In the popular Hollywood film, Groundhog Day (1993), Phil, the central character played by Bill Murray, is condemned to live the same day over and over again until he learns from his mistakes and changes his values and behavior towards his fellow human beings. Only then is he permitted to wake up to a new day and resume his life again. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Western counterterrorism policy in the Middle East is caught in a similar kind of existential purgatorial loop: day after day, year after year, it seems to be pursuing the same goals, with the same attitude, fighting the same wars, and intervening in the same countries, over and over again, and always with the same predictable results. President Obama is the fourth US president in a row to authorize the bombing of Iraq, and his successor will undoubtedly be the fifth. In particular, fourteen years after launching the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, and twelve years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, few if any lessons have been learned from the disaster that has ensued, and the same ideologically-blinkered, counterproductive approach continues to be applied in every new stage of the ongoing conflict. From this perspective, Western counterterrorism in the Middle East is no less than a self-fulfilling prophesy1; it creates and sustains the very violence it aims to eliminate. However, unlike the Hollywood version, in the West’s version of Groundhog Day, there seems little hope of waking up to a new day and starting over because the same attitudes and underlying assumptions –and the same hubris– continues to characterize the West’s approach.
Western counterterrorism discourse views terrorism as a new kind of warfare, as religiously-motivated as inherently “evil” and irrational, and as posing an existential threat to the West and the current global order
This is not to suggest that there have been no changes at all in Western counterterrorism in the region since 2001. It was one of President Obama’s election promises that US ground forces would be withdrawn from Iraq and more focus would be given to fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was largely achieved by the end of 2011. More recently, there has been another draw-down of ground forces in Afghanistan, although it has been announced that a core force will stay on for the foreseeable future. These withdrawals are indicative of an evolution in Western counterterrorism from the Bush-era large-scale boots on the ground approach, to a more remote-controlled, so-called “light footprint” kind of counterterrorism based on the use of drones, airpower, and the use of local proxy forces2. Under Obama, for example, the drone-killing program started by Bush has greatly expanded, along with the training of local security forces, which are then expected to lead operations against “terrorist” insurgents. A short-lived change was the so-called “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency approach that characterized operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan for a time. However, this has quietly been abandoned, as Western troops have been withdrawn and replaced for the most part by remotely operated drones.
At the level of discourse, the Obama administration also appeared to make a break with his predecessor by abandoning the term “war on terror” for the slightly more nuanced “war on violent extremism.” Even more importantly, in June 2009, Obama outlined in a major speech in Cairo a seemingly new framework for US relations with the Islamic world based on mutual respect and understanding. While some commentators have suggested that these rhetorical changes represented a major alteration in course and approach, and a new post-Bush framework for counterterrorism, others have argued that they represent only minor rhetorical changes in emphasis, which reflect the different contexts in which they articulated their policies3. That is, both administrations are committed to the same broad counterterrorism approach, but Obama has had to “sell” his policies to an American audience in the context of a long, costly war; thus, he has had to reframe his policies in a slightly less triumphalist and more cautious manner, which accounted for the loss of more than 6,000 US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the relatively modest variation in rhetoric between Bush and Obama, the continuities in Western counterterrorism in the Middle East are depressingly obvious, not least because they are rooted in an intellectual and discursive paradigm that defines the threat and the response to terrorism in a very simplistic and highly limited way. Western counterterrorism discourse views terrorism as a new kind of warfare, as religiously-motivated (and therefore non-political), as inherently “evil” and irrational, and as posing an existential threat to the West and the current global order4. Consequently, the fight against terrorism is viewed by policymakers as a global struggle between the forces of civilization and the forces of medieval barbarism, similar in nature and intensity to the global struggle between communism and capitalist democracy during the cold war. The direct consequence of framing the terrorist threat in this way is that Western counterterrorism policy is primarily focused on the violent suppression of terrorism through the use of military force –or, counterterrorism in the form of war. This explains why the last fourteen years of Western counterterrorist policy in the region has been characterized by full-scale military invasion, limited military operations by Special Forces, the repeated use of air strikes, an expanding drone killing program, the growing utilization of private military companies, major programs to train and equip local proxy security forces, the training and equipping of insurgent groups, the frequent short-term switching of alliances between different regional actors, and the detention, rendition, and torture of thousands of suspected “terrorists.”
