The 9/11 attacks spawned wars to export democracy abroad, while degrading it at home, according to Jeremi Suri, professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of a new book, “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”
Despite their differences, all three presidents in office since the attacks — 16 years ago on Monday – confronted two fundamental facts about counterterrorism, notes Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security:
- First, even a superpower cannot combat every terrorist threat alone. As the 9/11 Commission observed, “Practically every aspect of U.S. counterterrorism strategy relies on international cooperation.”
- Second, many partner nations help and hinder U.S. counterterrorism efforts. To understand why, it is critical to recognize that counterterrorism is much broader than commonly recognized.
“No act of ours invited the rage of the killers,” President George W. Bush told the National Endowment for Democracy in 2005, noting that Islamist extremism was facilitated by “allies of convenience like Syria and Iran that share the goal of hurting America,” and “use terrorist propaganda” to that end.
The U.S. government has adopted various programs under the umbrella of countering violent extremism (CVE) to reduce radicalization and recruitment and encouraged its partners to do the same. Some of these efforts are top-down. Others are community-driven. In both cases, agreeing on the right methods and convincing other countries to get on board has been difficult.
While even undemocratic regimes might be willing to make modest reforms if they can be convinced that doing so would help them counter domestic or foreign enemies, it is unrealistic to expect they will make fundamental changes to their polities. Numerous partners also use the threat of terrorism to crack down on civil society organizations engaged in CVE.
However, Tankel notes, when faced with trade-offs between short-term battlefield gains and longer-term reforms, U.S. policymakers often opt for the former. RTWT