Some strikingly optimistic language about al Qaeda in Obama's State of the Union speech, which he just delivered:
...we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda....
Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations.
The unapologetic use of the word 'occupy' is refreshing, though there are clearly limits to Obama's candour. Just two sentences later, he makes a promise that America will continue to take 'direct action' against terrorists. I guess its considered impolite to say 'kill' in the US congress.
But what the remarks about al Qaeda really put me in mind of is a 2006 article by James Fallows encouraging the Bush Administration to change the tone of the fight against terrorism by declaring victory.
Al Qaeda had a bleed-until-bankruptcy plan, argued Fallows, trying to provoke America into expensive and self-defeating military action that would ultimately undermine the economic foundations of the country. A self-declared open-ended war on multiple fronts, including the occupation of two countries, played right into that plan and was 'an open-ended invitation to defeat', since no amount of protection and security could defeat every terrorist attack.
Instead, the US should de-escalate the rhetoric of emergency and a unified global terrorist threat, and 'shift its operations to a long-term, nonemergency basis.' Fallows' recommendation:
The United States can declare victory by saying that what is controllable has been controlled: Al-Qaeda Central has been broken up. Then the country can move to its real work. It will happen on three levels: domestic protection, worldwide harassment and pursuit of al-Qaeda, and an all-fronts diplomatic campaign.
Particularly with the accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan that Obama announced in his speech today, that sounds reasonably close to the strategy his administration is now pursuing.