Stephen M. Walt

Our One-Sided War on Terror

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly declared a "war on terror." In the conduct of that war, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, imprisoned hundreds of captured "enemy combatants" without trial, tortured suspected terrorists, drastically ratcheted up homeland security, conducted drone strikes and/or targeted assassinations in several countries, and conducted a ...


After the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly declared a "war on terror." In the conduct of that war, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, imprisoned hundreds of captured "enemy combatants" without trial, tortured suspected terrorists, drastically ratcheted up homeland security, conducted drone strikes and/or targeted assassinations in several countries, and conducted a vast campaign of electronic surveillance at home and abroad.

Virtually all these actions were designed to detect or eliminate actual terrorists or prevent them from carrying out deliberate attacks. In other words, whether offensive or defensive in nature, they were actions designed to win the war by thwarting or eliminating existing terrorist organizations.

But what about the parallel problem of terrorist recruitment? The other way to defeat terrorism is to make it harder for movements employing terrorist methods to recruit new followers, and to gradually marginalize the radicals within the societies in which they were trying to grow. There was a lot of talk about trying to do this immediately after 9/11: The State Department commissioned a task force report on public diplomacy toward the Arab/Islamic world, George W. Bush’s administration hired a series of public diplomacy czarinas, and various experts offered advice on how the United States could undercut Osama bin Laden’s message and rebuild the country’s dubious image in that part of the world. This goal also underlay Barack Obama’s initial outreach to the region and especially his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009.

But looking back, has the United States actually acted in ways that would reduce the jihadi appeal? In some cases (e.g., Jordan and Iraq), we were fortunate that terrorist groups acted in ways that reduced their appeal significantly. But has the United States also adjusted its policies to make it harder rather than easier for a jihadi leader to convince a potential recruit to join up?

The answer is no.

When he launched the original al Qaeda and began targeting the United States, bin Laden emphasized three main grievances. First, he accused the West — and especially the United States — of constant and hostile interference in the Islamic world. This charge included the U.S. sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s (which caused thousands of Iraqi deaths) and the West’s alleged exploitation of Mideast oil. Second, he accused the United States of propping up corrupt and illegitimate dictatorships in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and he specifically cited the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War. Third, he blamed the United States for giving lavish, unconditional support to Israel and for turning a blind eye to Israel’s harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.

These charges have remained prominent elements in the overall jihadi narrative ever since. The question is: Has U.S. behavior since then made such charges look more credible or less credible? Has the United States undertaken actions designed to show that bin Laden’s charges were basically bogus, or has it behaved in ways that make them appear to be largely correct?

Has the United States stopped using military force in the Arab or Islamic world? Hardly. The United States invaded two Muslim countries — Afghanistan and then Iraq — even though the latter had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Each war then led to long and incompetently run occupations in which many local inhabitants died. The United States was not directly responsible for all these deaths, of course, and some of its acts in both countries were obviously intended to help local citizens. But overall, these actions merely reinforced the idea that the United States has an irresistible propensity to interfere in these societies, and often with military force. The war on terror also led to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and an outpouring of Islamophobic rhetoric by certain U.S. pundits and politicians. And oh yes: The United States has also imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran, which makes both Israel and the Saudi royal family happy but reinforces perceptions of a powerful but hypocritical America. In short, the past 12 years provide plenty of ammunition for anyone trying to argue that the United States remains intrinsically hostile to the Muslim world.

Has the United States stopped propping up Arab dictatorships? The record here is more mixed, but it is hard to argue that the United States has consistently embraced a true "freedom agenda." The United States did remove its troops from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but it’s still an important military presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. The United States has consistently backed Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan, despite endemic corruption and even a palpably fraudulent election. Washington did help ease Hosni Mubarak from power two years ago, but it subsequently turned a blind eye to the Saudi-backed crackdown against popular forces in Bahrain and continues a cozy relationship with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. U.S. tolerance for the recent military coup in Egypt also suggests that its commitment to genuine democracy or the promotion of basic human rights remains thin. The Obama administration has for the most part stayed out of the Syrian mess (wisely, in my view), but some jihadists will no doubt see this as evidence that Washington isn’t all that hostile to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Bottom line: bin Laden’s complaint that the United States has no problem with Arab authoritarianism is still pretty hard to refute.

Is the United States still backing an expansionist Israel? Although public criticism of the "special relationship" has become somewhat more vocal in recent years, the broad outlines of U.S. policy have changed little. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have given Israel everything it has wanted (except a green light to attack Iran), and U.S. politicians continue to bend over backward to express their deep devotion to the Jewish state. The United States gave Israel diplomatic cover during the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and also following the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Obama caved completely on the issue of a settlement freeze, and the U.S. Congress continues to vote a generous aid package every year and demean itself with various AIPAC-drafted resolutions. Heck, if I were a jihadist trying to convince a recruit that the United States had no sincere commitment to human rights and no respect for Arab or Muslim lives, I’d just show them a transcript of Chuck Hagel or Samantha Power’s confirmation hearings and leave it at that.

My point is not that the United States should have responded to 9/11 by totally upending its Middle East foreign policy or by leaning over backward to appease bin Laden’s complaints. I’m certainly not suggesting that the United States break diplomatic relations with Riyadh or throw Israel under the bus. Nor am I suggesting that some adjustment to U.S. policies would make the terrorist problem dry up overnight, if only because many terrorist groups are motivated as much or more by local concerns than by a fundamentally anti-American agenda.

My point, instead, is that the United States has been fighting a completely one-sided campaign against al Qaeda and the group’s cousins. It has hardened its own society (excessively) and taken the battle to those suspected of being hostile to it (probably excessively too). But the United States has done hardly anything to counter the narratives that anti-American forces use to rally support, and it has done plenty to reinforce them. And a lot of the things the United States has done — such as invading Iraq or giving Israel unconditional support — are bad for the United States and bad for its various friends in the region (Israel included).

This just isn’t smart strategy: If we really want to bring the "war on terror" to an end, then we cannot simply deal with the terrorists who exist today — we also have to diminish the number and fervor of those we will face tomorrow. Sadly, that task remains to be tackled.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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