Strategic Counterterrorism

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

October 22, 2008


Terrorism is a real and urgent threat to the American people and our interests; a threat that could become far more dangerous if terrorists acquire nuclear or biological weapons. An effective counterterrorism policy must go beyond uncompromising efforts to thwart those who seek to harm us today—we must engage other countries whose cooperation is essential to meet this threat, and we must ensure that new terrorist recruits do not come to take the place of those we have defeated.

The policies pursued by the Bush administration have too often been counterproductive and self-defeating. In the name of an “offensive” strategy, they have undermined the values and principles that made the United States a model for the world, dismayed our friends around the world and jeopardized their cooperation with us, and provided ammunition for terrorist recruitment in the Middle East and beyond.

To achieve our long-term objective we must go beyond narrow counterterrorism policies to embed counterterrorism in an overarching national security strategy designed to restore American leadership and respect in the world. This leadership must be based on a strong commitment to our values and to building the structures of international cooperation that are needed not only to fight terrorists, but also to meet other key challenges of our time: proliferation; climate change and energy security; the danger of pandemic disease; and the need to sustain a vibrant global economy that lifts the lives of people everywhere. We need to demonstrate that the model of liberty and tolerance embodied by the United States offer the best hope of a better life for people everywhere and that the terrorists, not the United States, are the enemy of these universal ambitions. We must pursue an integrated set of policies—on non-proliferation, energy and climate, global public health and economic development—which reflect a recognition that in an interdependent world, the American people can be safe and prosperous only if others too share in these blessings. Our policies must demonstrate a respect for differences of history, culture and tradition, while remaining true to the principles of liberty embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This kind of enlightened self-interest led others to rally to American leadership in the Cold War and offers the best hope for sustaining our leadership in the future.