When it comes to political orientation, worldview, life experience, and temperament, the past three presidents of the United States could hardly be more different. Yet each ended up devoting much of his tenure to the same goal: countering terrorism.

Upon entering office, President George W. Bush initially downplayed the terrorist threat, casting aside warnings from the outgoing administration about al Qaeda plots. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, his presidency came to be defined by what his administration termed “the global war on terrorism,” an undertaking that involved the torture of detainees, the incarceration of suspects in “black sites” and at a prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens, and prolonged and costly military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Barack Obama’s political rise was fueled by his early opposition to Bush’s excesses. He was clear-eyed about the nature of the terrorist threat and aware of the risks of overstating its costs. Once in office, he established clearer guidelines for the use of force and increased transparency about civilian casualties. But he also expanded the fight against terrorists to new theaters, dramatically increased the use of drone strikes, and devoted the later years of his presidency to the struggle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). 

As for Donald Trump, he helped incite a wave of fear about terrorism and then rode it to an unlikely electoral victory, vowing to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to ruthlessly target terrorists wherever they were found. In office, Trump has escalated counterterrorism operations around the world, significantly loosened the rules of engagement, and continued to play up the terrorist threat with alarmist rhetoric.

In short, in an era of persistent political polarization, countering terrorism has become the area of greatest bipartisan consensus. Not since Democrats and Republicans rallied around containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War has there been such broad agreement on a foreign policy priority. Counterterrorism was a paramount concern for a president avenging the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans, and for his successor, who aspired to change the world’s (and especially the Muslim world’s) perception of the United States—and now it is also for his successor’s successor, who is guided not by conviction or ideology but by impulse and instinct.

Many compelling reasons explain why U.S. policymakers have made the fight against terrorism a priority and why that fight often has taken on the character of a military campaign. But there are costs to this singular preoccupation and approach that are seldom acknowledged. An excessive focus on this issue disfigures American politics, distorts U.S. policies, and in the long run will undermine national security. The question is not whether fighting terrorists 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.

The more things change . . .

The first and most obvious reason why several consecutive administrations have devoted so much attention to fighting terrorism is that guarding the safety of citizens should be any government’s primary duty. 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. They likewise can attest to the determination and resourcefulness required of public servants to thwart them. 

An excessive focus on counterterrorism disfigures American politics, distorts U.S. policies, and in the long run will undermine national security.

Second, 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.

A third reason is that, by the most easily comprehensible metrics, most U.S. counterterrorism efforts appear to have immediately and palpably succeeded. No group or individual has been able to repeat anything close to the devastating scale of the 9/11 attacks in the United States or against U.S. citizens abroad, owing to the remarkable efforts of U.S. authorities, who have disrupted myriad active plots and demolished many terrorist cells and organizations. What is more, when compared with other, longer-term, more abstract, and often quixotic policy priorities—such as spreading democracy, resurrecting failed states, or making peace among foreign belligerents—counterterrorism has a narrower objective over which the U.S. government has greater control, and its results can be more easily measured. In the Middle East, in particular, Washington’s loftier pursuits have tended to backfire or collapse. Focusing on counterterrorism can discipline U.S. foreign policy and force policymakers to concentrate on a few tasks that are well defined and realistic.

Finally, in an age of covert special operations and unmanned drones, the targeted killing of suspected terrorists appears relatively precise, clean, and low risk. For a commander in chief such as Obama, who worried about straining the U.S. military and causing counterproductive civilian casualties, the illusory notion that one could wage war with clean hands proved tantalizing. 

The combination of these factors helps explain why such dissimilar presidents have been so similar in this one respect. It also explains why, since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has been engaged in a seemingly endless confrontation with a metastasizing set of militant groups. And it explains why, by tacit consensus, American society has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward terrorism, such that any administration on whose watch an attack were to occur would immediately face relentless political recrimination. The United States has become captive to a national security paradigm that ends up magnifying the very fears from which it was born. 


For evidence of how this toxic cycle distorts American politics, one need look no further than Trump’s rise, which cannot be dissociated from the emotional and at times irrational fears of terrorism that he simultaneously took advantage of and fueled. Trump, more blatantly than most, married those sentiments to nativistic, bigoted feelings about immigrants and Muslims. In December 2015, he proposed a simple but drastic step to eliminate the danger: “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” As a policy, this was absurd, but as demagoguery, it proved highly effective: several months prior to the 2016 presidential election, some polls showed that a majority of Americans approved of the idea, despite the fact that they were less likely to fall victim to a terrorist attack by a refugee than be hit by lightning, eaten by a shark, or struck by an asteroid.

