Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who've been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you'd think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren't focused on the United States and don't have the capability to do much damage to us.
I raise this question because our leaders don't seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won -- in the sense that we've defanged the most dangerous anti-American types -- and that what's left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don't matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero -- indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future - it is just to say that it's more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.
But now we're being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.
I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn't that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.
Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn't Boston's defiant and resolute reaction to the city's marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn't nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don't go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.
It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?
My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan's frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.
But like I said at the start, mostly I'm frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
Sometimes you read a news story that brilliantly illuminates just what is wrong with the basic U.S. approach to national security these days. Case in point: today's New York Times story headlined "U.S. Sees Direct Threat in Attack at Kenya Mall." Of course we do. When was the last time something bad happened somewhere and the U.S. government didn't see it as a threat?
The article goes on to describe how the FBI has already sent more than 20 agents to investigate the bombing, and it quotes various government officials and think-tank pundits about the need to respond lest al-Shabab (the Somali extremist group that conducted the attacks) turn its attention to America.
For instance, here's former counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin: "You never know when a terrorist attack in a faraway place could be a harbinger of something that could strike at the United States." Of course, we also never know when such an attack is a harbinger of nothing at all. The article also quotes Katherine Zimmerman of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute: "One of the misconceptions is that we can let al Qaeda or other terrorist groups stay abroad and not fight them there, and that we would be safe at home." The Times' reporters adopt this same line themselves, writing that "the American government has learned the hard way what happens if it does not contain groups responsible for faraway attacks," a point they illustrate by referring to al Qaeda's attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the 1990s.
Got it? For Americans to be 100 percent safe on American soil, the U.S. government has to get more deeply involved in the local politics and national security problems of this troubled East African region -- using the FBI, CIA, special operations forces, drones, whatever -- in order to root out bad guys wherever they might be.
There are two obvious problems with this line of reasoning. First, it fails to ask whether America's repeated interference in this and other parts of the world is one of the reasons groups like al Qaeda and al-Shabab sometimes decide to come after us. Indeed, to the extent that the United States might face a threat from al-Shabab, it might be because Washington has been blundering around in Somali politics since the early 1990s and usually making things worse. The same goes for Kenya too. Al-Shabab attacked the mall because Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 and their intervention had undermined al-Shabab's position in that troubled country. Kenya may have had its own good reasons for intervening; my point is simply that the tragic attack it suffered wasn't a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya's own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack -- it merely identifies cause and effect.
Ditto al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden didn't get up one day and decide he wanted to launch a few terrorist attacks, pull out his atlas, and pick the United States at random. His decision to attack U.S. military forces and government installations, and then to attack the United States directly, was reprehensible and an obvious threat, but it didn't come out of nowhere. On the contrary, the emergence of al Qaeda was a direct response to various aspects of America's Middle East policy (e.g., blanket support for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf through the 1990s). As I've noted before, the United States has devoted most of its energy and effort since then to chasing down bad guys and killing them, but hardly any time trying to act in ways that would make the terrorists' message less appealing to potential recruits.
So before we declare the Kenyan bombing a direct threat to the United States and get more directly involved in a set of regional dynamics that we don't understand very well, we ought to ask ourselves if this will make the terrorism danger that we face worse or better.
Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."
Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).
The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries. But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.
HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
Like probably everyone in America, I'm delighted that Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, has been rescued from his pirate captors, and I'm impressed by the tactical skill shown by the U.S. Navy. But I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this one -- although it was a dramatic confrontation with a happy ending, it's ultimately a minor matter. If the Somali pirates were a serious threat to our economy, to world trade, or to anybody's national security, we wouldn't have been buying them off for the past year and we would be taking much more serious action against them. And before we share too many high-fives around the coffee machine this morning, remember that this may just be the first round:
In Somalia itself, other pirates reacted angrily to the news that Captain Phillips had been rescued, and some said they would avenge the deaths of their colleagues by killing Americans in sea hijackings to come.
'Every country will be treated the way it treats us,' Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the pirate den of Gaan, a central Somali town, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying in a telephone interview. 'In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying.'"
Even so, in the larger scheme of things, fixing the economy, getting out of Iraq, not getting bogged down in Central Asia, helping Mexico win its war against drug lords, rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure, getting weapons-grade nuclear material under reliable custody, and trying to work out a modus vivendi with Iran are far more important.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.