By Daniel L. Byman
The White House’s just-released National Strategy for Counterterrorism is a worthy attempt to rationalize U.S. counterterrorism policy and contains many excellent ideas—its major flaw is that it is more aspirational than prescriptive.
Like many of its predecessors, the strategy document is often short on specifics, so it’s hard to make too many judgments. However, it correctly warns about the continued danger of the Islamic State even as the group has suffered major losses in Syria and Iraq, the more limited threat posed by al-Qaida affiliates, and the risks that state sponsors of terror like Iran pose to U.S. interests. In addition to standard post-9/11 policies like trying to deny terrorist havens, it also calls for fighting the “hateful ideology that provides the breeding ground for violence and terrorism,” working with the technology sector and religious leaders, and otherwise taking a broad approach to the problem and to potential solutions.
The document stumbles, however, when it tries to reconcile sound counterterrorism policy with the president’s clear foreign policy preferences. Despite littering the document with the president’s quotations and emphasizing that this will be an “America First” counterterrorism policy that involves secure borders, the authors are too smart to embrace Trump’s policy utterances too seriously. They note that “America First does not mean America alone” and stress the importance of foreign governments, who should “take the lead whenever possible.”
Indeed, it is these allies that are vital for successful counterterrorism, and America cannot be secure if its allies are not. Groups like the Islamic State gained power in part because of U.S. reluctance to play a more direct role in Syria, and although the document calls for halting terrorist radicalization and recruitment, the persistence of civil wars is a key driver that enables radical groups to spawn and grow. Withdrawing from the world and undermining NATO, as Trump seems to want, will only make this danger grow.
The report also tries to walk a fine line regarding domestic terrorist groups. Even though the report acknowledges that non-Islamist domestic terrorism is on the rise, right-wing groups like neo-Nazis are at times lumped in with animal rights organizations as a domestic threat or discussed in the context of their overseas connections. The political anger in the United States that the president stokes and the federal law enforcement prioritization that emphasizes Islamists over right-wing groups are ignored.
The report also stresses, from its very start, that “we remain a nation at war.” The number of Americans who have died from jihadist-linked terrorism in the U.S. homeland since 9/11 is only slightly over 100: This is still tragic, but it is far fewer than many observers warned about in the dark days after 9/11, and the number of attacks is relatively low by historic standards. Counterterrorism should still remain a priority, but the “at war” rhetoric obscures the successes that multiple administrations, including Trump’s, have had in keeping the U.S. homeland secure.
It is the president and some of his most senior advisors that are most likely to resist the policy implications of their own counterterrorism strategy.
Finally, the report warns that terrorists seek to undermine the U.S. way of life, but it ignores how the administration’s policies, often justified in the name of counterterrorism, are doing just that. Historically, the United States opened its arms to refugees, but those fleeing the horror of Syria, despite being carefully vetted, are no longer welcome. America welcomes all faiths, but Trump administration officials have talked darkly about Muslims rather than recognize the community’s important contributions to counterterrorism.
Like most strategy documents in most administrations, it is not likely to shape the actual policies on a day-to-day basis. Usually this is a problem of corralling the bureaucracies to implement the president’s will as expressed in the strategy document. In this case, it is the president and some of his most senior advisors that are most likely to resist the policy implications of their own counterterrorism strategy.
Despite these concerns, I welcome the strategy document. I hope that it guides the Trump administration in the years to come and leads it to abandon its many self-defeating policies.