This article was originally published in International Law Studies at 90 Int'l L. Stud. 341 (2014).
Though the counterterrorism strategies of both American administrations stem from similar worldviews and values, they significantly differ in their understanding of the threat. The Bush administration adopted a proactive strategy designed to promote democracy in problematic countries and regions as part of the campaign against terrorism. In contrast, the Obama administration translated its democratic liberal worldview into a policy that limits the prerogatives and work methods of American security and intelligence agencies. An analysis of the administrations’ policies reveals that the main difference lies in their definition of the enemy and the nature of the threat. While the Bush administration declared war on terrorism around the world, the Obama administration took a narrow and focused approach clearly directed at Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
When the definition of the threat is too broad, it may undermine the efficacy of the counterterrorism strategy and make it more difficult to identify appropriate measures required to cope with the phenomenon. President Bush’s definition of the threat created a situation whereby, in the name of a “war on terrorism,” the United States became embroiled on various fronts for much longer than it had originally planned. When the definition of the threat is too narrow, it may not include important aspects and elements of the threat. And indeed, the definition of the threat according to the Obama administration overlooks the roots of jihadist terrorism, blurs the distinction between moderate entities and radical jihadist entities in the Muslim world, and harms the motivation of moderate Muslims to face and hold a true internal battle with violent Islamists.
The question to be asked then is which one of the two administrations was correct in its attitude towards Islamists and jihadists? As noted by Bernard Lewis, while Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda followers probably do not represent Islam, and many of their activities and statements contradict the main principals of Islam, they certainly emerged from the slamic culture as much as Hitler and the Nazi party emerged from the Christian world. Therefore, Lewis argues that the phenomenon of global jihad needs to be examined in its cultural, religious and historical context. In this way, the eradication or weakening of global terrorism may be achieved over time. On the other hand, ignoring Islamist-jihadist ideology, goals and activities, which call for the death of anyone who does not accept their radical and dangerous interpretation of Islam, will not lead to true reconciliation between the United States or the West and Islam; rather, it will only weaken the moderate Muslims who require great courage when facing these fundamentalists. The Obama administration would do well to listen attentively to the pleadings of the founder of the Muslim Congress in Canada, Tariq Fatah, when he said: “Please understand there is a difference between Islam as a faith and Islamism which is a political ideology stating that the Western culture has to be destroyed.” Without addressing the ideological root causes of terrorism, the surgical targeted killings of Al-Qaeda leaders will not result in the disappearance of the phenomenon. The elimination of bin Laden and his cohorts may provide the United States temporary peace, but it will be the calm before the storm.
This article demonstrates the intimate link between policy and law when it comes to counterterrorism. Identifying the enemy plays a crucial role in providing the government with the authority needed to fight terrorism—from the authority to investigate threats to the authority to detain and use lethal force. The two administrations significantly differ in their understanding of the enemy, both at the organizational and individual levels. They also differ in their understanding of the boundaries of the battlefield. Ultimately, contrasting the policies adopted by the Bush and Obama administrations reveals that the early identification of the enemy by decision makers shaped the nature and scope of each administration’s counterterrorism strategies.