Confronting Terror: 9/11 and the Future of American National Security is a new collection published by Encounter Books to mark the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States. In it, former Bush administration officials and other experts provocatively confront questions about our future on the national-security front. Among them is John Yoo, former deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice and a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who serves as editor, with Dean Reuter, of the collection. Yoo talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the anniversary, the record, the future, and more.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: To start with, do you see what’s happening in Libya and maybe Syria in any 9/11 continuum?
JOHN YOO: Yes I do. While there is a legitimate debate over whether the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda was worth the cost, I think that events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya show that the underlying strategy was sound. The short-term strategy for terrorism is to make the homeland more secure and to go after al-Qaeda leaders and their safe havens. The longer-term strategy was to drain the swamp in the Middle East that created the nihilistic ideology behind al-Qaeda — just as victory in the Cold War was a combination of military containment of the Soviet Union plus demonstrating the moral and economic bankruptcy of Communism. The Arab Spring could be the ultimate crippling blow to al-Qaeda — it is not a relevant political player anymore. If young Arab men without futures in the Middle East want to change the world, they don’t have to blow themselves up. They can now work for positive political change in their own countries. Bush started this long-term strategy on his watch, but it is Obama who has to manage it and may well benefit more from it.
LOPEZ: You are very hard on Janet Napolitano in Confronting Terror. Seriously, that office covers a lot of ground. You’re going to hold that system responsible for a near-miss Christmas attack?
YOO: The Department of Homeland Security no doubt has hard-working public servants doing their best to protect America from attack, but the department itself was a poor idea — it is trying to do too many different jobs and had to waste a lot of time and resources melding multiple, different agencies into a large expensive bureaucracy. So a loss of focus was inevitable. But it was compounded by the agenda of its leadership under the Obama administration, which bizarrely thought of terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters” and viewed returning veterans as a potential right-wing extremist threat. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda dramatically increased its efforts to launch attacks within the country, and a combination of a vigilant public and good luck has saved us from blown-up airliners in Detroit or car bombs in Times Square.
LOPEZ: Is it fair to give the president grief on national security? Do you know what the Bush administration left him with? And then there was the Arab Spring and the earthquake in Japan and . . .
YOO: I believe that Obama should be judged first and foremost on national security — protecting the nation is the chief responsibility of every American president. He has had challenges, but that is why the Framers created a vigorous, independent executive office, and why we hope we elect men and women of experience and good judgment to the office. What we shouldn’t do is accept complaining of the “woe is me” variety — if Obama feels life has been unfair, he shouldn’t have run for office. Reagan, for example, came to office in the depths of a recession and out-of-control inflation, opposed by a Soviet enemy armed with thousands of nuclear weapons and seeking to undermine the United States at every turn. I don’t remember Reagan complaining about being dealt a tough hand. In fact, Americans will admire presidents who rise to tough challenges with “energy in the executive,” as The Federalist Papers put it.
LOPEZ: “National security amounted to an afterthought,” you say about Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses. But is that much different from the GOP debates we have been watching thus far in the 2012 primary season?
YOO: I admit that I am concerned about the lack of attention to national-security affairs in the Republican primary so far. But I attribute that to the consensus that appears to be taking shape among the candidates: Don’t gut defense just to mechanically balance the budget; restore full powers to our intelligence and military officers fighting the War on Terror; leave Afghanistan and Iraq only when we have neutralized the terrorist threat; counterbalance the rise of China. If the candidates agree on these principles, then they should define the differences between them on domestic policy, where Obama is most vulnerable, and for good reason.