- By Stephen TankelStephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a senior adviser for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenTankel.
President Donald Trump has made defeating Islamic terrorism a centerpiece of his presidency, and it was a major focus of his first trip abroad. As with other elements of Trump’s foreign policy, his approach to counterterrorism partnerships is still taking shape. Nevertheless, what we’ve seen so far is deeply troubling. The most recent misstep came on the heels of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London. Instead of expressing solidarity with the United Kingdom, which is America’s closest ally, Trump used the attack to promote his travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries and then picked a fight with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. These blunders could weaken the U.S.-U.K. alliance, which is vital for many reasons, including combatting terror. The missteps are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Trump approaches counterterrorism partnerships.
The emerging Trump counterterrorism strategy appears to be a dysfunctional combination of repurposed elements of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama approaches infused with some of Trump’s worst impulses. He is clearly more comfortable with autocrats than democratically elected leaders and enamored with military force at the expense of other instruments of national power. Trump also views counterterrorism partnerships, like all relationships, as zero-sum. Taken together, this is a recipe for making the terror challenge worse and the United States less safe.
A maximalist and military-centric approach
During the campaign, Trump billed his use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” as a way of rejecting political correctness and focusing attention on the enemy. However, he never defined what this meant in practice when it came to U.S. priorities. Based on his speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump views all Islamist terrorist groups — Sunni and Shiite — as enemies that must be defeated. This is a maximalist objective more in line with Bush’s early goals for the global war on terror than Obama’s more focused campaign against al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and associated movements that directly threatened the United States.
Trump has also turned back the clock to the type of overwhelmingly military-centric approach toward counterterrorism that characterized the early Bush years. This has been most obvious in greater latitude given to military commanders and more relaxed rules of engagement when it comes to the use of force. His decision to do so could lead to situations that alienate partners and jeopardize the access America currently receives for direct action. The commando raid in Yemen during the first week’s of Trump’s presidency and decision to use more powerful munitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have resulted in rising noncombatant casualties. After the January Yemen raid and high civilian death toll it caused was reported, the Yemeni government in exile said it was suspending U.S. permission to mount ground operations. Although Yemeni leaders backtracked on the suspension, the risks related to conducting more aggressive military operations without political or intelligence assessments remain.
Trump’s preference for military action over other instruments of national power extends to the support he is prepared to offer other countries. His proposed budget would invest heavily in building partner nations’ militaries over improving their civilian security sectors or assisting with economic development. When Trump calls on America’s partners to “drive out” the terrorists, as he did in Saudi Arabia, he mostly sees their militaries as the vehicle for doing so. Yet law enforcement and domestic security services are often on the front lines against terrorism, or at least they should be. Trump’s budget risks creating conditions in which partner militaries either fill the void or hand off responsibility to civilian entities unprepared to sustain any gains made. Slashing development assistance in the manner proposed by Trump would also make stabilizing conflict zones where terrorists operate more difficult. And it reinforces the message that the United States only cares about counterterrorism. Ironically, if a partner nation knows the United States will only provide aid in the context of an antiterror campaign, it can create perverse incentives for partners to ensure that a terrorist threat is never fully extinguished.
Treating alliances as zero-sum
Even as Trump has borrowed elements from Bush’s approach, he has also embraced the burden sharing aspect of Obama’s “indirect” strategy to combatting terrorism — but he’s done so without Obama’s focus on building sustainable partnerships. Obama relied heavily on local and international partners to fight terrorist groups on the ground, both in an effort to share the costs and risks, but also to make gains more sustainable by giving local actors “ownership” over the aftermath of military operations. He also saw building partnerships as a way to reduce the perception of American unilateralism and strengthen the international system by boosting interdependence. And internationally, Obama sought to encourage greater counterterrorism cooperation — including robust law enforcement and intelligence cooperation — among democratic partners by better aligning U.S. actions and values with those of our closest allies, especially in Europe.
In contrast, Trump takes a purely transactional approach to counterterrorism cooperation. This is most evident in his engagements with America’s democratic allies — especially in NATO — who he aims to bully into greater burden sharing by the implicit (and at times explicit) threat to limit U.S. protection if they don’t do (and pay) their fair share. Trump has hectored them to boost defense budgets with little regard for the critical counterterrorism cooperation many of them provide. Since 9/11, the high degree of institutionalization that results from formal treaty alliances has not only helped to facilitate close cooperation on counterterrorism — it has also made it easier to overcome disagreements and contain the fallout from mistakes such as the Edward Snowden revelations.
