America must reassess its commitment to the war on terror

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Samuel B. Hoff

In commemorating the two decades that have passed since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, American officials and the public should reassess the country’s comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.

America’s approach to eradicating global terrorism can best be summed up by two doctrines prevalent in foreign policy circles over the past twenty years: the “1% doctrine” and the “good enough doctrine”. On the one hand, a strategy invented by former Vice President Richard Cheney requires preemptive action even with tiny evidence of threat. On the other hand, an approach summarized by author Daniel Byman in the current issue of Foreign Affairs assumes that the United States can rely on its intelligence capability, military, and homeland security to successfully curb terrorism.

While it may be early to give President Joe Biden’s method of foreign policy such status, a “Biden doctrine” is apparent:

  • do not use the US military except in the national interest
  • rely on overflights of people or groups suspected of being hostile
  • promote democracy and human rights in accordance with American objectives

Sadly, US counterterrorism policy will continue to crumble under any of the previous troikas. The fight against terrorists must be led by an effective intelligence network, not subject to political hijacking, and for which precise information is sacred. By sharing secret information with other nations, America’s leaders must be trusted. Removing the bureaucratic hurdles that currently plague the intelligence community should begin with restoring the primacy of the Central Intelligence Agency in collecting data from other agencies and eliminating the post of Director of National Intelligence.

President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House on September 9, 2021 in Washington.

We cannot afford to repeat the folly of nation building tempted under the guise of retaliating against terrorism. Simply put, limited wars are losers from the start. We must not put ourselves in a future military situation where we orchestrate our own defeat. Waging conventional warfare should only be done with overwhelming force, minimal loss of life, and with the goal of total victory.

The US military is already fighting terrorism in several countries simultaneously, with mixed results. While technology such as the use of drones has been somewhat effective, there is always the possibility that ground boots are needed. In the future, it is likely that rapid strikes involving limited American personnel, such as Army Rangers, Navy Seals, or the Delta Force, will be more common than massive military occupations and counterinsurgency tactics.

Finally, celebrating our victories in the fight against terrorism and the concomitant sacrifices of our military should be accompanied by the admission of our shortcomings, including the US detention policy and all the GITMO mess. Yet, given the immediate public concern over the specter of terrorism, it is high time that the government’s attention and resources be redeployed there.

Perhaps then, the goal will not be “good enough”, or mitigation, but elimination.

Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. He is a former recipient of a Military History Fellowship from the United States Military Academy at West Point.


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