It is a fundamental error to view “terrorism” as primarily a military threat, which can be dealt with through the use of force; “terrorism” and violent insurgency is a political phenomenon that requires a political solution to resolve
This reliance on violent suppression is rooted in the deeply-held belief that the West is in an existential war against fanatical so-called “violent extremists” who are incapable of political dialogue and must be eradicated. Importantly, this approach follows the original preemptive logic of George Bush’s “war on terror,” in which the aim is to kill and disrupt suspected “terrorists” before they can launch plots against Western targets, and in which it is argued that it is better to be “fighting the terrorists over there rather than over here at home.” As such, Western counterterrorism in the Middle East is, as Paul Rogers5 explains it, based on a wider “control paradigm” in which it is deemed to be both possible and prudent to use the overwhelming military superiority of the United States to maintain control over global threats –that is, to keep a lid on them– rather than to deal with the underlying circumstances from which the threats arise. An important part of this control paradigm has been to try and prevent the ascension to power of so-called Islamist political parties, even when they win power through democratic elections.
Of course, it is a fundamental error to view “terrorism” as primarily a military threat, which can be dealt with through the use of force; “terrorism” and violent insurgency is a political phenomenon that requires a political solution to resolve. The consequences of fighting a “war on terror” have thus been predictably disastrous. Apart from the grave human rights abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Falluja and elsewhere that continue to fuel the motivation of violent groups, more than 1.3 million people have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many more injured6. Tens of millions of refugees have been created, many of whom are now fleeing to Europe and creating further instability. New militant groups, including ISIL and various al-Qaeda off-shoots, have been created and nurtured over the course of the “war on terror,” as even Tony Blair now admits7. War, insurgency, and terrorist campaigns have seriously destabilized huge swathes of the Middle East; serious instability now threatens Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, as well as surrounding states like Lebanon. Additionally, the “war on terror” has spread to the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and through Boko Haram, into Nigeria. In many respects, Western counterterrorism has created a situation of permanent war in several regions across the world; certainly, it has created far more terror for millions of people than it has prevented.
The key puzzle here is why the West has continued to pursue policies that have such predictably disastrous results? After all, a great many experts and commentators warned the US and UK that the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as the so-called “second front of the war on terror,” would be a failure and would ultimately lead to violent destabilization and further conflict. Policymakers only had to contemplate the results of previous military intervention in the region to recognize the dangers of such an approach. Why then has the West failed to learn any lessons from its long history of military intervention in the Middle East? Well before 9/11, a study by the conservative CATO Institute found that US military intervention was the primary cause of anti-American terrorism abroad8. Why was this evidence ignored, and why has the dominant policy paradigm remain unchanged, trapped in its own Groundhog Day loop?
There is no simple answer to this question, but a number of factors can collectively furnish an explanation. At the level of institutional politics, the fact is that major policy change is always more difficult than policy continuity or minor adjustments. The US and its allies have been intervening militarily in the Middle East and following the same geostrategic approach for more than a century; all the institutional inertia is in place for the continuance of the same entrenched paradigm. It would take an exceptional leader to look at decades of Middle East policy and attempt to about face; the path of least resistance is always to continue with the current course of action. President Obama’s Cairo speech suggested the possibility of a new paradigm of engagement, but it wasn’t followed up with concrete actions and within a few months it was obvious that the change in rhetoric was a smokescreen for a largely business-as-usual approach9. It must also be remembered that the context in US domestic politics is a broad bipartisan consensus on the need for robust military engagement and presence in the Middle East, particularly in relation to the challenge of terrorism and other forms of violent resistance to US interests. This means that whenever a new president is elected, the broader parameters of US foreign policy remain largely unchanged –at least in relation to the Middle East.
Another related factor could be described as the ideological orientation of the Bush Administration and the nature of US and UK leadership during this period. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were ideologically motivated by a deep belief in the superiority of Western values and the need to democratize the Middle East, by force if necessary. Moreover, both leaders, and their successors, held tightly to a belief in the efficacy of military force to achieve political goals. In other words, they firmly believed that the West’s conventional military superiority could, and should, be employed to re-shape the politics and societies of the Middle East and reaffirm Western hegemony. Underlying this belief is a deep but misplaced confidence that military violence can successfully defeat insurgencies and create the conditions for peace and democracy. This fusion of military power and ideology led President Bush to briefly declare a “crusade” to rid the world of “terrorism” and spread Western-style democracy to the countries of the Middle East.
