The More Things Stay the Same: Why the Trump Administration’s Counterterrorism Strategy is Surprisingly Conventional

And what that means for the future

The most striking thing about the Trump Administration’s counterterrorism strategy – which the White House finally released last month, after President Trump had been in office for nearly two years – is its utter conventionality.  President Trump has reveled in his “different kind of Presidency” since the day he took office by delivering an Inaugural Address that, unlike the hopeful speeches of his predecessors, dwelled on the “American Carnage” ravaging the country.  And some of Trump’s most provocative campaign rhetoric – bringing back waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse,” filling up Guantanamo Bay, and seizing Iraqi oil – concerned his desire to “Make American Safe Again” by adopting a new, much tougher counterterrorism approach that broke sharply from what he believed were the failed policies of the past.  But the Trump Administration has not followed through on these campaign statements, and its new counterterrorism strategy is so conventional that it even largely shies away from discussing the controversial immigration and border policies that the President has embraced during his time in office.

This leads to some obvious questions:  Why?  And, is it real?  We are working on a longer-term project that seeks to explain the surprising amount of counterterrorism continuity between the prior Administration and the current one, and explore whether it will last.  In short, our thesis is that the Bush and Obama Administrations, alongside both Republican- and Democratic-controlled Congresses, foreign partners, other institutions, and the public, developed a rough bipartisan (and nonpartisan) consensus on how to approach what might be termed “first generation” counterterrorism issues – that is, the matters related to force deployments and ethical and legal issues that attracted a significant amount of popular attention in the decade or so after September 11, 2001.[1]  Our view is that the consensus on these issues is accepted by a wide swath of actors, now deep in the institutions of American policy and politics, and accordingly, these counterterrorism topics have decreased in salience as wedge issues.  Thus, this consensus has helped to simultaneously raise the political cost of and lower the political benefit in making dramatic changes to many aspects of the Nation’s counterterrorism approach.

Consistent with this view, upon being bequeathed this consensus, President Trump has shown neither the ability nor the inclination to put his shoulder to the bureaucratic wheel in order to implement anything close to approximating his campaign vision.  Rather, he seems to have largely delegated counterterrorism policy to his departments and agencies, which have been aggressive in combating the threat but have largely maintained the existing framework.  (The fact that those departments and agencies largely continued the campaign to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) which President Trump inherited when he took office is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.)

This does not mean, however, that the current continuity is assured and that we no longer have to worry about President Trump’s volatility and incendiary rhetoric.  In particular, there are three areas that we think require continued vigilance:

● First, while it’s unlikely the current Administration will simply repeat the mistakes of the past, the terrorist threat and the operating environment are constantly evolving, which requires the Administration to continuously reassess and tweak its approach to confronting it. Over time, these subtle changes can accumulate and leave us in a very different place than we started.

● Similarly, what might be termed “second generation” counterterrorism issues – like terrorists’ growing cyber capabilities or use of social media – have not been the subject of as much sustained public and congressional attention as the issues that emerged in the immediate wake of 9/11, such that no similar consensus has emerged. The Administration is thus operating on much more of a blank slate in these domains.

● Finally, there’s of course the possibility that the continuity to date and the counterterrorism strategy don’t really reflect the considered view of the President himself and that, at some point, he’ll be willing to spend the political capital required to take a dramatically different course, perhaps one more in line with his harsh campaign rhetoric. The President has, after all, shown himself willing to engage in what other commentators have called “faux counterterrorism” – e., “policies shaped by preconceived political and ideological agendas that masquerade as counterterrorism.”  The best example of this is of course President Trump’s three “Travel Ban” Executive Orders, which he used to stoke fears of terrorism (among other things), but which in actuality hindered rather than helped our counterterrorism efforts by alienating key foreign partners and populations.  These “faux counterterrorism” efforts are largely absent from the recently released strategy, and the Trump Administration does not appear to have applied the language animating them to other counterterrorism issues.  But that calculus could of course change, perhaps in the wake of a significant terrorist attack.

