Center for Strategic Communication

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.