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USA counter-terrorism policy: Dr. Donna Starr-Deelen

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

Donna Starr discusses about USA counter-terrorism from Bush to Trump, highlighting the main lines of actions, mistakes made and the future of terrorism under the Trump Administration.

What were the main achievements and the main shortfalls during the Bush

years when it comes to counter-terrorism?

The main achievements of the George W. Bush administration regarding counter-terrorism were twofold: increased focus and improved coordination among allies. By this, I am referring to the focus that the Bush administration brought to the problem of transnational terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors. This began immediately after the 9/11 attacks. In September 2001, the Bush administration asked the US Congress for an authorization to use force against the terrorists who were responsible and Congress responded by passing the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (2001). It is unfortunate that this is still being used as an authorization to use force against ISIS in 2018.

The Bush administration also immediately began to organize the international effort to pursue Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network after the Twin Towers collapsed, bringing many countries into the campaign to combat international terrorism, increasing the sharing of intelligence, and coordinating efforts to track terrorists across borders. President Bush was careful to articulate this sentiment during his tenure in the White House: the US was combatting jihadi terrorists but it was not in a war with Islam, a distinction that current policy-makers should be careful to follow.

My book Presidential Policies on Terrorism details many of the shortfalls that occurred in the war on terror during the Bush administration. Many mistakes were made, particularly involving the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 as part of the war on terror. As an attorney, the shortfalls that continue to trouble me from the Bush era include violations of federal and international law regarding the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.

Bin Laden was killed during Obama’s administrations and many positive

measures were taken to tackle terrorism. What is Obama’s legacy in the CT


The Obama administration attempted to move past the war on terror or armed conflict paradigm of the previous administration and to construct a third way or approach to combating international terrorism. This third way was intended as an alternative to the war paradigm and law enforcement approaches and the Obama administration tried to articulate and implement this alternative during President Obama’s first term. For instance, President Obama vowed to end indefinite detention at the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba, pledging to try terrorism suspects in the regular federal court system. GITMO remains open in 2018 and the current administration, led by President Trump, appears intent on sending more war on terror detainees there.

President Obama increased the use of armed drones in several countries as part of his CT measures, sparking more questions regarding transparency and accountability. Critics charged that the Obama “disposition matrix” which included the names of suspected terrorists and the measures being brought to bear to track them (such as criminal indictments and clandestine operations) was another euphemism in the war on terror; they claimed it was, in reality, a kill list. The Obama administration also increased the use of Special Operations forces to execute precision raids; one advantage to their use is a lighter US military footprint. The problem of how to legitimately address national security concerns while at the same time honoring American values and international human rights norms was never entirely resolved during the Obama administration.

What was the biggest error the Obama administration made related to CT?

The successful raid on bin Laden’s house in May 2011 was President Obama’s greatest CT accomplishment and his administration deserves praise for finally tracking down the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks. As an attorney, I view the inadequate assessment and accountability for violations of federal and international law that occurred during the Bush era as grave errors made by the Obama administration. The lack of accountability for illegal behavior during the Bush war on terror leaves dangerous precedents available for future administrations, for example, the Trump administration, to rely on when they pursue international terrorists.

What about the Trump’s CT strategy? What do you anticipate to be its main features?

My latest book covers this important topic directly. The title is Counter-terrorism from the Obama Administration to President Trump: Caught in the Fait Accompli War (Palgrave 2017). President Trump has been in office for less than 18 months so some of his CT features and security architecture are just becoming clear. Nevertheless, a few preliminary points can be made and they follow.

President Trump campaigned on a promise to “Make America Great Again” which included being “smarter” and “tougher” than the Obama administration was regarding international terrorists such as ISIS. In addition, candidate Trump pledged to accurately name the terrorist threat without fear of political correctness so his first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, advocated using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Another early White House advisor, Steve Bannon, contended that CT was, in reality, a war against Islam and it served no purpose to back away from this. President Trump has not been shy about using harsh rhetoric to describe the jihadist groups fighting the US. This is a departure from Obama era practices. As I wrote in my second book, “Winning the war of ideas against jihadi propagandists will require both disciplined messaging from President Trump regarding American intentions in the Muslim world and a fealty to American principles. Thus far, these goals have not been accomplished.”

In addition, President Trump has delegated increased authority to the Pentagon to use force against jihadi militants in various countries like Somalia and Yemen. President Trump has designated certain areas in Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” which allows commanders in the field to make targeting decisions not subject to an interagency review process and this may result in an increase in civilian casualties. In April 2017, the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal (the “Mother of All Bombs,” or MOAB) on Taliban and ISIS caves and tunnels in eastern Afghanistan. My second book explores this muscular use of American military force and asks the question, will President Trump’s use of force against jihadists really “defeat” terrorism or reap a pyrrhic victory in the war on terror?

Obama and Trump's ideas are completely opposite in the fight against terrorism. But what are so far the main differences between the Obama and Trump Administration?

This issue is also examined thoroughly in Counter-terrorism from the Obama Administration to President Trump. During a speech in August 2017, President Trump called his foreign policy vision “principled realism” and he explained how it would be applied. As I detail in my book, President Trump echoed Ronald Reagan when he said, “Retribution will be fast and powerful, as we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field.” It is clear that the war on terror under President Trump will employ both tough rhetoric and assertive military action.

Yet how different is CT in the Trump administration? The evidence from the first 15 months of the Trump era indicates that differences between the Obama administration and the Trump administration regarding CT boil down to an escalation in the use of force by Trump and an increase in bellicose language. President Trump, for instance, speaks of “defeating” terrorists with total victory as opposed to degrading and containing terrorist groups. Despite his claims to the contrary, President Trump is pursuing CT against ISIS with many of the same instruments and policies as his predecessor, even as he employs harsher rhetoric.


Donna G. Starr-Deelen earned a JD from the University of San Diego School of Law, USA, an LLM in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center, USA, and a PhD in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK. She previously taught Public International Law, Human Rights Law, and other legal subjects before using her legal background to research the use of force against terrorism.

Her book Presidential Policies on Terrorism: From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama analyzes how the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush providing comparison between each of the administrations as they grappled with the evolving nature and role of terrorism in the United States and abroad.


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