Given these potential issues, it’s crucial that Congress and the public continue to pressure the Trump Administration to be more forthcoming about its counterterrorism operations and the legal and policy framework under which they are conducted.  This is because it is impossible to arrest drift or correct missteps before they go too far if all of our counterterrorism operations and policies occur in the dark.  Indeed, a lack of transparency has been perhaps the Trump Administration’s biggest discontinuity with the approach of its predecessor – and the counterterrorism strategy does nothing to reverse or suggest that we are mistaken in perceiving this trend.

One final note before turning to a more detailed analysis of President Trump’s counterterrorism strategy.  We recognize that there are those from both the left and the right who dissent from the rough counterterrorism consensus that has emerged in recent years, particularly the continued deployment of our troops to combat the threat.  Children not yet born when we first invaded Afghanistan are now old enough to serve in the conflict there – when, many of these dissenters ask, will this “forever war” ever end?  While both of us think it is unlikely that President Trump or a Democratic successor would pivot away from an approach to countering terrorist threats that relies on the military anytime soon, we both agree that it is entirely appropriate to question whether the prevailing consensus makes the correct tradeoffs.  How large should our presence be in Afghanistan?  In what theaters beyond Afghanistan should we be taking strikes or deploying troops?  When should we be willing to deploy forces beyond relatively safe training and advisory activities to supporting partners in combat?  These and many other questions can be asked about what we are currently doing; indeed, the two of us don’t necessarily fully concur with the prevailing approach (or with each other) on every aspect of our counterterrorism operations.  But where we do agree is in thinking that it’s more likely that we will be able to thoughtfully approach questions like those above – and that we’ll be much more likely to be able to intelligently de-escalate our conflicts, if conditions warrant – when counterterrorism is not treated as a political wedge issue.  In that way, the current consensus is a real benefit.

* * * * *

The similarities between the Trump Administration’s counterterrorism strategy and that of his predecessors are immediately apparent.  The strategy is structured around a set of six strategic objectives, four end states, and six lines of effort, which the authors convey as interconnected through a series of helpful icons.

The U.S. Government’s previous two public counterterrorism strategies — produced by President Obama in 2011 and President Bush in 2006 — primarily focused on lists of “priorities of action” (Bush) and “overarching goals” (Obama) rather than Trump’s more complex framework with interlocking objectives, end states, and lines of effort.  In this sense, the new strategy stylistically reads more like a traditional military strategy than previous versions.

Yet the core actions it proposes are fundamentally conventional and a continuation of the activities that have underpinned our counterterrorism efforts since at least 2006.  For example, the objectives and end states are pitched at a high enough level of generality so as to be almost unobjectionable, and the lines of effort very much mirror the “all tools” approach to counterterrorism that both the Bush and Obama Administrations had developed since 9/11.

Despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric about moving away from his predecessor’s counterterrorism policies, moreover, perhaps the most striking thing about the framing of his strategy is the strong endorsement of one of the key pillars of President Obama’s approach – working by, with, and through foreign partners.  To this end, the Trump strategy seeks to have those partners take a “greater role” in addressing the terrorist threat and expresses a willingness to undertake efforts to “strengthen” the partners’ “counterterrorism abilities.”

Furthermore, the echoes of previous approaches perhaps grow even louder as you read more deeply into the strategy.  From the emphasis on the fact that counterterrorism is an activity that must involve all levels of U.S. Government to the need to prioritize finite resources to the importance of protecting critical infrastructure, it’s almost impossible to detail all of the overlap.  But it’s worth examining a couple of the most interesting passages that are logical and welcome evolutions of existing policy.

First, one of the lines of effort, “modernize and integrate a broader set of United States tools and authorities to counter terrorism and protect the homeland,” makes the case for more fulsome investment in technology and information sharing within the government.  In focusing on the ways that our technological advantages as a nation can help us better track terrorists, screen international travelers, secure our borders, and integrate data across the government, the Trump strategy continues longstanding trends in U.S. policy.  Indeed, the Trump strategy’s realization that this is so important as to merit making a tech-driven approach its own line of effort conveys a decidedly modern take on counterterrorism, cognizant of the ways that terrorists use tools like online propaganda, encrypted communications apps, and growing offensive cyber capability to advance their objectives.  As we noted at the outset, the counterterrorism community has been grappling with these issues for the past several years and there is nothing approximating a consensus on them; the increased strategic emphasis from the White House is thus a strong signal of a forward-looking policy.

