Our One-Sided War on Terror

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly declared a "war on terror." In the conduct of that war, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, imprisoned hundreds of captured "enemy combatants" without trial, tortured suspected terrorists, drastically ratcheted up homeland security, conducted drone strikes and/or targeted assassinations in several countries, and conducted a vast campaign of electronic surveillance at home and abroad.

Virtually all these actions were designed to detect or eliminate actual terrorists or prevent them from carrying out deliberate attacks. In other words, whether offensive or defensive in nature, they were actions designed to win the war by thwarting or eliminating existing terrorist organizations.

But what about the parallel problem of terrorist recruitment? The other way to defeat terrorism is to make it harder for movements employing terrorist methods to recruit new followers, and to gradually marginalize the radicals within the societies in which they were trying to grow. There was a lot of talk about trying to do this immediately after 9/11: The State Department commissioned a task force report on public diplomacy toward the Arab/Islamic world, George W. Bush's administration hired a series of public diplomacy czarinas, and various experts offered advice on how the United States could undercut Osama bin Laden's message and rebuild the country's dubious image in that part of the world. This goal also underlay Barack Obama's initial outreach to the region and especially his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009.

But looking back, has the United States actually acted in ways that would reduce the jihadi appeal? In some cases (e.g., Jordan and Iraq), we were fortunate that terrorist groups acted in ways that reduced their appeal significantly. But has the United States also adjusted its policies to make it harder rather than easier for a jihadi leader to convince a potential recruit to join up?

The answer is no.

When he launched the original al Qaeda and began targeting the United States, bin Laden emphasized three main grievances. First, he accused the West -- and especially the United States -- of constant and hostile interference in the Islamic world. This charge included the U.S. sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s (which caused thousands of Iraqi deaths) and the West's alleged exploitation of Mideast oil. Second, he accused the United States of propping up corrupt and illegitimate dictatorships in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and he specifically cited the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War. Third, he blamed the United States for giving lavish, unconditional support to Israel and for turning a blind eye to Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.

These charges have remained prominent elements in the overall jihadi narrative ever since. The question is: Has U.S. behavior since then made such charges look more credible or less credible? Has the United States undertaken actions designed to show that bin Laden's charges were basically bogus, or has it behaved in ways that make them appear to be largely correct?

Has the United States stopped using military force in the Arab or Islamic world? Hardly. The United States invaded two Muslim countries -- Afghanistan and then Iraq -- even though the latter had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Each war then led to long and incompetently run occupations in which many local inhabitants died. The United States was not directly responsible for all these deaths, of course, and some of its acts in both countries were obviously intended to help local citizens. But overall, these actions merely reinforced the idea that the United States has an irresistible propensity to interfere in these societies, and often with military force. The war on terror also led to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and an outpouring of Islamophobic rhetoric by certain U.S. pundits and politicians. And oh yes: The United States has also imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran, which makes both Israel and the Saudi royal family happy but reinforces perceptions of a powerful but hypocritical America. In short, the past 12 years provide plenty of ammunition for anyone trying to argue that the United States remains intrinsically hostile to the Muslim world.

Has the United States stopped propping up Arab dictatorships? The record here is more mixed, but it is hard to argue that the United States has consistently embraced a true "freedom agenda." The United States did remove its troops from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but it's still an important military presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. The United States has consistently backed Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, despite endemic corruption and even a palpably fraudulent election. Washington did help ease Hosni Mubarak from power two years ago, but it subsequently turned a blind eye to the Saudi-backed crackdown against popular forces in Bahrain and continues a cozy relationship with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. U.S. tolerance for the recent military coup in Egypt also suggests that its commitment to genuine democracy or the promotion of basic human rights remains thin. The Obama administration has for the most part stayed out of the Syrian mess (wisely, in my view), but some jihadists will no doubt see this as evidence that Washington isn't all that hostile to Bashar al-Assad's regime. Bottom line: bin Laden's complaint that the United States has no problem with Arab authoritarianism is still pretty hard to refute.

Is the United States still backing an expansionist Israel? Although public criticism of the "special relationship" has become somewhat more vocal in recent years, the broad outlines of U.S. policy have changed little. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have given Israel everything it has wanted (except a green light to attack Iran), and U.S. politicians continue to bend over backward to express their deep devotion to the Jewish state. The United States gave Israel diplomatic cover during the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and also following the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Obama caved completely on the issue of a settlement freeze, and the U.S. Congress continues to vote a generous aid package every year and demean itself with various AIPAC-drafted resolutions. Heck, if I were a jihadist trying to convince a recruit that the United States had no sincere commitment to human rights and no respect for Arab or Muslim lives, I'd just show them a transcript of Chuck Hagel or Samantha Power's confirmation hearings and leave it at that.

