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Millennial Letters

Obama's Comprehensive Approach to Counterterrorism

In Washington last week, President Obama convened a conference with leaders from local and faith communities, the private sector, law enforcement, and foreign nations to discuss “countering violent extremism” (CVE), a catch-all term for pushing back against terrorist recruitment and propaganda. Only days after the CVE summit ended, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter met with a similar group at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, including US military combatant commanders, regional military leaders, and representatives of partner states. The purpose of the meeting was to analyze the ongoing efforts to defeat the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and dive deep into the complex civil and military issues underlying the conflict.

Taken together, these two summits epitomize the idea of a comprehensive, coordinated counterterrorism effort and showed a nuanced approach to the complex problem of violent extremism. A military response—consistently re-evaluated with the input of our partners on the ground—is just one piece of the puzzle. Our military might must be coupled with efforts at home to fight the propaganda and recruitment efforts of terrorist groups like ISIS, treating the disease itself rather than just tackling the symptoms. Holding these critical meetings virtually back-to-back represents how hard and soft power must work together to form different sides of the same strategic broadsword.

Having a strong cadre of allies is the bedrock of American foreign policy, so multilateralism was a key trait of both events. For the CVE summit, the president sought input from other countries to determine how they protect their at-risk youth. He also looked inward to take advantage of American pluralism, linking the perspectives of Muslim leaders and public school-based child welfare experts to counter the pressures of alienation within society. The defense secretary’s choice to engage with representatives from allied states in the fight against ISIS underscored the transnational nature of the threat and its solution.

Obama and Carter met audiences with different areas of expertise to seek a more comprehensive analysis. Groupthink is as pervasive in government as in other circles, and a diverse collection of perspectives around the table is essential to better policymaking. Psychologists and social media gurus swapped strategies and studies at the CVE summit; ambassadors and generals discussed hearts and minds along with bombs and rockets in Kuwait.

Finally, both summits were “bottom-up” in their nature. Rather than handing down prescriptions from the federal government, Obama was interested in hearing how local programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities had served the goal of developing and maintaining relationships with at-risk youth—preferably straight from community leaders. At the same time, Carter, well known in the Pentagon for being a voracious consumer of information, wanted to hear from leaders on the ground about what military strategies were and weren’t working to slow the spread of ISIS across the region.

The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach has been criticized as heavy on mulling options and light on decisive action. And to be sure, there are areas wherein the president and his cabinet officials have moved slowly for little benefit. Still, seeing the priority attached to these two high-level information-gathering strategy sessions shows the administration understands that violent extremism must be defeated on the battlefield as well as at its source.

Progress in the fight against violent extremism is made not by scrutinizing theology or maneuvering massively (and exclusively) kinetic military campaigns, but by employing a strategy that combines all of the tools of national power to treat the symptoms as well as the disease itself. These summits exemplify the Obama administration’s approach to combating the threat posed by ISIS, and they set the stage for smart policy that plays the long game and considers the consequences of our actions as a force for good in the world.

Junaid Afeef is an attorney focusing on criminal justice policy, a former executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and a partner with the Truman National Security Project. Adam Tiffen is a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Follow them on Twitter: @JunaidAfeef and @TiffenDC, respectively. Views expressed are their own.

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