In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched an international war on terrorism defined by military intervention, nation building, and efforts to reshape the politics of the Middle East. As of 2017, however, it has become clear that the American strategy has not delivered the intended results.
After 15 years of considerable strategic consistency during the presidencies of George Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump now takes the reins, having made a more aggressive approach to ISIS a central plank first of his campaign and, potentially, of his presidency. Noting that America faces a “far greater threat than the people of our country understand,” he has vowed to “bomb the sh— out of ISIS”1 and promised to defeat “Radical Islamic Terrorism, just as we have defeated every threat we have faced in every age before.”2
At the same time, however, Trump has also broken sharply from Republican orthodoxy on Iraq and Afghanistan. He refers to “our current strategy of nation-building” as a “proven failure.” Additionally, he has downplayed the role of democracy promotion, suggesting, for example, that the Obama administration “should never have attempted to build a democracy in Libya.”3
Whatever President Trump decides to do, a dispassionate evaluation of the War on Terror to date should inform his policies.
In this policy analysis, we argue that the War on Terror has been a failure. This failure has two fundamental—and related—sources. The first is the inflated assessment of the terrorist threat facing the United States, which led to an expansive counterterrorism campaign focused on a series of actions that have very little to do with protecting Americans from terrorist attacks. The second source of failure is the adoption of an aggressive strategy of military intervention. This is due in large part to the faulty assessment of the terrorism challenge. But it also stems from the widespread belief among Washington, D.C., elites in the indispensable nature of American power and the utility of military force in international politics. Together, these factors have produced an American strategy that is both ineffective and counterproductive.
The inescapable conclusion of our analysis is that the staggering costs of the War on Terror have far outweighed the benefits. A recent study by Neta Crawford at Brown University puts the cost of the War on Terror (both money spent to date and required for future veterans’ benefits) at roughly $5 trillion—a truly astonishing number.4 Even if one believes American efforts have made the nation marginally safer, the United States could have achieved far greater improvements in safety and security at far less cost through other means. It is not hyperbole to say that the United States could have spent its money on almost any federal program aimed at saving lives and produced a vastly greater return on investment.5