Obama Admin’s New Counterterror Strategy Discards ‘Absurd’ Bush Notion Of Al Qaeda Global Caliphate

President Obama's Top Counterterror Adviser John Brennan

Yesterday at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan formally laid out the Obama administration’s broad approach to combatting terrorism. In his speech, Brennen acknowledged that the administration’s goals “track closely with the goals of the previous administration” and that the new strategy “neither represents a wholesale overhaul — nor a wholesale retention — of previous policies.”

However, Brennan stressed one key difference in approach from the Bush administration, saying that “our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.” But what reporting on the new strategy has widely overlooked, is that the the United States will no longer treat al Qaeda as an existential threat or as a force that is capable of taking over countries or regions of the world and instituting totalitarian rule:

Our strategy is also shaped by a deeper understanding of al-Qa’ida’s goals, strategy, and tactics. I’m not talking about al-Qa’ida’s grandiose vision of global domination through a violent Islamic caliphate. That vision is absurd, and we are not going to organize our counterterrorism policies against a feckless delusion that is never going to happen. We are not going to elevate these thugs and their murderous aspirations into something larger than they are.

This point of view, as basis for dealing with al Qaeda, is a significant departure from the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy. In its 2006 “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” the Bush White House described the terror threat as such:

What unites the movement is a common vision, a common set of ideas about the nature and destiny of the world, and a common goal of ushering in totalitarian rule. What unites the movement is the ideology of oppression, violence, and hate.

Indeed, in his speech announcing the strategy, President Bush justified this policy, saying that Osama bin Laden wanted to make Baghdad the “capital of the Caliphate“:

They hope to establish a violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call a “Caliphate” — where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology. Osama bin Laden has called the 9/11 attacks — in his words — “a great step towards the unity of Muslims and establishing the Righteous… [Caliphate].” This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

This is obviously, as Brennen said, “absurd.” Al Qaeda isn’t taking over anything and it’s refreshing for United States counterterror policy to officially recognize that.