The Silly Conservative Attacks on John Brennan

The conservative case against Obama's CIA nominee seems to be that the man is somehow soft on terrorism.

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Joshua Roberts / Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, listens as his nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, White House chief counterterrorism adviser, speaks during an announcement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Jan. 7, 2013.

When President Obama nominated John Brennan to run the CIA earlier this week, the most interesting reaction to the choice seemed likely to come from the left. Liberals had previously shot down Obama’s first plan to install the grim-faced Brennan at Langley, back in late 2008, on the grounds that Brennan, as a Bush-era CIA official, had been complicit in the nastiest anti-terror detention and interrogation policies of the past decade. (The evidence for this remains murky and circumstantial, and Brennan has long stated clearly his opposition to torture.) That led Obama to name Brennan as his White House counter-terrorism advisor, ironically a position in which Brennan came to have more power and influence than either of the two men who have run The Agency under Obama.

The civil-liberties left doesn’t intend to give Brennan a free pass–not only for his Bush-era record, but also for his central role in shaping Obama’s aggressive campaign of drone strikes against suspected terrorists and pro-Taliban fighters. But at the moment there’s no evidence that a significant number of Senate Democrats, if any, will oppose his nomination.

Less expected is the bitter criticism of Brennan now emerging from the right. It’s true that Brennan came under Republican fire early in Obama’s presidency, after conservatives complained about the handling of the would-be Christmas Day 2009 bomber. Brennan fired back with a tart USA Today op-ed that some conservatives have not forgotten, which perhaps injudiciously argued that some critics of the administration’s counter-terror policies were “serving the goals of al Qaeda.”

But no one’s even arguing that should disqualify Brennan from running the CIA. Instead, the conservative case against him seems to be that this man, who has overseen a White House “kill list” which has led to the deaths of scores of suspected Islamic radicals, is somehow soft on terrorism.

The case largely revolves around a 2009 speech in which Brennan argued that America needed to reframe the way it thinks and talks about the terrorist threat. One argument Brennan made is that the U.S. should drop broad declarations of a war on terror–which describes a tactic, not an enemy–and a “global war”–which suggests America is fighting the world–for a “clear, more precise definition of this challenge.” Specifically, Brennan advocated talking more specifically about a war on al Qaeda and its extremist allies.

Some right-wing outlets are now revisiting and spinning the speech to suggest that Brennan had called for an end to the fight against Islamic radicals–waving a white flag of surrender, if you will. This line of attack runs into a bit of trouble, however, in the form of Osama bin Laden himself. In diaries retrieved from his compound in Abbottabad after his killing (which Brennan helped to plan), bin Laden fretted that his terror network had developed a branding problem in part thanks to Washington’s rhetorical shift:

Bin Laden’s biggest concern was al-Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried that it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for Atiyah, he argued that the organization should find a new name.

The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda. The organization’s full name was “Qaeda al-Jihad,” bin Laden noted, but in its shorthand version, “this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.” He proposed 10 alternatives “that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us.” His first recommendation was “Taifat al-tawhid wal-jihad,” or Monotheism and Jihad Group.

It’s hard to imagine a more effective way of refuting the complaint than that.

A related critique is based on the same speech, and targets the fact that Brennan warned against referring to “jihadists” as violent enemies of America. “Describing terrorists in this way—using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal—risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself.”

Some conservatives say it’s appalling to describe jihad this way. “When the person in charge of counter-terrorism at the White House starts describing jihad as something we need to understand, a legitimate tenet of Islam, I start to worry a little bit about it,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka scoffed on NPR this week. But the word jihad really can does have a nonviolent meaning. And whereas Pletka simply denounces such talk as “claptrap,” some right-wing agitators are now proclaiming Brennan to be “pro-jihad,” as though the architect of Obama’s drone war is actually some kind of terrorist mole. That might make for a great episode of Homeland, but it’s an embarrassment to the people making the argument.

One reason Brennan thinks in these terms is because he speaks Arabic and has spent extensive time living in the Arab world. To some conservatives this, too, makes him suspect. I don’t know whether these same people trashed George W. Bush’s efforts to communicate with the Muslim world, and to make clear that America is not waging war against it. But their critique of Brennan seems exceedingly unlikely to win any converts not inclined to despise automatically anyone associated with Obama.

“The fact that John speaks some Arabic, cares about the culture and the people of the Middle East, has spent years living in the region–it’s stunning that that would somehow be seen as a negative,” says White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Caring about and understanding an important part of the world seems like a net benefit for someone in his position.” You would think.