Brennan on Obama’s Counterterrorism Policy–the FATAVE?

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan gave a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism approach.  Patricia Kushlis titles her review of the speech “It’s Official: The Global War on Terror is Over.”

Google Trends Analysis--GWOT

Google Trends Analysis--GWOT

But it was official back in March/April, and unofficial stoppage of GWOT talk predates that.  The Google Trends graph shown here indicates that use of the term plummeted as soon as Obama took office.  It spiked in late March with the reporting that it was dead, and has been on a slow decline since.  Good riddance.

Brennan’s correctly said that “how you define a problem shapes how you address it.”  But how you label it is also important.  So there is still the issue of what we are going to call this effort now.

The meaning-free replacement the Obama Administration proposed last spring, “Overseas Contingency Operation,” has not exactly caught the public imagination.  Another Google Trends analysis (not shown) has it peaking with the aforementioned news reports, and tailing-off to nothing today.  May it rest in peace along with GWOT.

In his speech Brennan talked about the “fight against terrorists and violent exrtremists.”  Could this be a trial balloon for a new label, with the acronym FATAVE?  Well it’s better than “Overseas Contingency Operation.”  While it trippeth not off the tongue, and there will be confusion over how to pronounce it (fahta-vee? fah-tayv?) it is certainly more sonorous than GWOT (jee-whot).

The Obama Administration may still be working on the label thing, but Brennan makes it clear that they do have a new policy.  For me this is the most interesting part of the speech, which formally lays out their strategy for the first time of which I am aware.  Its five elements are:

  1. Make the FATAVE a part of our national security policy, not the entirety of it.
  2. Stop framing this as a  conflict of interests and start framing it as a pursuit of common interests.  Though we don’t flatter ourselves with the idea that there is a direct connection, this is something we strongly advocated in our book.
  3. Develop a more accurate understanding of the causes and conditions that fuel violent extremism.
  4. Address the upstream factors–the political, economic, and social conditions–that create grievances and lead to support of the Bad Guys.  I heard this described at a recent DoD conference as an effort to “get to the left of boom.”
  5. Set a good moral example.

We here at the CSC would propose that one item be added to this list:  Develop a better command of the narrative.   Narratives are crucial reservoirs of cultural knowledge.  Our FATAVE adversaries are masters at framing our actions in negative ways that tap old and meaningful stories in the Muslim world.  For example they routinely label us as Crusaders.  We have not understood the power of rhetoric like this, how the Bad Guys use these Mater Narratives, or how to resist their efforts.  Likewise we have not been very good at telling a compelling alternative story about what we’re trying to do.

The desire to make improvements in this area is implicit in the five elements Brennan explained, but it deserves to be adopted as an explicit element of communication strategy.

5 Responses to “Brennan on Obama’s Counterterrorism Policy–the FATAVE?”

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  1. It’s been pretty clear to me for some time that GWOT was replaced with the term Global Engagement by the Obama administration. Conceptually and otherwise, global engagement works for me as I wrote in the rest of my post (and have been writing on WV for the past several months). Thanks for reading – and appreciate the graph. What surprised me was that Brennan still thought it necessary to formally call GWOT dead when as you point out GWOT’s demise in the military sense occurred in March.

    In my opinion, however, “overseas contingency operation” just doesn’t work either – doesn’t make sense conceptually, in terms of reality or in terms of language.

    • editor says:

      Thanks for the remarks, Patricia. I’m not sure “Global Engagement” works for me as a replacement for GWOT though. I agree that it’s a good concept for the Obama Administration’s overall approach to diplomacy, and it makes for a nice contrast to their predecessors’ “my way or the highway” approach. But for the specific effort against the Bad Guys it seems like too generic a frame, and even a little euphamistic. Perhaps I’m wrong and there’s no need to have a specific label for it. OTOH can we realistically expect the government, especially the military, to operate without an acronym? I think not!

  2. Christopher Steinitz says:

    Thank you for posting this important speech, which sheds light of the fundamentally different approach the new administration brings to our foreign policy. It seems to me that by making the policies-formerly-known-as-GWOT a part of our broader national security objectives does not necessarily require a relabeling of the thing because each of its elements has found its rightful place in other aspects of the broader policy. If we are looking for labels, though, I think that the Obama administration is trying to forge a Partnership for Global Stability. This captures the key approach of multilateralism / global engagement, while invoking a traditional pragmatic view of the importance of a stable international political system. The key will be to interlace such a doctrine with fundamentals of democratization (beyond simple elections) and good governance, understanding that these make for a more stable world than blind support for authoritarians. Personally, I believe the Obama administration is blazing a trail in this new direction.


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