One word has come to dominate the political discussion of American counterterrorism objectives: defeat. It has been used across the political spectrum. Yet the language of “defeat” is often at odds with an effective counterterrorism strategy promising unachievable ends that consistently make the United States and those politicians who promise defeat prone to failure when terrorist groups prove resilient.
In September 2001, President George W. Bush, laid out a wide-ranging objective for the so-called “war on terrorism,” stating, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” When President Obama took over, he continued an already occurring process of narrowing the focus of the war. His 2011 Counterterrorism Strategy stated, “this Administration has made it clear that we are not at war with the tactic of terrorism or the religion of Islam. We are at war with a specific organization—al-Qa‘ida.” Yet the strategy maintained the goal of defeat: “This Strategy articulates how we will achieve a future in which al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates and adherents are defeated—and their ideology ultimately meets the same fate as its founder and leader.”
As the Obama administration returned the United States to war in Iraq, and then extended the counter-ISIS war to Syria, the objective of defeat again emerged as a stated objective. Initially, the Obama administration presented relatively limited objectives for the counter-ISIS war of protecting U.S. persons and achieving a specific humanitarian mission. Yet the administration soon put forward an objective of degrading and destroying ISIS. Ash Carter, who became Obama’s Defense Secretary after Chuck Hagel resigned, would adopt the language of “lasting defeat.”
President Trump continued the language of defeat when he took over the war effort. Eight days into his term, he issued a presidential memorandum on efforts against ISIS declaring, “It is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated.” The new administration also renamed the Counter-ISIL effort to D-ISIS with the “D” standing for defeat though the actual mission did not change.
The language of defeat continues to hold sway even with prominent Democrats pushing for a new era of progressive foreign policy. For example, Senator Chris Murphy in 2017 criticized the Trump administration for having “no strategy to defeat terrorism” and in January 2020, tweeted, “The U.S. and our partners had ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq, but the Soleimani strike put all this in jeopardy.”
The language of defeat holds a particularly tempting power because it promises an end to the current moment of endless war, holding out the vision of a day when the military portion of counterterrorism is no longer necessary and the threat no longer exists. In some cases, when carefully defined in reference to specific objectives (for example discussion of the territorial defeat of ISIS’s holdings in Iraq and Syria as opposed to the group’s defeat let alone the defeat of its ideological resonance) the word defeat may have value.
The problem is that even when defined in such a way, the language of defeat often takes on a triumphalist life of its own — gaining societal meaning beyond the specifics of what politicians claim to mean. The litany of declared victories in America’s wars that turned out to be messaging failures is long: from Mission Accomplished (whether in 2003 or when Trump echoed it in 2018) to the criticism of Obama for saying al-Qaida was on the “path to defeat.”
In the case of the counter-ISIS war, the objective of enduring defeat often sidelined critical questions of what the war’s final political objectives actually were and whether those objectives were achievable or worth sacrificing for. Thus what might be represented accurately as a territorial defeat for ISIS simply enabled the re-emergence of those sidelined debates over end-states that largely ignored the signals coming from President Trump about his desire to get U.S. forces out.
Contributing to these failures is the fact that terrorist organizations are profoundly resilient, making calls for the defeat of a specific organization only slightly more sensible than the idea of defeating terrorism as a tactic. This is especially the case when terrorist organizations today have increasingly turned themselves into brands and franchises, decentralizing and divesting many of the characteristics that differentiated the organization from an ideology or tactic in the first place. The low barriers of entry to committing terrorism in the name of jihadist groups for one of any number of armed actors or even individuals makes maintaining a declaration of defeat in today’s media environment difficult.
The problems with the language of defeat are well-known to many counter-terrorism professionals. Former National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen has cautioned that the “D-words” like “defeat, destroy, or deny” tend to represent “very ambitious objectives that, even if we were maximally resourced, even if everything broke our way in the international environment, even if every positive projection of the international environment you could develop came true, we still would have struggled to meet those objectives on the kind of timeline we were setting for ourselves.” In 2015, Rosa Brooks, a former counselor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, wrote regarding terrorism, “we need to … recognize it as an ongoing problem to be managed, rather than ‘defeated.’” Brooks added, “Politicians don’t like to say any of this.”
Of course, management can be done poorly. One could envision an approach that remains mired in the current seemingly endless counterterrorism wars while just embracing the inability to defeat the enemy. Echoes of such a stance can be seen in the rise of “mowing the lawn” language with regard to certain American military efforts. This framing refers to a strategic theory prominent in Israel that simply abandons the hope for defeat while remaining committed to military action as necessary.
However, the solution to this risk of militarized management is to hold a real debate on what U.S. objectives are, whether they achieve U.S. interests, and whether they do so in a moral and justifiable manner. The solution is also to develop and expand non-militarized tools for achieving U.S. objectives. Hoping for the defeat of terrorist groups is more likely to be a way to avoid that reckoning, effectively returning America to an unacknowledged mowing the grass policy, rather than a way to escape from the problem itself.
Those who seek to chart a more restrained path of American military power or a new vision of progressive foreign policy should do their best to avoid the language of defeat. Where politicians and advocates engage in the language of defeat, they should take particular care to contextualize the specifics of what they mean by defeat (whether territorial, organizational, or ideological) and how they would measure it. Even in such cases, the rhetorical power of using “defeat” as a shorthand comes with dangers that are likely best avoided by adopting the clarity of simply stating the desired objective without opening oneself up to the ease with which defeat rhetoric slides into embracing broad, transformative, and often unachievable objectives.
David Sterman is a senior policy analyst at New America and holds a master's degree from Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. His current research focuses on terrorism and violent extremism in America, immigration and terrorist threats, foreign fighter recruitment, and the effectiveness and consequences of American counterterrorism efforts. In the past, he edited Foreign Policy Magazine’s South Asia Channel.Sterman’s writing on terrorism has appeared in CNN, Foreign Policy, Time, and the Washington Post among other outlets, and his research has been cited by CNN, FOX, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Prior to working at New America, Sterman was a contributing editor at Southern Pulse, and he interned at the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem. He graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College in 2012.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.