A new Washington Post–ABC News poll finds that “the sharpest edges of President Obama’s counterterrorism policy, including the use of drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists abroad and keeping open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have broad public support, including from the left wing of the Democratic Party.”
These findings come as no surprise. For well over a year now, there have been disturbing signs that the Administration’s counterterrorism seemed more structured to win popular support for his reelection bid than it did with defeating transnational terrorist groups aimed at attacking the United States. While the President’s policies might be intended to give a boost to his campaign for a second term, they are bound to make us less safe.
What has kept America safe over the last decade are the policies put in to place before the President came into office. “Progress against al-Qaeda’s attempts to attack the U.S. was the result of taking the offensive in the war on terrorism,” a Heritage analysis of the President’s counterterrorism plans concluded. “The successes that President Obama has trumpeted resulted from a decade of effort to disrupt terrorist sanctuaries, attrit the cadre of terrorist leaders, preempt planning and operations, disaggregate networks, thwart terrorist travel and communications, and disrupt fundraising and recruiting.”
On the other hand, what the President has proposed over the last year will no doubt put the nation more at risk. For example, the Administration has also created opportunities for al-Qaeda to physically re-establish itself in the Afghanistan–Pakistan theater. The premature drawdown in Afghanistan will allow the Taliban to re-establish space for al-Qaeda to rebuild its sanctuaries in the country.
Perhaps even more important, the Administration’s policies ignore what al-Qaeda has been doing on a global scale. Describing al-Qaeda simply as a “terrorist group” does not explain why the organization trained thousands of mujahidin during the 1990s and spread them throughout the Muslim world, why al-Qaeda has worked since then to co-opt or gain control of jihadist insurgent groups around the globe, and what al-Qaeda is doing in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel, and dozens of other places around the world.
U.S. focus on its own safety has, in fact, led the U.S. to ignore a very real problem—that al-Qaeda is not merely concerned with attacking the homeland but has a global insurgency intent on taking over areas of the world. While covert strikes can be a successful tactic for hunting down the leaders of terrorist groups, attrition is counterproductive when combating an insurgency. The prospect of “body counts” as the proper metric for measuring success should give Americans pause about the strategy pursued by the Administration.
Additionally, without persistent presence and engagement of threatened governments and civilian populations, the U.S. will lack the real-time actionable intelligence necessary for effective targeting of terrorists and the successful suppression of insurgencies.
Finally, the President’s strategy pays insufficient attention to state-sponsored terrorism, which will increasingly be a major force to be reckoned with. Iran is one of the most prominent and aggressive state sponsors of terrorism, and its protégés—both Hamas and Hezbollah—represent potentially grave threats. In addition, transnational criminal cartels in Mexico are increasingly taking on the character of terrorist networks.
What this poll really reflects is that Americans are pleased that at least 44 Islamist plots aimed at the U.S. since 9/11 have been thwarted. What the poll does not get too is why we have been successful and how Obama’s policies could well see this string come to a tragic end.