I was out of commission most of last week, and so unable to comment as the Obama administration and the American public's response to the failed airplane bomber unfolded (except on the BBC, where to my everlasting delight the host let me say "Captain Underpants" to a global audience; 4-8 year old boys everywhere rejoiced). But is too much to ask that the national discourse over the failed bomber be more mature and analytical than "Captain Underpants vs Professor Poopypants"? The way the media and the American political system has responded, I'm not so sure. I'm fairly confident that the Obama administration, despite some mistakes along the way, will maintain its effective approach to marginalizing al Qaeda and combatting the still dangerous but tiny jihadist core. But the last few weeks show that -- aside from some very good op-eds calling for calm and warning against overreaction -- bad old habits of political discourse die hard, and a lot of people don't want them to die at all.
The attempted bombing was a disturbing, but fairly unexceptional incident. Al Qaeda affiliated individuals and groups have tried repeatedly over the last 8 years to find ways to strike against the U.S. and Western targets. Sometimes those plots have been rolled up early, sometimes they have gotten closer to succeedings, sometimes they have tragically succeeded (yes, they do count even if they are not on American soil). It is just wrong to suggest that Obama has not taken al Qaeda seriously just because he doesn't use the magic words so beloved of his critics. His administration has continued or expanded a wide range of effective measures to degrade and dismantle its networks across the region and world. Its escalation in Afghanistan was, for better or for worse, largely justified in terms of degrading and destroying al Qaeda's South Asian base. There do seem to have been some issues with the coordination of information sharing and all that, but the hard reality is that there is no such thing as perfect security or a perfect system, and these guys are professionals doing their best (including Michael Leiter, director of the NCTC, for whose head a lot of people were baying; it is to Obama's credit that he brushed them aside and kept experienced and effective leaders in place).
Even had the attempt succeeded, al Qaeda's basic situation would have been largely the same as it was before: a still dangerous, mobilized but small jihadist core which can do great damage in specific places but has lost its ability to reach out to a wider Arab or Muslim audience. The strategic imperative would have remained the same: going after this tiny but dangerous AQ networks in all possible ways, while ensuring that it does not regain any ability to break out into the wider Arab or Muslim population. Obama and his team understand this very well, and remain determined to deny al Qaeda the strategic victory of refueling the "clash of civilizations" narrative of a West against Islam. As the President said today, “how we project ourselves to the world, the message we send to Muslim communities around the world, the overwhelming majority of which reject al Qaeda but where a handful of individuals may be moved by a jihadist ideology, what counter-messaging we have to them -- all those things — continue to be extraordinarily important.” That's just right.
But the American media and political system don't seem to be wired for such a temperate, rational response. The exultant release of the pent up desire of much of the media for Bush-era posturing has been about as pretty as the Packers defense yesterday. (Sorry.) It was the media -- egged on by right wing critics eager to score political points, but manifestly enthusiastic all on its own -- which took a failed plot and blew it up into a major national crisis. The American media and political frenzy had a real political impact where it matters most -- in the Arab and Muslim audiences whose views of al Qaeda and America are at stake. The initial Arab response to the attempt was a collective shrug, indifference at yet another failed plot by a marginalized actor. Now, the Arab public seems increasingly fascinated by the story, with more articles and commentary about a resurgent al Qaeda than in the immediate aftermath, and Arab commentators seem increasingly angered by the Obama administration's reactions. Between them, the American media and political gamesmanship transformed yet another al Qaeda failure into what it can now claim as a success. They must be very proud.
Faced with this political frenzy (over the holidays, no less), the Obama administration did seem to be falling back into those old habits of the GWOT, likely against their better foreign policy instincts. This led to some off-key messaging from an strategic communications perspective. Obama's stern declarations that we are at war with al-Qaeda tended to drown out his simultaneous insistence that it would not force the United States to compromise its values. Rightly or wrongly, to Arab and Muslim ears this sounded much like the old Bush talk, and the announcement of extra screening for people coming from primarily Muslim countries sounded much like the old Bush deeds. Arab commentators noticed and complained bitterly. Such talk reinforces the increasingly dangerous narrative in the Arab media that Obama is really no different from Bush, and that whatever his intentions he can't deliver real change.
It's not too late to walk this particular frenzy back. The worst thing which Obama could do now is to return to the old GWOT frame to placate domestic critics while losing sight of the strategic urgency of reshaping American relations with the Muslim world. I don't think he will. I have more confidence than do some of my colleagues on this score, I think. I think that Obama's team really does understand both the security demands of combatting an adaptive and resilient but small jihadist core and the strategic demands of marginalizing al Qaeda and reshaping America's relations with the Muslim world. I hope they get back to it.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.