My point is not that the United States should have responded to 9/11 by totally upending its Middle East foreign policy or by leaning over backward to appease bin Laden's complaints. I'm certainly not suggesting that the United States break diplomatic relations with Riyadh or throw Israel under the bus. Nor am I suggesting that some adjustment to U.S. policies would make the terrorist problem dry up overnight, if only because many terrorist groups are motivated as much or more by local concerns than by a fundamentally anti-American agenda.

My point, instead, is that the United States has been fighting a completely one-sided campaign against al Qaeda and the group's cousins. It has hardened its own society (excessively) and taken the battle to those suspected of being hostile to it (probably excessively too). But the United States has done hardly anything to counter the narratives that anti-American forces use to rally support, and it has done plenty to reinforce them. And a lot of the things the United States has done -- such as invading Iraq or giving Israel unconditional support -- are bad for the United States and bad for its various friends in the region (Israel included).

This just isn't smart strategy: If we really want to bring the "war on terror" to an end, then we cannot simply deal with the terrorists who exist today -- we also have to diminish the number and fervor of those we will face tomorrow. Sadly, that task remains to be tackled.


National Security

Why We Don't Need to Worry About a 'Nuclear Handoff'

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. national security establishment started focusing on the various ways that "international terrorism" might pose a threat to U.S. interests or the United States itself. Unsurprisingly, experts began to dream up all sorts of frightening scenarios and worry about all sorts of far-fetched scenarios. I remember this period well, and I recall sitting through seminars and workshops at which lots of very smart and creative people were imagining various nasty things that groups like al Qaeda might try to do. Hijack gas trucks and blow up the Lincoln Tunnel? Take over the Mall of America and create carnage on a big shopping day? Commandeer a supertanker and smash it into the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge? Wait until summer and then set forest fires all over the American West? The list of conceivable dangers was infinitely long, but if you sat in enough of those seminars, you could easily become convinced that it was only a matter of time before somebody did something really nasty to you or your loved ones.

Imagination is one thing, but disciplined risk assessment is another. It's easy to dream up bad things that could conceivably happen, but intelligent public policy should rest on a more careful and sustained appraisal of how likely those various scary things are. And that's why I suggest you read Keir Lieber and Daryl Press's recent article in the journal International Security on "Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists."

The fear that nuclear-armed states would hand weapons to terrorists has been a staple of U.S. threat-mongering ever since 9/11. It was a key part of the justification for invading Iraq in 2003, and it forms part of the constant drumbeat for military action against Iran. But it never made much sense for two reasons. First, a nuclear-armed state has little incentive to give up control over weapons it has labored long and hard to acquire, for what could the state possibly gain from doing so? Second, a state giving nuclear weapons to terrorists could never be sure that those weapons would not be traced back to it and thereby invite devastating retaliation.

Lieber and Press examine the historical record and show that it is almost impossible to conduct a major terrorist operation and not be blamed for it. Here's the abstract for their article:

Many experts consider nuclear terrorism the single greatest threat to U.S. security. The fear that a state might transfer nuclear materials to terrorists was a core justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, for a strike against Iran's nuclear program. The logical basis for this concern is sound: if a state could orchestrate an anonymous nuclear terror attack, it could destroy an enemy yet avoid retaliation. But how likely is it that the perpetrators of nuclear terrorism could remain anonymous?

Data culled from a decade of terrorist incidents reveal that attribution is very likely after high-casualty terror attacks. Attribution rates are even higher for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally -- 97 percent for incidents in which ten or more people were killed. Moreover, tracing a terrorist group that used a nuclear weapon to its state sponsor would not be difficult, because few countries sponsor terror; few terror groups have multiple sponsors; and only one country that sponsors terrorism, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons or enough material to manufacture them. If leaders understand these facts, they will be as reluctant to give weapons to terrorists as they are to use them directly; both actions would invite devastating retaliation.

I might add that this is the kind of important, nonpartisan, policy-relevant work that more social scientists ought to be doing. It is also important to disseminate these findings widely, so that 1) U.S. policymakers won't keep chasing phantom dangers, 2) the leaders of nuclear-armed states understand that their arsenals are good for deterrence and not much else, and 3) said leaders also understand the need to keep whatever weapons they might have under very reliable control.