Toward Cooperative Security

When President Bush announced to the nation and the world that the United States would "fight and win this war" on terrorism, he put forward a new orienting principle for American foreign policy. That principle is no less ambitious than was the containment of Communism. But over one year later the Bush Administration has yet to put forward a coherent long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

By every indication, the administration is appropriately focused on the war against terrorism. The President maintains that going to war with Iraq will not set back efforts to fight the campaign against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach. This may well be true, but only the development and articulation of a credible, comprehensive strategy will clarify for the American people and the international community how we intend to proceed as the military campaign in Afghanistan winds down. A coherent long-term counter-terrorism strategy should be developed before a war in Iraq distracts the attention of senior officials and the Congress.

Much work needs to be done. The basic tenets of U.S. counter-terrorism policy have remained virtually unchanged since their introduction more than twenty years ago. But the strategic environment has changed dramatically since their introduction during the Reagan Administration. The transnational nature of modern terrorist organizations enables their members to slip through the cracks of national enforcement efforts. This frustrates the efforts of states with even the best-developed intelligence and law enforcement capabilities. And since their membership is comprised of religious fanatics seeking violence and long-term destabilization, adherents of these groups are both undeterred by the prospect of criminal prosecution and unsatisfied by near-term political concessions.

The extent to which the United States should act alone in defense of its vital interests constitutes the starting point in the debate over reformulated counter-terrorism policies. To most Americans, the sheer horror of 9/11 compelled a decisive, immediate and comprehensive U.S. response-multilateral where possible, unilateral if necessary. But over the long-term, unilateralism cannot sufficiently and holistically address root causes, buttress our defenses, and combat attacks.

This reliance on the efforts of others extends to other critical, non-military fronts in the war on terrorism. Alone, the United States has extremely limited capabilities to act abroad to build secular education systems, create hospitable political and economic environments, put forward a compelling public diplomacy and coordinate international law enforcement actions, among other steps that can effectively counter terrorism.

A unilateralist approach to countering terrorism would entail more of what we have already seen. U.S. military actions would predominate. The United States will be constantly involved in suppressing insurrections at the far fringes of the civilized world, from the Philippines to the Pankisi Gorge. Without other forms of constructive bilateral engagement, perceptions of imperialistic impulses will harden, and comparisons to a declining Roman Empire will be inevitable.

A cooperative security strategy grounded in energetic bilateralism has the best chance to bind nations together in a shared effort to counter terrorism and to enhance U.S. security over the long term. In addition to the use of military force, cooperative security requires, among other things, new forms of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, stepped-up diplomacy, both the reorganization and reorientation of parts of the national security bureaucracy, and new forms of foreign aid. All of these steps will be necessary to fight and win the war on terrorism. None are being undertaken in the form and fashion that will be required.

How then to proceed? Cooperative security follows three guiding principles: first, our diplomatic corps and national security infrastructure would shift away from the country-team paradigm to a regional approach suited to combating threats that transcend national frontiers; second, all U.S. government agencies and departments with a stake in global counter-terrorism efforts would participate in far more frequent, formal and meaningful bilateral counter-terrorism meetings with counterparts in cooperative countries; and third, the United States would substantially increase the development and funding of non-conventional approaches to countering terrorism and addressing root causes over the longer term.

Modern terrorism is by nature transnational, yet the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy remains organized along the "country team" paradigm. While this relic of the Cold War will continue to be useful, the organizational framework of the U.S. government must evolve with the times if the United States hopes to counter transnational threats effectively.


While groups like Al-Qaeda are global in scope, at an operational level they are also distinctly regional phenomena. They rely on sub-networks that operate across borders in discrete theaters of operation. Within each region, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations exploit pockets of anti-Americanism. They move carefully and deliberately from one nation to the next, brokering support and, after conducting strikes or surveillance, frequently seek safe-haven and logistical support in neighboring regions. In sum, they operate along the seams of national frontiers-and domestic intelligence services and law enforcement authorities-in regions of the world most vulnerable to their influence.