Trump’s treatment of NATO as a de facto protection racket makes counterterrorism cooperation more fragile, as was apparent when the New York Times published leaked material relating to the suicide bombing in Manchester. Similar leaks occurred after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. But back then the British did not publicly express their outrage. This time the leaks caused a diplomatic incident as Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May gathered with other world leaders at the G7 summit on May 26. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the incident would have been handled more smoothly and discretely if Trump had not just finished beating up on NATO a day earlier. The fact that he revealed Israeli-supplied intelligence to the Russians a week prior did not help either. Notably, Israel has already changed its intelligence-sharing protocols with the United States, and other countries may reconsider what information they share as well.
Carte blanche for Sunni autocrats
The Bush and Obama administrations recognized the need to work with partners that do not share U.S. values, but both attempted to promote political reforms. Bush’s freedom agenda, which aimed to spread democracy, stalled in the middle of his second term. Obama focused more on helping partner nations build their security capacity consistent with the principles of good governance and rule of law, which, as research shows, correlate with lower instances of terrorism. It is unrealistic to expect partners to make fundamental changes to their polities. However, the Obama administration recognized that even undemocratic regimes might be willing to make modest reforms if they could be convinced it would help them counter domestic or foreign enemies. For example, efforts to promote security sector reform in Algeria led it to welcome training and assistance intended to advance the rule of law.
In sharp contrast, Trump has no interest in promoting good governance and rule of law abroad, or, it must be said, preserving them at home. In fact, he is openly hostile to these objectives and appears uncomfortable with democratically elected leaders. As the now iconic image of Trump gripping a glowing orb flanked by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi symbolized, he views autocratic countries as natural partners.
Although Trump harangued our closest democratic allies in Europe for not doing their fair share, he mostly wrote autocratic partners a blank check to pursue policies and agendas that contribute to the terrorist threat. Trump used his Saudi speech to blame Muslim leaders for not doing enough to combat terrorism, but he ignored many of the areas where they are most culpable. Trump called on Sunni Arab countries to play a larger role in policing their region, but did not press them to stop fueling sectarianism or contributing to the conditions that enable jihadists to flourish. For example, the Saudi-led military intervention against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen has created space for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand. Instead of using the $110 billion arms deal he came bearing to push the Saudis to pursue a political solution to the conflict in Yemen, Trump lauded the intervention as a contribution to regional security. When calling on Muslim countries to starve terrorists of “false allure of their craven ideology,” he did not raise the kingdom’s role in exporting the Wahhabi doctrine, which forms the Islamic State’s theological foundation. And Trump consciously eschewed calls for addressing the political and economic injustices that create conditions for jihadist groups flourish.
Trump did more than embrace the region’s autocrats. He also adopted a sectarian strategy that embraced the Saudi agenda in the Middle East and singled out Shiite Iran as the main culprit responsible for fueling the fires of sectarian conflict and terrorism in the region. Iran is a menace and a state sponsor of terrorism. But it does not support jihadist groups, which are responsible for almost 95 percent of deaths caused by Islamist terrorism since 2001. Trump’s denunciation of Iran as the main party responsible for conflict in the region not only let Sunni Arab states off the hook. It also affirmed their sectarian narrative.
These countries now may believe they have carte blanche to expand their rivalry with Iran. If so, we could see an escalation of sectarian tension that makes stabilizing the Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria, and combatting jihadism more difficult. By staking out such a strong position now, it could also be more difficult for the Trump administration to extract compromises from our partners necessary to settle regional conflicts down the road. Already, Trump’s embrace of the Saudi-led agenda may have emboldened the kingdom and its allies to cut off ties with Qatar, which they view as too close to Iran. Rather than attempting to solve this rift, Trump seemed to endorse this move via tweet. That’s dangerous for numerous reasons, not least because the al-Udeid air base in Qatar is a critical staging ground for U.S. counterterror operations.
An unsustainable approach
As I argue in a forthcoming book on counterterrorism cooperation, most U.S. counterterrorism partners both help and hinder Washington’s efforts to some degree. A core challenge is to consolidate cooperation where it is good, mitigate risks where it is bad, and concentrate on getting the most out of the trade space in between. Trump campaigned on his ability to strike a good deal. Yet his approach to counterterrorism is alienating America’s closest allies (who help a lot more than they hinder) and reinforcing the worst impulses of more problematic partners. Trump’s fixation on military power at the expense of other instruments of statecraft exacerbates these negative trends and suggests woeful ignorance about how counterterrorism actually works. At minimum, Trump’s approach will lead to a drop in the most beneficial cooperation America receives while doing nothing to ameliorate the conditions that breed jihadists. At worst, it could unleash further violence across the greater Middle East.
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