With many Americans — led by the current occupant of the White House — questioning the value of global partnerships and talking as though the United States would be better off going it alone, there is no better time to assess the role other countries play in achieving U.S. counterterrorism objectives. Anyone who has been involved in crafting U.S. counterterrorism policy inside the government knows the essential importance of these relationships. But they also are soberly aware of how troubling they can be.
America’s fight against terror has been the subject of a mountain of books over the nearly two decades since 9/11. Most have been inside-accounts of policymaking from Washington’s bureaucratic trenches or dramatic tales of counterterrorism missions. Yet few have made a systematic assessment, benefitting from the latest scholarship, of the ways counterterrorism cooperation actually works, showing how and why success is often so elusive. That’s what makes Stephen Tankel’s latest book, With Us and Against Us, so timely. It combines his solid grounding in the academic literature on alliances and international cooperation with his first-hand experience in sausage-making policy at the Pentagon to give readers a comprehensive and thought-provoking tour through some of the toughest — and certainly most frustrating — counterterrorism relationships in recent U.S. history.
The fight against terrorism is usually discussed simplistically as one in which there are only friends and enemies, best summarized by the “with us or against us” statement of President George W. Bush just a week after the September 11 attacks. Yet the reality is far more complex, and the countries that take up the most time for policymakers are those that fall in between the categories of ally or foe — especially Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Mali, and Pakistan. In many ways, when it comes to tackling terrorist threats, these countries are both firefighters and arsonists. And while cooperation with them is crucial, it has been exceedingly difficult, whether because of state weakness, conflicting interests, or outright duplicity.
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