President Donald J. Trump and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael L. Howard, the commander of Joint Force Headquarters - National Capitol Region and U.S. Army Military District of Washington, depart from Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va., May 29, 2017, after participating in a wreath laying ceremony honoring Memorial Day. (U.S. Army photo by Zane Ecklund) Unit: Army Photo DVIDS Tags: POTUS; Memorial Day; Arlington National Cemetery; military; President Trump

Terror & Turmoil: The Trump Approach to National Security

In this piece, Dr James Rogers of the University of York traces the rise of Trump’s terrorism rhetoric, arguing that although populist and thus helpful to securing him a second term, the Trump approach to terrorism may ultimately prove counterproductive to American security by generating more core grievances while only addressing the symptoms of extremism.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Last November, as the votes came in, an important trend began to emerge. Exit-polls suggested that 57 per cent of those who voted for President Trump saw terrorism as the ‘most important issue’ for the United States. 64 per cent believed immigration was a prominent concern. Clinton voters on the other hand were most worried about U.S. foreign policy and the American economy. These figures were to be expected. Attempts to conflate and heighten fears about the ‘terrorism-immigration issue’ were central to the Trump campaign, contributing to his victory. At points Trump’s rhetoric was ‘hard’ to say the least. Bombing civilians, banning entry to the U.S. based on faith, and the infamous ‘Trump Wall’, were all part of broader strategy to generate and make gains from a climate of fear. To some this was just the blustering of a man set on winning the presidency by any means necessary. Comparisons were made to Reagan, and the hopes were that Trump would mellow when in power. Over the last 12 months, however, this extreme rhetoric has quickly become a reality of American counter-terrorism policy.

From 9/11 to 11/9

9/11 marked a fundamental milestone in the way in which terrorism was perceived by the American people. At 8.46am and 9:03am on September 11, 2001 a blue sky became the canvas for scenes of death, destruction, and a palpable sense of horror. The Pentagon and Pennsylvania soon followed, a new definition of terrorism emerged, and a vulnerability took hold. Terrorism was now firmly entrenched in the national psyche as mass killing, aimed at American civilians, and committed by religious extremists who were, as President Bush labelled it, determined to perpetrate ‘these evil acts’. This evil, we have been told, has continued unabated and so too has the potent and influential feeling of vulnerability felt across America. Fort Hood (2009), the Boston Bombings (2010), Chattanooga (2015) and San Bernardino (2015), are but a few acts of reported terrorism in the U.S. that have played a part in maintaining and even increasing this sense of vulnerability. The rise of the Islamic State and the Paris Attacks (2015) have also contributed. Trump used this vulnerability from 9/11 to his advantage in the 11/9 presidential election.

Trump on Terror: A Siege Mentality

This ‘lingering vulnerability’, David Rothkopf argued, led to a “national PTSD” in America, of which Trump’s victory was a symptom. Trump successfully harnessed the threat of terrorism and made it synonymous with uncertainty about a migrant and refugee crisis in America, but also across the world. The argument was that America needed to fortify its borders to keep out terrorists and protect the homeland, whilst also deploying force abroad to stop terrorists who may be planning to mount further attacks. This siege mentality has continued to form the bed-rock of Trump’s counter-terrorism policy during the first year of his presidency. Trump’s promotion of a ‘great wall’, and the ‘extreme vetting’ of people of the Muslim faith entering the country until ‘we figure out what is going on’ have both been part of a defensive fortification of the homeland. Trump’s argument that America needed to ‘take out [the] families’ of terrorists and ‘blow up every single inch’ of IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria was part of the offensive side of this siege. As Micah Zenko has highlighted, a drone strike or raid was launched per day during Trump’s first 74 days in power, compared with one strike every 5.4 days during the Obama administration. It is also worth noting that these strikes have become more indiscriminate and arguably cause far more civilian causalities. Whereas Obama had made changes in drone policy to reduce the risk of civilian casualties – such as increasing the accountability of strikes, tightening the rules on the deployment of deadly force, and improving transparency –  Trump has rolled back such measures. As a result, drone strikes are more covert and unaccountable, yet also more prevalent and arguably more deadly. So, Trump’s siege mentality approach to counter-terrorism has quickly become policy over the last 12 months. Yet, what does this mean for American security in the longer-term?

Trump’s Perpetual Terrorism Threat.

We know that knee-jerk and extreme responses do not make good counter-terrorism policy. The potentially counter-productive outcomes of isolating American Muslims, targeting refugees and migrants, blocking the peoples of an entire religion from entering one’s country and indiscriminately killing civilians abroad are all too clear. A number of IS and al-Qaeda affiliated organisations, it has been reported, are already using the rise of Trump’s hard approach to their rhetoric advantage. The threat of terrorism and terror attacks against the U.S. and its allies are likely to continue, if not increase in the longer term as a result.

For Trump, however, his current counter-terrorism policy makes sense. For an administration under investigation for collusion with Russia and under-fire for attacking civil rights (to name but a couple of controversies), a hard counter-terror policy and the potent fear of being under attack guarantees continued support from core voters in these turbulent times. Those who perceived terrorism and immigration to be the biggest threats to U.S. security just 12-months ago are still on side, and ready to vote for Trump again in just 36 months. Over this period then we can expect Trump’s siege mentality to perpetuate, if not harden.

Only time will tell how this will affect U.S. national security and global stability in the long-term. The prediction here, however, is that Trump’s policies will likely lead the causing of more grievances than they solve.

Dr James Rogers is Associate Lecturer in International Politics at the University of York and Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. Dr Rogers focuses his research on drone warfare and contemporary security policy, and has previously been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, the International Journal of Human Rights, International Peacekeeping and the Guardian.

His co-authored book, Drone Warfare: Concepts and Controversies, is forthcoming with Manchester University Press (2018).

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: U.S. Army/Zane Ecklund

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