Reaction Time

Why terrorism derails every administration.

Controversy still follows the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues during the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The issue dominated U.S. campaign news as candidate Mitt Romney's supporters charged that President Barack Obama's administration was either deliberate or inept in misrepresenting events. The administration was accused of failing to protect the consulate or even go to the aid of its defenders. The response of the White House, State Department, and CIA was halting and defensive. Now the resignation of David Petraeus has prompted conspiratorial thinking in blog commentary.

The Obama campaign certainly did not expect or prepare for a sharp challenge to the president's successful foreign-policy record, especially his counterterrorism credentials. After all, they were burnished by the dramatic elimination of Osama bin Laden and indeed most of al Qaeda's top leadership through calculated drone strikes. If anything, critics thought the president was too aggressive in his use of drones. But it was by no means the first time that a president's plans and reputation for toughness have been derailed by the messy reality of terrorism.

The most memorable point of comparison is, of course, the devastating shock of the 9/11 attacks, which derailed the priorities of George W. Bush's administration and, in the space of a few short hours, thrust terrorism to the top of the national agenda after decades as a second- or even a third-tier threat. (In fact, before 2001, most international relations scholars took the view that terrorism was a minor blip on the grand radar of international power.) But terrorism has been disrupting the plans of presidents for decades, forcing America into a reactive mode that makes it difficult to address the threat strategically.

President Jimmy Carter was completely flummoxed by the November 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the prolonged Iran hostage crisis, during which U.S. diplomats were held captive for 444 days. Carter's international focus was on human rights and peaceful settlement of conflicts, not terrorism. U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to foresee the Iranian revolution and Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini's rise to power, and the Carter administration seemed stunned by the anti-American drift of the regime. Everyone knew that revolutionaries in Latin America and Palestinian resistance organizations targeted diplomats, but it was inconceivable that the leaders of a state would condone and support the takeover of an embassy. Now Carter could focus on little else but the hostages -- he even uncharacteristically resorted to military force to try to free them.

Carter's loss in the 1980 election had more to do with the economy than the hostages, but the crisis and the failed rescue attempt in April 1980 did little for the president's standing as a leader. The lesson was not lost on incoming President Ronald Reagan. During the campaign, Reagan decried the weakness of the administration and promised to stand strong against terrorism. During the single presidential debate he vowed, "There is no room worldwide for terrorism; there will be no negotiation with terrorists of any kind." The Reagan administration put the term "state-sponsored terrorism" into currency, aimed at exposing the evil empire of the Soviet Union. It looked as though the administration had a consistent counterterrorism strategy -- at least rhetorically.

The reality was that once in office, Reagan administration officials soon found themselves negotiating with the same "terrorists" who defied and humiliated Carter. Again, the government found itself reacting to events rather than controlling the agenda.

Intervention in the Lebanese civil war, though ostensibly multinational and directed at restoring the peace after the Israeli invasion, unexpectedly opened the United States to terrorism from Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Attacks in Beirut -- including not one but two bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks, resulting in more than 300 deaths -- led the United States to withdraw its military force in 1984.

At about the same time, the administration embarked on secret maneuvers to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held by shadowy groups in Lebanon. Like Carter, Reagan found it impossible not to respond to the emotional dilemma created by hostage seizures. Then, to get around congressional prohibitions, some officials used the profits thus acquired to support the anti-communist Contras of Nicaragua. In the middle of what turned out to be an embarrassing muddle, the administration retaliated against Libya for its involvement in the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen. The raid could be seen as compensation for having shown "weakness" in negotiating with Iran or as a return to the original strategy of zero tolerance for terrorism. Certainly some administration figures such as Oliver North had been looking for a smoking gun since at least 1984. Any satisfaction felt at having finally returned to principle was short-lived. In 1988, Libya retaliated with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

President Bill Clinton was also forced onto a reactive footing by terrorism. In 1993, the new administration was not in the least eager to take on terrorism as a major issue. The Cold War was over, and the Middle East seemed remade in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The White House rejected what was thought of as the "clash of civilizations" approach favored by Reagan. The president's public speeches downplayed terrorism as but one of a series of modern transnational or "border-crossing" threats, along with drug trafficking, global organized crime, epidemics of disease, and environmental disasters. These were problems of the global commons, not existential threats to U.S. national security. The strategy was to be a modest approach of putting terrorism in perspective, a sort of return to normalcy in foreign policy.