Second, another aspect of Trump’s counterterrorism strategy that stands out is its emphasis on strategic communications as a crosscutting theme that the United States should employ in support of virtually all of the lines of effort.  This too is a welcome extension of existing policy, and a clear reminder that in counterterrorism, making clear what we did and why we did it, as well as discrediting terrorist narratives is nearly as important as the actions themselves.

In the end, for a Presidency that has been so intentionally disruptive, the most striking thing about the Trump Administration’s counterterrorism strategy is its normalcy.  Notwithstanding the document’s references to “America First” and faux contrasts such as the notion that its approach “does not rest on the idealistic hope of an easy and unthreatening world,” the new counterterrorism strategy reads very much the product of how counterterrorism professionals – informed by years of thinking about and experimenting with what works and what doesn’t – think about counterterrorism.  And, particularly after some of then-candidate Trump’s campaign comments and twists and turns in other areas of national security and foreign policy, that’s a decidedly good thing.

* * * * *

But the fact that the counterterrorism approach bequeathed to the Trump Administration has proven more durable than generally expected does not mean the consensus on counterterrorism is ironclad, nor can we expect there to be no more major counterterrorism-related controversies of the sort that have periodically erupted since 9/11.  Far from it.  To be sure, because of the legal and policy changes put in place over the last decade, and the dramatic, negative, and still lingering effects caused by some of the over-reach in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it remains unlikely that the Trump Administration will make the same missteps again.  But even if there is a rough consensus like the one that appears to be in place now, a close read of the strategy raises concerns about some of the gaps and omissions that could create problems down the line.

Drift – The Scope of the Threat, the Geopolitical Context, and the Use of Lethal Force.  The first potential way issues can arise is through what might be called “drift.”  The terrorist threat is constantly evolving, and the U.S. response to that threat must constantly evolve.  We also continually learn what works and what doesn’t and modify our policies accordingly.  But the accumulation of these at times subtle tweaks can lead to our policies ending up in a very different – and perhaps more problematic – place over time, particularly if no one is paying attention.

To this end, the strategy suggests three areas in particular that are worth watching.

The scope of our counterterrorism efforts.  First and perhaps most worrisome is its discussion of the “terrorist adversary.”  The 2011 strategy put to rest the notion that the United States was engaged in a “Global War on Terror” and instead made clear that al-Qa’ida was the primary terrorist threat to the United States.  Given the rise of ISIS, it was inevitable that the new strategy would expand its definition of the adversary, and it unsurprisingly labels ISIS the “primary transnational terrorist threat to the United States” grouping it alongside (and, indeed, slightly ahead of) al-Qa’ida in what the strategy appears to view as the first tier of threats.

It’s when the strategy moves beyond ISIS and al-Qa’ida that questions arise.  The strategy begins its discussion of the second tier threats by referring to “dozens of other radical Islamist terrorist groups” – like Boko Haram, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and Lashkar-e Tayyiba – that “are working to advance more locally focused insurgent or terrorist campaigns, while still posing a threat to United States persons and interests overseas.”  It then emphasizes a set of Iran-backed groups – most prominently, Hizballah – that reflects the Trump team’s hawkishness on Iran.  And the strategy then pivots to a third tier of “revolutionary, nationalist, and separatist movements overseas whose use of violence and intent to destabilize societies often puts American lives at risk,” specifically calling out three groups that even seasoned terrorism watchers might find unfamiliar: the Nordic Resistance Movement, the neo-Nazi National Action Group, and Babbar Khalsa International.

These latter tiers raise numerous questions.  To be sure, the second tier of terrorist groups have long been on the radar of U.S. counterterrorism officials, and the focus on them seems a prudent reaction to the fact that they might threaten U.S. partners and enable ISIS and al-Qa’ida. But one struggles to understand the inclusion of the third tier.  Even if these groups are mentioned to underscore that terrorism can be used to advance a range of hateful political ideologies — a laudable goal — they pose virtually no significant threat to the United States or its interests.  So why are they included in a counterterrorism strategy, particularly when the President has reportedly expressed great concern about overextending U.S. power?

