The Trump administration thinks it knows all it needs to about what motivates extremist violence. Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, considers it “nonsense” even to try to figure out the root causes of terrorism. John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, describes America’s opponents as “driven irrationally to our destruction”—even though scholars have documented that the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other extremist movements work quite rationally toward their goals: controlling territory, establishing ideological dominance, and defeating their political enemies. The administration’s plan to combat terrorism, in fact, flows directly from Steve Bannon and other key advisers, who believe that the United States is locked in an ideological conflict not only with “radical Islamic terrorists,” but possibly with Islam itself.
Rather than countering extremist organizations and building support among Muslim allies, the administration has called for increased surveillance of mosques in the United States, banned travel from six predominantly Muslim countries, and undercut Islam’s protected status as a religion under the First Amendment. Overseas, it has dispatched additional U.S. forces to Syria and conducted more drone strikes in Yemen in a single week than the Obama administration did in an entire year. It has also floated the idea of rolling back Obama-era rules designed to protect civilians from drone strikes and other counterterrorism missions, and reducing oversight when military force is used outside declared war zones. Trump sees military victory as the goal—and Obama’s limits on the use of force as a central obstacle. “Everything is going to be quicker from flash to bang,” explains a former Pentagon official.
It’s natural, of course, for a new administration to review and revise its predecessor’s security policies. And there are, in fact, plenty of reasons to critique Obama’s counterterrorism strategy and make some changes. They’re just not the ones that Trump is pursuing.
Consider, for example, the welter of counterterrorism programs that Obama consolidated under the banner of Countering Violent Extremism—everything from online Twitter campaigns and counseling vulnerable young people to preventing genocide and women’s empowerment. Critics have argued that many CVE programs were overseen by unqualified officials who were unable to demonstrate whether the work was even making a difference. Early English-language videos called “Think Again Turn Away”—produced by the State Department to guide young people away from terrorism—were derided as “the equivalent of a Just Say No marketing effort.”
Last year, the Obama administration shuttered the video campaign and sought to streamline CVE operations scattered across a dozen federal agencies. But problems persisted. An investigation into a Pentagon effort to combat ISIS’s social media propaganda, for example, found it “beset with incompetence, cronyism, and flawed data.” And as researchers Candace Rondeaux and Bethany McGann point out, the social science on what actually works to counter extremism remains thin—even as anti-poverty and humanitarian programs have jumped on the CVE bandwagon, because that’s where the money is. U.S. officials still have significant blind spots when it comes to understanding what interventions deter young people from joining radical groups, which programs transfer between countries and cultures and which do not, and where to focus scarce resources.
While human rights groups have been the most vocal in criticizing Obama’s escalation of drone strikes and Special Forces operations, senior military and intelligence officials have also quietly raised concerns. They point out that years of so-called direct action have been good for tactical wins but have not defeated a single extremist group, while strikes and perceived violations of sovereignty have spurred resentment against the United States. “It is possible that the political cost of these attacks exceeds the tactical gains,” argues retired Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, a highly regarded collaborator of Gen. David Petraeus. In fact, as Trump considers rolling back the Obama-era standards that govern such operations, even four-star generals are calling for significantly more oversight and transparency—including negotiating global rules for targeted killings.
The Trump administration, however, is moving in exactly the opposite direction. Its single-minded focus on “radical Islam” ignores evidence about the diversity of those who turn to violence, as well as the role of religious communities in identifying and thwarting potential terrorist threats. What’s more, Trump’s recent escalation of drone strikes in Yemen is widely viewed as a trial run for defeating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with an all-out air assault—something many military and intelligence officials warn is simply not possible.
So how has Trump been able to push through such an enormous divergence from his predecessor’s policy? First, Americans view terrorism through a strong partisan lens: Trump voters were twice as likely as Hillary Clinton supporters to cite terrorism as a key concern. Second—and for this Obama must bear some of the blame—many Americans perceive Trump’s policies as simply a more effective version of what Obama tried to do. Since the rise of ISIS, Americans have been swimming in a media ocean of overheated rhetoric about terror threats. Conservative commentators used terrorism as a proof point for arguments about racial and religious insecurity during the Obama years. Obama himself—who frequently reminded his staff that more Americans die each year from handguns, from car accidents, or from falls in the bathtub than from terrorism—attempted to emphasize the limited nature of the threat by limiting its place in his rhetoric. As the election underscored, however, not talking about terrorism is not an effective way to deal with terrorism.
The Trump administration, by contrast, actively seeks to fuel public fears rather than allay them. The textbook definition of terrorism, after all, is that it heightens fear among civilians at home. Among all of Obama’s missteps, his failure to acknowledge that fear, however irrational, and to counter it effectively, may be the one that haunts us the longest.