Counterterrorism: A New Organizing Principle for American National Security?

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

June 1, 2002

In his address to Congress nine days after the September 11 attacks, President Bush declared war on global terrorism and announced his intent to deploy “every resource at our command” to defeat terrorist networks and to treat states that harbor and support terrorism as “hostile regimes.” The speech appeared to presage a political reorientation of U.S. foreign and security policy on a scale not seen since the early days of the Cold War, comparable in scope to the Truman Doctrine and the adoption of the strategy of containment in the late 1940s.

We helped reconstruct Europe and Japan and provided foreign aid based on those same criteria. We supported a defense-industrial establishment to assure the wherewithal to sustain our technological edge. We even sent a man to the moon to demonstrate the superiority of Western democracy over Soviet totalitarianism and the command economy.

To the extent that counterterrorism becomes a comparable, new organizing principle, it will have similarly widespread consequences for a broad range of U.S. policies. Nearly nine months after the September 11 attacks, it is now possible to see the extent—and the limits—of counterterrorism as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy.

New Friends

The clearest impact of this strategic shift can be seen in the reorientation of U.S. relations with key international partners, particularly in connection with the military operations in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration is Pakistan. Just before September 11, U.S. relations with Pakistan had sunk to unprecedented lows. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program had led to strict sanctions; formerly close military ties had been cut off; and further sanctions had been imposed when General Pervez Musharraf ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Pakistani support for Islamic militants in Kashmir threatened to land Pakistan on the U.S. terrorism list, and persistent economic mismanagement imperiled Pakistan’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund.

What a difference a day makes. Following the September 11 attacks and Musharraf’s decision to provide political and military support to the U.S. effort to oust the Taliban, Musharraf became a welcome interlocutor, and a meeting was arranged with President Bush in New York. Sanctions were quickly lifted, and new aid totaling $1 billion was offered along with promises of more debt relief. In the war against terrorism, Pakistan is once again a U.S. ally.

Similar though less dramatic changes have marked U.S. relations with Central Asian countries. Although Washington had begun to develop ties with former Soviet states in the 1990s, serious concerns about repressive regimes, lack of democracy, and corruption were a brake on moves to further deepen the relationship. Yet, as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan opened their territory to stationing U.S. forces, the Bush administration began to be more forthcoming, both in economic and military assistance and in political support, to these new partners.

Other adversaries-turned-friends include Yemen, seen before September 11 as noncooperative in investigating the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and Sudan, long the object of U.S. criticism for a broad range of policies. No doubt wishing to avoid the Taliban’s fate, both governments have shown new zeal in counterterrorism cooperation with Washington.

For the United States and India, September 11 has strengthened ties that had already begun to improve with President Clinton’s visit in 2000. The U.S. military action in Afghanistan ousted India’s nemesis, the Taliban, which had supported Islamic militants in Kashmir. And India’s positive disposition has been further enhanced by the U.S. decision to resume military sales, which had been cut off for decades.

Even before September 11, Russian testiness about missile defense, proliferation, and its military operations in Chechnya had been easing with the budding personal tie between Presidents Bush and Putin. But the courtship blossomed into a full-blown romance when Putin was the first to call Bush after the attacks, offering not only political support, but invaluable intelligence cooperation and the benefit of Russia’s own difficult experience in Afghanistan. In return, Washington has softened its rhetoric on Chechnya, shown new flexibility in discussing arms control and Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and become more forthcoming on Russia-NATO ties—although taking care not to appear to give Russia a veto over NATO military decisions.

U.S.-China relations too have felt the transformative winds of September 11. Relations had warmed considerably from the early days of the Bush administration—when the new team had spoken of China as a strategic competitor. But following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, China supported the United States in the Security Council, and while not exactly endorsing the military effort in Afghanistan, conspicuously refrained from attacking it. And the United States reciprocated. During President Bush?s trip to Shanghai for the APEC summit in October, the dialogue with President Jiang steered clear of blunt talk that might have been anticipated just a few months earlier. Bush avoided public confrontations on the familiar sources of disagreement—from Tibet to Taiwan to proliferation—and the largely cooperative tone continued during Bush?s second visit to China in February.

The search for new partners in the fight against terrorism found support in unexpected quarters. For example, the Bush administration found a new predicate for seeking to improve its relations with a frequent nemesis—President Mahatir of Malaysia, whose own struggle with Islamic extremists in his country put Malaysia “on our side” in the counterterrorism campaign.