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power at a UN Security Council meeting on counter terrorism on September 30, 2015. | SPENCER PLATT / Getty Images / AFP
A broader but no less important factor here is the extent to which the “war on terror” discourse articulated by George Bush after 9/1110 has since been embedded and institutionalized in Western societies and politics. All the key narratives and perspectives on “terrorism” –that it is an existential threat to Western societies, which is driven primarily by religious extremism, for example– have been assimilated and materially embedded into the political-economy of Western societies11. In other words, the dominant counterterrorism paradigm is now hard-wired into a huge number of security institutions and practices, private security contractors, domestic law, political rhetoric, media organizations, education and research, and popular culture12. This means similarly to the cold war before it, the “war on terror” is now sustained by the interests of those groups and institutions that benefit directly from it. In purely material terms, the “war on terror” has cost over $3 trillion, much of which has gone to the military, the security services, and a huge array of private contractors13. In other words, there are now so many vested interests in continuing the current practices of Western counterterrorism that any attempt to change course, even by a US president, would likely face serious political and institutional opposition.
Related to this, it is important to recognize the power of language and settled ways of thinking in establishing policy priorities and practices14. The “war on terror,” and the history of Western policy in the Middle East, has established and solidified a certain way of thinking about, and consequently acting towards, the region. Moreover, this set of beliefs, assumptions, and terms imposes constraints on the range of policies that can be considered and limits the options that can be chosen. It is what can be a called a “regime of truth,” or a dominant way of thinking about and acting towards a subject (or, in this case, region). The current Western framework for understanding and responding to the Middle East is highly limited and deeply flawed, as is obvious from the policy consequences over the past few decades. However, there is currently no entrepreneurial leader or change agent capable of breaking free from the powerful constraints of the discourse and opening up the real possibility of a new approach15. In this version of Groundhog Day, it appears that the main characters –the US and UK– can hardly even speak differently about the Middle East, much less act in a new way.
The “war on terror,” and the history of Western policy in the Middle East, has established and solidified a certain way of thinking about, and consequently acting towards, the region
In addition, as scholars from the critical terrorism studies (CTS) perspective argue16, the dominant discourse and paradigm of Western counterterrorism policy is supported and reinforced by the “terrorism industry,” and by popular culture. This creates a broader social-cultural context in which it is difficult to question the dominant understanding of “terrorism” and the counterterrorism policies, which flow out of these understandings. In particular, Western societies are dominated by a set of values in which the lives of the non-Western other, especially if they can be linked to “terrorism,” count for less than the Western lives threatened by so-called “terrorists”17. This has meant that the millions of lives harmed in Western counterterrorist operations since 2001 generate little public opposition and policymakers thus feel free to continue with their approach, even when it proves to be highly destructive in human terms, and ineffective in reducing further violent attacks. It seems that “Western publics,” like Bill Murray at the beginning of Groundhog Day, cannot imagine the pain and suffering of others, and lack a basic empathy with those who suffer the consequences of their governments’ foreign policies. Moreover, the dominance of the discourse means that few policymakers, or members of the public, can imagine alternative policy responses to “terrorism” other than the use of force.
Finally, it can be argued that both the so-called “terrorists” and Western states have become trapped in a process of mutual reinforcement –what can be termed a cycle of violence– in which each side’s actions confirms their perceptions of the other and reinforce the sense of grievance they feel. Every violent attack by a militant group, for example, appears to confirm the West’s view that “terrorists” pose an existential threat and are committed to nothing more than murder and mayhem. Meanwhile, every invasion, overthrow of a popular Islamist movement, instance of torture, or act of atrocity by Western forces, reinforces the militants’ narrative that the West is an imperial power, which aims to destroy and exploit Muslim societies. In this tit-for-tat cycle, it is extremely difficult for either side to adopt a new language and approach in order to break the pattern of violence and counter-violence. This is particularly the case when both sides continue to believe that they can prevail militarily.
In order to break free from the current repetitive loop of violence and counter-violence, the West too will need to find the courage to admit its catastrophic mistakes, rediscover its sense of humanity and empathy with the victims of its violent policies
In sum, the self-defeating and somewhat irrational Groundhog Day-like approach to counterterrorism in the Middle East by Western powers is the result of policy continuities, an entrenched institutional paradigm, the ideological bias of Western leaders, an established social discourse, which precludes alternatives, and a deeply entrenched cycle of violence and counter-violence. The direct result of this is that the most recent Western approaches to dealing with the threat of “terrorism” in the region, most notably the threat posed by ISIS, include the very same policies and actions, which led to the current crisis in the first place: military intervention, security training and cooperation with local forces, supporting insurgent groups, drone and airstrikes, and war. It may look like the definition of insanity –engaging in the same actions over and over again but expecting different results– but it is in fact, nothing more than the predictable result of a dominant institutionalized discourse.