But Trump is hardly the only one who has hyped the threat of terrorism for political gain; indeed, doing so has become a national—and bipartisan—tradition. 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. After the 2015 terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California, took the lives of 14 people, he became all the more aware of the pernicious impact another attack could have—prompting baseless anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, proposals for the curtailment of civil liberties, and calls for foreign military adventures. So Obama intensified his own and his administration’s counterterrorism rhetoric and actions. It’s hard to ignore the irony of overreacting to terrorism in order to avoid an even greater overreaction to terrorism. 

This dilemma reflects the peculiar nature of terrorism. For an American, the risk of being injured or killed in a terrorist attack is close to zero. But unlike truly random events, terrorism is perpetrated by people intentionally seeking bloodshed and working hard to achieve it. The combination of seeming randomness of the target and the deliberateness of the offender helps explains why terrorism inspires a level of dread unjustified by the actual risk. At any given time and place, a terrorist attack is extremely unlikely to occur—and yet, when one does happen, it’s because someone wanted it to. 

But that only goes so far in explaining why Americans remain so concerned about terrorism even though other sources of danger pose much higher risks. The fact is that many U.S. political leaders, members of the media, consultants, and academics play a role in hyping the threat. Together, they form what might be described as a counterterrorism-industrial complex—one that, deliberately or not, and for a variety of reasons, fuels the cycle of fear and overreaction.  

The 9/11 Empty Sky Memorial, September 2013
Gary Hershorn / Reuters


But it’s not just American politics that suffers from an overemphasis on counterterrorism; the country’s policies do, too. An administration can do more than one thing at once, but it can’t prioritize everything at the same time. 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. 

The United States’ counterterrorism posture also affects how Washington deals with other governments—and how other governments deal with it. When Washington works directly with other governments in fighting terrorists or seeks their approval for launching drone strikes, it inevitably has to adjust aspects of its policies. 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. More broadly, leaders in such countries have learned that in order to extract concessions from American policymakers, it helps to raise the prospect of opening up (or shutting down) U.S. military bases or granting (or withdrawing) the right to use their airspace. And they have learned that in order to nudge the United States to get involved in their own battles with local insurgents, it helps to cater to Washington’s concerns by painting such groups (rightly or wrongly) as internationally minded jihadists.

The United States also risks guilt by association when its counterterrorism partners ignore the laws of armed conflict or lack the capacity for precision targeting. And other governments have become quick to cite Washington’s fight against its enemies to justify their own more brutal tactics and more blatant violations of international law. It is seldom easy for U.S. officials to press other governments to moderate their policies, restrain their militaries, or consider the unintended consequences of repression. But it is infinitely harder when those other states can justify their actions by pointing to Washington’s own practices—even when the comparison is inaccurate or unfair. 

These policy distortions are reinforced and exacerbated by a lopsided interagency policymaking process that emerged after the 9/11 attacks. In most areas, the process of making national security policy tends to be highly regimented. It involves the president’s National Security Council staff; deputy cabinet secretaries; and, for the most contentious, sensitive, or consequential decisions, the cabinet itself, chaired by either the national security adviser or the president. But since the Bush administration, counterterrorism has been run through a largely separate process, led by the president’s homeland security adviser (who is technically a deputy to the national security adviser) and involving a disparate group of officials and agencies. The result in many cases is two parallel processes—one for terrorism, another for everything else—which can result in different, even conflicting, recommendations before an ultimate decision is made.

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. That same year, those involved in the counterterrorism process recommended launching a major strike against ISIS leaders in Libya even as other officials working on that country worried that overt U.S. military action would undermine Libya’s fledgling government.

It’s true that once the most difficult decisions reach the president and his cabinet, the two processes converge, and a single set of players makes the final call. But the bifurcated bureaucratic structure and the focus on terrorism at the lower levels mean that by the time senior officials consider the issue, momentum typically will have grown in favor of direct action targeting a terrorist suspect, with less consideration given to other matters. Even when there is greater coordination of the two processes, as there was for the counter-ISIS campaign, the special attention given to terrorist threats shapes policy decisions, making it more difficult to raise potentially countervailing interests, such as resolving broader political conflicts or helping stabilize the fragile states that can give rise to those threats in the first place.

