Nearly 12 Years Later, Talking Past One Another on Counterterrorism Policies

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Reasonable people can disagree. And sometimes, even in Washington, they manage to reach a compromise. Just not on counterterrorism policies, it seems.

To be sure, U.S. national security policymaking has become just as politicized as any other national policy issue — though somewhere south of health care.

During the George W. Bush era, Democrats often slammed the GOP president and his administration over its counter-al-Qaida policies and operations. When the 2008 election gave the Democrats the White House, the script was flipped, with conservatives panning President Barack Obama’s policies.

While the disputes provide fodder for reporters and political operatives, when one examines what the two sides actually are saying, it often feels like there’s more agreement on substance. (We hear substance still matters in the Twitter era. Sometimes.)

It can feel like the two sides aren’t solely trying to score political points. Rather, it seems they’re just talking past one another. And this makes one wonder how al-Qaida has largely failed to capitalize on Washington’s lack of willingness to communicate with itself.

Take comments made Tuesday at an event in Washington by Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as I reported on

Joscelyn ticked off a list of al-Qaida affiliates that did not exist before 9/11, saying while “it’s not the most popular brand in the Muslim world … they’re still capable of coming forward” to plan and carry out attacks.

His list includes al-Qaida cells in Mali, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Somalia.

“We can’t just say this group isn’t al-Qaida but this group is [because] they’re supporting al-Qaida and its strategic goals,” Joscelyn said.

Let’s rewind, shall we? In May, during a major counterterrorism speech at National Defense University in Washington, Obama addressed al-Qaida’s affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa:

“What we’ve seen is the emergence of various al-Qaida affiliates. From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with al-Qaida’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula — AQAP — the most active in plotting against our homeland,” Obama said in May. … And while none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.”

The lists aren’t identical. But they’re also not that different. There appears to be more agreement than all the rhetoric indicates.

When two sides are purely playing politics, agreement on some issues is possible because both parties have things to gain and things to lose.

That’s not possible when two sides are merely talking past one another, completely disinterested in what the other guy is saying. Thankfully, there are enough solutions-focused civilian and uniformed military and intelligence personnel who have succeeded at preventing another 9/11-style al-Qaida attack.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett