Commentary: Restoring our safety

At the end of 2015, according to a Gallup poll, Americans named terrorism the No. 1 problem facing the United States, and confidence in the government to protect us dropped to an all-time low.

Children born on Sept. 11, 2001, will turn 15 tomorrow. They will not have known the world before three hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing 3,000, and before brave passengers brought a fourth airliner down in a Pennsylvania field rather than let it crash into the Capitol or White House.

They and their younger brothers and sisters will not have known the long peace that existed since 1945, when a Cold War and nuclear weapons deterred the outbreak of another great power conflict, nor even the quieter decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the United States and its allies sought to create a liberal world order built on free trade and democracy.

Instead, they have only known a decade and a half of war. Despite 15 years of fighting in the Middle East, increased electronic surveillance and law enforcement, and greater spending on defense, terrorist attacks have surged this year. Islamic State-linked terrorists killed more than a dozen people in San Bernardino, Calif., last December, and almost 50 in Orlando, Fla., in June. Those attacks on our homeland came in the midst of the killing of 130 in Paris in November and more than 30 in the Brussels airport in March. At the end of 2015, according to a Gallup poll, Americans named terrorism the No. 1 problem facing the United States, and confidence in the government to protect us dropped to an all-time low. During the summer, according to the Pew Research Center, terrorism remained one of the top two issues for voters, after only the economy.

And it is a war that has come full circle. It began with the administration of President George W. Bush invading Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaida terrorist network and the Taliban regime that harbored it. While the United States installed a democratic government in Kabul, the Taliban fled to safety in Pakistan, bided their time and are now returning as the Obama administration draws down U.S. forces.

War in Iraq followed. Bush overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime and installed a democratically elected government, at the cost of a long fight against a determined insurgency. But Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces allowed the region’s centrifugal forces to pull the country apart. His refusal to intervene in the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 200,000 and driven millions more from their homes, amplified the power vacuum in the heart of the Middle East. Al-Qaeda in Iraq — now transformed into the Islamic State — took advantage to seize a large swath of territory, population and resources in Iraq and Syria. It has used that safe haven to train legions of fighters in terrorist tactics, and to inspire Muslim radicals to launch attacks against their adoptive Western homelands.

Rather than ground troops, Obama turned to drones and commando raids to kill terrorists, from Osama bin Laden down. Removing al-Qaida leaders may emotionally satisfy, and it sows confusion in enemy ranks, but drones alone cannot stop terrorists from holding territory and expanding their networks. Obama’s kill-first policy, along with his desire to close Guantanamo Bay and reluctance to capture or interrogate terrorist leaders, has dried up the sources of human intelligence to help predict and prevent coming attacks. This no-footprint strategy has given our terrorist enemies time to recover from the U.S. surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, create the first viable terrorist state in portions of Syria and Iraq, and equip recruits to attack the West.

Perhaps the overstretch of the Iraq war inevitably provoked Obama’s strategy of withdrawal. Perhaps Bush overreacted to the 9/11 attacks with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the detention and interrogation of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay (decisions in which I participated as a Justice Department lawyer). But at least that zealousness deprived terrorists of secure bases from which to launch future attacks and forced them to worry about their own survival, rather than on reaching the U.S. homeland.

As Obama’s term in office comes to a close, we can now see the wages of American passivity. The Islamic State has achieved what we should fear the most — control over territory, population and resources — and the renewed ability to attack relatively undefended Western cities. While the Islamic State may never repeat the horror of 9/11, it can match it with many more San Bernardinos, Orlandos and Parises.

Our national security demands that the United States return to an aggressive policy that takes the fight to the terrorists, rather than hoping — as Obama does — that a civil war among Middle East Muslims leaves us innocent bystanders alone. Destroying terrorist safe havens and pursuing the Islamic State and al-Qaida with the full spectrum of the American military disrupted their ability to carry out attacks here in the United States. American soldiers gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, for gains all too easily given up these last seven years, but their sacrifice prevented tens of thousands of terrorists from reaching our lightly defended shores. The next president will also have to confront Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East and the close ally of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and dispel the dangerous illusion that Tehran’s mullahs want a stable peace in the region.

As we mark 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, Americans confront another time of choosing. They must ask this November which candidates will likely continue the Obama strategy of withdrawal — reducing American casualties in battle but accepting them at home. They must ask which candidate may restore elements of the Bush strategy of offense — sacrificing more soldiers’ lives abroad to reduce the risks of attacks here.

With Hillary Clinton, voters will get a more activist internationalism that would have intervened in Syria and remained in Iraq, but at the price of her corruption and mendacity. With Donald Trump, voters will receive a mercurial unpredictability, combined with an instinct for pulling back to our shores, discarding our alliances and leaving the Middle East to its furies.

In a season where the two political parties have reversed their positions on major issues, it is more than just ironic that the Democratic candidate has the better strategy for protecting our national security.

John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a former Justice Department official and a co-editor of “Liberty’s Nemesis: The Unchecked Expansion of the State.” Readers may send him email at He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.