In the first weeks following September 11, it even appeared briefly that the new counterterrorism paradigm might portend a new opportunity for rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Although U.S.-Iran relations were confrontational on the eve of the attacks, in their immediate aftermath President Mohammad Khatami strongly stated his sympathy for the victims and, even more notably, granted the United States overflight rights for humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations in Afghanistan. But the honeymoon proved short-lived. Intelligence reports linked Iran to arms sales to the Palestinian Authority and to ongoing support for terrorist groups in the Middle East. The administration claimed that Iran was undermining Hamid Karzai’s interim government in Afghanistan. Iran soon found itself on the “axis of evil”—”against us” in the new bipolar geopolitics of counterterrorism.

Old Friends

September 11 was also consequential for America’s traditional partners worldwide. Europe’s initial response was overwhelming sympathy: even the traditionally skeptical French press declared, “We are all Americans.” NATO allies invoked for the first time the “Article 5” guarantee to come to the aid of any alliance member who was attacked; they conducted sweeping raids on suspected al Qaeda members throughout Europe.

But some Europeans felt slighted that the United States did not make greater use of the NATO military apparatus in Afghanistan or act quickly to incorporate other European military forces into Operation Enduring Freedom. Those who had hoped that Washington would turn away from what they feared was excessive unilateralism were initially comforted by the U.S. approach to Afghanistan (including securing a United Nations Security Council resolution), but disquiet grew as the rhetoric shifted to the axis of evil and the focus appeared to shift from stabilizing Afghanistan to overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

U.S.-Japan relations also received a boost. Determined, after the shock of September 11, to demonstrate that Japan could provide not just financial support, but meaningful operational assistance to the military effort in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Koizumi won approval for changes in the interpretation of Japan’s constitution that permitted Japan to deploy forces to the Indian Ocean. Although the Diet imposed some restrictions, such as a time limit on the deployment, the policy change was momentous. And in a sign of the broad effect of September 11, it received a muted reaction in both Beijing and Seoul.

By contrast, U.S.-South Korean relations, already rocked by disagreements over what strategy to pursue toward North Korea, were further troubled by Bush’s decision to include North Korea as the eastern wing of the axis of evil. Although the move appeared again to distance the United States from President Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy, its long-term impact is uncertain. Despite the rhetoric, the Bush administration continued to advocate dialogue with North Korea, and coming elections in South Korea could bring to power a government more in tune with Washington.

The Middle East: Testing Ground for the New Paradigm

In perhaps no corner of the world does the counterterrorism paradigm have the potential to transform U.S. policy more than in the Middle East, where relations with traditional Arab partners Saudi Arabia and Egypt are now in question. For many in the United States, both in and out of government, the rise of al Qaeda can be directly linked to the policies of the Saudi government—suppressing dissent at home but supporting fundamentalism abroad, with deadly consequences for the United States. Tensions were exacerbated by a perception that the Saudi and Egyptian governments failed to speak out forcefully against the attacks, tolerated (if not encouraged) anti-Americanism in their state-sponsored media, and offered only lukewarm military support for the operation in Afghanistan. Some members of Congress have proposed cutting U.S. aid to Egypt and withdrawing U.S. military forces from Saudi Arabia.

The Middle East has also demonstrated the tensions inherent in a single-minded application of counterterrorism as an organizing principle. As the suicide bombings against Israel intensified through last fall and winter, the government of Ariel Sharon sought to wrap its forceful response in the mantle of Bush’s categorical language against those who harbor terrorism—and for a time, the Bush administration largely adopted a similar view, ostracizing Yasser Arafat and placing the onus on the Palestinian Authority to halt the violence. But it became apparent, during Vice President Cheney’s trip to the Middle East in March, that the deepening violence had become a major obstacle to the administration’s strategy to remove Saddam Hussein. Thus, as Israel accelerated its military moves following the Passover suicide bombings, the administration was finally forced to call for limits on Israel’s use of force and defend Arafat’s continued involvement in the peace process. In short, the administration came to realize that it had to juggle multiple objectives and interests, not all of which could fit into the “with us or against us” mantra of the counterterrorism paradigm. But critics of this shift denounced it as a betrayal of “moral clarity” in the campaign against terrorism.

The administration’s efforts to calm the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were motivated in part by its own plans for “regime change” in Iraq. Although the nexus between Iraq and al Qaeda remains in dispute, Iraq’s robust weapons of mass destruction program is universally acknowledged—as is the possibility that Iraq might share its know-how with terrorists. But, as Cheney learned during his trip, Arab willingness to support Bush’s counterterrorism agenda on Iraq depends on U.S. willingness to address the Arab priority—the Palestinian issue.

New Priorities

September 11 has also changed American priorities. Just a month before the attacks, President Bush welcomed Mexican President Vicente Fox to Washington, proclaiming the bond with Mexico to be our nation’s most important relationship. Today, the two countries are focusing not on deeper integration, but on how to secure the U.S. border.

During the presidential campaign of 2000, candidate Bush denounced the Clinton administration’s preoccupation with “nation building.” But after the Afghan military operation, President Bush committed the United States to “helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live,” citing the post-World War II examples of the Marshall Plan in Europe and the reconstruction of Japan.

Similarly, Bush initially placed little emphasis on foreign aid as a tool of foreign policy. But the need to win friends who felt the administration was doing too little to address the “root causes” of terrorism prompted Bush to double aid spending for 2003.

Perhaps the biggest question mark about the impact of September 11 concerns the U.S. balance between unilateralism and multilateralism. Before September 11, concern was growing abroad about the administration’s preference for unilateral action and its skepticism about international institutions and treaties—from the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol, to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to the International Criminal Court, to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But after the attacks, perceptions began to shift, as the administration patiently assembled an international coalition before launching a military attack on Afghanistan. Secretary Powell famously observed, “We’re so multilateral it keeps me up 24 hours a day checking on everybody.” How significant the change is may become clearer as the administration develops its strategy toward Iraq, in particular, whether it attempts to build an international coalition focusing on Iraq’s noncompliance with Security Council resolutions on eliminating weapons of mass destruction before using force to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

A Sustainable Focus?

The U.S. campaign against terrorism will be a long one. Terrorism is the most serious threat to the safety of Americans today, and the growing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction makes the threat likely to become all the more dangerous. But terrorism is not the only peril. As the administration has recognized, some governments pose a threat to our interests whether or not they are aligned with terrorists. Other transnational threats include organized crime, drug trafficking, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as risks posed to the stability of the international financial and trading systems, to resources like energy and water, and to global environment and health. A sustainable counterterrorism strategy must recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to counterterrorism and that the effort must be integrated into a larger strategy that allows the United States to reap the benefits and counter the dangers of our increasingly interdependent world.

What, in practical terms, does this mean to the United States’ Allies and partners are crucial in the fight against terrorism. However powerful the United States may be, it will need to rely on others to carry out this multifaceted challenge. To sustain those partnerships, the United States must be prepared both to consult meaningfully (not just to inform) and to be responsive to other nations’ priorities. While it will always be possible to cobble together coalitions of convenience, durable alliances provide special advantages—reliability, habits of cooperation, and shared outlooks.

By building on the international support it gained in the wake of September 11, the United States has a unique opportunity to revive ties with traditional friends and build new relationships with former adversaries. If the administration can capitalize on its successful coalition-building effort for the Afghan war, we could see the emergence of a new, more constructive set of relationships among most, if not all, global actors.

The counterterrorism campaign has both a short-term and a long-term dimension. To thwart the immediate threat, the emphasis must necessarily be on law enforcement, intelligence, and, occasionally, military tools. But in the long run, terrorist networks will reconstitute themselves unless we make it harder for them to recruit new members and sustain their activities. This means helping to build stable, prosperous, democratic societies in countries that have seen too little of all three, particularly in the Arab world, Africa, and parts of Central, South, and Southeast Asia.

No single approach will fit all circumstances. Different terrorist groups pose different challenges and require different tools, even as we categorically condemn their methods. The threat posed by al Qaeda differs from the threat posed by the Irish Republican Army or even by the bloody suicide killers of the Tamil Tigers. Often a political approach will be necessary to separate terrorists from publics with political grievances as a parallel track to counterterrorism.

Washington must not lose sight of broader U.S. interests. The administration’s decision to boost foreign aid represented a sound recognition that poverty, ignorance, and disease threaten our interests. So does excessive reliance on partnerships of convenience with countries that don’t share our values. During the Cold War, from Iran to Latin America, we discovered the long-term costs of relationships of short-term expediency.

Finally, it is essential to maintain the vitality of key international institutions. Granted, these institutions pose constraints, but they also provide important leverage and burden sharing. As we have learned in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, there are many tasks the United States doesn’t want to take on alone (or at all). Organizations like the UN or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can provide an important alternative.

By placing counterterrorism in the framework of securing our broader national interests, the United States will not only be more effective in reducing the long-term threat from terrorists, but will also help assure that the fight against terrorism does not inadvertently weaken our overall security and prosperity.