How the Next President Can Uproot Terrorism

How the Next President Can Uproot Terrorism

The White House has made too many mistakes.


The Bush Approach Versus the Obama Approach

With President Obama in his eighth and final year in office, he has now been fighting terrorism for as long as President Bush had. Comparing and contrasting the approaches of the two presidencies offers important lessons for not only the struggle against Al Qaeda, but about challenges inherent in counterterrorism generally.

The best way to break this down is to first recognize that what we call “terrorism”—defined as political violence aimed at civilian populations—has been around since the dawn of civilization. And though over the centuries there have been countless terror groups operating on behalf of countless causes in countless regions of the world, these groups all have one big thing in common: they benefit when their adversaries overreact in retaliation.

Repressive, violent overreaction by targeted governments often instantly increases a terror group’s legitimacy, creating a powerful recruiting tool for new members and supporters. A prime example of this was the rise of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which in the early 1970s went from marginalized to widely popular following a series of brutal crackdowns by British forces, setting the stage for a bloody decades-long conflict.

However, there is an important flip side to this same coin. Many groups, particularly those engaged in a broader ideological or revolutionary movement, also thrive from the very opposite: real or perceived weakness or complacency in their enemies is a tremendous boon for many terrorist groups. For example, the government of Colombia granted major territorial (and other) concessions to the country’s largest Marxist insurgent group in a 1990s peace push, which sparked a surge of new terrorist violence.

These may also be isolated as the shorthand lessons from the Bush and Obama years in their fight against Al Qaeda and the global jihad: the costs of overreaction, and the sometimes even greater danger from underreaction. And while it may be tempting to label them as “shortcomings” for each of the two presidencies, that is probably too strong a word when considering the challenging context of combating modern mass-casualty terrorism.

In the case of Bush, the effects of overreaction are by now well known. In the early months and years after 9/11 the United States assumed a very aggressive and confrontational approach to fighting terrorism—which included the rounding up and often mistreatment of thousands of terror suspects from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib; the legalized use of torture; the wide use of renditions and other covert operations, including targeted drone executions (of which the first trickle began in 2002 and 2003); and the vast expansion of electronic and other forms of surveillance, often directed at Muslims.

This era of overreaction also included the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was undertaken without appreciating the galvanizing impact it would have on the Muslim world. Injecting tens of thousands of U.S. troops into the heart of the Arab Middle East and ancestral home of the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate was viewed literally as a godsend by Osama bin Laden, and a clear example of how little the Bush administration actually “knew our enemy” early on.

Finally, even in the realm of the language used by the Bush White House after 9/11 we saw examples of costly overreaction. At its core, terrorism is a propaganda-fueled phenomenon, an ongoing political battle to win hearts and minds and entice new recruits for the cause. So it is important that the language used when fighting terrorism is not unnecessarily inflammatory. Much of the hot rhetoric of the Bush administration—“Islamo-fascism,” “smoke ‘em out,” “bring it on”—played right into the hands of the radicals.

Not to excuse any of this behavior, but it is important to remember the context under which it all played out. In the early period after 9/11 the administration (and the country) was desperately scrambling to get its bearings on this new and shadowy enemy, and their primary goal—even if it meant going to extremes—was to prevent another, possibly more devastating, attack inside the United States.

Even the Iraq War can be placed under this rubric: 9/11 awoke America and the world to an entirely new form of terrorism whose goal was to kill as many people as possible. Keeping weapons of mass destruction out of such hands became a top (if recklessly managed) priority, which is why targeting the world’s best known WMD outlaw was supported by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress.

The same was true for all the other aggressive Bush measures, from harsh interrogations, to renditions, to drones, to warrantless surveillance. In each case, the bipartisan leadership in Congress knew about—and authorized funding for—the programs. If it is true that the United States overreacted after 9/11, it is also true that it was a bipartisan overreaction.

Nonetheless, once these programs became publicly known and their counterproductive costs increasingly clear—alongside the growing quagmire in Iraq—the Democrats effectively ran against them in 2006 to win back Congress for the first time since 1994. And prior to the financial collapse in mid-2008, Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign was almost entirely about “reversing” Bush’s hyperaggressive counterterrorism policies and “restoring America’s leadership and moral standing” in the world. Most important to Obama was his repeated promise to end the “false choice” between liberty and security, and reconnect America’s national security policies to “our values and our Constitution.”

Once elected, the core macro foreign policy goal for the Obama administration was to “end America’s wars” in the Middle East (notably Iraq and Afghanistan), and vastly reduce its role in the region overall. On the more specific counterterrorism side, Obama pledged to close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay and allow the detainees to be tried in civilian criminal courts (including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), ban torture and other harsh interrogation tactics, end the practice of renditions, and repeal the most intrusive parts of the Patriot Act while ending warrantless surveillance generally. And, after years of accusing the Bush White House of using the war on terrorism as an “excuse for unchecked presidential power,” Obama vowed to bring executive power back in line with “Constitutional values.”

The problem with all this was not that Obama followed through on everything he promised. With the exception of banning torture, Obama has maintained and in some cases expanded upon the aggressive Bush tactics, such as ever-widening electronic surveillance, and a massive increase of drone killings against thousands of suspected terrorists overseas (a far cry from a lawyer and a day in court). And on the use of executive power, despite greater efforts to justify constitutionality, Obama has maintained a Bush-Cheney approach to presidential wartime powers, including an increasingly controversial reliance on the “state secrets” privilege to withhold information from the courts and the American people.

Rather, the problem is that the administration believes that even if it keeps the most hard-line counterterrorism tactics and practices, as long as it speaks about terrorism in a different way—for example, eliminating the phrase “war on terrorism,” and never uttering the words “Islamic terrorism”—and as long as it is viewed as withdrawing from the Middle East and other parts of the world deemed provocative, then America will be, to use one of the administration’s favorite lines, engaging in a “smarter” fight against terrorism.

But this was also the mindset that led Obama to order the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, which, notably, sparked the rebirth of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), now known as ISIS. Obama’s rejection of requests by his senior military advisers and other cabinet officials to maintain a modest troop presence—to protect the peace gained by the 2007–08 “surge” (and the defeat of AQI)—will likely be remembered as one of his most consequential foreign policy blunders. Nearly five thousand U.S. troops (and counting) are already now back in Iraq, under much more chaotic circumstances.

And it was the mindset that led to the announcement of dates certain for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan (2014), and for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops there (2015)—dates that have come and gone, clouded by the Iraq withdrawal debacle and the stubborn strength of the Taliban, which is patiently waiting for America to hit the exits. With ISIS now in Afghanistan, U.S. forces are currently conducting major operations against both groups.

And, finally, it is the mindset that motivates the administration to downplay every instance of terrorism inside the United States as, for example, “workplace violence” (the Fort Hood shooting), or acts of “isolated extremists” (the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber), or a “gun control” issue (the San Bernardino shootings), without leveling with the American people about the true nature of this globalized threat.

To be clear, following the Bush record of hyperbole and overreaction, it was perfectly reasonable (and wise) for the Obama administration to offer a calmer tone. And it is certainly true, as administration officials like to remind us, that overhyping terror threats only benefits the terrorists—whose sole purpose, after all, is to terrorize.

But Obama’s decision to cling to soothing rhetoric even in the face of the dramatic uptick in terror violence worldwide—he recently dubbed ISIS as merely “a bunch of killers with good social media,” and described bathtubs as a greater hazard than terrorism—helps explain why a record number of Americans (roughly 60 percent) now distrust his administration on issues relating to terrorism, ISIS and foreign policy generally. Such discontent plays right into the hands of a nativist demagogue like Donald Trump.