National Security & Defense

Obama Clings to His Unsuccessful Counterterror Strategy

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
And Clinton and Trump have little to offer.

Sunday’s Orlando shootings confirm what the American people should have suspected since at least the San Bernardino terrorist attacks a mere six months ago. President Barack Obama and his White House have no serious response to the new ISIS tactic of providing support and inspiration to Americans intent on killing their fellow citizens out of a crazed Islamic zealotry. Unfortunately, the alternatives proposed by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump ignore commonsense answers and threaten only to make the challenge worse.

Omar Mateen’s Sunday attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando killed at least 49 people and wounded another 53. He pledged fealty to ISIS and apparently had turned to radical strains of Islam in the past few years. In December, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 22 in San Bernardino. They too had sworn allegiance to ISIS. As Trump has pointed out, President Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid linking these killers to the Islamic extremism that has arisen in the Middle East.

President Obama yesterday conceded only that Mateen was an example of “homegrown extremism” inspired by “propaganda and perversions of Islam that you see generated on the Internet,” which “seep into the minds of troubled individuals.” He did not directly link the Orlando shooting to the rise of ISIS, to its fundamentalist version of Islam, or to ISIS’s success in carrying out a series of terrorist attacks from California to Paris to Brussels.

RELATED: Obama Would Rather Declare War on the English Language than Speak of Islamic Terrorism

In the wake of the Orlando attacks, as after San Bernardino, the White House will make no significant changes in its approach to counterterrorism. Obama finds it convenient to describe the attacks as a combination of a warped ideology and mental illness — he thus redefines terrorism, transforming it from a foreign threat to our national security into an unpredictable phenomenon like crime or even car accidents. Indeed, President Obama’s response has usually been to urge Americans not to overreact and then to demand more gun control. Perhaps President Obama and his bureaucracy will create an insurance program to cover ISIS attacks along with other unforeseen accidents of fate. Obama also declared that “we need the strength and courage to change” our attitude toward LGBTs, again blaming Americans for their views even while the attacks are inspired by a radical Islamism that executes gays in the lands under its control.

Clinton and Trump have rushed to fill the policy vacuum, but with quick-trigger ideas that will do little good.

Without any strategy other than pleas for more understanding, the Obama White House is simply hoping that it can cross the line in January without too many more terrorism casualties. Clinton and Trump have rushed to fill the policy vacuum, but with quick-trigger ideas that will do little good. Clinton only echoes the Obama-administration solution of more gun control, including at least a ban on assault weapons (which are themselves not a real type of firearm). She has no other concrete proposals on addressing ISIS, blocking its flow of communication into the U.S., or stopping its operatives on U.S. soil. Trump, of course, used the occasion to tweet himself congratulations — “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism” — and renew his demand for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration into the United States. (“I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”)

Clinton’s approach ignores the fundamental fact that these terrorist attacks do not sit in the universe of crime. Simply enhancing police powers will not stop them. Restricting individual liberties, such as the constitutional right to bear arms, will not prevent terrorists from using other weapons. If these strategies worked, France and Belgium — which have far more restrictive firearm laws — should not have suffered the terrible attacks of the past year in Paris and Brussels. Terrorists who cannot acquire firearms will simply turn to unconventional weapons. Recall that terrorists carried out the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 with a truck bomb, and that they successfully destroyed the building eight years later with hijacked aircraft.

#share#Trump’s alternative could prove even worse. He today repeated his proposal to ban all Muslim immigration into the U.S. While a president could use a national-security exception to stop immigration, the policy might well meet judicial resistance for violating the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. He could achieve a similar end by stopping immigration from certain countries, such as Syria or Iraq, but Trump remains determined to depict the war on terrorism as a war with Islam, rather than with extremist elements in those countries.

EDITORIAL: It’s Time for a Long-Term Strategy to Utterly Crush Islamic Terrorism

Banning all Muslim immigration would not have stopped the shootings in California and Florida. Both were carried out by American citizens — Farook was born in Illinois and Mateen in New York. We are not facing the problem that besets Europe, where ISIS is infiltrating its operatives into the large stream of refugees from the Syrian civil war. In fact, Trump could well make it harder to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States. Law enforcement and intelligence depend on the cooperation of American Muslims  to detect and stop extremists among their own brethren. The more a President Trump turned this struggle into a fight between the West and Islam, the more resistance our officers and agents would encounter in tracking down ISIS agents and sympathizers in American cities.

Our next president could begin to extirpate the root cause of terrorist attacks in the U.S. by waging a consistent, determined military campaign to defeat ISIS. 

A far more sensible strategy would begin with destroying the inspiration for the Mateens and Farooks in the U.S. The Obama administration fostered the rise of ISIS by rushing for the exits in Iraq and then refusing to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Our next president could begin to extirpate the root cause of terrorist attacks in the U.S. by waging a consistent, determined military campaign to defeat ISIS. Winning would require giving greater assistance to Iraqi forces seeking to drive ISIS out of places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and the rest of Iraq. It would require greater intervention in the Syrian civil war, such as raising the tempo of aerial attacks, providing greater aid to allies on the ground, and inserting U.S. troops to target the enemy and hold ground. Ultimately, a solution will demand an independent Kurdish state and the fragmentation of Syria and perhaps Iraq into smaller, sturdier states based on ethnicity and religion. Isolated drone strikes alone will not defeat an organization like ISIS that holds large swathes of territory and controls the population and resources of a nation.

A second thrust of sound strategy should be the targeting of ISIS’s modern communications, financial, and travel networks in order to prevent its links with U.S.-based sympathizers. American leaders should unleash the National Security Agency to monitor communications between terrorists abroad, of course, but especially when they communicate with those in the U.S. The Obama administration, worried as it is over the threat of a government that snoops on its own citizen, has never fully embraced the electronic surveillance of terrorists. This reluctance has been nowhere more obvious than with Eric Holder, who as attorney general was responsible for enforcing American espionage laws. Just a few weeks ago, Holder praised Edward Snowden’s leak of U.S. electronic-surveillance data — described by some officials as the greatest intelligence loss in U.S. history — as a “public service.” The next American president should reject the Obama administration’s ambivalence toward national-security surveillance and reject its use of criminal-justice standards to restrict our intelligence efforts. When ISIS advances its war on us by piggy-backing on legitimate communications and financial networks, our government must use all the tools available to detect and destroy those threats.

#related#A third part of our strategy must be to encourage greater integration of law enforcement and intelligence efforts within the U.S. The Obama administration has only encouraged the return of a barrier between intelligence (which tries to predict and prevent harm to the national security) and law enforcement (which arrests and tries suspects after harm to society). It has required that terrorists receive Miranda warnings and the full benefits of the Bill of Rights, which are reserved for American criminal suspects, not people who are threats to the national security. The next American president should end the Obama administration’s reactive posture, which triggers government responses only after an attack has occurred. This approach is typical of the criminal-justice mentality, which allows surveillance and searches of targets who are suspected of violating the law only after the fact. Federal officials should have the freedom to share intelligence with state and local law enforcement in order to construct a broader mosaic of information that could help identify terrorist threats before they materialize into the kind of attacks we have seen in Orlando and San Bernardino.

Like the San Bernardino attacks, the Orlando rampage fell upon defenseless civilians. The deaths of men and women in both places is tragic, but it would be a greater tragedy if the American people continue to accept a counterterrorism policy that does not change in response to these new threats. Another of the sad results of the Trump and Clinton nominations is that we are unlikely to see commonsense strategies that will prevent these terrible attacks at home.

John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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