Doom and Gloom

Interpreting the American public mood on the 9/11 decade.

War and fear of terrorism has weighed heavily on the American public mood in the decade since 9/11, with a majority of Americans expressing the view that the country's influence around the world has declined and that the United States has overinvested in its reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11. According to a poll I co-directed with Steven Kull, the public wants to see full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (even if the Iraqi government asks for American troops to stay) and it wants a reduction in the presence in Afghanistan.

In some ways, this is a stunning shift. The 1990s saw unprecedented American power and influence, a period when the United States basked in the glow of having won the Cold War and successfully confronted the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by building an extraordinary and unprecedented international coalition. Add economic expansion and prosperity, and it is hard to find a decade when America reigned more supreme.

But 9/11, as we all recall, put paid to that: shattering a sense of confidence and imbuing the public with an instant sense vulnerability and helplessness. Within days of that day, I was summoned for consultation with a congressional leader in his office to hear him declare what many had feared: "this can defeat us."

Then came the invasion of Afghanistan. The triumphalism over the relatively quick collapse of the Taliban regime in Kabul was seen by some as arrogance -- but it was largely about rejuvenating public confidence and re-asserting American power. While Americans continued to feel vulnerable to terrorism, that initial sense of helplessness and yes, weakness, lasted but a few weeks. It was replaced by B-52s bombers over Tora Bora, which appeared to accomplish in mere days what the Soviet Union failed to in years. And that mood continued through the "shock and awe" bombings of Baghdad, climaxing in George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" speech.

What followed in Iraq -- the anarchy, the mounting U.S. casualties, the bloody internecine terrorism, the extraordinary sectarian violence -- quickly revealed not only that the mission was far from accomplished but also the limits of military power. Meanwhile, the persistence of the Taliban in Afghanistan only added to this sense of limits. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden was a double-edged sword: While the operation was cause for celebration, it was also a reminder that it took the world's only superpower 10 years to find the most wanted terrorist -- despite unprecedented efforts and expenditures (only to find that he was hiding under the noses of its presumptive ally, the Pakistani Army). Thus, in our poll, we find that while most Americans feel that the killing of bin Laden has weakened al Qaeda somewhat, most don't believe the organization is significantly weaker. And a majority of Americans feel not only that United States has overinvested in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also that it has overinvested in building alliances in the war on terrorism.

There was an additional irony in the killing of bin Laden and the legacy he left behind. On the one hand, he lived long enough to watch his nightmare come true, especially in the Arab world, where largely peaceful demonstrations seeking dignity, freedom, and democracy succeeded in doing what he and many of his allies failed to do for years. On the other hand, bin Laden said all along that his strategy was to draw the United States into overextending itself, into revealing its vulnerability, to make it feel the pain. Ten years on, the public mood in the United States reflects the sense that he may have partly succeeded.

Among the tolls of the past decade is a fractured U.S. public. If 9/11 brought Americans together in the early weeks and months following the tragedy, one of the casualties has been national unity. On almost all issues, there are significant differences in the attitudes of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, on both issues of opinion and fact. A plurality of Republicans (43 percent) remain convinced that Saddam Hussein provided substantial support to al Qaeda, and 41 percent (compared with 15 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of independents) believe that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. A majority of Republicans continue to feel that the Iraq war was justified, while Democrats and Independents take the opposite position. These attitudes are also reflected on a host of other issues, including attitudes toward terrorism, Islam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Overall, the American public mood adds up to an increasing isolationism -- a reluctance to intervene internationally or even, in some cases, take sides in foreign conflicts. This is reflected in attitudes toward the Arab uprisings. In a previous poll conducted this April, the American public had a somewhat positive view of the Arab uprisings. A plurality in our newest poll believes that these uprisings are both about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy and Islamist groups seeking power.

That's not to say that Americans don't have a favorable view of the "Arab people". Of those who want the United States to express its position in the conflicts between the Arab demonstrators and their governments, a strong majority wants the U.S. to support the demonstrators in every country we asked about, including Saudi Arabia. And yet, the overwhelming majority of the whole group of Americans polled does not want the United States to take sides at all, perhaps reflecting fear of a slippery slope leading to military intervention, or at least to more over-investment, particularly at a time of economic crisis.

Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims have also changed significantly over the past decade. Strikingly, right after 9/11, more Americans had a positive view of the Islamic religion than a negative view. Over the decade, this sentiment has turned sour, with our latest poll recording a majority of Americans holding a negative view of Islam, including many of those who didn't have an opinion in the past who now have negative views.

This is despite the fact that a stable majority continues to think that the 9/11 attacks did not represent the intentions of mainstream Islam; that most Americans view the conflict between Islam and the West as driven more by political than cultural factors; and that most express confidence that it is possible to find common ground between Islam and the West (though this is down somewhat from late 2001). And the American public's attitudes toward the Muslim people are relatively warm, with a plurality (nearly half) expressing positive views of Muslims.

Whether or not the Arab uprisings this year will continue to project ordinary Arabs and Muslims seeking what ordinary Americans themselves hold dear -- freedom and democracy -- and continue to have a positive impact on American public attitudes remains to be seen. Whether or not the 9/11 paradigm that still holds fast regarding Arab and Muslims will be replaced by an Arab Spring paradigm will depend much on how events unfold in the streets and capitals of the Middle East in the weeks and months ahead. But what seems to be clear is that it's less 9/11 itself than the long, bloody, and complicated response to it over the past decade that has taken its toll on the American mood.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Unilaterally Assured Destruction

If it's possible to deter terrorist attacks, why hasn't the United States adopted this strategy as a core principle of the war on terror?

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker's new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda, credits our role in developing the first U.S. government-wide strategy for deterring terrorist networks. They write that we "crafted a briefing to make the case that a combination of efforts -- economic, diplomatic, military, political, and psychological ... could in fact establish a new strategy and create a new and effective posture of deterrence against terrorist groups."

While we are flattered by the book's portrayal of our work, it risks overstating our influence. The deterrence approach that we advocated remains a poorly understood and underutilized element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. It holds, however, great potential for helping to thwart future al Qaeda attacks.

Deterrence is preventing an adversary from taking a threatening action by convincing the adversary that the costs of the action would outweigh any possible benefits. During the Cold War, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy. The threat of massive nuclear retaliation deterred the Soviet Union from directly attacking U.S. interests and helped maintain a tense yet stable peace for nearly half a century.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many senior U.S. government officials and national security experts argued that terrorists were undeterrable. After all, how do you deter people who are irrational or willing to give their life for a cause? How do you retaliate against a terrorist enemy who might be dead, unlocatable, or hiding in a country with which the United States is not at war? Due to these and other complications, early U.S. government counterterrorism efforts focused on capturing and killing terrorists, eschewing deterrence as a viable tool.

As we demonstrated in our classified strategy, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld presented to President George W. Bush in August 2005, however, deterrence is a critical element of an effective counterterrorism approach. While it might be difficult to deter people willing to die for a cause, many of the most important members of a terrorist network are not suicide bombers. State sponsors, financiers, logisticians, radical clerics, and even some leaders highly value their lives and material possessions; they can, therefore, be deterred by simple threats of imprisonment or death.

For example, following the July 2005 London subway bombings, Britain announced a new law banning the "glorification of terrorism." Rather than face prosecution at the hands of British authorities, radical clerics who had helped incite violence left Britain for other countries or renounced previous incendiary sermons and spoke out against terrorism. Theological justification is a driving force of radical Islamic terrorism; deterring radical clerics and other members of a terrorist network from fulfilling their role as terrorist enablers can be equally, if not more, important than deterring the attacks themselves.

The United States can encourage the adoption of such successful deterrence measures by other countries. U.S. policymakers should do more to work with friends and allies to put laws on the books (where they do not already exist) to punish terrorist activity, develop capabilities and partnerships to increase the probability that those participating in terrorism are identified, and work to make sure that terrorists -- whether operating on the battlefields of Afghanistan or the streets of London -- receive appropriate punishment. Sometimes, this could mean a prison sentence; in other instances, a Predator drone strike.

In addition to threatening retaliation, the United States can deter terrorism by threatening terrorists with failure. Deterrence-by-denial is the idea that one can deter an adversary from taking a threatening action by convincing the adversary that the action is unlikely to succeed or result in substantial benefits. During the Cold War, missile defenses were thought to enhance deterrence by convincing the Soviet Union that if the United States could shoot its nuclear warheads out of the sky, there was little to be gained from launching a nuclear attack.

Although terrorists may appear irrational to some, they value tactical success. Any terrorist, even a suicide bomber, will be reluctant to jeopardize resources, reputation, or martyrdom on a failed attack. By strengthening defenses and randomizing security measures, Washington can increase the perceived probability in a terrorist's mind that an attack will fail, thereby convincing him or her that it would be better not to even try.

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was merely spinning when he said that failed attacks are actually successful because they force the counterterrorist to adopt costly preventive measures. Al Qaeda's leadership knows that nothing is more devastating for recruitment, fundraising, and a terrorist organization's morale than a public failure.

For example, in late 2003 an al Qaeda affiliate planned to attack a U.S. military base in Turkey. The United States, however, improved its defenses at the site during the planning stages, and the terrorists called off the attack rather than risk failure.

Some may argue that this is merely an example of good defense. But force protection and homeland security should be designed with deterrence, not just defense, in mind. After all, the point of effective homeland security should not be to physically stop terrorist attacks day after day, but to convince terrorists not to attempt attacks in the first place. Of course, the United States will not be able to deter every attack. Deterrence against terrorism can only be partial. But perfect should not be the enemy of the good; deterring some attacks contributes to U.S. national security objectives.

At its heart, deterrence is about psychology. What matters is not how good U.S. defenses really are, but how good terrorists think they are. By publicizing failed attacks and by broadcasting the effectiveness of U.S. homeland security measures, the United States can develop a reputation as a hard target and convince terrorists to focus their attention elsewhere.

Finally, the United States can threaten failure at the strategic level. Terrorist organizations think that by killing civilians they can sow panic in a society and put pressure on governments to concede to their political demands. By systematically identifying and denying terrorists' strategic goals, the United States can break the link between successful terrorist attacks and terrorists' political objectives, thereby discouraging terrorism in the long run.  

If the United States can demonstrate that American society can bounce back quickly from a terrorist attack, it could help convince terrorists that their efforts to frighten the public are likely to fail. It is in this spirit that Israel works to quickly reopen bombed cafes in the wake of terrorist attacks. This is also the logic that is motivating Barack Obama's administration to emphasize the "resilience" of American society in its public messaging surrounding the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

But in addition to talking about resilience, the United States must do more to insulate the country from the shock of terrorism. For example, the U.S. government can seek to deny publicity to terrorist groups. When cable news stations broadcasted the images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center over and over again in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, they played into al Qaeda's hands by amplifying the terror of the event throughout American society. To avoid repeating this mistake, the United States should follow Israel's lead in developing a private-public partnership in which media outlets agree to limit the amount of coverage devoted to terrorism. These purely voluntary agreements should aim to strike an appropriate balance between the public's right to know and government efforts to combat terrorism.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States must steadfastly refuse to negotiate with terrorists or concede to any of al Qaeda's political demands. If Washington can convince al Qaeda that no amount of terrorism will force the United States out of the Middle East, topple "apostate" regimes, or re-establish a caliphate, al Qaeda's purported justification for terrorism will be undermined.

Individuals drawn to terrorism often have goals that differ from those of their organizations. Many believe that terrorism is a path to glory, honor, and personal martyrdom. By working with mainstream Muslim clerics and employing other measures to point out al Qaeda's embarrassments and sow doubt about whether killing oneself and other innocent civilians is consistent with Muslim theology, the United States can convince would-be terrorists to choose a different career path. The United States has been undertaking some of these efforts, but their effectiveness could be reinforced through a more explicit recognition that countermessaging can alter potential terrorists' subjective cost-benefit calculus. Ideally, Washington should aim to persuade them that terrorism entails high costs and minimal benefits and that, on balance, it doesn't pay.

But unlike during the Cold War, deterrence should not be the central pillar of U.S. national security strategy. The U.S. government still needs to attack and disrupt terrorist networks, defend the homeland, and counter terrorist ideology. But, because states can effectively deter certain types of terrorists from engaging in certain types of terrorist activity, deterrence is an essential part of a comprehensive counterterrorism approach.

While deterrent measures have become more important in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in recent years, much work remains to be done. By ensuring that deterrence precepts are elevated to the forefront of internal government and public debates about counterterrorism strategy, the United States can reduce the likelihood that Americans will ever have to live through another day like Sept. 11, 2001.