Viewing the world from al-Qaeda’s perspective...reveals the underappreciated advantage on America’s side. The struggle does remain asymmetric, but it may have evolved in a way that gives target countries, especially the United States, more leverage and control than we have assumed. Yes, there could be another attack tomorrow, and most authorities assume that some attempts to blow up trains, bridges, buildings, or airplanes in America will eventually succeed. No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.
But the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.
“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents...“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me...“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”
Kilcullen's point, and the larger point of Fallow's essay, is incredibly and amazingly obvious, and it's always been obvious, even in the days following 9/11. And yet we've spent five years learning that in many respects we've done exactly what Bin Laden and his gang hoped we would do, and we are only now beginning to think about how our own actions have helped to perpetuate the global "war on terror". I know it's somewhat ironic to write on this topic after blogging earlier this morning about a plot to blow up planes over the Atlantic, but the revealing of that plot doesn't defeat the argument. After all, the plot was defused before it could be carried out, and any reaction of ours will be as a result of our fear of what could have happened, or what could happen in the future if we are not prepared. And fear has been the primary motivation behind our foreign policy since 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq:
“You only have to look at the Iraq War to see how much damage you can do to yourself by your response,” Kilcullen told me. He is another of those who supported the war and consider it important to fight toward some kind of victory, but who recognize the ways in which this conflict has helped al-Qaeda. So far the war in Iraq has advanced the jihadist cause because it generates a steady supply of Islamic victims, or martyrs; because it seems to prove Osama bin Laden’s contention that America lusts to occupy Islam’s sacred sites, abuse Muslim people, and steal Muslim resources; and because it raises the tantalizing possibility that humble Muslim insurgents, with cheap, primitive weapons, can once more hobble and ultimately destroy a superpower, as they believe they did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan twenty years ago. The United States also played a large role in thwarting the Soviets, but that doesn’t matter. For mythic purposes, mujahideen brought down one anti-Islamic army and can bring down another.
The war hasn't been our only mis-step:
...most people I spoke with said that three kinds of American reaction—the war in Iraq, the economic consequences of willy-nilly spending on security, and the erosion of America’s moral authority—were responsible for such strength as al-Qaeda now maintained.
The effect is most obvious on the public level. “The economy as a whole took six months or so to recover from the effects of 9/11,” Richard Clarke told me. “The federal budget never recovered. The federal budget is in a permanent mess, to a large degree because of 9/11.” At the start of 2001, the federal budget was $125 billion in surplus. Now it is $300 billion in deficit.
If bin Laden hadn’t fully anticipated this effect, he certainly recognized it after it occurred. In his statement just before the 2004 election, he quoted the finding of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (!) to the effect that the total cost, direct and indirect, to America of the 9/11 attacks was at least $500 billion. Bin Laden gleefully pointed out that the attacks had cost al-Qaeda about $500,000, for a million-to-one payoff ratio. America’s deficit spending for Iraq and homeland security was, he said, “evidence of the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan, with Allah’s permission.”
On our moral authority:
A senior army officer from [Britain] similarly told me that America “simply has to recapture its moral authority.” His reasoning:The United States is so powerful militarily that by its very nature it represents a threat to every other nation on earth. The only country that could theoretically destroy every single other country is the United States. The only way we can say that the U.S. is not a threat is by looking at intent, and that depends on moral authority. If you’re not sure the United States is going to do the right thing, you can’t trust it with that power, so you begin thinking, How can I balance it off and find other alliances to protect myself?
America’s glory has been its openness and idealism, internally and externally. Each has been constrained from time to time, but not for as long or in as open-ended a way as now. “We are slowly changing their way of life,” Michael Scheuer’s fictional adviser to bin Laden says in his briefing. The Americans’ capital city is more bunkerlike than it was during World War II, he comments; the people live as if terrified, and watch passively as elementary-school children go through metal detectors before entering museums.
“There is one thing above all that bin Laden can feel relieved about,” Caleb Carr told me. “It’s that we have never stopped to reassess our situation. We have been so busy reacting that we have not yet said, ‘We’ve made some mistakes, we’ve done serious damage to ourselves, so let’s think about our position and strategies.'”
In fact, Al Qaeda is counting on us to react without thinking:
So far, the United States has been as predictable in its responses as al-Qaeda could have dreamed. Early in 2004, a Saudi exile named Saad al-Faqih was interviewed by the online publication Terrorism Monitor. Al-Faqih, who leads an opposition group seeking political reform in Saudi Arabia, is a longtime observer of his fellow Saudi Osama bin Laden and of the evolution of bin Laden’s doctrine for al-Qaeda.
