Whither the War on Terror? by Nathan W. Toronto

Photo taken by Matt Lemmon. As the presidential term that saw Osama bin Laden's demise comes to a close, it's worth asking where American security policy goes from here.  The United States has pulled combat forces from Iraq, will do the same from Afghanistan in 2014, and is generally taking a hands-off approach to the Arab Spring.  The Obama administration's approach to Iran has also focused more on diplomatic rather than military means, and while it advocates meeting current threats in the Middle East, last year’s Defense Strategic Guidance (and the AirSea Battle concept) suggest a strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region.  Given this, will terrorism continue to be the threat that defines America's security paradigm?

America's emerging security paradigm will not focus on terrorism and the Middle East nearly as much as it used to.  As someone who spends considerable time thinking about Middle East security, counterinsurgency, and terrorism, it pains me to say this: a shift away from the Middle East is the right call.  To be sure, the Middle East will continue to be an unstable place, and--as one Israeli security professional told me in Israel last October--"If you forget about the Middle East, it has a way of reminding you it's still there."  At the same time, and while the 9/11 attacks made an indelible mark on the American psyche, the interlude with Middle East terrorism is winding down and America's true post-Cold War security paradigm is finally coming to the fore.

There are three reasons why this is the case.  The first, predictably, has to do with energy.  The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal, but the International Energy Agency thinks it can become the Saudi Arabia of oil, too.  Between energy exploitation techniques like hydrofracturing, as well as increasingly efficient hybrid technologies and rising fuel consumption standards, the United States stands to gain a great deal from its energy resources.  True, these innovations don't come without costs, but they do position the United States to help the world wean itself off of Middle East oil.  As the world diversifies its energy portfolio, the United States will have the luxury of caring less about the Middle East, and overweening Middle Eastern rulers might also have to reform themselves.

These trends lead to the second reason why a shift away from the Middle East is a good idea: since 9/11, but especially since the Arab Spring erupted in late 2010, we have changed the way we deal with enemies in the region.  We have realized that we cannot convince trenchant ideologues--from global violent Salafists like al-Qaeda to presumptuous local terrorists like Hamas--to like America. Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us this, but so has the destabilization of once-reliable allies like Egypt as a result of the Arab Spring.  Thus, we use diplomacy and implicit military threats to isolate Iran, we turn a blind eye while others arm and give support to Syrian rebels, we support Israel in punishing Hamas and showing resolve in the face of an Iranian missile threat, and we encourage regional and multilateral solutions to problems in the Horn of Africa.  Americans are done trying to convert Middle Easterners to our way of thinking, but we also will not sit idly by while committed extremists plot to do us harm.

This is connected to the third reason that de-emphasizing the Middle East is the right move: capture-kill technologies are getting better.  Since 9/11, improvements in intelligence collection technologies, in multilateral intelligence sharing, and in the human capital to analyze this information have given the United States the ability to target extremists more precisely.  In addition, the means to apply violence have become more precise.  This is due not only to a persistent drone presence, but also to the diplomatic relationships and special operations capabilities that support capture-kill missions.  The result is that the United States can impose its will on its adversaries in a way that is much less obvious than it used to be; there will certainly always be those who disagree with American methods, but sending in a Hellfire missile or a special forces team to neutralize a target is much different from sending in the 82d Airborne Division.

America's perceptions of its interests in the Middle East have changed.  We have changed how we produce and use energy, how we approach enemies in the region, and in how we conduct capture-kill missions, which means that we can afford to exercise more concern for the global commons and less concern for bewildering Middle East politics.  As a result, the post-Cold War American security paradigm is settling not into fighting terrorism, but into a pragmatic, yet flexible, approach to threats.  This flexible pragmatism appears to transcend party lines, as well--though there are differences in discourse and emphasis, the Obama administration's foreign policies bear a remarkable similarity to those of the Bush administration, with a focus on maintaining American freedom of action and dealing with enemies in an unobtrusive yet decisive way.  So, in coming years, as more and more Middle East crises come and go with little overt American involvement, we will know that America has indeed found a path out of the desert.

Dr. Nathan W. Toronto teaches military operations and strategy at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While Middle East terrorism is not a growth industry nowadays, he is not overly concerned about job security, since he also studies quantitative approaches to civil-military relations and the diffusion of military knowledge in the state-system.

The views expressed are entirely those of Dr. Toronto. The views expressed in this forum are not endorsed by the US Army, the Department of Defense or the US government.