Trump’s Counterterrorism Strategy Is a Relief

It prioritizes partnerships around the world while leaving out some of the president’s more politically charged ideas.

President Donald Trump departs the Oval Office. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Twenty-one months after being elected president, Donald Trump finally issued a “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” on Thursday. It’s the U.S. government’s first overarching public counterterrorism strategy since President Obama’s in 2011, which was preceded by George W. Bush’s in 2006. (I worked as the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017, in addition to other national-security advisory roles in the Obama administration.) Most notable about the document is one key inclusion—a continuing emphasis on foreign partnerships—and a whole set of exclusions, such as Trump’s travel ban and his promise to erect a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Together, the inclusion and those exclusions speak to the seriousness of the civil servants, military-service members, diplomats, and others who continue working to keep Americans safe. All told, the counterterrorism professionals—whose views are largely reflected in this strategy—have maintained their focus, even as the Trump White House continues to indulge in unhelpful rhetoric and even counterproductive, politically driven policies.

First, that notable inclusion: a continued emphasis on foreign partnerships with countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as the key to sustainable counterterrorism. The document, while heralding “an America First approach to counterterrorism,” also proclaims on its very first page that, at least when it comes to counterterrorism, “America first does not mean America alone.” This may be somewhat Trumpian rhetoric, but it’s fundamentally an acknowledgment of continuity—not just with the Obama administration, but also with the latter years of the George W. Bush administration.

Indeed, what the strategy calls a “new approach” is hardly new at all. Not long after 9/11, the United States realized that attempting to eradicate every terrorist threat in every location on its own—especially through large-footprint military campaigns like those launched in Afghanistan and then Iraq—was unsustainable. So President Bush and particularly President Obama pivoted to building partners’ capacities. This allowed others to be on the front lines of global counterterrorism efforts, while permitting the United States to focus its unique, high-end capabilities—like the ability to locate and target particular terrorists—on the pressing threats that demand those capabilities. For the United States to have led a coalition that reduced the Islamic State’s territorial control to 1 percent of what it once held, while committing comparatively few troops and relying heavily on the Syrian Kurds and others, speaks to the success of partner-based approaches to counterterrorism. And it’s to the Trump administration’s credit that it’s now embracing that approach, even if it insists on re-branding it in “America First”-ian terms.

Now, for those notable exclusions: They’re part of Trump’s political agenda, or what Stephen Tankel and I have previously called “faux counterterrorism.”  Nowhere does the document mention Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, which he touted on the campaign trail as one of his key policy proposals. Nowhere does his counterterrorism strategy mention a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he continues to insist is critical to protecting the country from major terrorist attacks. Even the strategy’s single reference to detention at Guantanamo Bay—which I’ve argued has assumed symbolic political meaning for Trump, detached from any rational assessment of America’s national-security needs—feels obligatory rather than enthusiastic. In other words, it feels more like a passing inclusion.

These exclusions are, in fact, to the good. Because Trump’s insistence on pursuing a travel ban, a border wall, and the repopulation of Guantanamo isn’t about keeping Americans safe—it’s about scoring political points, acting tough, and stoking fear.

What we have, then, is a counterterrorism strategy that seems to shrug at some of Trump’s political priorities while embracing the institutional memory and best practices built up under his predecessors. That is, the document displays the wisdom of the counterterrorism professionals who, despite the White House’s rhetorical excesses, remain focused on protecting Americans at home and abroad. They’re the ones who learned, long before Trump was claiming on the campaign trail to have a “secret plan” to defeat ISIS and promising to “bomb the hell out of” the group, that partnerships are critical to sustainable counterterrorism—and they’re the ones who were figuring out how to forge and sustain those bonds.

As always, there are points with which to quibble in the document. The biggest evolution in the terrorist threat since the U.S. government’s last comprehensive public strategy was issued in 2011 is the rise of social media as a tool terrorists use to reach past America’s borders and recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers. Trump’s new strategy acknowledges that problem but says very little about how to solve it. All told, however, this strategy is a source of relief: It reads like the work of counterterrorism professionals more than of a president keen to politicize even the life-or-death issue of terrorism.

For that very reason, the new strategy raises the same big question raised by Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy: Is it actually the president’s strategy? Recall that that document felt, by and large, like one that other presidents could have issued, with a focus on rising great-power rivals, an acknowledgment of the continued threat posed by terrorism, and a warning about mounting cyber-related dangers. It’s as if the speech that Trump gave introducing the strategy was written by someone else entirely.

In the end, when there’s a generally mainstream strategy issued under the name of this decidedly non-mainstream president, one can’t help but wonder whether it reflects his actual thinking or the more considered judgment of the national-security professionals around him. And if it’s the latter, the next question becomes: Will President Trump listen?