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Obama's Coke and Pepsi war won't defeat al Qaeda

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Food and Drink,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Barack Obama,Afghanistan,Egypt,Iraq War,Drones,Terrorism,Analysis,al Qaeda

Lunchtime at the Olympia Café — it was a long-running skit during the golden age of “Saturday Night Live.” Inevitably, customers would order a Coca Cola, and the Greek counterman (John Belushi) would scream, “No Coke! Pepsi!”

In one sketch, however, a Coke salesman enters and hands Belushi a wad of cash. Instantly, he rips the Pepsi sign from the soda dispenser and slaps a Coke sign in its place. Different sign, same soda. Get it?

The soda wars at the Olympia Café seem an apt metaphor for President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy, where apparent changes are more cosmetic than substantive.

Consider last week’s special ops in Libya and Somalia, aimed at snatching high-profile terrorists. Washington buzzed with speculation that the raids signaled a seismic shift in U.S. counterterrorism strategy — more special forces, fewer drone strikes.

But emphasizing the role of special forces over drones is not a strategic decision. These are merely tactical choices. As far as strategic substance goes, it’s the martial equivalent of switching signage from Pepsi to Coke.

De-emphasizing drones may help the administration on the public relations front — given the flak the Oval Office has been taking on this topic from critics both at home and abroad.

But many of these critics will not be placated simply by pulling back on drone strikes. They will just start bemoaning whatever method the U.S. favors for going after terrorists.

And special forces cannot win a war on their own. These are, by definition, dicey ops. The potential for a snafu is always there — and that’s what seems to have happened in last week’s abortive mission in Somalia.

And failed ground operations can carry a much higher price tag than failed drone strikes — and not just in terms of casualties. Al Shabaab, for example, will use the recent failed raid in Somalia as a recruitment commercial, using the incident to “prove” that they’re winning the war against Western values.

Moreover, special forces cannot solve every challenge. There will be many situations where just going in and icing the bad guys won’t be practical.

Increasingly, al Qaeda and its friends are looking to base their operations in places where the U.S. will be more reticent to intercede — in urban areas of a “friendly” country, for example, or in a “neutral” country that won’t be sanguine about having its sovereignty violated.

That’s not to say raids have no role in the terrorist-fighting business. There is great value in taking terrorists alive — either for intelligence gathering purposes or simply to bring them to justice.

It’s always good to have options — different tools in the tool bag — for dealing with bad people in hard to get places. Still, just because a carpenter has a lot of tools, it doesn’t mean he knows how to build a house.

The problem with Obama’s strategy in conducting the war on terrorism hasn’t been a lack of tools. Rather, it’s that he has adopted an inappropriate goal.

As a result, the organization is now rooted in Pakistan and running wild in Africa. It has elbowed its way into the civil war in Syria. It is back in Iraq. poised for a comeback in Afghanistan and looking for an opening in Egypt.

While the president replays the cola wars -- switching up drone strikes and SEAL team raids -- al Qaeda is doing strategy.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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James Jay Carafano

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The Washington Examiner