International Security Studies

Constrainment: A Counterterrorism Strategy for the Post-Iraq Era

The event, co-sponsored by Council on Global Terrorism and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, is part of International Security Studies' ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum

Nov 24, 2008

The United States is about to enter the "post-Iraq" era of counterterrorism strategy. The war is not over, the U.S. military will not withdraw tomorrow, and the consequences of the conflict, many unintended, will reverberate for decades.

Nevertheless, Iraq will no longer remain the central organizing principle of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. As the poster child for regime change, Iraq will no longer serve as the dominant prism through which the United States views the jihadist terrorist threat or articulates policies in response. President-elect Barack Obama declared regime change all but dead, when he said: "You don't defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq." If regime change is out, which strategy should take its place?

To answer this question, Stephanie Kaplan, a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center, conducted a survey of counterterrorism strategies across the ideological spectrum. She found that opposition to the war has stymied a rigorous debate over the optimal alternative to regime change. The impulse to be A.B.B., "Anything But Bush," has papered over the differences between competing schools of thought, even within progressive circles.

Within the Democratic foreign policy establishment, Kaplan observed, there is an unacknowledged debate between at least two competing counterterrorism strategies: modernization and constrainment.

Modernization entails broad social, political, and economic reforms aimed at eradicating the conditions that breed terrorism. The constrainment contingent maintains that the global jihadist movement is ultimately on the path to self-defeat, and that the primary task of United States is to hasten that process by constraining the movement on operational and ideational levels. While not mutually exclusive, some of the assumptions underpinning these strategies are in tension with one another. Moreover, they interpret the lessons from the Iraq War differently. After reviewing the war's legacy and identifying which lessons should guide the next administration, Kaplan made the case for adopting constrainment in the post-Iraq era.

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