Whatever Happened to Trump's Counterterrorism Strategy?
His approach borrows from his predecessors’, while exacerbating their worst, most counterproductive tendencies.
Last May, reports surfaced that the Trump administration had drafted a new counterterrorism strategy that would be released to the public. Although the strategy’s publication was expected this winter, it is now unclear whether the document will ever be made public and, if so, when. This is despite Donald Trump’s noisy rhetoric about terrorist threats and the pace of U.S. counterterrorism operations, which have intensified since he took office. The American people, and especially the men and women responsible for executing these operations, deserve to know any administration’s strategy for combating terrorism, and especially this administration’s, given all of its noise about the issue. It’s particularly urgent because, by all outward appearances, President Trump’s approach to counterterrorism has been frustratingly Janus-faced.
One face is what you could call actual counterterrorism. This category includes the day-to-day grind of civil servants, diplomats, the military, and other dedicated professionals. These public servants continue working to shrink the Islamic State’s territorial safe haven through ongoing counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Syria, degrade al-Qaeda around the world, interdict terrorist operations, obtain convictions and lengthy sentences for those who commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil, and conduct a wide range of other counterterrorism activities worldwide. Under Trump, the conduct of actual counterterrorism appears largely consistent with that of Barack Obama’s two terms and George W. Bush’s second term. Those common elements include working with partners wherever possible, beefing up intelligence cooperation, relying on distinctive U.S. capabilities, including armed drones, and utilizing the criminal justice system to prosecute those arrested in the United States on suspicion of terrorist activities. These operations, no matter how well executed, will fail to achieve strategic effects if they are not guided by an overarching strategy.
Of course, not everything about Trump’s counterterrorism policy aligns with his predecessors’. Although he has prioritized the fight against isis and al-Qaeda, Trump espouses a view that all Islamist terrorist groups, Sunni and Shiite alike, are immediate enemies of the United States that must be defeated. This is an incredibly broad objective that echoes the early years of Bush’s “global war on terror,” and is utterly infeasible. If this is truly the overarching U.S. goal when it comes to counterterrorism, then the administration owes the American people a strategy for achieving it.
Trump has also relaxed the military rules of engagement in “hot battlefields” like Afghanistan, and loosenedObama-era restrictions on drone strikes and commando raids beyond them. The pace of counterterrorism operations has also escalated in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa. Depending on their implementation, such changes can have significant consequences—both positive and negative—but they still fall within the basic counterterrorism paradigm that Trump inherited. As with the ongoing operations mentioned above, what’s missing is a public explanation of why the administration has made these changes and what strategy they’re intended to serve.
The other face of Trump’s counterterrorism approach is faux counterterrorism—policies that undermine the mission of actual counterterrorism. This includes policies shaped by preconceived political and ideological agendas that masquerade as counterterrorism. This category includes Trump’s three attempts to implement an anti-Muslim travel ban, a ban that in no way reflected the real threats facing Americans. The ban triggered a backlash from key foreign partners and has alienated Muslim-American communities already outraged by Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s faux counterterrorism also include his anti-Muslim rhetoric and his habit of stoking fears rather than reassuring the public in the wake of terrorist attacks, along with his bewildering infatuation with Guantanamo and torture. Incarcerating new detainees at Guantanamo would create legal, policy, and logistical difficulties. Talk of torture weakens America’s standing in the world.
These elements of Trump’s brand of counterterrorism are ill-informed at best, and nakedly political and ideological at worst. They represent a total, seemingly deliberate, rejection of the policies of his predecessors. Bush emphasized that combatting terrorism should not be equated with being anti-Islam. Obama reiterated this message and worked diligently to build the public’s resilience to terrorist attacks. Both presidents ultimately rejected Guantanamo and torture. Most experts would probably agree that Obama and Bush pursued policies intended to address genuine terrorist threats and keep Americans safe, even if their efficacy was and is subject to healthy debate. By contrast, Trump’s faux counterterrorism is, ultimately, about political pandering, tough-guy posturing, and xenophobia masquerading as counterterrorism.
In addition to these opposing faces, the strange swings in the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts in its first 13 months have had, and continue to have, significant consequences for actual counterterrorism. This administration appears to recognize the importance of counterterrorism cooperation with other countries. Indeed, burden-sharing was a central element of the draft counterterrorism strategy that leaked to the press last May. Yet that document also apparently reflected Trump’s penchant for zero-sum relationships that ostensibly put “America first.” Such a transactional posture threatens to undermine critical partnerships.
Trump has also largely jettisoned his predecessors’ efforts to promote political reforms that might, over time, redound to the benefit of counterterrorism efforts. Bush emphasized democratization, while Obama emphasized promoting good governance and rule of law in concert with building partners’ security capacity. The outcomes were disappointing at times. Both Bush and Obama often learned that they had to prioritize short-term security objectives over longer-term approaches frequently dependent on the uncertain will and capacity of other countries. But they at least knew they had to address underlying risk factors for terrorism and understood that American values can be an important weapon in their own right. In contrast, Trump appears to prefer dealing with authoritarian regimes, giving them carte blanche to persist in the types of repressive and rapacious policies that can fuel jihadist terrorism. Countries with which Bush or Obama cooperated out of necessity have become privileged partners under Trump.
And then there’s Trump’s puzzling Middle East polices. Last summer, he backed the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, host of al-Udeid airbase, which is vital to U.S. air operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Trump’s own secretaries of state and defense openly criticized the move. More recently, the administration has been at odds with itself over the future of U.S. support for Kurdish militias. The region is, admittedly, a bundle of contradictions that would demand tradeoffs from any administration. But the Trump team has appeared unwilling even to resolve internally which tradeoffs it is willing to make. This confusion makes it even harder to manage the complex politics of a region that remains the heart of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Looking ahead, maintaining continuity and sustaining progress in actual counterterrorism may become a bigger challenge if civil servants and foreign-service officers continue to depart at alarming rates and if, as a result, Trump loyalists exert more control. This could have grave consequences, especially on critical areas such as intelligence cooperation with other countries.
And a similar evolution may worsen the impact that Trump’s broader foreign policy choices have on counterterrorism. Even a well-functioning White House would struggle to situate counterterrorism within broader U.S. foreign policy and to manage the inevitable tradeoffs. Trump’s foreign policy choices reflect a president who is erratic, apparently uninterested in the analysis of his own intelligence community, enthralled by authoritarianism, and hyper-nationalist. Worse still, managing the fallout from those tendencies often rests in the hands of a State Department that’s been steadily and sadly eroded from within by its own secretary.
While one can surmise the basic aspects of Trump’s approach to counterterrorism and identify potential pitfalls ahead, the absence of an official, reviewable strategy makes matters worse. Internationally, it can be harder for U.S. counterterrorism professionals to elicit optimal cooperation from their foreign counterparts, who can exploit the situation by taking advantage of ambiguities or questioning America’s commitment. Even more importantly, Trump campaigned hard on counterterrorism (or, perhaps more accurately, on fears associated with terrorism) here at home. Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency, the American people deserve a document reconciling the two faces of his administration’s approach to counterterrorism and situating it within his broader, albeit jumbled, foreign policy.