More fundamentally, as President Trump took office – and building on the approach President Obama had taken since even before releasing his 2011 strategy – the United States had repeatedly emphasized which terrorist groups it believed were within the ambit of its wartime authorities and against which it was using force: al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces.  (A category that at the end of the Obama Administration included al-Qa’ida; the Taliban; certain other terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qa’ida or the Taliban in Afghanistan; al-Shabaab; individuals who are part of al-Qa’ida in Libya; al-Qa’ida in Syria; and ISIS.)

The Trump strategy doesn’t draw nearly as sharp a distinction, which, along with things like its hawkish rhetoric toward Iran, raises questions about the strategy’s expansiveness.  To be sure, a counterterrorism strategy isn’t a legal authorities document, and we thus wouldn’t necessarily expect it to contain a detailed discussion of, for example, the groups against which the Administration believes it has statutory authority to use force.  But the strategy’s significantly different description of the enemy invites questions about its scope and suggests that vigilance is required concerning the scope of our efforts to address counterterrorism threats.

The geopolitical context.  Second, and relatedly, the strategy does not do much to explain how our efforts to address these counterterrorism threats intersect with the ever more complicated geopolitical environments from which many of them emanate.  The civil war in Yemen, for example, has devolved into a bloody stalemate and humanitarian nightmare that raises tough questions about our engagement and what role U.S. operations should play in both stabilizing the country and disrupting the still potent terrorist threat emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.  Syria, Somalia, and Libya raise similar hard questions.

It may be too much to ask of a counterterrorism strategy to take a comprehensive position on issues that cut across all elements of U.S. foreign policy – what end states are feasible, what role the United States should play in trying to create these end states, and how those broader considerations interact with our counterterrorism efforts.  But by not addressing this broader geopolitical context, particularly when this absence is combined with the relative laxity in describing the adversary, the strategy does raise concerns about mission creep and stumbling too deeply into conflicts for which there are no easy answers.

Targeting rules.  A third topic worth watching is the use of lethal force.  News reports over the past year have suggested that President Trump has put in place more expansive targeting rules, and the strategy seems to confirm this when it says “the United States must do more than disrupt individual plots—we must pursue the entirety of the network involved in terrorist plotting to prevent the remaining terrorists from reviving their operations.”  This appears to move away from the threat-based approach the Obama Administration used outside areas of active hostilities, although the new strategy continues the Trump Administration’s practice of not shining any light on who the United States is targeting.  And while there is likely legal room for changes to the lethal force policy President Trump inherited, the strategy doesn’t even begin to grapple with the complications and pitfalls of lethal action, such as civilian casualties and local blowback. It is by no means inappropriate to expect more information on who we are targeting and under what circumstances we are targeting them, if only to foster a public discussion about whether our means are calibrated to our ends and the benefits outweigh the costs.

Unanswered Questions.  A second potential set of issues are those that rest outside the current rough consensus.  As anyone who has been following counterterrorism issues for the past 17 years knows, there has been an extraordinary amount of attention focused on the nature of the threat, the use of lethal force, how we collect and share intelligence on terrorist targets, how we shut off terrorist financing, and a host of other topics.  A wide range of government and public stakeholders have vetted these issues, and the U.S. approach to them reflects a substantial amount of trial and error.  That’s at least partly why the existing approach has proven to be so durable.

But the existing counterterrorism approach is thicker and implemented more fully in some areas as compared to others.  New issues, or newly important issues, emerge over time, and these new areas have almost necessarily not yet received the same amount of legal and policy attention as more mature topics.  The Trump Administration is thus operating on much more of a blank slate in these areas, such that they warrant particular scrutiny.

Two areas, specifically, stand out in this regard.

