Robert Malley, president and CEO of International Crisis Group, and Jon Finer, former Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning in John Kerry’s State Department, have published an extremely important article in Foreign Affairs. Entitled “The Long Shadow of 9/11: How Counterterrorism Warps U.S. Foreign Policy,” the article makes a number of arguments that deserve wide amplification. To that end, I’ll make my small contribution by annotating some key passages from the article below. I also want to highlight a few areas where I think they could have gone further, and I’ll close with a critique related to optics. In my annotations, I’m working from the print edition (July/August 2018, pp. 58-69), because I do not believe the online version is up yet.
- p. 59: The article’s central argument is that “An excessive focus on [counterterrorism] disfigures American politics, distorts U.S. policies, and in the long run will undermine national security.” I couldn’t agree more.
- pp. 58-59: One of the article’s biggest strengths is its attention to how counterterrorism policies distort domestic politics. As part of establishing this argument, the authors note the significant policy continuities across the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump when it comes to counterterrorism: “In an era of persistent political polarization, countering terrorism has become the area of greatest bipartisan consensus” (59). One might add that despite a fetish for bipartisanship among elite newspaper columnists and centrist Senators, bipartisan consensus can actually represent a dangerous stifling of debate. It’s a bad sign that we don’t have a more robust national debate about counterterrorism, or even about foreign policy generally.
- p, 59: Malley and Finer clarify that they are not advocating a complete de-prioritization of counterterrorism: “The question is not whether fighting terrorist ought to be a key U.S. foreign policy objective – of course it should. But the pendulum has swung too far at the expense of other interests and of a more rational conversation about terrorism and how to fight it.” This is well said, although I think they could have been more forceful here: if you go by hard numbers about what threats actually affect the largest numbers of Americans, counterterrorism should be a second-tier priority at best, and probably more like a third-tier priority, well behind climate change and pandemics.
- p. 59: “Those privy to the constant stream of threat information generated by U.S. intelligence services – as we were during the Obama administration – can attest to the relentlessness and inventiveness with which terrorist organizations target Americans at home and abroad.” This makes some sense. But it would also have been worth stating that immersion in that kind of environment could actually cause policymakers to lose, rather than gain, perspective. That kind of atmosphere also makes political appointees a bit vulnerable to manipulation by hawks in the intelligence community.
- p. 59-60: “Unlike most other foreign policy issues, terrorism matters to Americans. They may have an exaggerated sense of the threat or misunderstand it, and their political leaders might manipulate or exploit their concerns. But politicians need to be responsive to the demands of their constituents, who consistently rank terrorism among the greatest threats the country faces.” This is true as far as it goes, but I think it only captures one part of a three-way interaction between the public, politicians, and the media. Politicians (as Malley and Finer discuss later) and the media (as they mention at the very end of the article) play major roles in shaping public perceptions. I don’t think that most of the public has a self-generated fear of terrorism – I think they are led into that fear by elites.
- p. 60-61: “Trump’s rise…cannot be dissociated from the emotional and at times irrational fears that he simultaneously took advantage of and fueled.” This is a key point, perhaps the key point, of the essay. Why did Trump win? There are probably dozens of reasons – the tactical and rhetorical missteps of the Clinton campaign, James Comey’s clumsy and perhaps malevolent rhetorical interventions during the campaign, the electoral college, Russian influence, racism and sexism, economic stagnation for many Americans, a culture of celebrity worship, etc. But I think the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, and Trump’s exploitation of those incidents, have not been given nearly enough weight in analysts’ understandings of the 2016 election result. To put it more bluntly, Trump’s win is in large part a product of the War on Terror. In that sense, both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the “liberal” media, played significant roles in feeding public alarm about terrorism in ways that ultimately benefited Trump.
