Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Does U.S. Foreign Policy Spur National Security Threats?

by Micah Zenko
June 1, 2015

CIA Director John Brennan listens to remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Director of National Intelligence Office to mark its 10th anniversary on April 24, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters)


Yesterday on “Face the Nation,” CIA Director John Brennan made an unnoticed but significant acknowledgement about the conduct and consequences of U.S. foreign policy and the ongoing war on terrorism. Asked whether President Obama “seems to be just trying to buy time here, that he’s not ready to make a full commitment here in this war on terrorism and basically is just trying to keep things together well enough that he can leave it to the next president to resolve it. Do you see that?” Brennan responded:

I don’t see anything like that. I’ve been involved in this administration in different capacities for the last six and a half years and there has been a full court effort to try to keep this country safe. Dealing with some of these problems in the Middle East, whether you’re talking about Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, others, these are some of the most complex and complicated issues that I’ve seen in my thirty-five years, working on national security issues. So there are no easy solutions.

I think the president has tried to make sure that we’re able to push the envelope when we can to protect this country. But we have to recognize that sometimes our engagement and direct involvement will stimulate and spur additional threats to our national security interests.

What makes this concluding sentence so extraordinary is that it is—to my knowledge—an unprecedented recognition by a senior official about how U.S. counterterrorism activities can increase direct threats to the United States and its “national security interests.”

As I wrote recently, senior U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials increasingly warn of the threat of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks within the United States, which are generally self-instigated and fueled by the narratives constantly promoted by foreign terrorist groups. Unfortunately, these observations by senior officials have had no impact on discussions about U.S. foreign policy conduct. Rather, Washington collectively avoids exploring the possibility that U.S. counterterrorism activities abroad might play a role in compelling U.S. residents to plot and attempt attacks at home.

Hopefully, Brennan’s unprecedented recognition is further explored and commented on by the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense. It would be particularly useful if journalists with routine access to officials and spokespersons pressed them on this point, asking which of their agency’s engagements have spurred threats to the United States. More immediately, the next public interview with the CIA director should begin by asking him which engagements and direct involvements he is referring to. This overdue observation of how foreign policy can harm U.S. national security leads to the critical, and rarely asked, question of which specific policies should be adjusted accordingly.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by gregorylent

    can you see how late to the party you journalists and think tank people and government officials are?

    that the usa is world class in making new terrorists has been common knowledge on the streets of america, on twitter, in universities, for years

    you are so caught into being in the club that a statement of the obvious is news


  • Posted by Inquisitor

    As a direct response to “Lone Wolf” terrorists we need to support National Concealed Carry Reciprocity! Spread the word: WE NEED TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT OUR SAFETY ALSO! Contact your US congressional representatives and let them know that we need, and you support, the following Bills: H.R.402, H.R.923, H.R.986, and S.498. Also, let them, especially the Democrats, know that:

    Citizens with a Concealed Handgun License:
    o Have no felony convictions.
    o Have never been convicted of domestic violence.
    o Have no history of mental illness or drug addiction.
    o Have passed a background check and have their fingerprints on file with the Authorities.
    o Have passed mandatory training in both the use of a firearm and the applicable law.

    The 11 to 12 million civilians with concealed carry permits (who have voluntarily submitted to background checks and licensing) are among the best most law abiding segments of the population. Better than politicians, judges, and police officers. US DOJ figures show that civilians who use guns in defense are less than 20% as likely as police to use guns wrongly or cause undue harm (2% vs 11%). However, The Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) is a United States federal law, enacted in 2004, that allows two classes of persons: the “qualified law enforcement officer” and the “qualified retired law enforcement officer”; to carry a concealed firearm in any jurisdiction in the United States, regardless of state or local laws, with certain exceptions, but National Concealed Carry Reciprocity bills have been stalled in the US Congress for at least the last 6 years due to blockage by the Democratic Party.

    Currently there are 3 National Reciprocity Bills in the House: H.R.402 with 89 sponsors = 2 Democrats & 87 Republicans, H.R.923 with 31 sponsors = 0 Democrats & 31 Republicans, H.R.986 with 158 sponsors = 3 Democrat & 155 Republicans and a duplicate of H.R.923 in the Senate as S.498 with 28 sponsors = 1 Democrat & 27 Republicans. We need a 2/3 vote in both houses because the threats are now and we can’t let the Democrats continue to violate the United States Constitution and prevent us from protecting ourselves. Our right to defend ourselves does not end at States’ borders! We also can’t wait and hope for a non-Democratic Party President in 2016.

  • Posted by Adam

    “Unfortunately, these observations by senior officials have had no impact on discussions about U.S. foreign policy conduct. Rather, Washington collectively avoids exploring the possibility that U.S. counterterrorism activities abroad might play a role in compelling U.S. residents to plot and attempt attacks at home.”

    Fundamentally, Mr. Zenko seems to confuse and conflate to distinct issues: foreign policy which should serve the broader interest of the nation which conducts it, and counter-terrorism which is a collection of measures designed to reduce the threat of terror to a nation. Are the two synonymous? Absolutely not. Indeed one can argue that foreign policy takes precedence most of the time, and only occasionally does CT become the primary policy priority. U.S. policy in the Middle East is obviously guided by securing wider interests and not solely or exclusively or even primarily by CT. And it is certainly not guided by the idea of preventing Lone Wolf terror. Mr. Zenko has yet to explain why foreign policy should be derived from CT, or even how he has arrived at that remarkable assumption.

  • Posted by Matt

    The simple fact that the US is in existence generates foreign policy and security threats. Russia would have invaded the Ukraine if the US had not pushed back. As it stands Russia has not be able to bring all it force to bare on Ukraine. The first thing is to prevent an enemy from being able to bring all it forces to bare on you and not allow them to fight on their terms. Usually this done via UN mandates. Even if you enter a conflict with UN approval, there are constraints that one of the UNSC members has. China does not what the US in SEA or North East Asia. And Iran does not want the US in the Mid East. Sure they may want our air power to wipe out the Sunni’s. But they do not want US political advice, prevent Iraq from taking it. How many times did the US try to get the central government to change course before the insurgency broke out in Iraq. Iran, Assad, Russia created ISIS via their actions against the Sunni minority in Iraq and majority in Syria. The rise of ISIS and the size of the insurgencies could have been prevented and limited had US advice being taking early on. Had the deal to honor the sons of Iraq been implemented none of this would have happened in Iraq in the first place and the second round of advice that was given would not have been needed. I can’t fault the US on the beginning of the uprising in Syria and for Assad to go or seeking a UN mandate on use of force. Nor can I on the situation that occurred in Iraq. And now I have 20/20 to see, it was the correct advice.

  • Posted by Elizabeth Alex

    Nice article! It is indeed important to ensure the security of the citizens. War on terror must go on until terrorism is wiped off the planet!
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