Terrorist use of the Internet.  First, the strategy references the need to counter terrorists’ cyber capabilities in several places and also emphasizes the need to “combat terrorists’ influence online.”  These are certainly worthwhile goals, as the risk presented by ISIS’s use of the Internet to attract new followers and encourage attacks has likely only grown as it has lost its Iraq and Syria sanctuary.  And terrorist groups increasingly use the internet and encrypted mobile phone apps operationally, including for command and control.

The government response to these online activities will likely be layered and might include some relatively non-controversial initiatives, such as public education and working cooperatively with the technology sector.  But for many categories of activities, policymakers will have to grapple with the lack of clear rules of the road in cyberspace.  U.S. cyber actions, whether they be disruption operations or counter-recruitment efforts, touch on a wide variety of important equities – from freedom of expression and association to sovereignty.  Thus, it’s likely that a fair bit of trial and error, policy development, and interagency, interbranch, and potentially public vetting will be necessary before the Executive Branch arrives at a durable legal and policy framework for certain forms of action on this front – something to keep in mind as press reports discuss changes in U.S. cyber policy, such as the recent report that the President has granted the Department of Defense increased authority to engage in cyber operations.

Rules of partnerships.  A second area to watch is counterterrorism partnerships.  As noted earlier, President Trump’s strategy continues President Obama’s emphasis on working by, with, and through partners.  Despite the continued focus on this area, substantial work still needs to be done to ensure that our efforts to improve our partners’ capabilities are bearing fruit and that those partners are operating in a manner consistent with our values and (at the very least) our legal obligations.  This means developing an approach that goes beyond the largely tactical investments in partner capabilities we have made over the past decade by supporting a broader range of civilian tools and security sector reform activities that both combat the threat and address underlying conditions, like a lack of justice or accountability, in which terrorist threats often thrive.  It also means thinking hard about the nations to which we should make long-term commitments, in light of their strategic importance, willingness to work with us, the relative fragility of the state, and the scale of the terrorist threats within its borders, among other factors.  Finally, recent accounts of U.S. counterterrorism partners engaging in abuses make clear that it is incumbent upon the United States to develop and publicize a legal and policy framework to govern our work with our partners.  This framework can recognize that partners may not possess the same precision capabilities as the United States, but it should still ensure that we have in place the appropriate monitoring and incentives to ensure that our partners are abiding by the rule of law and that their actions do not undermine our tactical goals or our credibility as a force for good against the evil that terrorists promote.

Presidential Attention and Changed Circumstances.  Our former colleague Josh Geltzer raised a final issue worth watching:  does the counterterrorism strategy actually reflect the President’s views?  If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the first time that an official Administration policy document may not have perfectly captured the views of its head – consider the contrast between last year’s National Security Strategy and the views expressed in the speech President Trump gave to celebrate the Strategy’s release.

Indeed, given the President’s campaign rhetoric, there is good reason to believe he is far from fully invested in the details of his Administration’s strategy.  As noted at the outset, the durability of the approach he inherited and the related relative decrease in the political salience of “first generation” counterterrorism issues may simply have discouraged him from expending the political capital to seek dramatic changes.  In other words, with the counterterrorism issues that dominated political discourse after 9/11 becoming less prominent, the President may be disinterested in engaging forcefully to make change.

In this vein, contrast the “core” counterterrorism issues dealt with in the strategy with two issues that President Trump often ties to counterterrorism, but which plainly appear to interest him largely for other reasons:  immigration and borders.  President Trump clearly sees these issues as integral to his Presidency, as they are critical to his political base and bring together a potent swirl of concerns about jobs, ethnic and political displacement, and crime.  President Trump has thus been willing to expend significant amounts of bureaucratic energy and political capital on these issues, and he has accordingly been able and wanted to push the envelope from both a legal and policy perspective in a way he has chosen not to with respect to the topics that are the focused of the counterterrorism strategy.

