Remind me again why I should be quaking in my boots?

Hey, remember how the new Al Qaeda was going to be more networked and more capable of inspiring home-grown terrorism?  Remember how today's threat enviroment was supposed to be worse than the Cold War

Bear these points in mind when considering two news items that crossed my screen today.  In the first, courtesy of Micah Zenko, a Pentagon official suggests that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. overrestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities

With the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, America may have misjudged the true threat posed by al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a top Pentagon official said Tuesday.

“Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” said Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.

“Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11,” Sheehan told a room full of special operators in Washington who were attending an annual Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict Planning Conference.

“Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaida wasn’t that capable. They didn’t have other units here in the U.S. … Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack.”

The true limitations of al-Qaida are one of two key reasons that America has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2001.

“The other reason is that we actually responded … and crushed al-Qaida immediately after 9/11, and continually for the last 10 years,” Sheehan said. “We are better than we often give ourselves credit for. We have a very polarized political system and it’s very difficult for anybody to actually give credit or receive credit for how good we are.”

Well, sure, Al Qaeda abroad has been weakened, but this homegrown thing, I mean, that's probably a really big-- hey, what is Scott Shane reporting about in the New York Times

A feared wave of homegrown terrorism by radicalized Muslim Americans has not materialized, with plots and arrests dropping sharply over the two years since an unusual peak in 2009, according to a new study by a North Carolina research group.

The study, to be released on Wednesday, found that 20 Muslim Americans were charged in violent plots or attacks in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and a spike of 47 in 2009.

Charles Kurzman, the author of the report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Of about 14,000 murders in the United States last year, not a single one resulted from Islamic extremism, said Mr. Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina (emphasis added).

Digging a wee bit into the actual report -- and read the whole thing, it ain't long -- I'll just reprint the closing two paragraphs below: 

Repeated alerts by government officials may be issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.

This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion. (emphasis added)

Now, I'm sure that the reason for this lull is that Al Qaeda's remaining assets in the United States are focusing their energies on getting all turkeys to become halal or something.  That said, I'm going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago.   Oh, and that I don't need to listen to Representative Peter King when he opens his mouth on national security issues. 

Daniel W. Drezner

The policy cul-de-sac of the Iran sanctions

In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi take a long look at the economic sanctions literature and conclude that the ever-more-stringent sanctions regime won't lead to a democratic transition in Iran. One can quibble with their review (they don't cite Nikolai Marinov's work, for example), but they do state the current state of play on Iran rather cleanly:

The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.

That sums up the situation rather neatly -- the problem is that these goals are somewhat incompatible. If the aim if to negotiate a deal on the nuclear program, then Iran's regime has to be persuaded that the United States is not trying to topple the regime. If the administration keeps up the ambiguity regarding the purpose of sanctions, then Iran's current regime has zero incentive to negotiate. In that case, the only way sanctions work is via regime collapse.

Based on Robert Worth's front-pager in the New York Times on the effect of sanctions in Tehran, however, it looks like the negotiation option might already be closed off. The effect of the sanctions put in place (and the ones that will kick in over the summer) are, well, a mixed bag:

Already, the last round of sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank has begun inflicting unprecedented damage on Iran’s private sector, traders and analysts say, making it so hard to transfer money abroad that even affluent businessmen are sometimes forced to board planes carrying suitcases full of American dollars.

Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program -- a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year…

The rising economic panic has illustrated -- and possibly intensified -- the bitter divisions within Iran’s political elite. A number of insiders, including members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have begun openly criticizing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent weeks. One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides indirectly accused Ayatollah Khamenei of needlessly antagonizing the West in ways that pushed down the rial’s value, the latest sign of a rift between the president and the supreme leader that is helping to define the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2.

“They criticize Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader by name now; it’s not like before,” said Javad, the 45-year-old manager of a travel agency in north Tehran…

Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market. Some analysts and opposition political figures contend that Mr. Ahmadinejad deliberately worsened the currency crisis so that his cronies could generate profits this way…

Many Iranians are also skeptical about the Western preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. “The economic pressure will not push Iran to a nuclear settlement,” said Kayhan Barzegar, the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, who has taught in the United States. “The nuclear file is a nationalistic issue; it’s too late for Iran to backtrack. Domestic politics will react negatively to any negotiation — candidates in the elections will say: you sold the nuclear program!”…

[T]he businessman also noted that when Iran last suffered similar privations, in the 1980s, the economy was far smaller, and the revolutionary zeal for self-sacrifice far greater. Iran’s leadership was also far more unified than it is today.

“The question is, when this panic translates into a real diminution in the living standard, will Iranians be willing to take it?” the businessman said. “That’s when these guys will really be in trouble.”

The above report suggests that the sanctions themselves have effectively eliminated the more modest goal of negotiating on the nuclear program. The primary effect of the sanctions to date has been to exacerbated divisions within Iran's regime. Because of these divisons, there's no point to negotiation -- at this point, the United States could ever be sure that the entire Iranian state could credibly commit to any bargain (for advocates of negotiation, it should be noted that this was already a problem; the sanctions just bring it into high relief). The economic effect of the sanctions has also accentuated Iran's nationalist pride in the nuclear program among the middle class.

It's still possible for the sanctions to work. Those that are imposed multilaterally tend to take a longer time to have a policy effect. The target state will first try to break the multilateral coalition apart -- and only after that policy fails will they consider concessions. Recent reportage suggest that Iran was not expecting this kind of multilateral pressure -- and so it's possible that Tehran will reconsider.

That said, the sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change. In the abstract, that might sound great, but in reality, pushing for that option could be both messy and expensive.