But immediately, in February 1993, the bombing of the World Trade Center opened an era of terrorism that came bewilderingly from all ideological directions -- the early progenitors of the jihadi movement, right-wing Americans, Iraq, Iran, and finally in 1998 al Qaeda fully formed. Although the United States wasn't the target, the use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway by an apocalyptic sect set off alarms about terrorist "weapons of mass destruction," worries that had already been sparked by the reality of Russian "loose nukes." An administration that did not want to make terrorism an issue found it impossible to escape. Clinton used force twice in responding to terrorism, once against Iraq and again in 1998 when the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed. This was far from what the administration intended when it took office. The United States simply could not respond to terrorism in the same way that it responded to crises caused by drugs, crime, disease, and natural disasters.

Why does terrorism have this disruptive effect? Is it the nature of terrorism itself to frighten, shock, and outrage its audiences, or is it the politicization of the issue in American domestic politics, or is it a combination of the two? In general, terrorism is not as deadly as many other life-threatening phenomena, so it is not a question of magnitude of physical harm but of emotional effects on audiences. It is hard to develop and even harder to maintain a consistent, logical counterterrorism policy, one that is not just a sequence of ad hoc responses to discrete events. Presidents who did not want to exaggerate or perhaps even recognize the threat of terrorism wound up having to confront the issue, and presidents who placed terrorism high on the agenda still struggled to maintain control of policy. A challenge for the next four years will be to find a reasonable long-term strategy to deal with terrorism, a threat that has not disappeared despite over a decade of military responses.

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You Can't Go Home Again

Soldiers aren’t the only veterans of war.

Not quite a decade ago, I met a nurse named Shirley Mangompia, a woman who was both dispensing assistance and in need of it. She was standing amid a group of tired adults and ragged children on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, in a town called Munai, which was not her home. Although she seemed determined to keep a smile on her face, there was no hiding the misery around her. Like as many as 400,000 people from the surrounding area, she had fled her home when fighting flared anew between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist rebel movement that had been battling for an independent homeland on Mindanao for years. Like the sick children she was tending to, Mangompia was a resident of a sprawling, squalid displacement camp -- and not for the first time.

Munai was cradled by green hills through which dirt paths ran to the various barangays, or small communities. Traffic was flowing only one way on these paths, though, away from the latest round of conflict. And amid the cramped conditions, under the flimsy tents and tarps where people were living, children struggled with lingering coughs, runny noses, skin and stomach problems, and worse.

Most of their parents had been in exactly the same situation when they themselves were children. People "get used to it," Mangompia said, describing relocating as if it were something of a rite of passage. Mangompia herself had been 8 years old the first time she'd been displaced by fighting, and she'd been displaced again a few years before I met her (when she was, I'd guess, around 30). The drawn-out, dirty war in Mindanao had killed more than 100,000 people and had crippled efforts to develop the most impoverished part of the Philippines. It had also created a huge movable bloc of people who were forced repeatedly to pick up and move, calibrating on each occasion how much time they had to gather what they could carry against how much time they needed to outrun the guns and bombs.

With the benefit (or perhaps the burden) of experience, Mangompia now had a much better understanding of what was at stake, what could be lost. As her own parents had worried mightily for her safety when she was young, she said, she now feared for her own children, in addition to the other children who were all around her, the ones she was determined to assist in the best way she knew how.

I thought about both Mindanao and Shirley Mangompia again recently after I read that the Philippine government and the rebels had signed a peace accord that could, possibly, bring some resolution to this deadly and prolonged standoff.


In the United States, the word "veterans" generally brings to mind men and women (though mostly men) who were deployed in combat to Iraq and Afghanistan, or, further back, to Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. But restricting the word to people who fought -- who picked up a gun, donned a uniform, and willingly put themselves in harm's way in the name of one campaign or another -- ignores an enormous, and enormously important, population of veterans of another kind. These are people like Shirley Mangompia and hundreds of thousands of others in Mindanao, who know as much as, if not more, about war as many soldiers who've taken part in combat.

These other veterans are civilians, and they include far greater numbers of women and children than the militaries of the world. They were never trained to wage war, but war is and has been waged around them. War is not something they do; war is something that happens to them, something that decides when and where they go and how much control they have over the integrity of their homes, their families, their bodies, or their minds. Survival skills -- when to flee, when to hunker down, what to take, what to leave behind -- were passed down to these veterans from their elders, or self-taught, through experience and instinct. Although they never know what might burst through the door or the roof in a given moment, they do know that the end can come with no warning.

Like many who have endured long periods of conflict -- be they in Kashmir, say, or South Sudan, or Chechnya, or eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Israel or Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan -- Mindanaoans like Shirley Mangompia lived through circumstances that are now imprinted on them.

Over time, this has affected their behavior, their landscape, their sense of what opportunities, if any, exist beyond what happened or what is happening in the streets or hills around them. Throughout much of central Mindanao, war shaped a generation that knew no other way of being, people for whom calm (to say nothing of peace) was an occasional interlude between periods of terror.

Days after talking to Mangompia, I was in Pikit, a town in neighboring North Cotabato province. There I met another woman, Sinding Lumayong, who was standing near a fetid, cavernous warehouse in which dozens of families were huddled, hers included, and in front of which one young man stumbled around in a daze, having just been told that his baby had died. "I can't remember how many times we've evacuated," Lumayong said. In her telling, war had become something they anticipated, something they planned for. Evacuating was as much part of their routine as was living at home. People planted crops knowing they might have to flee, again, and sneak back, across front lines and checkpoints, to reach their fields when the harvest arrived.


In America, after a decade of wars, there is, at long last, a real conversation happening about helping soldiers, Marines, airmen, and seamen who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (or, in many cases, both), who fought in conflicts with no front lines and who had to learn to adapt to weaponry they'd never seen and an enemy who blended easily into the population at large. This conversation isn't as prominent or urgent as it should be, but it stems from a broader, if not new, recognition of what war does to people, how it can impact the mind, body, and soul long after the last shot is fired. It comes from recognizing the difficulty of transitioning from a war zone into one's home and community without time and space to quiet the hyperalert, battle-ready mind that helps a person survive in theater. It also comes from a more utilitarian understanding that the military and the country must take care of their fighting men and women if they want to have an army that can fight in the future.

People like Shirley Mangompia, however, are not yet part of this conversation. They've lived with war for long periods of time, but you don't hear much about what needs to be done to get them off a war footing. A growing number of NGOs run mental-health programs, and there's been a great deal of talk about "hearts and minds" campaigns, but I've seen few instances where the non-fighting veterans of war were factored sufficiently into policy and planning before, during, and after wars. Iraq and Afghanistan were only the most egregious examples of this sort of oversight.

The populations were expected to see things as Westerners would see them, regardless of their own particular experiences under Saddam Hussein or through decades of civil war. That they might have a different perspective shaped by what they'd lived through was apparently not considered. This was a failure of both empathy and imagination, and it had disastrous consequences for a great many people in both countries, as well as for the ability of the United States to achieve its stated goals.

One hopes that people are treated fairly and decently during and after combat, and that those who've suffered from extended, intimate exposure to the horrors of war do get some assistance in finding a sense of harmony and balance. But I'm not really talking about altruism. I'm talking about getting results, about crafting policies and approaches that can help countries move away from war and toward peace and progress.

Just as George W. Bush's administration should have considered the psychic toll decades of fighting had taken on the Afghan population, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, if they want this accord to work, should try to understand people like Shirley Mangompia and others who've lived under, if not by, the gun for far too long. Similarly, anyone talking about peace deals or road maps or post-conflict development in places like Gaza or Libya or Congo, or Iraq and Afghanistan and, one day, Syria, should take into account the fact that these are nations of veterans -- old and young, male and female, grieving and filled with rage -- whose sense of the future and whose willingness to follow their leadership will be determined by where they've been and what horror and violence has been visited upon them. But who never got a parade or a ribbon or a medal for their troubles.

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