Here is a paradox to consider: The implementation of the Bush Administration’s counter-terrorism strategy has been more successful than anyone could have expected and yet the threat from violent jihadist groups remains undiminished. 

In order to understand this paradox, we have to examine both sides of the equation.

The Bush Administration’s counter-terrorism strategy has been based on two key elements.  First, the administration sought to reduce state sponsorship of international terrorism, both through diplomatic pressure and through regime-change.  Second, the administration wanted to squeeze terrorist groups by cutting off their access to financing and recruits.

State sponsorship of terrorism is now at historically low levels.  Regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq helped, as did political pressure that changed the foreign policy orientation of Libya and made countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan less supportive of terrorist groups.  In terms of constricting the access of terrorists to money, the administration’s efforts to establish better financial controls and impose tighter oversight on Muslim charities has clearly cut off the ability of groups like Al Qaeda to gain funding from legitimate channels.

The strategy of trying to limit access to recruits has also seen many successes.  The percentage of the public in Muslim countries who consider terrorism legitimate has dropped significantly, and there is solid evidence that Iraq did serve as flypaper, luring in international jihadists, many of whom were killed or captured.

In short, everything the administration could have hoped to accomplish has occurred, so why is violence by jihadist groups around the world at historically high levels?  The answer is simple.  Our counter-terrorism strategy is hopelessly misguided.  We have now come to the end of the road, and it turns out that instead of reaching our destination, we’ve hit a dead end.  The Bush Administration made three key mistakes.

First, state sponsorship was never the key issue.  Certainly state sponsorship made the struggle more difficult.  However, in reality states were not sponsoring the jihadist movement, but were rather trying to take advantage of it for their own purposes.  Saddam Hussein had no interest in international jihad, but supporting radical groups did serve to burnish his image in the Muslim world.  The Pakistani government had no particular interest in a new caliphate, but the jihadist movement provided free recruits and political deniability for putting pressure on India.  The jihadist movement has always been the enemy of established states, seeking to sweep them away and replace them with a transnational religious order.  Various states tried to either harness the energies of the movement or deflect its wrath, but they neither created nor controlled the jihadists.

Second, squeezing or constricting terrorist groups was always doomed to failure.  It was a macroeconomic response to a microeconomic challenge.  There are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world.  There are, at most, 50,000 members of jihad organizations.  The total number of recruits is an infinitesimally smaller percentage of the overall population – less than three one-thousandths of one percent of the population.  There are as many as three times more gang members in Los Angeles alone than there are jihadists worldwide, and the population of the Muslim world is 350 times larger than that of Los Angeles.  The active jihadist movement is such a small percentage of the population base that no amount of squeezing or attrition will ever reduce its ability to replace losses and recruit new members.

The funding challenge is similar. Terrorism is relatively cheap, and the amount of money sloshing around the globe in the drug trade, money laundering, and other criminal activities is so vast that jihadist groups will always be able to replace assets seized or frozen by one means with funds raised by another.

Third, the Bush Administration mistakenly assumed that the main reason we were targeted was because we were perceived to be weak, when it is perfectly and unambiguously clear that we have been targeted because the jihadists think we are aggressive imperialists – a belief shared by a significant percentage of Muslims around the world.  The truth of the issue is irrelevant to the fact that our response to 9/11 has been fundamentally counter-productive.  The more we try to demonstrate strength the more we reinforce and legitimize the jihadist’s claims that our goal is to dominate the Muslim world.

We have diminished state sponsorship, cut off access to many sources of funding, managed to delegitimize terror in the abstract, and demonstrate our strength through interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet, the threat is as large as ever.  It is time for a new approach.

This new approach ought to be based on two elements.  The first is the challenge of safe havens and ungoverned spaces, particularly in parts of the world where national governments cannot or will not control their territory.  Seven years after 9/11 we still do not have in place an international legal framework for ungoverned spaces, and as a result, we have no internationally accepted manner of pressuring, say, Pakistan to do more in its northwest provinces.  All we can do is engage in bilateral negotiations, but ultimately there needs to be a law of ungoverned spaces that establishes the rights of the international community and obligations of states to prevent the establishment of terrorist groups on national territory.  Until we have this sort of framework, we remain at the mercy of local actors who may, or may not, have any incentive to act.

Second, the United States needs to revisit the concept of “national interest.”  Our national dialogue has become so tremendously sloppy in this regard that we are fundamentally unable to make effective national strategy.  People will, for instance, often talk about our interest in access to oil.  The United States has no interest in oil.  The United States does have an interest in ensuring access to adequate and reliable energy.  Oil is an answer to a national interest challenge, not the challenge itself.  The United States has no specific national interest in regional stability, democracy, oil, or the survival of any particular regime abroad.  Those may all be means toward national interest ends, but they are not ends in themselves.  If we begin by asking what really matters to us, we can begin to realistically assess the costs and benefits of various strategic options.  As long as we confuse ends and means, we will lock ourselves into costly and counterproductive policies.

Specifically, a serious assessment of the national interest will, I would argue, show that we could safely reduce our footprint in the Middle East dramatically.  The United States simply does not need to be involved in every issue in the region.  This is a not a call for a surrender.  Surrender involves giving up national interests.  This argument is for a more clear-eyed pursuit of them.  Consider energy, for instance. When one adds together the military costs of a presence in the Middle East, the political costs of alliances with authoritarian oil-producing countries, and the economic costs of exporting billions of  dollars abroad to buy oil, it makes dramatic investment in alternative energy seem a lot less costly.  Indeed, assessing all the costs may even make a dramatic increase in domestic oil exploration – even in environmentally sensitive areas – seem cost-effective.

But in addition to reducing our footprint in the region, we should reduce the fingerprints of our policy on the lives of people in the Middle East.  This is a fundamentally counterintuitive proposal.  After all, there is a broad consensus in American policymaking circles that the United States ought to be more involved in such things as promoting human rights, solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and engaging in a deep and sustained public diplomacy effort.  Unfortunately, all of those recommendations serve to deepen and reinforce the common belief in the Muslim world that the United States is an octopus whose tentacles reach in every corner of the region.  The more visibly engaged we are, the more ammunition we give to those who seek to blame every misfortune on the United States.

Consider, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  The more aggressively we attempt to impose a solution, the more entrenched the impression becomes that the United States is a malevolent puppet master.  Sure, if we could invent a solution that would please everyone, we might reap tremendous benefits.  But we can’t.  At best, narrow majorities of Palestinians and Israelis might agree on some compromise – a compromise that, by the way, would be unlikely to garner much support from the broader Muslim world.  At worse, committing to helping negotiate a solution is like writing a check we can’t cash.  It raises expectations, and worse, opens the door for blaming the United States if any agreement falters.

The end of the Bush Administration allows us to rethink our approach to terrorism.  We have pursued the existing approach as far as we can.  It is now time to step back, take a deep breath, and rebuild our counter-terrorism strategy from scratch on the basis of well-conceived principles.  The Bush Administration’s approach was well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided.  Unless we overcome the pressures of politics and inertia, we will continue to pursue our current strategically bankrupt course, and American security will suffer as a result.  When you get to the end of the road and still have not reached your destination, it is time to swallow your pride and retrace your path back to the highway.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and is the lead author of ASP’s annual survey of terrorism trends: “Are We Winning?: Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Violent Jihadism.”