Erasing the Seams: An Integrated, International Strategy to Combat Terrorism

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

May 3, 2006

This paper was written with research and analysis support by Tanvi Madan, Research Analyst, Foreign Policy Studies.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration and Congress have taken a number of important steps to improve U.S. security against terrorism, not only in the offensive war on terrorism abroad but through protecting the homeland as well. But efforts to date have not adequately redressed one of the most serious flaws of US counter-terrorism strategy: its bifurcation into domestic (homeland security) and foreign components. This bifurcation pre-dated 9/11, when the threat to the homeland was underestimated by many government agencies, and was carried forward (and the divide in some respects deepened) by the Bush administration’s initial response to 9/11. The principal rationale for retaining the domestic/foreign divide was the perceived need to take immediate short-term measures to improve security without risking the time delays and disruption attendant on a more comprehensive rethinking of the pre-9/11 approach, and the preoccupation of the traditional national security community with preparing for military action in Afghanistan.

With the passage of time, there has been ample opportunity to revisit this key question. In some respects there have been major strides in erasing the divide, while other aspects of the counter-terrorism effort have not changed significantly. This report reflects our assessment of the government efforts to date and where we believe further action is necessary.

Our study did not assume that dividing the foreign and domestic dimensions of counter-terrorism is per se undesirable. Rather, in each case it is necessary to weigh the costs and benefits of integration and bifurcation, keeping in mind that while efficacy of the counter-terrorism effort is and ought to be the dominant consideration in assessing desirable structures and organization, other factors legitimately need to be taken into account. These include civil liberties, the need to pursue other policy agendas, which might be adversely affected by consolidating domestic and foreign counter-terrorism efforts, and bureaucratic and political costs associated with “reform.”