In the run-up to the anniversary of the attacks of September 11 2001, the Obama administration is circulating two different messages: one for domestic consumption, and one for its overseas allies.
The first message is aimed at rallying political support, and is likely to tout the killing of Osama bin Laden as an operational victory in the midst of a larger strategic campaign. The second message emphasises that the anniversary of 9/11 is – according to one official – 'not just about us.' The Obama administration seeks to transmit what it calls a 'positive, forward-looking narrative' to its allies. Yet how positive can the US and its allies be in the continued struggle against Islamic fundamentalism?
On the one hand, we have moved away from the presumption (led by the US) that the 'war on terror' was the defining strategic imperative – or the ordering principle for international security – of the era. This is a welcome fact for the very reason that the war on terror was unwinnable. It was exhaustingly costly to those who chose to wage it – from the lives lost, to the material and economic costs, as well as from a political standpoint.
The challenge of global Islamic terrorism now has diffused into a set of diverse risks: it has joined the ranks of older Cold War threats such as nuclear proliferation and state failure – and also the ranks of newer 'post-modern' risks such as cyber-war, climate change, and energy security.
Policy-makers need to respond with a pragmatic, realistic assessment of fighting terrorism in such a complex strategic landscape. It will require creative thinking in terms of resources, infrastructure, and partners – specifically, dynamic relationships with new partners with whom America and its allies have not previously engaged.
Crucially, this means that the US should not view risks such as terrorism through a Cold War system of deterrence, which is currently being hyped as Washington’s innovative strategy on terrorism. This 'new' policy of containment and deterrence is not entirely engaging and creative, and fails to take stock of the complex strategic landscape in which Euro-Atlantic societies operate. Yes, drone attacks are effective and promise immediate effect without lasting commitment, but disrupting transnational and global terror networks, engaging with partners on terrorist finances, halting piracy off the coast of Somalia – all of these risks require new thinking. The US could lead the way by adopting a flexible combination of tools, allies, intelligence, and push to engage with countries such as Russia and China.
Such a policy shift is politically expensive in the West: it necessitates an admission that the single risk of terrorism has been supplanted with many others, and furthermore that risks cannot be managed alone and may require cooperating with non-traditional allies or even the 'bad guys'. Only in such a way can the US and the wider West be 'forward-looking' beyond 9/11.