National Security & Defense

Trump Makes Two Promising Moves in the War on Terror

President Donald Trump signs an executive order at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Newly announced policy changes suggest the president has learned from his predecessors’ mistakes.

Donald Trump is making the right moves in America’s long war. Yesterday and today, the New York Times broke news of two important but incremental changes in American policy that will make it more difficult for terrorists to operate in safe havens abroad and infiltrate our communities here at home. Both changes, if properly implemented, will make America safer without placing excessive strain on military resources or diplomatic relationships. In other words, they’ll provide us a sustainable way to fight.

The first change, reported last night, is that Trump is preparing to “dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields.” The language is a tad overblown, but the essence of the reported change is that Trump intends to delegate strike decisions to lower levels of the command chain and expand the list of potential targets from “high-level” militants to include jihadist “foot soldiers.” Crucially, the administration is not prepared to relax rules of engagement that require a “near certainty” that there will be no civilian casualties.

By delegating strike decisions, the administration will be better able to quickly engage targets. By attacking even “foot soldiers,” the administration is taking an important step toward preventing the creation of jihadist safe havens and diminishing jihadist strike capability. As I’ve noted many times, when terrorists are able to create and maintain safe havens, their power to strike abroad increases immensely. That’s the lesson of al-Qaeda’s control over Afghanistan and of ISIS’s control over vast stretches of Syria and Iraq.

The second change, reported this morning, is that Trump’s “ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries” will soon be replaced “with more targeted restrictions on visits to the United States that would vary by country.” This change is the reported result of the 90-day policy review that was part of Trump’s executive order:

As part of the review, administration officials said that the Department of Homeland Security initially identified more than six nations that were failing to comply with security standards that could block terrorists from entering the United States. Officials notified the governments in those nations that travel to the United States could be severely restricted if they did not increase those standards. It was not clear which countries would be targeted under the new restrictions or exactly how many would be affected.

This addresses one of the better criticisms of the original travel ban: that it was both under-inclusive and over-inclusive, sweeping up countries whose visitors weren’t serious threats while omitting countries that have a track record of exporting terror. In other words, Trump is replacing a blunt instrument with a scalpel. While we await the details, the basic idea is exactly right. Nations vary dramatically in their ability to identify security threats, and it’s a simple matter of common sense that we’d judge immigrants from different nations with standards that are uniquely calibrated to the threat they could pose.

Interestingly, both of these moves represent policies that I’d classify as “enhanced status quo” rather than sweeping change. Obama, after all, relied on drones far more than George W. Bush, and his administration limited application of the visa-waiver program for people who’d recently traveled to a defined list of nations, including Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.

Given the enduring commitment of jihadists to threatening our citizens, we must have equally enduring resolve to find and defeat them wherever they emerge.

Critics of the War on Terror are fond of calling it an “endless war,” as if that automatically renders it unjust. American presidents have a permanent obligation to defend the United States of America, and we can’t simply decide to end a conflict on our own. If an enemy wishes to fight, we have a war. Given the enduring commitment of jihadists to threatening our citizens, we must have equally enduring resolve to find and defeat them wherever they emerge.

Ironically, given his Nobel Peace Prize and his reckless withdrawal from Iraq, Obama came to understand this reality and actually implemented the beginnings of a sustainable, long-term strategy for fighting terrorists. By the end of his second term, Obama was engaged in military operations from Pakistan to Libya. Through a combination of air power, drone strikes, special forces, and limited deployments of conventional ground-combat troops, he reversed ISIS’s gains in Iraq and Syria, prevented the Taliban from replicating ISIS’s success in Afghanistan, and launched strikes against jihadist foes in multiple Asian and African nations.

Trump has taken this policy and enhanced it, rendering it more lethal and agile. Obama too often, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s criticism of General George McClellan, had a case of the “slows.” Trump’s made positive, incremental changes in American strategy to remove this deficiency — all while keeping it fiscally and materially sustainable and in compliance with the laws of war.

True enough, these measures don’t on their face do anything to address the serious challenge of internal jihadist radicalization, and continued drone strikes abroad are used to recruit terrorists from the American Muslim population. But no military policy comes without risk, and critics often misunderstand the extent to which terrorist safe havens and terrorist military successes overseas facilitate terrorist recruitment. Simply put, defeating terrorists with military force deters future jihadists. Denying them their safe havens abroad is, in fact, one of the best ways of preventing radicalism at home.

It is to Trump’s credit that he’s applying the bitter lessons learned by his immediate predecessors, rather than reinventing the wheel. He’s taking the right steps toward permanent, effective self-defense against a long-term jihadist threat — and Americans should be glad to hear it.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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