Past Failures Should Persuade the Next U.S. Administration to Prioritize Human Rights in Efforts to Counter Violent Extremism

The fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has prompted much retrospective analysis of U.S. counterterrorism policy since September 2001. The closing months of the Obama Administration provide a vantage point from which to review the last two U.S. administrations, whose policies have been so much shaped by their reaction to the attacks.

The Bush Administration and the Obama Administration failed both to eradicate—or, perhaps more realistically—make manageable, the threat that became so painfully apparent to Americans that September morning.

That they failed in similar ways points to how future policy makers could craft a more effective response to the threat from Islamist terrorism, like that from al Qaeda and its offshoots.

The Bush Administration had a two-pronged strategy to defeat al Qaeda—“fighting terrorists and tyrants,” and “encouraging free and open societies”—which in time was undermined, as much by its own internal contradictions as by the intrinsic difficulties of the challenge.

The administration sought to deter those who wished America harm by demonstrating the awesome reach and destructive power of American military force. It spoke of “shock and awe” and invaded Iraq. It demanded counterterrorism cooperation from governments around the world and strengthened cooperation with some of the most abusive security and intelligence services.

In contrast, the second major element of the Bush administration’s policy came to be known as the Freedom Agenda: the idea that authoritarianism and denial of human rights fueled the grievances that terrorists had been able to exploit, and that therefore in order defeat terrorism it was necessary to promote freedom, democracy, and human rights everywhere, and especially in countries that had produced the terrorists who attacked the United States.

The Freedom Agenda showed early results with long-serving Arab despots showing an unlikely interest in political reform under some very direct prompting from the administration.

However, the primacy accorded to the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity” in theory did not carry through to the administration’s actual conduct of the fight against terrorists. The United States itself violated international law. Many of its key partners in the post 9/11 coalition used the loosely-defined war against terrorism as a pretext to stifle dissent, quash political opponents, and deny basic rights freedoms to their people. Thus, by the logic of its own strategy, the Bush Administration was worsening the problem that it had set out to resolve.

The Obama Administration promised “a new beginning” in its relations with Muslims around the world and had campaigned on a program of military disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan. Like its predecessor, the Obama Administration also had a strong rhetorical commitment to human rights promotion. President Obama promised that the United States would support the universal values of human rights everywhere, and doubled down on this commitment after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 had overthrown several of the region’s longest serving dictators.

The administration enjoyed considerable success in killing and disrupting al Qaeda leadership, including the daring raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. However, the ideology of violent Islamist extremism spread to other groups, including al-Shabab in East Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa. The Islamic State terrorist group seized territory in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq and inspired major terrorist attacks in western cities, including Paris and Brussels. ISIS-inspired attacks even reached the United States, most notably in the San Bernardino killings of December 2015.

In the face of the persistent and spreading threat from Islamist inspired terrorism, the administration launched a major multilateral initiative aimed at Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). This new plan again identified violations of human rights as a driver of terrorism.  It emphasized preventive, non-military approaches to combating terrorism and explicitly recognized the limitations of military power, which, in the words of Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall, “cannot defeat the violent ideologies, nor address the grievances that gave rise to terrorist networks.”

While the CVE framework sets out a strong rhetorical case that human rights are an essential element in effective counterterrorism strategy and shifts the emphasis away from overdependence on military methods, it too has suffered from a gulf between policy rhetoric and implementation. Just like the Bush Administration, U.S. allies and partners in the fight against violent extremism and terrorism disregard those parts of the policy that aim to uphold human rights. Too often, the United States has been reluctant to push back against its partners’ repressive and counterproductive policies, like restricting the work of independent civil society organizations, limiting freedom of expression and suppressing protest and peaceful dissent, sometimes violently.

The United States will only have a more effective counterterrorism policy when it finds the resolve to consistently push its partners in the fight against terrorism to implement policies that protect the basic rights and freedoms of their people. Official statements have built a persuasive case, but sustained follow-up with recalcitrant partners proved too much for the last two administrations. To achieve better outcomes in the struggle against violent extremism, the United States must make human rights promotion a consistent, sustained priority.


Published on September 16, 2016


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