Lessons From The Failed War On Terror

The United States has been at war in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but has only been partially successful with regime change in Iraq, and far less successful in reducing terrorism. The United States has become the aggressor nation, with its actions only result in increasing anti-American sentiment and creating more “terrorists.” The “war on terror” started as a Republican mistake based upon lies under George W. Bush. Both major political parties now own this failure, with the Democrats nominating an ultra-hawkish candidate for president in 2016.

Hillary Clinton was not only one of the strongest proponents of the war in Iraq, making false claims of cooperation between Saddam and al Qaeda, but also was the major architect of the failed attempt at regime change in Libya, which was also based upon false claims. She also has pushed for greater intervention in Syria, including imposing a no-fly zone, which would have resulted in greater casualties, required U.S. troops on the ground to support, and would have put the United States into direct conflict with Russia. The revival of Cold War style anti-Russia hysteria and McCarthyism by establishment Democrats is also of great concern.

The Republican candidate, while less interested in interventionism, has been utterly incoherent on foreign policy. It is quite clear that Donald Trump’s claims of a secret plan to defeat ISIS were as imaginary as Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. His only plan is more of the same type of counterproductive military attacks. At this point there are only signs of continued expansion of the warfare/surveillance state with no end in sight.

With both major political parties now becoming advocates of neoconservative interventionism, only third parties such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party had a rational foreign policy position in 2016 opposing continued interventionism. In late June, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a policy paper entitled Step Back: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy from the Failed War on Terror. The full paper, along with an audio version, are available here.

Following is from the Executive Summary:

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched an international war on terrorism defined by military intervention, nation building, and efforts to reshape the politics of the Middle East. As of 2017, however, it has become clear that the American strategy has destabilized the Middle East while doing little to protect the United States from terrorism.

After 15 years of considerable strategic consistency during the presidencies of George Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump now takes the reins having promised to “bomb the sh—” out of ISIS and “defeat them fast.” At the same time, however, Trump broke sharply in his campaign rhetoric from Republican orthodoxy on Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever President Trump decides to do, an evaluation of the War on Terror should inform his policies.

We argue that the War on Terror failed. This failure has two fundamental—and related—sources. The first is the inflated assessment of the terror threat facing the United States, which led to an expansive counterterrorism campaign that did not protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The second source of failure is the adoption of an aggressive strategy of military intervention.

The lessons from the War on Terror indicate that it is time for the United States to take a different approach. Policymakers need to acknowledge that although terrorism is a serious concern, it represents only a modest security threat to the American homeland. Further, the United States should abandon the use of military intervention and nation building in the War on Terror. Instead, the United States should push regional partners to confront terrorist groups abroad, while the U.S. returns to an emphasis on the intelligence and law enforcement paradigm for combating the threat against the American homeland.

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