesn't give enough economic aid, blah, blah, blah.

    July 10, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  14. JJ

    I can hear the chorus of might-makes-right neanderthals clamoring "Nuke'em all and let God sort them out."

    July 10, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  15. Quigley

    Was 9/11 an inside job? Only the Washington insiders know for sure. What is certain is that that politicians in Washington, including George W,Bush milked for all it was worth and now this Mrs. Jane Harman is still trying to scare us over these so-called "Terrorists!" But what about those godless drones that we're using in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen? On this they remain stone silent!

    July 10, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  16. Reprinted With Permission ©

    "Amnesty International is calling for an impartial investigation into mass graves found in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Sunday, India's Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released a report saying a three-year investigation had uncovered 2,156 unidentified bodies in 38 sites in the region. In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International asked Indian officials to allow impartial forensic experts to carry out a thorough investigation of the skeletal remains. The rights group also urged Indian authorities to ensure the safety of the witnesses who gave statements to police during the investigation. Indian authorities conducted the inquiry in response to allegations that Indian security forces have committed rights abuses in fighting a more than two-decade-long Muslim separatist insurgency. Rights activists say at least 8,000 people have gone missing in Indian Kashmir since the separatists began fighting in 1989 for independence from Hindu-majority India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Rebel attacks and Indian government crackdowns have killed at least 50,000 people.

    July 10, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  17. magneticink

    Obama Tarzan, You Jane

    July 10, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
  18. michaelfury

    "the hijacking not only of our airplanes, but also of our national narrative"

    Interesting language, Ms. Harman. Remember that presentation to the HIC by the SWC that depicted Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth as dangerous extremists?

    Who has hijacked our national narrative, Ms. Harman?

    July 10, 2012 at 8:09 am | Reply
  19. saeed

    this coming from the usa and britain the very people that gave taliban weapons 10 years in a row this coming from the people that gave saddam the chemical weapons this coming from the same people that shock gaddafi hand u must be joking.

    July 10, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
    • saeedTheTowelHead

      Baaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Is that you Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddy?

      July 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Michelle

      That may or may not be true, most likely true. Our branches of government have a sad track record of not talking to each other. "Too many chiefs, not enough indians." However, there is, im sure, not some evil plot to orchestrate giving guns then declaring war on the gunners. How dumb would we be. I think this article is on track. She should remember, that 1 on 1 contacts and friendships will lead the way toward her outcome as well as aid programs–which should be expanded.

      July 11, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
  20. really???

    Here we go again with "9/11" Obama stinks bull.
    This gash is an Agency shill, then again Wolf is a Zionist shill. I guess I am a shill for the thinking man.
    Nothing in this opinion made any sense at all. "Just as presidents sometime loose control during..." COME ON!
    At lease CNN gets this stuff for free.
    I should sue to get the time I spent reading that back.

    July 10, 2012 at 6:25 am | Reply
    • Cyrus

      Make it class action.

      July 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply

    obama after six US TROOPS FALL in Afghanistan mess sends KARZAI hundreds of millions .

    obama give a new meaning to the terms "fighting softly" . obama has failed !

    July 10, 2012 at 5:15 am | Reply
    • But

      But Bush started it. Idiot.

      July 10, 2012 at 9:07 am | Reply
  22. WY

    Glad to read about effects based operations

    July 10, 2012 at 12:29 am | Reply
    • Ø

      This is too politicized to be effective at length. It would make more sense to do this under the U.N. authority.

      July 10, 2012 at 5:02 am | Reply

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