Just Say No

Why the United States can’t kick the bad habit of repeating failed campaigns in its war against terror.


Pardon my cynicism, but the “war on terror” (aka “war on violent extremism”) is reminding me more and more of the disastrous U.S. “war on drugs.” That latter campaign, we now know, has been a costly and counterproductive debacle. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to interdict drug shipments, eradicate poppy and coca fields in foreign countries, and round up drug dealers and users here at home, with hardly any lasting or meaningful successes. Narcotics producers just relocate to new areas or develop new products, and smugglers find new routes to bring drugs into the United States, leaving the level of drug abuse largely unchanged. After four decades, the main achievement of the war on drugs was giving the “Land of the Free” the world’s largest prison population.

Similarly, the broad U.S. effort to address the threat from al Qaeda and its like-minded successors seems to be lurching from failure to failure. Indeed, the entire U.S. approach to the greater Middle East has been a costly series of missteps, which is why some of us have called for a fundamental rethinking of the whole U.S. approach. The GOP would like to blame the current mess on U.S. President Barack Obama, but U.S. Middle East policy is a bipartisan cock-up going back more than 20 years.

In the 1990s, for example, the U.S. government was slow to react to the rise of al Qaeda and repeatedly surprised by attacks in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. To their credit, some officials inside the Clinton administration recognized there was a problem, but Washington never questioned the policies that were fueling extremist movements, including “dual containment,” the overly cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and unconditional U.S. support for Israel. The result? 9/11.

Having failed to prevent 9/11, the Bush administration then managed to make the problem much worse. It succeeded in (temporarily) ousting the Taliban and scattering al Qaeda’s senior leadership, but failed to catch bin Laden or finish the job in Afghanistan. Even worse, Bush’s boneheaded decision to invade Iraq and his tragicomic mismanagement of the postwar occupation opened the door to Iranian influence, created a semi-failed state, and sowed the seeds for the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) today. Bush & Co. also ramped up U.S. involvement in Somalia and Yemen, but failed to achieve lasting successes there either. In the meantime, conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated and the Taliban came back with a vengeance. The rest of Bush’s counter-terror policy — Guantánamo, the torture regime, targeted assassinations, etc. — merely gave the jihadis fresh material for their radical anti-Western narrative.

Yet most of these policies have remained in place — and in some cases, were strengthened — under Obama. His innovation, such as it was, was to address the challenge in a less costly and more precise fashion. Instead of conducting costly invasions and large-scale occupations, the United States would rely on air power, drone strikes, and Special Forces instead. Obama reluctantly agreed to “surge” troops into Afghanistan, but the overall approach emphasized a lighter footprint, accompanied by various efforts to bolster friendly (or at least compliant) local governments.

This more circumspect approach is cheaper but equally ineffective. As some of us warned back in 2009, the “surge” in Afghanistan was not a game-changer and Obama has now abandoned his previous commitment to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces. Not because he has a promising new strategy, however, but because he has no answer and has decided to bequeath the problem to whoever gets elected in 2016. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani may be better at stroking official Washington than former president Hamid Karzai was, but his government remains utterly dependent on outside support and the Taliban remain a potent political force.

Meanwhile, post-Qaddafi Libya is a chaotic failed state, and likely to be a source of trouble for some time to come. Yemen is well on its way to the same status, and more than 15 years of U.S. counterterrorism operations now appear to have been for naught. The Syrian tragedy grinds on, reminding us that the only thing worse than a despotic government is no government at all. (And no, the situation in Syria would not be better if the United States had intervened earlier; this would merely have hastened the onset of anarchy and ensured that the warring factions had even more weaponry to use against each other.)

If one steps back and takes the long view, in short, it is clear that two-plus decades of U.S. policy — much of it focused on combating extremism — has not worked. In 1990, al Qaeda was in its infancy and most Middle East radicals were preoccupied with local concerns. Today, the entire region faces a rapidly morphing array of extremist groups whose message finds sympathetic audiences in many countries. The danger of direct terrorist attacks here in the United States remains very low — fortunately — because the United States is a long way away and because our law enforcement agencies have made it more difficult for large-scale plots to take place here. The rest of the counterterrorism agenda — and in particular, the various interventions the United States have waged overseas — has been mostly a bust.

In short, when historians a few decades from now look back on U.S. policy, they will no doubt regard this record as a massive, collective failure of the entire U.S. foreign-policy establishment. And a lot of ink will be spilled trying to explain what went wrong. Here’s what I think they’ll conclude.

Problem No. 1: an overreliance on military force and other “kinetic options.” Since the early 1990s, the United States has repeatedly tried to solve the jihadi problem by invading countries where it thought dangers lurked or by droning, bombing, or shooting people it thought were dangerous. That effort has sometimes achieved narrow tactical aims — ousting the Taliban in 2002, overthrowing Saddam in 2003, toppling Qaddafi and killing bin Laden in 2011 — but it has failed to solve the larger strategic problem and created conditions where extremism was likely to flourish rather than wither.

Remember, the central challenge in the greater Middle East is the lack of effective and legitimate political institutions — especially in places like Libya, Syria, Yemen, and post-invasion Iraq. Military force is useful for certain purposes, but the ability to blow things up and kill people does not translate into a workable set of governing institutions. In fact, the more the United States relies on military force to “manage” these problems, the more it encourages others to take up arms against us or against our clients, which in turn allows those with a taste and talent for violence to dominate the political landscape. Case in point: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State.

You’d think we know all this by now, but U.S. leaders keep reaching for the same failed tools even though it is clear that they can’t solve the underlying problem. Like a cardiac surgeon who prescribes open-heart surgery for every malady from influenza to athlete’s foot, the United States now reaches for drones, special operations, or training missions not because they will cure the disease, but because that is all we know how to do.

Second, U.S. officials have never seriously questioned the underlying set of policy commitments that have turned much of the Middle East against us, made the jihadi narrative seem appealing to some listeners, and made our friends in the region look like lackeys. U.S. officials from both parties have sometimes recognized that Israel’s occupation was a problem for the United States (as well as a threat to Israel’s long-term future), and they have sometimes understood that many of our Middle East “partners” were less than fully reliable. Unfortunately, such moments of clarity never led any serious reconsideration of U.S. support for its various questionable clients.

The final reason for recurring failure is the tendency to rely on the same people, no matter what their past track records have been. We’ve seen a revolving door of (unsuccessful) Middle East peace negotiators who then spend their retirements giving advice on how future peace negotiations should be conducted. We’ve got a CIA director who’s been centrally involved in U.S. counterterrorism policy since the early 1990s, and who continues to enjoy the president’s confidence despite a dodgy relationship with the truth and a conspicuous lack of policy success. We’ve got famous generals who were better at self-promotion than at winning wars, yet whose advice on what to do today is still eagerly sought. And of course we’ve got a large community of hawkish pundits offering up the same bellicose advice, with no acknowledgement of how disastrously their past recommendations have fared. The result is that U.S. policy continues to run on the same familiar tracks, and with more or less the same unhappy results.

Just like the war on drugs.


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

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