That policy distortion has produced an unhealthy tendency among policymakers to formulate their arguments in counterterrorism terms, thereby downplaying or suppressing other serious issues. Officials quickly learn that they stand a better chance of being heard and carrying the day if they can argue that their ideas offer the most effective way to defeat terrorists. The Obama administration produced several examples of that dynamic. Officials held different views about how closely to work with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in a coup in 2013, and whether to condition U.S. assistance to Egypt on political reforms. In essence, the debate pitted those who believed that the United States could not endorse, let alone bankroll, the Sisi regime’s authoritarian practices against those who argued that relations with Egypt mattered too much to risk alienating its leader. This debate raised difficult questions about the utility of U.S. military aid and the effectiveness of making it conditional, about the importance of Egypt and the Middle East to Washington’s security posture, and about the priority that U.S. policymakers ought to place on American values when formulating foreign policy. Yet policymakers often chose to frame the debate in different terms: those in the first camp insisted that Sisi’s disregard for human rights would produce more terrorists than he could kill, whereas those in the second camp highlighted the need to work with Sisi against already existing terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula.

In 2014, a similar pattern emerged when it came to policy discussions about the civil war in Syria. Once again, senior officials faced a situation that tested their core assumptions and values: on the one hand, the conviction that the United States had a moral responsibility to intervene to halt mass atrocities, and on the other, a fear that U.S. forces would get bogged down in yet another military adventure in the Middle East. But in front of the president, officials regularly spoke a different language. Those who felt that Washington should try to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asserted that he was a “magnet” for terrorist groups that could be eliminated only through Assad’s removal. Meanwhile, officials who opposed intervention argued that the conflict itself was generating the vacuum that resulted in ISIS’ rise and that the goal therefore ought to be to de-escalate it; they also pointed out that many of the opposition groups asking for U.S. support had ties to al Qaeda. 

But those examples and the often highly defensible decisions they produced are less important than the larger pattern they reflect. When officials package every argument as a variation on a single theme—how to more effectively combat terrorists—they are likely to downplay broader questions that they ought to squarely confront regarding the United States’ role in the world, the country’s responsibility to intervene (or not) on humanitarian grounds, and the relative importance of defending human rights or democracy. 


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. Washington has become addicted to quick military fixes for what are too often portrayed as imminent life-and-death threats, or officials focus too much on tangible but frequently misleading metrics of success, such as the decimation of leadership structures, body counts, or the number of arrests or sorties. Of course, when it comes to an organization such as ISIS, it is hard to imagine any solution other than defeating the group militarily. But when dealing with the Afghan Taliban, for example, or violent groups elsewhere that have local roots and whose fighters are motivated by local grievances, it is hard to imagine any military solution at all. 

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. These problems are hard to assess and require political, as opposed to military, solutions—diplomacy rather than warfare. That approach takes longer, and it’s harder to know whether the effort is paying off. For a policymaker, and particularly for political appointees serving fixed terms, it’s almost always preferable to choose immediate and predictable gratification over delayed and uncertain satisfaction. 

But as the war on terrorism nears its third decade, and despite the elimination of countless terrorist leaders and foot soldiers, there are now almost certainly more terrorist groups around the world and far more terrorists seeking to target the United States and its interests than there were in 2001. The United States is engaged in more military operations, in more places, against more such groups than ever before: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and the Sahel region, to name a few. The spread of such groups is hardly the result of U.S. policy failings alone. Still, it ought to encourage humility and prompt Washington to consider doing things differently. Instead, it has been used to justify doing more of the same. 

Chadian soldiers during a U.S.-led training mission, March 2014
Chadian soldiers during a U.S.-led training mission in Niger, March 2014
Joe Penney / Reuters

One possible explanation for the resilience of the terrorist threat is that 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. Such incidents feed resentment, grievances, and anti-Americanism. Not everyone who is resentful, grieving, or anti-American will turn to violence. The vast majority will not. But invariably, some will. 

