In other words, the temptation for Obama to do the opposite of Bush—to insist on limiting America’s role in the Middle East, to downplay terror threats at every turn—though understandable, and in some ways necessary, was not sufficient.
It was not sufficient, because the softer language used by the administration has been totally detached from its hard-line policies—creation of a surveillance state, ramping up drones, dispatching dozens more Special Operations units around the world—which has led to a profound disconnect with the American people and with America’s allies.
And it was not sufficient because even if America needs to recalibrate its role in the Middle East, constantly telegraphing its intention to withdraw from the region dovetails perfectly with militant Islamist ideology—again showing the danger of not fully “knowing our enemy.” Indeed bin Laden staked his entire theory of global jihad on the belief that America (and the West generally) is a “weak horse” unable to match the “strong horse” of martial Islam. The same way Bush’s rush to war in Iraq threw fuel on the embers of militant Islam, so too did Obama’s rush for the exits—and now the entire region (and beyond) is mired in terrorist violence.
Staying the Course (with Caveats)
None of this is to imply that the United States should be on a permanent war footing, taking on every jihadi group, large and small, all over the world. Nor is it to imply that the United States can simply throw up its hands, say fighting terrorism is too complicated and take its global leadership ball and go home (even that would not save the United States from being a prime target). It is, however, to suggest that America’s counterterrorism strategy moving forward—regardless of who sits in the Oval Office—will need to be clear, credible and consistent; and will need to marry a candid accounting of the terror threats we face with the tactical capabilities (and often hard tradeoffs) required to defeat them.
The positive news is that much of the template for this strategy already exists—it was developed first by the Bush administration after 9/11, and then adopted by Obama once he entered office. Setting aside their vast rhetorical differences, what we find is that both the conservative Republican Bush and the liberal Democrat Obama independently determined the same baseline approach and baseline policies deemed necessary for America to combat modern global terrorism.
This evolving (bipartisan) counterterrorism consensus consists of three core parts: First, recognition of the necessity of strong executive powers and presidential freedom of action; second, heavy reliance on aggressive intelligence gathering to level the playing field with mass-casualty terrorists lurking in the shadows; and third, broad use of military operations and covert actions to target terrorists and preempt terrorist planning and operations from abroad.
To be sure, much like the uneasy transfer of “containment” policy between Democratic and Republican administrations during the Cold War (notably the first transfer from Truman to Eisenhower), each president will (as did Obama) make his or her own adjustments and refinements to the strategy along the way—some no doubt more prudent than others).
But a few important additions stand out for the next president (and beyond), if America’s overall counterterrorism strategy is to remain stable and effective over the long run.
First, on the domestic side, all U.S. presidents must do their utmost to maximize civil liberties, transparency and the roles of Congress and the courts when fashioning their antiterror policies. Bush in his second term, and Obama in his first, made important strides in this direction. However, both also recognized that deference to such constitutional “rule-of-law” principles must take place in the context of a rigorous counterterrorism approach, not despite it.
The fact is an aggressive campaign against terrorism will only make sense to, and be accepted by, the American people if it come alongside an honest discussion of the nature of the global (and domestic) threat, and the necessity of at least some tradeoffs between their liberty and security. Like Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” before and during World War II, the American people would benefit greatly from similar calm but candid accounts.
Such long-term thinking is just as needed internationally, where partnerships and alliances remain invaluable in the fight against terrorism. As with fascism and communism in the twentieth century, America and the world currently face a determined ideological enemy out to destroy the contemporary order. And while it is clear that America cannot (and indeed should not) incur most of the costs in this fight, it is equally clear that American leadership—both militarily and diplomatically—will be essential if it is to succeed.
According to the U.S. government, radical Islamist networks now operate in forty countries around the world, and nearly two dozen Arab and Muslim countries have governments that are either collapsing or in danger of collapse due to violent instability. It is imperative that the United States and the West work directly with moderate forces in the Muslim world—those on the front lines of the fight against militant Islam—to undermine and ultimately destroy the jihadi groups and the ideology that sustains them. Though the United States must never be an occupying power, it should begin placing less emphasis on dropping bombs from fifteen thousand feet, and more on helping build bridges below.
Just like in the Cold War, there will be ups and downs, losses and victories, and new lessons learned along the way in the fight against terrorism. But with the right approach, a clear purpose and a little patience, there is no reason why America will not meet this latest global challenge.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches U.S. Foreign Policy, Counterterrorism, and International Security at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he is also a member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the U.S. Senate (1999–2003).
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense