Small Wars Journal

The Importance of U.S. Retention of GWOT Foreign Policy Tools

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 6:51pm

The Importance of U.S. Retention of GWOT Foreign Policy Tools

By Josh Phillips



For the past two decades, United States foreign policy has been centered around the Global War on Terror (GWOT), but this era appears to be steadily coming to a close. In light of this, as the U.S. continues to trend away from GWOT policies and operations, it must not lessen its opposition to international violence and human rights violations. Instead, it must remember to remain steadfast in its commitments to international humanitarian aid efforts that were initiated during the GWOT. The U.S. cannot afford to backslide in its progress in mitigating foreign violence, and must not forget the tools that it has at its disposal to maintain this progress. One such means that the U.S. should continue to employ is the Foreign Terrorist Designation (FTO), an important political tool that the U.S. uses to publicly identify and sanction perpetrators of international violence, and one example of how this tool should be used to protect U.S. interests can be seen ongoing Houthi rebel group crisis in Yemen, a group which the U.S. delisted as an FTO in 2021.


U.S. International Involvement Post-GWOT

The U.S. has been steadily shifting its focus away from the GWOT for several years, a development that can be seen in several foreign policies that have been put into place by past and present administrations. These include Obama’s 2012 “Pacific Pivot” strategy, which sought to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific region; the absence direct anti-terrorist intervention strategies in recent Department of Defense National Defense strategies; and the sharp restriction of the award of the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal by the Department of Defense in 2022, which many interpret as the beginning of a symbolic close to the wars that began after September 11, 2001. These progressions in foreign policy mark an emerging change in U.S. policy as significant as the end of the post-Cold War era.


Yet, despite this potential twilight of the GWOT, the U.S. is still engaged in hundreds of conflict prevention and stabilization operations around the globe, even if the missions taken part in are not formally designated as counterterrorism missions. Thus, even if “official” terrorist prevention action is on the decline, the U.S. must not forget the tools they have at their disposal - tools with the ability to give the government a way to impede violent foreign organizations alongside U.S. troops. In this way, the FTO designation should be used to maintain U.S. antiterrorism progress by both providing support to U.S. deployments in conflict ridden areas and combatting the actions of violent organizations themselves.


The FTO Designation

Foreign Terrorist Organization designations provide the U.S. government with the formal means to impede terrorist funding by blocking the assets and entities who support terrorist activity. For the U.S., designating an entity FTO has historically had very few repercussions, and it is relatively simple to add or remove organizations from the list. While there are other methods of targeting and sanctioning foreign terrorist groups, there are many advantages for the U.S. in using a formal list as a mechanism for counterterrorism purposes. Chiefly among them is the fact that the FTO list brings legal clarity to efforts to identify and prosecute members of terrorist organizations and those who support them, a provision that other U.S. antiterrorism policies do not.


However, perhaps more importantly, the FTO list has unique importance because of the symbolic, public role it plays as a tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy. The public attention and diplomatic leverage that comes from designating an entity to be on the FTO list is unequalled. Despite the current policies of recent U.S. administrations in steadily decreasing their involvement in the GWOT, U.S. public opinion in the two decades since 9/11 shows the enduring power of the tragedy in American public memory. A national survey by the Pew Research Center disclosed that Americans ranked addressing terrorism concerns as the top priority for Congress, outranking issues including the economy, health care costs, social security, and the environment. Thus, reassuring the American public that the U.S. government is still engaged in combatting terrorism around the globe is crucial for maintaining stability and mitigating disenchantment from government. An FTO designation, as a powerful symbolic act of U.S. antiterrorism efforts, should continue to be utilized as a low-cost method of publicly demonstrating the U.S.’s opposition to international violence, even the GWOT wanes.


The Houthi Group and U.S. Policy Implications

The Houthi group in Yemen are a potent example of how the FTO designation can both be used to mitigate foreign violence and reassure the U.S. public of the government’s continued opposition to terrorism. The Houthi Ansarallah (Supporters of God) have been militarily active in Yemen since 2003, and have since perpetrated many acts of terrorism. The primary threat to U.S. interests emanating from Yemen, however, exists in the Houthi group’s core ideology. It is unapologetically anti-American, and if allowed to resume attacks, could evolve into another Hezbollah, its role model, a proven long-term danger to Americans and American interests. It is organizations that present this type of threat to the U.S., a direct threat to U.S. interests that increases over time without intervention, that must be addressed.


An FTO designation sends a strong message regarding what the U.S. does or does not find to be acceptable, but a challenge of the potency of this message that this signal works in the other direction as well: by not designating certain groups, the United States risks sending unintended signals. While it is true there are many potential external political reasons for the U.S.’s removal of the Houthi group from the FTO list, the action in and of itself has the potential to send a message to the U.S. public and the international community that the U.S. no longer opposes the terrorist actions of the Houthi group. As the Houthis are on a trajectory to become a potential second Hezbollah, their direct threat to U.S. interests makes this message of disengagement have even stronger implications.



In this way, it will be in the U.S.’s best interest to use the tools at its disposal to address the Houthi crisis and maintain its commitment to antiterrorism. The Houthi group in Yemen is not the only group engaging in terrorist activity, and even if the U.S. is drifting away from the GWOT, there are still U.S. personnel deployed abroad who need U.S. government support, and an FTO designation could be a conduit of this support. There is strong evidence of the positive impact that a renewal of the Houthi’s FTO designation would have, and this re-designation will make a statement to the foreign community that the tools forged in the GWOT are and will continue to be utilized in support of U.S. endeavors. Therefore, the Houthis crisis in Yemen is a good example of how the U.S. could restrict an international violent group’s access to funding by issuing a FTO designation, potentially easing a devastating humanitarian crisis. Even as U.S. involvement in the GWOT declines, this low-cost tool should be used by the U.S. in the future to support and demonstrate its continued commitment to deproliferation around the globe, ensuring that unintended signals of apathy are not sent to the U.S. public or the larger international community.

About the Author(s)

Josh Phillips is an undergraduate sophomore pursuing a double major in Political Science and Economics at Mississippi State University. His academic interests include international development, foreign markets, and the comparative nature of differing governmental institutions. He has previously assisted DoD and National Defense University faculty with research regarding various subjects while interning at the Near East South Asia Regional Centre of the Department of Defense, and is heavily involved with MSU's Political Science and Public Administration Office in conducting research as well. Josh hopes to pursue a career in foreign aid and diplomacy in the public sector, and looks forward to future academic enrichment opportunities to take part in.