A few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave what the Christian Science Monitor called "a little noticed speech" about the future of terrorism. Panetta depicted al Qaeda as a "cancer" that adapted to "pressure by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit, and geographically dispersed ...." He suggested that it might be time to change how we fight terrorists.
That would be the second time this administration has changed course.
Upon entering the Oval Office, President Obama shifted U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to what was often called the "Bush-lite" approach. He continued the previous president's programs, but softened them. "Surges" were made ... but with fewer forces and on a limited-time-only basis. He also dropped the "Long War" rhetoric and offered some empty pledges ... like closing Guantanamo Bay.
Then, in 2011, the administration announced a new strategy. Heavy emphasis would now be placed on degrading al Qaeda leadership and their affiliates through covert action. Meanwhile, traditional law enforcement operations would deal with the stray terrorist act.
Panetta's comments suggest that these measures aren't measuring up. "After being left on the sidelines of the momentous change that swept through the Arab world last year," the secretary concluded, al Qaeda is "now seeking to take advantage of the transition period to gain new sanctuary, to incite violence, and to sow instability."
There are plenty of signs that the Pentagon chief's concerns are well-founded. The Associated Press reports there are twice as many al Qaeda operatives in Iraq as there were the year before. Foreign fighters are worming their way into the Syrian opposition. The 9/11 attack on U.S. facilities in Libya showed that terrorists have a foothold there. Other al Qaeda affiliates are fighting to expand the insurgency's reach across North Africa. Further afield, the band of terrorist brothers is holding its own in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the adjustments that Panetta suggested in his speech sound much like just doubling down on failure: more drone strikes, more covert operations ... only with our partners doing more of it for us.
Meanwhile, the plan to deal with the rise of political Islamists seems to be to buy off governments with foreign aid, IMF loans and extended negotiations.
Case in point: Egypt. Cairo is slated to receive $4.8 billion from the IMF, plus $6.8 billion from the European Union. We'd kick in $1.5 billion in annual aid and another $1 billion in debt relief. In return for that, the White House gets to trumpet Egypt's help in brokering a cease-fire in Gaza.
That's not much of a bargain. If Cairo had restrained Hamas from launching rockets into Israel to begin with -- that might have been money well spent, but that's not what happened. Instead, we have a cease-fire that leaves Hamas more antagonistic than ever, and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi celebrating by purging judicial officials, issuing a decree granting himself more power and further solidifying Islamist control of his own country.
The biggest problem is how all the president's men (and women) have diagnosed the problem. President Obama thinks he is taking down a terrorist group primarily interested in killing Americans. He is wrong. The U.S. is fighting a global insurgency seeking to weave political, economic and military power into a force that counters Western ideals. They want the clash of civilizations forecast in Samuel Huntington's 1995 article in Foreign Affairs. Our failing strategy may be giving them what they want. And Mr. Panetta's "fixes" may make it all worse.
A "new" strategy consisting of little more than bribes, targeted killings and police roundups is a sorry solution to global terrorism.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner.