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Threat Inflation 6.0: Does al-Shabab Really Threaten the U.S.?

Sometimes you read a news story that brilliantly illuminates just what is wrong with the basic U.S. approach to national security these days. Case in point: today's New York Times story headlined "U.S. Sees Direct Threat in Attack at Kenya Mall." Of course we do. When was the last time something bad happened somewhere and the U.S. government didn't see it as a threat?

The article goes on to describe how the FBI has already sent more than 20 agents to investigate the bombing, and it quotes various government officials and think-tank pundits about the need to respond lest al-Shabab (the Somali extremist group that conducted the attacks) turn its attention to America.

For instance, here's former counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin: "You never know when a terrorist attack in a faraway place could be a harbinger of something that could strike at the United States." Of course, we also never know when such an attack is a harbinger of nothing at all. The article also quotes Katherine Zimmerman of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute: "One of the misconceptions is that we can let al Qaeda or other terrorist groups stay abroad and not fight them there, and that we would be safe at home." The Times' reporters adopt this same line themselves, writing that "the American government has learned the hard way what happens if it does not contain groups responsible for faraway attacks," a point they illustrate by referring to al Qaeda's attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the 1990s.

Got it? For Americans to be 100 percent safe on American soil, the U.S. government has to get more deeply involved in the local politics and national security problems of this troubled East African region -- using the FBI, CIA, special operations forces, drones, whatever -- in order to root out bad guys wherever they might be.

There are two obvious problems with this line of reasoning. First, it fails to ask whether America's repeated interference in this and other parts of the world is one of the reasons groups like al Qaeda and al-Shabab sometimes decide to come after us. Indeed, to the extent that the United States might face a threat from al-Shabab, it might be because Washington has been blundering around in Somali politics since the early 1990s and usually making things worse. The same goes for Kenya too. Al-Shabab attacked the mall because Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 and their intervention had undermined al-Shabab's position in that troubled country. Kenya may have had its own good reasons for intervening; my point is simply that the tragic attack it suffered wasn't a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya's own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack -- it merely identifies cause and effect.

Ditto al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden didn't get up one day and decide he wanted to launch a few terrorist attacks, pull out his atlas, and pick the United States at random. His decision to attack U.S. military forces and government installations, and then to attack the United States directly, was reprehensible and an obvious threat, but it didn't come out of nowhere. On the contrary, the emergence of al Qaeda was a direct response to various aspects of America's Middle East policy (e.g., blanket support for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf through the 1990s). As I've noted before, the United States has devoted most of its energy and effort since then to chasing down bad guys and killing them, but hardly any time trying to act in ways that would make the terrorists' message less appealing to potential recruits.

So before we declare the Kenyan bombing a direct threat to the United States and get more directly involved in a set of regional dynamics that we don't understand very well, we ought to ask ourselves if this will make the terrorism danger that we face worse or better.

The second problem is that the rather breathless language of the Times' story exaggerates the actual danger. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that al-Shabab might try to send a few of the Americans it has recruited back to the United States, with orders to try something similar here. It is also possible -- though unlikely -- that they will succeed in doing something reprehensible, if not on the scale of the recent attack in Kenya. It would be bad if they succeeded -- even in just a small way -- or if other terrorists managed to shoot American tourists or business people over in Kenya. But is that possibility really so scary, especially relative to other dangers?

Back here in the United States, we've already seen several mass killings of innocent people in the past year: 27 slain in the Newtown school shooting and 12 killed in the recent Navy Yard attack. Here in Boston, there were 51 murders in 2012, and there have been more than 30 already this year. Nationwide, over 30,000 Americans are killed by guns each year (about two-thirds are suicides, but those deaths are still tragic and that still leaves more than 10,000 victims of gun violence). Yet there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of public clamor to declare this obvious danger to American well-being a "national security threat" or to actually do anything about it.

I am not arguing for a retreat to Fortress America or saying that the United States should not devote some of its vast intelligence and national security budget to monitoring possible terrorist groups. But we really do need to ask ourselves if chasing every terrorist group that might have some reason to target the United States (or U.S. citizens abroad) is going to make the problem bigger or smaller. And that is especially the case when these groups emerged largely or entirely in response to local political developments, as was the case with al-Shabab. We have no reason to like such groups at all, but getting in their face is probably the best way to get them in ours.

As the Times article shows, the view expressed here doesn't seem to be very common in the U.S. national security establishment, which never saw a threat that it didn't want to go after (or exaggerate). But it would have been nice if the Times had found space for this view in its article on the subject, instead of making it sound like the U.S. government's view is the only one worth hearing.

Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Talking to Our Adversaries Should Be Routine (updated)

If you wanted yet more evidence of how unserious the United States is in its conduct of diplomacy, I'd nominate the breathless "will they, won't they?" attention paid to whether U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will actually meet during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. If they do meet, will they shake hands? Will it be an impromptu sidebar or a sit-down conversation? What color tie will Obama be wearing? Will they drink coffee or tea? Boxers or briefs?

For all I know, these and other truly vital questions will have been resolved by the time this gets posted. My main point is that Americans attach too much significance to these sorts of meetings -- mostly because we are too fond of not talking to countries we dislike -- and this reticence cripples our diplomacy. Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it's dumb.

Did it really help U.S. diplomacy when we refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1934? Were U.S. interests really furthered by our refusal to recognize the People's Republic of China for more than two decades after Mao's forces gained control there? Has keeping Fidel Castro's Cuba in the deep freeze since 1961-- that's nearly 53 years, folks -- brought his regime crashing down, helped the lives of Cubans, or even advanced the political goals of Cuban-American exiles? Has our refusal to conduct direct talks with Iran slowed the development of its nuclear research program and helped us explore possible solutions to the problems in Afghanistan, Syria, or the Persian Gulf itself?

Obviously not. But because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can usually afford to snub people or governments it doesn't like. Despite what you keep hearing from various threat-mongers, Iran isn't a very powerful country and it isn't an existential, looming threat to vital U.S. interests. To the extent that its behavior does impinge on certain U.S. interests -- such as the maintenance of a balance of power in the Gulf -- we have lots of tools for addressing that problem. If our various clients in the region don't think we are doing enough for their security, they are welcome to look for other patrons (good luck with that!).

Because the United States is so much stronger, we really shouldn't be afraid to talk to Iranian officials, especially when they are not mouthing offensive nonsense like Iran's previous president was fond of doing. Unfortunately, our strength and favorable geographic position also makes it possible for the United States to ostracize hostile governments without paying any immediate price. But once we do that, then it becomes a BIG DEAL when we finally do contemplate talking, and presidents have to spend political capital just to start the conversation. The result: Our own ability to explore solutions with rivals is crippled.

Hawks at home and abroad are always harping about U.S. credibility and the need for presidents to show their strength. But refusing to talk to those with whom we differ isn't a sign of confidence and strength; it's actually a sign of timidity and weakness. It tells the world that we're afraid that shaking hands, sitting down, and talking with someone might rock the foundations of our power. Are we really so worried? Having a conversation with an adversary doesn't require us to agree with them; indeed, sometimes talking exposes just how sharp the differences are and reveals that compromise isn't possible at that time. By itself, talking to another sovereign government gives away nothing, especially when it is just a normal part of one's diplomatic practice.

So if I could wave my magic wand today, I'd make the perennial U.S. aversion to talking to our enemies disappear. In a perfect world, conversations with our adversaries would be routine, as U.S.-Soviet dialogues were during the Cold War. Somehow, having lots of meetings between U.S. and Soviet officials didn't undermine America's global position; instead, the United States ended up winning the Cold War.

In short, I'd like our attention focused not on the mere fact that Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are finally talking or that Obama and Rouhani might shake hands, but on the substance of the exchanges and the possible terms of a U.S.-Iranian détente. That's what really matters, and all the attention paid to the atmospherics of a possible meeting just gets in the way and wastes everyone's time.

UPDATE: News reports now say that there won't be any Obama/Rouhani meeting, and attribute this to Iranian reluctance.  Apparently, the Iranian side felt it wasn't ready for a meeting, and that a one-on-one encounter would raise expectations too high, especially when it was clear that Rouhani wasn't going to be coming home with any tangible US concessions.  Which if true, also goes to show you that the United States isn't the only country that sometimes declines to maintain regular channels of communication, and then discovers that reopening them becomes a lot more difficult and fraught with unhelpful political complexities.

Photo: MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images