A Colleague’s Response to Finer and Malley on Obama’s Strategy Against Terrorism

The months since Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election have been a time for soul searching among those of us who served in the Obama Administration. Did our work on health policy, climate change, or trade inadvertently contribute to the wave of populist rage that has been credited with carrying Trump to the White House? Last weekend, two highly regarded former Obama Administration foreign policy officials, Jon Finer and Rob Malley, stepped into this discussion, writing in The New York Times that a policy focus on terrorism, which predates Obama but that the former president helped carry forward, led to unfounded American concern over terrorism and ultimately allowed Donald Trump to exploit those fears all the way to the White House.  I served in the counterterrorism directorate at the National Security Council (NSC) during the same period, and I have great respect for both of them and appreciate the conversation they raise about Trump’s willingness to exploit fear of terrorism (not to mention crime, immigration, and trade) for his own political gains.  But in so doing they make claims that I fear could be misinterpreted as skewing the record of the past several years or associating the counterterrorism community with Trump’s most controversial policies.

Of course any policy essay written at this time bears the risk of being misinterpreted.  But it is particularly important to be careful in the counterterrorism policy space, where a bipartisan cadre of professionals have proudly worked for the past decade to pursue rational, effective, and ethical counterterrorism policies only to see President Trump propose or implement highly objectionable policies that are not grounded in sound counterterrorism policy and are unlikely to keep us safe.

The core of Malley and Finer’s argument is that terrorism is a low-risk phenomenon in the United States – statistically less likely than drowning in a bath tub – yet we have fundamentally distorted our foreign policy decision making and created a “Counterterrorism Industrial Complex” in response.  Like myself, many of those who have spent extensive time in the counterterrorism community and pored over the daily flow of threats would argue that Malley and Finer have it backwards.  The relatively low risk of a major terrorist attack in the United States today is precisely because we have built the institutions, staffed by thousands of public servants, dedicated to preventing terrorist attacks.  We should regularly reassess whether our national security investments and policy priorities are aligned with the threats we face, but in so doing, it is important not to confuse a real but successfully managed threat with a minor one.

Malley and Finer’s piece also contends that our focus on terrorism has created a distortion in our foreign policy decision making, citing a parallel process for counterterrorism that the authors believe often produces policy recommendations at odds with broader foreign policy aims.  Having led or participated in parts of this counterterrorism policy process during the Obama Administration, I believe this mischaracterizes the process.  It is true that counterterrorism policy requires specific expertise to assess terrorist organizations, the capabilities and limits of U.S. forces, and authorizations that ultimately make good policy.  This in turn requires a dedicated policy process – just as with cyber, counter-proliferation, or international economic policy.  But aside from the most sensitive cases, Obama counterterrorism officials urged and practiced integrated policymaking between the counterterrorism, regional, and other functional policy communities.  Indeed, a look at President Obama’s policy guidance for use of force outside of active warzones describes a comprehensive interagency process set up to consider a range of voices on proposed operations and their broader policy consequences. There are often disagreements – and differences between regional and functional policymaking are hardly limited to the field of counterterrorism – but the NSC policy process has long been designed specifically to address this.  Challenging issues are regularly elevated to top policy committees, where senior officials consider a range of national security and other equities and do their best to make sound decisions.  Although The New York Times is not the forum for debating the finer points of interagency process, two experts on the NSC process would have done well to avoid leaving any impression that this does not happen or that differences of opinion between functional and regional policy communities are unusual.

Finally on this point, the fact that 80 percent of Americans consider terrorism a “critical threat” and 18 percent of voters consider terrorism to be the most important issue is notable but insufficient to warrant a claim about “America’s obsession with terrorism.”  Still, it’s worth pausing to consider what motivates these fears.  Since 9/11, the United States has been largely safe from terrorism, but since at least 2007, we have seen terrorist attacks around the world reach levels that would have been shocking in the years before 9/11.  An uptick in ISIS-linked attacks in the West, and the group’s strategic decision to actively encourage extremists to commit lone offender attacks, have raised concerns that more violence could be coming to our shores.  It would not be productive or persuasive for our leaders to dismiss concerns of those who look warily on the global state of terrorism and its threat to the United States as no more rational than fearing death by bathtub.  And to his credit, President Obama took significant steps to move the nation from fear to resilience, both in his statements and through actions like doing away with the terrorist threat alert system. More work is needed to further tamp down on hysteria and fear-mongering over terrorism and instead encourage a culture of vigilance and resilience among the American public.  That President Trump has done the opposite is an indictment of his leadership, not of the strategies that have kept us safe these past 15 years.

All that said, the Malley and Finer conversation starter is most persuasive in advancing future policymaking when they talk about the way terrorism can take on inordinate weight in policy deliberations. The challenge here, and an area that deserves future consideration, is defining a unified theory.  In places like Pakistan and Yemen (under President Saleh), we overlooked some of the misdeeds of partners in order to secure counterterrorism cooperation.  But in places like Somalia and Yemen (under President Hadi), our focus on terrorism led us to undertake significant diplomatic and development efforts that were the right thing to do but for which we (not to mention the Congress) would have had no appetite absent a terrorist threat.  In these cases, critics of short-sighted U.S. policy might see the focus on terrorism as allowing us to make more forward-looking regional policy.

As to how this has played out in Iraq and Syria policy, where Malley and Finer have substantial expertise, they write that terrorism-based arguments have been used by all sides as “substitutes for more vexing discussions of America’s role in the world, its responsibility (or not) to intervene, and the importance (or not) of defending human rights.” Reading this analysis from two former top Iraq and Syria officials begs the question of whether upon reflection, they think that the prominence of counterterrorism arguments led us to make bad policy in Iraq and Syria or just that it was a prominent lens for that debate.  A well-considered answer to this question could be a powerful case study in advancing their overall thesis.

Similarly, while I disagree with the argument that the threat is overstated, there is certainly much to be learned from looking at the unique considerations of risk that go into counterterrorism versus other policy areas.   Perhaps a more productive way to take the point would be to focus on the asymmetric risk dynamic involved in counterterrorism – that is, a reported threat that turns out to be a false positive has no virtually near term repercussions, though it may contribute to a longer term fear of the threat, but a false negative has enormous consequences.  This asymmetric dynamic presents a vulnerability that terrorists can exploit and leads to a risk that we might overreact in some of our responses.  Unpacking the concept of asymmetry in counterterrorism policymaking would more effectively allow us to identify and address our biases than debating whether the current threat is overblown.

 

Image: President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice talk on phone with Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco to receive an update on a terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium. March 22, 2016 – Official White House Photo by Pete Souza 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).