Thus, the final and most important question is: how can the West break free from its Middle Eastern version of Groundhog Day and find a new way of relating to this important region? To move in that direction would necessitate abandoning many of the key assumptions that currently characterize Western foreign policymaking – such as the misplaced assumption that military force can be employed to solve political problems, that “terrorism” and violent resistance is a form of civilizational warfare that requires a military response, that militant groups in the region are not amenable to dialogue and reform, that powerful external actors are obliged to intervene to “solve” the problems of the region, that local actors are incapable of dealing with their own problems and challenges, and that security and the protection of Western interests are more important than democracy, development, and human rights. Abandoning these misleading and self-defeating assumptions is the first necessary step towards a new paradigm capable of generating new policy options that do not simply repeat the mistakes of the past.
However, as in the movie version of Groundhog Day, in order to break free from the current repetitive loop of violence and counter-violence, the West too will need to find the courage to admit its catastrophic mistakes, rediscover its sense of humanity and empathy with the victims of its violent policies, give up its need to control events and shape other societies in its own image, and honestly pursue policy approaches based on nonviolence, disarmament, social justice, democratic participation, development, and genuine local ownership. Only when a new language and new attitude to the challenge of political violence in the Middle East starts to emerge will it be possible for Western policymakers to escape from the present Groundhog Day of their own making. However unlikely such a scenario is at the present moment, it is not impossible, provided Western leaders recognize the futility of the current course of action and courageously start to articulate a new discourse.
- Joseba Zulaika, Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).
- Paul Rogers, “A Critical Perspective on the War on Terrorism,” in Richard Jackson (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming).
- See Trevor McCrisken, “Ten Years On: Obama’s War on Terrorism in Rhetoric and Practice,” International Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 4 (2011), pp. 781-801; Trevor McCrisken, “Justifying Sacrifice: Barack Obama and the Selling and Ending of the War in Afghanistan,” International Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 5 (2012), pp. 993-1007; John Oddo, “Variation and Continuity in Intertextual Rhetoric: From the ‘War on Terror’ to the ‘Struggle against Violent Extremism’”, Journal of Language and Politics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2014), pp. 512-537.
- See Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005); Richard Jackson, “Constructing Enemies: ‘Islamic Terrorism’ in Political and Academic Discourse,” Government & Opposition, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2007), pp. 394-426; Jeroen Gunning and Richard Jackson, “What’s so ‘Religious’ about ‘Religious Terrorism’?,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2011), pp. 369-388.
- Paul Rogers, Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century, 3rd Edition, (London: Pluto Press, 2010).
- IPPNW, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Physicians for Global Responsibility, Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the “War on Terror,” (March 2015), retrieved October 26, 2015 from online at: http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/body-count.pdf.
- Martin Chulov, “ISIS: The Inside Story,” The Guardian, (11 December 2014), retrieved October 26, 2015 from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story; “Tony Blair makes qualified apology for Iraq war ahead of Chilcot report,” The Guardian, (25 October 2015), retrieved October 26, 2015 from http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/25/tony-blair-sorry-iraq-war-mistakes-admits-conflict-role-in-rise-of-isis.
- Ivan Eland, “Does U.S. Intervention Overseas Breed Terrorism? The Historical Record,” CATO Institute Foreign Policy Briefing, (December 17, 1998), retrieved September 5, 2011 from http://www.cato.org/pubs/fpbriefs/fpb-050es.html.
- See Michael Desch, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: The Liberal Tradition and Obama’s Counterterrorism Policy,” PS: Political Science, (July 2012), pp. 425-429; David Forsythe, “US Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Situating Obama,” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2011), pp. 767-789.
- Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
- Richard Jackson, “Bush, Obama, Bush, Obama, Bush, Obama…: The War on Terror as a Durable Social Structure,” in Michelle Bentley and Jack Holland (eds.), Obama’s Foreign Policy: Ending the War on Terror, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), pp. 76-90.
- Stuart Croft, Culture, Crisis and America’s War on Terror, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
- See Dana Priest and William Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, (New York: Little Brown, 2011).
- Richard Jackson, “Critical Discourse Analysis,” in Priya Dixit and Jacob Stump (eds.), Critical Methods in Terrorism Studies, (Abingdon: Routledge 2016), pp. 77-90.
- See Stuart Croft, Culture, Crisis and America’s War on Terror, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
- See Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth, Jeroen Gunning and Lee Jarvis, Terrorism: A Critical Introduction, (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011).
- Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, (London: Verso, 2004).