Book Reviews

"Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda," by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

By Book Review Editor
Tuesday, January 31, 2012, 3:07 PM

Published by Henry Holt/Times Books (2011)

Reviewed by Samuel Rascoff

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda explores the emergence of new strategic thinking in American counter-terrorism. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker are two consummate national security reporters at the New York Times and their approach to this daunting subject is refreshing and important. Too frequently, discussions surrounding counter-terrorism policy (and law) emphasize tactics, such as drone strikes, at the expense of understanding counter-terrorism as strategy.

Partly this is due to the nature of counter-terrorism, where, as the authors are well aware, tactics can take on strategic import. But the myopia is largely because excavating the strategic foundations of counter-terrorism is painstaking work and because telling a compelling story about backroom deliberations within large bureaucracies is vastly harder to pull off than reporting on this or that special operations raid. In Counterstrike, Schmitt and Shanker have succeeded at just that, producing an illuminating book about strategic decision-making within the American national security apparatus.

Schmitt and Shanker begin by noting that the Cold War was defined by strategic thinking. Other than in specific (and often bloody) hotspots around the globe, the Cold War was waged by bureaucrats and their academic adjuncts, armed with formal models and the new science of deterrence. This is an intellectually compelling framing. Counterstrike is thus about the search for contemporary analogues to the Cold War strategic paradigm. And while a decade of counter-terrorism may not yet have yielded a Schelling or a Kennan, the tale that Schmitt and Shanker tell is an encouraging one. Over time, the national security bureaucracy has matured and deepened in its ability not just to carry out “kill-or-capture” missions, but to understand how those operations contribute to the larger objective of deterring Al Qaeda.

The precise contours of the “new deterrence,” as the authors call it, have yet to be worked out. But Counterstrike supplies highly readable, personality-driven accounts of how officials from the intelligence, military and policy communities have proved wrong the naïve assumption that suicide terrorists are impervious to deterrence. Whether by openly declaring that state sponsors and financial backers of terror will be held accountable for the violent acts they underwrite, by becoming more savvy about undercutting Al Qaeda’s “message” within Muslim communities, or by depriving terrorists of strategic victories by cultivating a more resilient American public, these officials have brought traditional deterrence concepts to bear on contemporary national security dilemmas.

The book has its limitations. For one, the authors sometimes lose their way in negotiating the competing demands of writing a sober book and producing a non-fiction thriller. In everything from the choice of title and subtitle to the occasionally breathless quality of their writing, it is as though Schmitt and Shanker can’t quite accept that the heroes of their story are more likely to wear horn-rimmed glasses than night-vision goggles. Another is that the account the authors provide can feel a little too good to be true. Yes, there are highly motivated, creative officials who have enriched our understanding of the threat and the ways in which time-honored approaches can be employed to help manage it. But for all that progress has been made, surely these strategies have their shortcomings. Counterstrike left this reader looking for more discussion of the challenges that remain.

But these are quibbles. Schmitt and Shanker have written an important book, well-reported and researched, that has enriched our understanding of what counter-terrorism is ultimately all about. Unlike the Cold War, an agreed-upon strategic frame for understanding the threat of terrorism remains elusive. But Counterstrike reveals how, thanks to the efforts of mostly unsung government insiders in the intelligence, military, and law enforcement bureaucracies, American counter-terrorism is increasingly on solid strategic footing.

(Sam Rascoff is Associate Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law.)