Washington, D.C.–At an April 11 conference at Georgetown University, Harvard counterterrorism expert Louise Richardson offered a list of recommendations for the next American president in dealing with terrorism:

1.  Downgrade counterterrorism to a status below many other issues, and don’t conflate the problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction with terrorism.

2.  Contain the threat from specific groups like al Qaeda.

3.  Don’t let terrorist groups provoke us into elevating their stature.  Recognize the asymmetry of terrorism whereby the various groups operate in obscurity and are eager to gain equal status with the U.S.

4.  Repudiate unequivocally the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration.

5.  Develop a new language to talk about terrorism and counterterrorism.

6.  Plan a response against the next terrorist attack, which is bound to come.

7.  Take symbolic actions–for instance, close Guantanamo.

8.  Separate counterterrorism from Iraq.

9.  Educate the public about terrorism and about being citizens of the most powerful country in the world, with a responsibility to consider the global impact of U.S. policies.

10.  Educate the public about the nature of democracy, which is more than mere elections.

Richardson pointed out that, while there is no single silver bullet against terrorism, government tend to get better at counterterrorism over time.  We should seek to learn from the mistakes of others.

Coercive and conciliatory tactics work best in combination against terrorism, she said.  Military forces are too blunt a tool; only highly discriminatory force is effective.  Specific tactics like decapitation of terrorist groups or incentives for defection work in some cases but not in others.  Decapitation is unlikely to work against al Qaeda.

In general, Richardson argued that by downplaying counterterrorism, relying on intelligence, exploiting fissiparous tendencies in terrorist groups, and coordinating with allies, the next administration could conduct a much more successful counterterrorist policy than the current one.

Richardson is executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.  She is the author of “What Terrorists Want:  Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat”,  New York:  Random House, 2007.

Kenneth J. Dillon


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