The quiz is - how does it end?
44 ’s containment strategy has clearly failed. A sympathetic critic might claim that the problem is in execution, that containment is the right strategy, but the administration has wrongly implemented it. But there are reasons to believe that containment is flawed in principle, even if it were effectively executed.
Containment is a strategy of endless war.
Under a containment strategy, the United States abandons efforts to foster stable political or economic order in the blighted regions that have given rise to jihadism. Instead, the United States sustains a worldwide assassination campaign against anyone it unilaterally deems to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, indefinitely. It couples global drone strikes and special operations forces raids with ever-increasing investments in homeland security, border controls, and domestic surveillance.
This is a fundamentally defensive strategy that makes no pretense of even trying to address what fuels jihadism. An assassination campaign against jihadists often keeps the immediate threat at bay, but enables the groups to reform and even grow in popularity elsewhere in the world, as they quickly did in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.
A containment strategy appears far more economical than its alternative. Yet as a strategy of “forever war,” it carries hidden costs and unacceptable moral consequences. The apparent economy of lean counterterrorism operations is undone when they continue into their third or fourth decade. In accounting terms, the net present value of all future expenditures on counterterrorism operations is infinite because they will never end.
Additionally, the United States is unlikely to burnish its reputation abroad when drone strikes are the most visible aspect of its foreign policy. Globalization, which depends on open borders, stable markets, and mobile labor, is the unintended casualty of endemic political violence and a global climate of fear. Endless conflict abroad and the risk of terrorist attacks at home have already fueled rising xenophobia and nativism in both Europe and the United States.
The jihadist ideology is not new, jihadist groups have not been contained, and, contrary to 44’s assertion in 2011, the tide of war is not receding. The United States plainly needs a new approach for its fight against the menagerie of apocalyptic, totalitarian, theocratic movements that make up jihadism. This is not a “War on Terror,” as 43 claimed, nor an effort to combat “violent extremism,” as the current administration insisted — both formulations that imply the solution lies in getting counterterrorism right. That conceptual distortion overlooks the reality that jihadists can also be found in the ranks of insurgents, drug traffickers, preachers, professors, day-laborers, and government officials. Jihadism is a cultural and political phenomenon as much as a military one.The United States needs a grand strategy against jihadism as a whole, in all its guises, throughout the world; that means a strategy tailored to the different battlefields on which it must be fought. Fighting only the military aspects of jihadism throughout the world, as the strategy of containment counsels, is a recipe for endless tactical success with no strategic victory.
But fighting everywhere simultaneously with the full range of tools of national power, as the strategy of rollback would entail, is unsustainable and foolish, as is a strategy of rollback in the heart of the Middle East, where the costs and risks are highest. A tailored strategy is the only approach feasible within fiscal and military limitations, yet still holds out the hope of victory — the hope of ending jihadism as a meaningful force in world politics.