- p. 61, “Trump is hardly the only [politician] who has hyped the threat of terrorism for political gain…It has become exceedingly rare for an elected official or candidate to offer a sober, dispassionate assessment of the threat posed by foreign terrorists. Obama tried to do so, but critics charged that at times of near panic, such rational pronouncements came across as cold and aloof.” I don’t know – I think Jeremy Corbyn’s approach after Manchester shows that there can even be a political benefit to leveling with the public. I think Obama could have done much more on this front.
- p. 62: Here is where Malley and Finer pivot to their second main argument, namely that “The time spent by senior officials and the resources invested by the government in finding, chasing, and killing terrorists invariably come at the expense of other tasks: for example, addressing the challenges of a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, and a resurgent Russia.” Here I agree with the sentiment up to the colon, but I disagree with the other possible priorities the authors mention. The debate is too often framed this way – i.e., as counterterrorism vs. what I would call “great power bullshit.” If the point is to have a clear-eyed assessment of what actually threatens the United States, then trying to flex on Russia in eastern Ukraine or on China in the South China Sea are not priorities, they are problems partly of our own making. The big threat, again, is climate change.
- p. 62: Here is a point I completely agree with – “The United States’ counterterrorism posture also affects how Washington deals with other governments – and how other governments deal with it…Washington’s willingness and ability to criticize or pressure the governments of Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among others, is hindered by the fact that the United States depends on them to take action against terrorist groups or to allow U.S. forces to use their territory to do so.” In this connection, I will plug my wife’s book, which examines how Morocco has strategically benefited from the War on Terror.
- p. 62-63: Malley and Finer go on to describe how American brutality in counterterrorism can feed and empower other countries’ brutality, in a kind of race to the bottom.
- p. 63: Although this is not the heart of the article, the authors give a fascinating description of how counterterrorism distorts interagency policymaking within presidential administrations. “In one example from our time in government, in 2016, officials taking part in the more specialized counterterrorism side of the process debated whether to kill or capture a particular militant leader even as those involved in the parallel interagency process considered whether to initiate political discussions with him.” Unbelievable.
- p. 64: Here is another critical point: “[The] policy distortion has produced an unhealthy tendency among policymakers to formulate their arguments in counterterrorism terms, thereby downplaying or suppressing other serious issues.” This crops up in the think tank world a lot, of course. It is an unfortunate trend with discussions of Africa, too – a lot of Africa watchers/think tankers, desperate to get more attention for Africa, play the national security card. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, a lot of the time, if what you care about is actually another issue, like development.
- p. 66: The final main section is really strong as well. “Paradoxically, fixating on counterterrorism can make it harder to actually fight terrorism. The intense pressure to immediately address terrorist threats leads to a focus on symptoms over causes and to an at times counterproductive reliance on the use of force.” Very well said. This goes back to some of the dynamics highlighted above involving publics, policymakers, and pundits – if we are to get out of those cycles, policymakers and politicians may have to be willing to accept some short-term political losses in order to do some long-term good.
- p. 66: “Sometimes what’s needed is a far broader approach that would entail, where possible, engaging such groups in dialogue and addressing factors such as a lack of education or employment opportunities, ethnic or religious discrimination, the absence of state services, and local government repression.” I sure think so.
- p. 67: “An overly militarized approach aggravates the very conditions on which terrorist recruitment thrives. The destruction of entire cities and the unintentional killing of civilians, in addition to being tragic, serve as powerful propaganda tools for jihadists.” Yep. The right will contend that jihadists are strategic masterminds whose expansion reflects their own brilliance, but I believe Malley and Finer are correct that a significant part of the proliferation of jihadism has to do with our own actions.
- p. 68-69: Somewhat surprisingly to me, Malley and Finer see “a window of opportunity” now to change the conversation on terrorism. They see a “small crack” in the political consensus, with a big of skepticism coming from the Trump administration and from Bernie Sanders. I’m really not sure how much the conversation is changing. I think 2020 candidates will still have big incentives, or perceived incentives, to hype the threat of terrorism. But I am glad to see this article and I hope will inspire more thinking and writing in this direction.
