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The Costs of Eradicating Radical Islamic Terrorism

President Donald J. Trump vowed in his inaugural address to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” He repeated the promise the following day in contested remarks delivered at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While such hyperbolic language was ripe for applause on the campaign trail, and indeed continues to draw cheers now that he is president, the question of its feasibility remains unanswered. Unfortunately for those eager to worship at the altar of Trump’s nascent policy genius, containing and then eliminating radical Islamic terrorism, will be neither quick, easy, or necessarily possible.

Image courtesy of Jesusemen Oni, © 2016.

In past speeches, Trump has been intentionally vague as to how he would accomplish the goal of defeating the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. He has voraciously attacked the previous policies of the Obama administration, criticized allies for not contributing enough to counterterrorism, hinted that a rapprochement with Russia might allow the United States to outsource some counter-terrorist activity, proposed ramping up military action, and banned various immigrant groups—including refugees—from entering the country. While certainly these vagaries may soon be replaced with more concrete plans—such as the executive order on immigration enacted this past week—it is unshakably clear that regardless of what specific actions President Trump takes, they will be both more costly than those undertaken by President Obama and contain more risks for U.S. service members and citizens. Moreover, given the contradictory logic at play in many of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements, the chances of success are slim.

For instance, attacking U.S. allies for not paying their fair share and assuming that such rhetoric alone will increase their enthusiasm for collective action and cause them to shoulder more of the burden for counterterrorism operations is nonsensical. It not only ignores the large contributions in money and lives that U.S. allies have spent on counterterrorism efforts but disregards the lack of leverage the Trump administration has in compelling further expenditures. Furthermore, it assumes that countries whose foreign policies have been inimical to U.S. interests, such as Russia, are willing to pivot for Trump and realign their actions based on his, rather than their goals.

As well, it is perhaps the most blindingly obvious truism of policy action that “doing more” invariably costs more than “doing less.” The broader your policy goal, the more it will cost; similarly, the harder it can be to achieve. Obama’s policies for dealing with radical Islamic terrorism—increased intelligence gathering, domestic security measures (even if not up to Trump’s standards), covert global targeting of terrorists through drone strikes and other means, and direct military support most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan—have easily cost billions of dollars. Regardless of which of his plans Trump executes, whether it involves ramping up the targeting of terrorists, increased spending on domestic security, or the commitment of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East or elsewhere, it will almost certainly cost more than Obama’s policies.

But could such spending bring about success? Or at least improve current circumstances? Voters are surprisingly willing to pay for military expenditures in ways that would be anathema if applied towards other government programs. For instance, President George W. Bush was able to fund the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 almost exclusively through deficit spending. The patience of voters and the public writ large, however, is not infinite, and there is little reason to believe that ramping up military action will actually eradicate radical Islamic terrorism. The success of leadership decapitation, that is killing the leaders of terrorist organization to disorient and destroy them, is decidedly mixed.

Even if Trump is right, and the untimely removal of U.S. ground forces from Iraq helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State in the western half of that country, the reintroduction of such forces will do little to solve the intense sectarian and partisan divisions in the Iraqi government. These represent not only an equally important proximate cause for the rise of the Islamic State, but also contributed to the inability to keep U.S. forces in the country in the first place. The lesson of the failed intervention in Libya is not only that military intervention can have severely negative consequences, including fostering disorder and international terrorism, but that these consequences occur even if the United States does not embark on nation-building.

The failure of Trump’s promise to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism is far from predetermined, but regardless of whether success can be achieved, the cost in success or failure will certainly be steep.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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