National Security

The White House and the War on Terror

July 27, 2012

During an Aspen Security Forum discussion on the White House’s role in counterterrorism, former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush Kenneth Wainstein; Senior Director for Community Partnerships on the National Security Staff at the White House Quintan Wiktorowicz; and former Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor for Combating Terror Juan Zarate debated some of the most contentious issues in conversation with TIME senior correspondent Michael Crowley, including delegating authority to make decisions, predator drone strikes, and the semantics of the war on terror. 

All agreed that the relationship between the White House and other government agencies in combating terrorism was a dance. “There is an inherent tension between the White House’s classic role of strategy and how deeply they get involved in operations,” Zarate said. “That balance is constantly being drawn on in each and every case, and no one is like the other.” Reflecting on the constant high-level counterterrorism meetings during his years in the Bush administration, Wainstein stressed the importance of keeping the president continually apprised of the security situation. “When a president has to make a critical decision quickly, you don’t want him to need a crash course in Counterterrorism 101,” he said. “You want a well-informed president who is sitting with the relevant people on a regular basis and absorbing the information so he can make decisions with context.”

But Zarate also emphasized that the White House taking too prominent a role in operations can leave other vital agencies marginalized. “The White House has to be careful about becoming the center of operations and diplomacy,” he said. “You want to be effective and out there and working…but you’ve got to balance that with not being the entire face of the government.”

The panelists disagreed over the utility of re-labeling the ‘war on terror’ the ‘war against al-Qaeda’, debating whether the semantic shift reflected new realities or was incomplete. “The evolution from the ‘war on terror,’ which is a broad, nebulous concept, to something very specific, the ‘war on al-Qaeda’, has allowed us to focus our relationships with Muslim countries on non-terror-related issues…which has given us entrée into conversations we previously would have struggled to have,” Wiktorowicz said. Zarate countered that labeling the war as against terror was a philosophical point, and that the narrowed scope did not capture the full range of threats still facing the country. “What are we battling?” he said. “We’re seeing a fractured al-Qaeda, but terrorism is still out there in many ways…I’m not sure the War on al-Qaeda describes this.”

Considering the peril of American drone strikes turning local populations towards militants, Wiktorowicz doubted halting the strikes would have a major impact. “When al-Qaeda recruits, they look to tap into anger, and will use any narrative that supports the US being at war with Islam,” he said. He recounted seeing extremists passing out pamphlets in London with graphic images of dead children, claiming the carnage was the handiwork of American soldiers in Iraq. Actually, the images were from the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack against the Kurds in the 1980s. If it weren’t drones, it would be something else,” Wiktorowicz said. “Al-Qaeda is very creative at pulling different issues back into this central narrative.”

For more on the Aspen Security Forum: Check out the agenda; view the photo gallery, and follow along live.