- A final note on optics: I think Malley should have written this article solo. That’s not a knock on Finer, but I think Malley needs to be careful that he is seen first and foremost as the head of Crisis Group, and not as a former Obama administration official. As a big fan of Crisis Group, I’m concerned that this is becoming a pattern – Malley co-authoring articles with other former Obama administration officials. It would be a real shame if Crisis Group came to be seen as just another administration-in-waiting, as a foreign policy version of the Center for American Progress. That perception could cost Crisis Group whatever influence it has with Republican administrations, and could weaken Crisis Group’s independence when Democrats are in power; it could even affect Crisis Group’s reputation in Europe and elsewhere. So I hope that in future articles Malley will not team up with his former colleagues.
Excellent review. I will keep an eye for the release of the online version. Your review did not only raise important and legitimate issues, it also gave me better clarity on the working approach that shapes your engagement with this thorny subject. However, your review of p. 62, and 64 caught my interest.
p. 62 “The United States’ counterterrorism posture also affects how Washington deals with other governments – and how other governments deal with it…”
This statement is not far from the truth. Prior to President Buhari’s visit to Washington which was also fixated on counterterrorism and buying of warplanes, the serial hosting of governors from Northern Nigeria at the United States Institute of Peace during the Obama’s administration almost fractured the domestic North-South political fragility in Nigeria. Activist like Yinka Odumakin went as far as arguing that Arewa governors conduct their separate foreign policy to the exclusion of their southern counterparts (Read more at: https://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/10/who-bewitched-you-oh-southern-governors/). The fixation on Boko Haram alone in Nigeria has indirectly re-introduced the enduring Lugardian conspiratorial claim that Northern Nigeria is overtly favored by the “West” for the sole purpose of a neo-colonialism by proxy. As a Nigerian with paternal lineage from the North and maternal lineage from the South, such narrative puzzles the identity crisis we are subjected to at a domestic level especially in a period of rising regional ethnonationalism. If Washington’s approach to the Niger Delta crisis did not initiated a serial hosting of South-South Governors in Washington, people are asking why the current approach to Boko Haram is different. No doubt, Boko Haram is one of the major crises in Nigeria but the pattern of interventions of external actors have sometimes further polarized the already fragile dynamics of Nigeria’s domestic politics. And the war economy driving the different conflicts or War on Terror in Nigeria has become an open secret. The worthy ethical goal of finding permament solution to the plight of the vulnerable citizens whose lives have become shattered have been supplanted with a brazen profiteering from the human misery birthed by Boko Haram.
p. 64 “[The] policy distortion has produced an unhealthy tendency among policymakers to formulate their arguments in counterterrorism terms, thereby downplaying or suppressing other serious issues.”
The national security card is not played by external actors alone even African governments invoke the same card to justify more revenue for security votes. The easiest way to invite global attention to pressing issues in Nigeria is by linking it to Boko Haram even when there are no facts that such issues have direct link to Boko Haram. A good case study here is the Farmers/Herdsmen crisis. I have closely monitored several private and public sources available to me but I don’t see any link between the Farmers/Herdsmen crisis and Boko Haram. The only group that would have successfully exploit the Farmers/Herdsmen crisis is Ansaru (they exploited it in the past when they framed their narrative against the Middle Belt group “Akhwat Akwop”) but as far as we know the group is quiescent at the moment. Even the scourge of abuse of Codeine and other hard drugs in Northern Nigeria is linked to Boko Haram. Nowithstanding, I am not trying to downplay the gravity of the Boko Haram insurgency or the international connections and ties of the group to the Islamic State especially Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi faction that maintain a steady line of communication to the Islamic State (which is where I think we differ), it is gradually becoming monotonous for all the quandaries in Nigeria to be encapsulated within the Boko Haram discourse.
Lastly, I am also a big fan of International Crisis Group. In a political atmosphere torn apart by bipartisan left/right wing politics which unfortunately has creeped into the academia, ICG provides an objective lens to view conflicts around the world.
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