The Obama administration sought to improve the protection of civilians by establishing detailed constraints on counterterrorism strikes and unprecedented standards for transparency about civilian casualties. That approach proved easier to establish than to implement. Outside analysts argued that the administration did not go far enough, and journalists revealed troubling disparities in the way casualties were counted. But things have gotten far worse under Trump. In the name of unshackling the military and halting what Trump administration officials have disparaged as Obama-era “micromanagement” of the military’s operations, Trump has loosened the rules governing the targeting of presumed terrorists, diminished the vetting of strikes, and delegated increased authority to the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, the number of drone strikes has significantly grown as a result; in the case of Yemen, the Trump administration carried out more airstrikes during its first 100 days than the Obama administration did in all of 2015 and 2016.

The destruction of entire cities and the unintentional killing of civilians, in addition to being tragic, serve as powerful propaganda tools for jihadists.

Today, the public knows little about what standards the military must follow before launching a strike, but there is little doubt that they have been relaxed. Nor is there much doubt that the rate of civilian casualties has increased. But it’s hard to know for sure because the White House has weakened the transparency rules that Obama imposed at the end of his term. In a sense, such changes represent a natural progression. They are an outgrowth of a discourse that presents terrorism as an existential threat, its elimination as a goal worthy of virtually any means, and secrecy as an essential tool. 

Trump represents the culmination of that discourse. During the campaign, he blithely asserted that his approach to ISIS would be to “bomb the shit out of” the group’s members and suggested that the United States should also “take out their families.” The Washington Post recently reported that after he became president, Trump watched a recording of a U.S. strike during which a drone operator waited to fire until the target was away from his family. When the video was over, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?” 


There must be a better way to allocate U.S. resources, define national security priorities, and talk to the American public about terrorism. But it’s hardly a mystery why a better path has been so difficult to find: few politicians are willing to challenge the dominant perspective, hint that the danger has been exaggerated, or advocate a less militarized approach. Fuzzy thinking mars even well-intentioned efforts at change. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, and Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, have proposed an update to the legislation that has governed most counterterrorism policy since 2001. Their bill seeks to rein in operations, put them on a sounder legal footing, and reassert Congress’ long-neglected role. But if passed, the bill would end up codifying the notion that the United States is engaged in an open-ended war against an ever-growing number of groups.

Still, a window of opportunity might be opening. Despite its missteps on counterterrorism, Trump’s national security team has declared that the biggest threats facing the United States result from great-power politics and aggressive “revisionist” states, such as China and Russia. Whatever one thinks of that assessment, it could at least help put terrorism in proper perspective. Moreover, the fight against ISIS appears to be winding down, at least for now, in Iraq and Syria. According to some polls, the U.S. public presently ranks international terrorism as only the third most critical threat to U.S. vital interests, behind North Korea’s nuclear program and cyberwarfare. There is also growing awareness of the considerable portion of the U.S. budget currently devoted to counterterrorism. And Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont—and a once and possibly future presidential contender—recently broke with orthodoxy by condemning the war on terrorism as a disaster for American leadership and the American people.

All of this amounts to just a small crack, but a crack nonetheless. It will take more to overcome the political trap that discourages officials from risking their futures by speaking more candidly. For example, Congress could create a bipartisan panel to dispassionately assess the terrorist threat and how best to meet it. Members of the policy community and the media could acknowledge the problem and initiate a more open conversation about the danger terrorism poses, whether U.S. military operations have successfully tackled it, and how much the global fight against terrorism has cost. 

Future officeholders could rethink Washington’s bureaucratic organization and the preeminent place granted to counterterrorism officials and agencies, insist on greater transparency regarding civilian casualties caused by U.S. military action, tighten the constraints loosened by the Trump administration, and press harder on allies and partners to act in accordance with international law. Finally, since sloppy language and bad policy are often mutually reinforcing, news organizations could impose on themselves greater discipline when covering terrorism. This would entail eschewing highly emotional wall-to-wall coverage of every attack (or even potential attack). 

Washington’s militarized counterterrorism culture, born in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has tended to conflate the government’s primary responsibility to protect citizens with a global fight against an ill-defined and ever-growing list of violent groups. This distortion has taken years to develop and will take years to undo. But that process will have to start somewhere, and it ought to start now.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ROBERT MALLEY is President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. During the Obama administration, he served as Special Assistant to the President, White House Middle East Coordinator, and Senior Adviser on countering the Islamic State. 
  • JON FINER served as Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration.
  • More By Robert Malley
  • More By Jon Finer