A course about Al Qaeda taught by Peter Bergen, the British journalist who bagged Osama bin Laden's first face-to-face interview on CNN, became last semester's must-attend event at Harvard's elite Kennedy School.
The international students crowding into the school's largest auditorium were a cross-section of Americans, Europeans, and Middle Easterners, including current members of the US Army and intelligence community on sabbatical leave. Attending it gave me a fascinating window into the mind-set of the young, global elites who will lead the next generation's fight against terrorism.
How do these best and brightest view the "long war"? And do they have what it takes to win it? The last class of the course was the most instructive in how elite Americans' perspectives on the war against terrorism have matured. Mr. Bergen paced the auditorium, asking the students for their recommendations on defeating Al Qaeda.
From horror, incomprehension, and the rush to conclude that "They hate us for our freedoms" - typical of the post-Sept. 11 response - there is now a shift toward viewing Al Qaeda as a fractious group that can be subverted and defeated by manipulating its internal divisions.
Intelligence reform and the restructuring of the bureaucracy topped the discussion. Some suggested that the analyst shortage currently afflicting intelligence agencies could be overcome by scrubbing top-secret evidence pointing to sources (in order not to jeopardize the safety of field agents) and by inviting nonsecurity cleared analysts in the commercial intelligence arena to mull the information over.
Others felt that America's Arab immigrants should be seen as a strength rather than a liability, as the security clearance program currently tends to classify them. A student of Lebanese origin suggested that Homeland Security deploy a network of informants drawn from immigrant communities because "these guys have come over here and benefited from the bounty, so they should put something back."
A diplomat wearing a US-Kuwait friendship T-shirt stamped with a government seal suggested that Pentagon employees with 20-plus years of service should be recycled into the State Department and the CIA to help rejuvenate these institutions.
Generally, the American students tended toward recommending superficial solutions for winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. A deft repackaging of the war on terror or the realigning of bureaucratic entities in the Departments of Defense and State would do it, they seemed to think.
One American student took this syllogism to an extreme conclusion when he proposed that the US government confront Al Qaeda with "brand denial" by banning spokesmen and officials from referring to the organization by its name.
He reasoned that, deprived of the oxygen of publicity, the terrorists would shrivel up and die. Bergen asked the student whether the Bush administration should also ban the domestic press from referring to Al Qaeda. The student stammered in indecision and the auditorium exploded in laughter.
Slicker packaging will not make American policies more palatable to Middle Eastern audiences or improve Washington's image in the region. The debacle of Al-Hurra, the State Department-funded Arabic- language news network is one example. …