The strategy shies away from discussing these issues, however, at least in the incendiary way President Trump does publicly.  One would be tempted to read this as a disavowal of the counterterrorism basis for these actions, but it’s probably just a sign that the strategy document was largely produced by the policy-focused officials in the Trump Administration and not the President and his closest political advisers.  Indeed, the actual release of the document would seem consistent with this hypothesis.  The Administration issued the strategy with little to no fanfare, late on a Thursday, right before a holiday weekend, at a time when White Houses typically bury bad news.  There was no accompanying Presidential address, and certainly no venue for the media and national security experts to ask questions and try to understand it better. Simply put, the release of the strategy felt like something that was obligatory, rather than something that the President wanted to do and wanted to trumpet.  But the political environment can change – what happens if there is a major attack? – and so too may the President’s calculus.  A robust policy architecture may be more durable than expected, but it is not law, and even laws can prove more malleable than wished during crisis situations.

* * * * *

This final discussion leads to our closing point: the greatest shortcoming of this strategy may be less about anything that was included and more about what it excludes.  Specifically, we think the strategy’s biggest omission is its failure to communicate to the American people the challenges of terrorism and the choices that we as a society must face in countering and being resilient in the face of the threat.  At a macro level, the strategy fails to offer any overarching foreign policy vision – beyond a few seemingly half-hearted references to America First – that would put it in context and help the public understand how this struggle supports a broader vision.  Previous strategies have done just that, with President Bush placing counterterrorism within the broader effort to bring democracy and stability to countries in which terrorist threats flourish.  President Obama’s strategy emphasized grounding counterterrorism on a strong foundation of U.S. core values – promoting human rights, respecting civil liberties, promoting responsive governance – and building a culture of resilience.  Trump’s strategy reads more like a technician’s document, with no clear reflection of the President’s vision for guiding the country through a challenging world.

This is in many ways an extension of the opaque approach the President and his administration have taken on counterterrorism to date.  Even as greater numbers of U.S. forces have been killed pursuing terrorists in Yemen, Somalia, and Mali than in the last administration, and even as reports have emerged that Trump is concerned with the overextension of U.S. forces, the administration has not explained to the American public the nature of the current threat and why addressing it merits putting greater numbers of our people in harm’s way.  In the wake of last year’s truck attack in New York, the Trump administration failed to place such homegrown violent extremism in context and urge resilience in the face of such attacks.  Finally, media reporting indicates that the President has greatly revamped the rules for lethal targeting, lowering the threshold for use of force and loosening restrictions of preventing civilian casualties. And yet the Administration has failed to even acknowledge, much less offer any thorough explanation of the new targeting rules or the legal framework underpinning our current fight.

The omission of these important issues and the low-profile release of this document appear to reinforce this Administration’s broader resistance to providing transparency around counterterrorism, to grappling with the ethical and moral challenges inherent to the endeavor, and to explaining to the American public why we’re still engaged in this fight some 17+ years after 9/11.

This is a big mistake. Failure to provide a broader strategic frame is an abdication of leadership. And excessive secrecy is strategically self-defeating. Indeed, it would be a horrible irony if, just as the country has finally gotten to a place where every step in the counterterrorism fight isn’t contested political trench warfare – which is a good thing – the Executive Branch sweeps our counterterrorism efforts under the carpet, and those pitched political debates re-emerge when something goes wrong or it becomes apparent a severe course correction is needed.

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[1] Although exhaustively cataloguing the consensus is beyond the scope of this post, we believe it encompasses topics such as:  the fact that we are in an armed conflict with certain terrorist groups; that this armed conflict can spill across national borders in certain circumstances; that working by, with, and through partners is the preferred strategy, such that large footprint military deployments should be avoided if at all possible; that the Executive Branch uses an “all tools” approach to fighting terrorism, with discretion to choose the appropriate tool as the circumstances require and law allows; that domestic and international law binds our counterterrorism activities, with significant work being done to develop our positions on certain issues (e.g., detainee treatment, targeting); and that ethical and moral considerations, and the strategic need to win over local populations, lead us to generally apply standards above and beyond those legally required. 

About the Author(s)

Christopher Fonzone

Former Deputy Assistant to the President, former Deputy Counsel to the President, former National Security Council Legal Adviser, formerly worked at the Department of Justice in the Office of Legal Counsel and on the Civil Division’s Appellate Staff, formerly served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense.

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).