Despite the empirical reality that terrorism poses a minor nuisance to American lives and geostrategic interests, the United States has waged an indefinite and open-ended global war on terrorism (GWT) since 9/11 that has essentially spanned the globe, albeit with the greater Middle East representing the war’s epicenter. Not only has the war been redundant given hardheaded threat assessments, it has also been largely counterproductive given the GWT’s emphasis on kinetic counterinsurgency tactics and the blowback that has caused. As the Cato Institute’s Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner aptly point out , “When does 32,200 – 60,000 = 109,000? That seemingly inaccurate equation represents the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began, how many the United States has killed since 2015, and the number that fight today.” Polls indicate that this blowback gives jihadi recruiters a propaganda win and bolsters their ranks, leading to an indefinite counterinsurgency campaign tantamount to playing whack-a-mole against a constantly replenishing enemy with nary the means to inflict serious damage against the United States. If Washington is serious about decreasing the already low terrorism threat, then perhaps it should heed the advice of the robust field of academic literature that finds that terrorist groups are more likely to thrive thanks to the opportunity model and stop assisting in the creation of failed states.
Washington would be wise to engage seriously with the question of whether or not potential (albeit highly unlikely) oil-supply shocks arising thanks to the rise of a Gulf hegemon or regional instability are a core U.S. interest worth expending blood and treasure to prevent. Thankfully, this worst-case outcome is exceedingly unlikely to come to fruition thanks to the region’s fairly equitable and deterrence-favoring balance of power. Despite the overblown fears of countless Americans, terrorism poses nowhere near the level of threat to warrant a global war to combat it, particularly one based on the empirically flawed notion of terrorist safe havens. Washington would be wise to move its posture offshore, cease the war on terrorism, invest in defense capabilities—not with counterinsurgency in mind, but rather deterrence of great-power rivals—and largely forget about the region that has caused it so much trouble, yet means so little.
Alex Moore holds a Masters degree in International Conflict and Security from the Brussels School of International Studies in Brussels, Belgium.