In the interview, al-Faqih said that for nearly a decade, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri had followed a powerful grand strategy for confronting the United States. Their approach boiled down to “superpower baiting” (as John Robb, of the Global Guerrillas blog, put it in an article about the interview). The most predictable thing about Americans, in this view, was that they would rise to the bait of a challenge or provocation. “Zawahiri impressed upon bin Laden the importance of understanding the American mentality,” al-Faqih said. He said he believed that al-Zawahiri had at some point told bin Laden something like this:The American mentality is a cowboy mentality—if you confront them … they will react in an extreme manner. In other words, America with all its resources and establishments will shrink into a cowboy when irritated successfully. They will then elevate you, and this will satisfy the Muslim longing for a leader who can successfully challenge the West.
We continue to react without thinking, including our nearly automatic response to side completely with the Israelis, even though their air campaign has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians. The response has been predictable; the Arab world is given another lesson in how they can't take us at our word about our willingness to support democracy and freedom. Instead our desire to protect ourselves from even the remotest threats of terror, comes above all else. They see this, and know not to trust us.
Fallows is not arguing that we should not be worried about terrorism. Instead, he's arguing that the war-time mentality that has been the hallmark of our approach on terrorism is outdated and counter-productive, and needs to be put aside:
As a general principle, a standing state of war can be justified for several reasons. It might be the only way to concentrate the nation’s resources where they are needed. It might explain why people are being inconvenienced or asked to sacrifice. It might symbolize that the entire nation’s effort is directed toward one goal.
But none of those applies to modern America in its effort to defend itself against terrorist attack. The federal budget reveals no discipline at all about resources: the spending for antiterrorism activities has gone up, but so has the spending for nearly everything else. There is no expectation that Americans in general will share the inconveniences and sacrifice of the 1 percent of the population in uniform (going through airport screening lines does not count). Occasional speeches about the transcendent importance of the “long war” can’t conceal the many other goals that day by day take political precedence.
And while a standing state of war no longer offers any advantages for the United States, it creates several problems. It cheapens the concept of war, making the word a synonym for effort or goal. It predisposes us toward overreactions, of the kind that have already proved so harmful. The detentions at Guantánamo Bay were justified as a wartime emergency. But unlike Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, they have no natural end point.
A state of war encourages a state of fear...A state of war also predisposes the United States to think about using its assets in a strictly warlike way—and to give short shrift to the vast range of their other possibilities.
The vast majority of us live in fear of terror, and yet suffer no appreciable threat of terror or make any sacrifices in the "war on terror." Our spending is out of control, thanks in no small part to our overbroad approach to security and to the political environment that has been perpetuated by the specter of 9/11 in political debate. We react hastily and without thought to provocation, and our leaders have not hesitated to use the fear of terror to justify not only our war in Iraq, but in telling voters how to cast their vote at home.
Americans still face dangers, as they always have. They have recently lacked leaders to help keep the dangers in perspective. Shaping public awareness—what we mean by “leading"—is what we most remember in our strong presidents: Lincoln’s tone as the Civil War came on and as it neared its end; Theodore Roosevelt taking the first real steps toward environmental conservation and coming to terms with new industrial organizations; Franklin Roosevelt in the Depression and the Second World War; Eisenhower managing the showdown with the Soviet Union, but also overseeing the steady expansion of America’s transportation, scientific, and educational systems; Kennedy with the race to the moon; and on up to George W. Bush, with his calm focus in the months immediately after 9/11. One of the signals Bush sent in those first days may have had the greatest strategic importance in the long run. That was his immediate insistence that America’s Muslims were not the enemy, that they should not be singled out, that they should be seen as part of the nation’s solution rather than part of its problem. It is easy to imagine that a different tone would have had damaging repercussions.
And that's very nearly the last thing Bush did right when it comes to the threat of terrorism. The rest has been a mangled and incoherant foreign policy, and the cynical use of the fear of terror in political campaign ads.
I don't agree with Fallows because his approach suits my ideology. I agree with him because he's right; what we've done since 9/11 has on balance hurt our country more than it's helped. It was right to destroy the Taliban, it's been right to work with other country's security services and militaries to chase down terrorists and break up their plots, and it's been right to spend our money on our most glaring weaknesses. But it was wrong to let our leaders play on our fears about unsubstantiated WMDs to carry out their plans to reshape the Middle East by invading Iraq, it was wrong to draw down our commitment Afghanistan to do so, it's been wrong to spend money left and right on things that don't make us more secure (like a ridiculous anti-ballistic missile system that doesn't work), it's been wrong to house innocent men alongside terrorists in a camp in Cuba or in detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, it's been wrong to think we could fight terrorism without tax increases or more public or military service, it's been wrong to put our fear of terrorism above a serious (real) commitment to democracy, it's been wrong to act as if we only need the help of other nations on our terms and our terms alone, and it's been most wrong for politicians (by which I mean Republicans) to use the fear of terrorism to justify tax cuts and get re-elected. We've acted like a bear that was stung by a bee, knocking down trees and frightening our neighbors in the process without killing actually the bee. It's time to put the "cowboy mentality" aside, and to begin acting like the people of the greatest and freest nation on Earth, committed to our own safety yes, but committed to being an example to others of what they should strive to be. We've acted beneath ourselves, and quite frankly, it's time to grow up.