Straw Man: The Frailty of Counterterrorism as an Organizing Principle of American Foreign Policy

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush stood before a joint session of Congress and spoke to a wounded country. The attacks of 9/11 had occurred weeks earlier and had profoundly shaken America’s sense of security. The Bush administration knew that Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind the attacks, and the president told the American people where he was about to lead them. “The course of this conflict is not known,” Bush said, “yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”[1] U.S. foreign policy was now primarily concerned with defeating not Al-Qaeda specifically, but terrorism itself. By casting Al-Qaeda as an agent of chaos, evil, and tyranny, the Bush administration embarked on a foreign policy based on morality. Under these pretenses, the definition of “victory” was elastic and the war could be as involved as policymakers wanted. This article will use the case of Islamic terrorism and the War on Terror to analyze the implications of counterterrorism as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. It will not touch upon the rise of ISIL because American policymakers had a significantly different reaction to ISIL’s emergence that did not involve a reordering of our basic policy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many foreign policy elites thought terrorism would replace the Soviets as America’s strategic foil in international relations. Whether terrorism was up to such a heady task was another matter.

No matter how U.S. counterterrorism was conducted, it did not carry the longevity or the scope to stand as an organizing principle of American foreign policy. The political establishment believed that, after 9/11, the War on Terror could fill the void left by Russia since 1989.[2] “This crusade,” President Bush said, “this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient.”[3] The term “crusade” gave Al-Qaeda a certain gravitas that they, in fact, fundamentally lacked. Despite grand displays of brutality on the public stage, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups did not have widespread, transnational support. And the vast majority of Muslims saw them as outsiders, unrepresentative of Islam. The killing of civilians, especially the killing of fellow Muslims, alienated Al-Qaeda from potential supporters and limited them to a relatively small number of violent zealots. Writing as early as 2006, Philip Gordon argued that the “Bin Laden and Zawahiri are now living like fugitives in caves rather than like presidents or military commanders in compounds in Afghanistan. Other al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured, and the organization’s ability to communicate globally and to finance major operations has been significantly reduced.”[4] The Middle East was quickly turning against them.

Furthermore, media organizations in the Middle East like Al-Jazeera attacked Al-Qaeda and corruption in several Arab governments. A terrorist organization struggling to win the support of its own neighbors certainly did not pose a sustainable, long-term threat to the one great superpower of the international community. But many in the U.S. government still believed that they had entered a new era in which American foreign policy would orbit around counterterrorism. In evaluating how that might have been possible, Gilles Andréani argues: “It would be hasty to say that 11 September 2001 plunged us into this new world. For that, mass terrorism would have to breed followers in vast numbers; it would have to spread throughout the Middle East, seize territorial bases and state resources there…We are very far from that point, and mass terrorism is not yet a defining threat of strategic proportions.”[5] Between the late 1990s and 2011, Al-Qaeda’s numbers fell from 3-4,000 to only 300 fighters.[6] This weakened state of Al-Qaeda demonstrates the transience of what scholars call “Global War on Terror macro-securitization,” the idea that grand international security can be formulated solely around the Global War on Terror.

Some may argue that Al-Qaeda is not in fact obsolete, that it still inspires new generations of young jihadists in Western countries, “home-grown terrorists” who continue to carry out attacks on America and its allies. Could these events not indicate that counterterrorism remains the organizing principle for American foreign policy? Indeed, there have been numerous close-calls and some successful terrorist attacks on American soil in recent years, from the Christmas Day bomber in 2009 to the Fort Hood shooting, to the Times Square bomber in 2010. In his book, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda—the title itself suggesting that Al-Qaeda has been neutered, Fawaz Gerges acknowledges that Al-Qaeda or its ideological progeny may certainly carry out future attacks on the West, but this is more an indication of the organization’s feebleness than its resurgence. “Only a miracle will resuscitate transnational jihad,” Gerges writes.[7] In both recourses, ideas, and influence, Al-Qaeda has proven itself, in a relatively short time, unable to fill the post-Cold War “threat deficit” and thus, counterterrorism cannot remain an organizing principle for American foreign policy because it faces threats that come and go, but cannot sustain a credible challenge to American power.

* Portions of this paper were previously submitted for an Oxford tutorial on the Global War on Terror in February of 2015. They have been edited and rearranged for length.


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[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/09/20/gen.bush.transcript/

[2] Bergen, “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda,” 101

[3] Bergen, 51

[4] Gordon, Philip H. “Can the War on Terror Be Won? – How to Fight the Right War”, Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2007)

[5] Adreani, Gilles. ‘The ‘War on Terror’: Good Cause, Wrong Concept”, in: Survival (46/4, Winter 2004-05): 48

[6] Gerges, 125

[7] Gerges, 191

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