July 31, 2008

Should We De-Emphasize The Terror Threat in U.S. Foreign Policy?

Steve Clemons was kind enough to invite me to participate in an on-line "terrorism salon" discussion over at his excellent TWN. The other participants and their bios are here. Below I post what I think is my last contribution to the so-called 'salon' discussion. I argue that we may well be overstating the terror threat as paramount so that renewed emphasis on other pressing policy challenges is well merited. The post follows:

Before we fall into a consensus that terrorism remains at (or very near) the top of the heap, permit me to play contrarian among these terrorism experts.

Matt advises we face a "three-fold threat", namely: 1) core al-Qaeda, 2) 'franchise' players like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and 3) a motley gaggle of some 300 groups (most of them Sunni, reportedly) that have "less direct ties to al-Qaeda", per Matt.

Let us take each in turn, if very briefly. Core al Qaeda now sequestered in Pakistan, in the main, hasn't even been able to overturn the Pakistani Government, let alone materially threaten ours, at least not since the traumatic events of 9/11, getting on a decade ago. They threaten important cities like Peshawar in the NWFP, a shocking and worrisome fact, but not yet the central government in Islamabad, despite high profile assassinations like Benazir Bhutto's.

Regional al Qaeda affiliates of late, I'd argue particularly in the Maghreb, are gaining steam. A recent prominent attack on U.N. interests in Algiers is of concern, but again, I fail to see how these groups present a vital threat to these United States. An important one, yes (certainly in the context that they also happen to present a more direct threat to close European allies like Spain and Italy, say), but the primary one? I don't think so.

Then we turn to Matt's listing of some 300 terror groups we need be concerned about! But a brief perusal of Matt's linked National Counterterrorism Center document shows many of the incidents occurring in such forlorn spots as Chad, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and dozens of course, in Iraq (there were far fewer there, indeed none, before our invasion, it bears noting, if its become somewhat tiresome to do so). Again, I query, is this the maximal primary U.S. foreign policy threat we will be confronting going forward?

Matt, to his credit (albeit after an obligatory reference to the Iranian threat, itself overblown, as General Abizaid and other have noted even a nuclear Iran could very likely be contained--and this without necessarily setting off an arms race with Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others going nuclear) does mention too as important issues sky-rocketing energy prices (despite recent down moves in oil it remains exorbitant), as well as the "not-unrelated issues" of the U.S. economy.

Forgive me for saying it, however, but the capsizing depression in the U.S. housing market, highly worrisome food and energy inflation, massive credit crisis to which bulge brackets banks have been brutally buffeted since July '07, and generally dismal economic milieu (which I believe very likely to get worse, with more regional banks very likely failing shortly) I would suspect is rather unrelated to al-Qaeda and terrorism, with few exceptions like Nigerian militants on occasion impacting oil prices after successful attacks, or the "geopolitical risk premium" as tensions with Iran wax and wane impacting oil prices as well. I take the time to differentiate our economic turmoil from the terror threat as too often terrorism has served as an all-purpose bogey-man these past years, and I think this thinking deeply flawed with unfavorable ramifications for our policy-making process.

Eric in turn, while mostly agreeing with Matt that terrorism must be a "high priority" (re: which I don't necessarily disagree, but we must be less skittish to name others too) wisely suggests sucking out some of the excess from the anti-terror mantle brandished about with crusader-like zeal by too many in the Beltway. In this I couldn't agree more with his "1" through "5".

And yet, nowhere in this discussion do we mention our tottering relations with great powers like Russia, where our policy has veered into incoherence as Putin has effectively reversed democratization there in favor of some variant of state-oligarch-driven capitalist autocracy, as we dilly-dally over missile defense systems on their western borders that are, all told, likely not even necessary, but certainly of huge concern to the Russians. Nowhere in this discussion do we broach the massive challenges posed by a rising China, whether integrating them better into the international economic system, digesting the implications of the largest rural migration into cities I think in history, the environmental challenges China presents to itself, the region and indeed the world, or even, the fact that new political and economic architecture is being cobbled together in the Pacific Rim, too often with not enough U.S. involvement (despite Chris Hill's laudable efforts on North Korea, of which the boos and hisses only crescendoed the closer he came to success, discrediting the arrayed neoconservative nomenklatura disgruntled that diplomats dare deign do their jobs).

Nowhere either is there talk of the future of our relationship with India, where even at this late hour it is far from certain, indeed likelier not, that an agreement on the nuclear issue between Delhi and Washington will be agreed. Nowhere either do we highlight the critical imperative of resuscitating the scandalously moribund Arab-Israeli peace process, which despite the cheap theater of Annapolis, seems to have been sub-contracted out of late--via a combination of gross amateurism and neglect--to countries like France, Turkey and, say, Qatar. Nor even do we mention but perhaps in passing the pressing need for something akin to a Manhattan Project on energy, for greater movement on climate change, for our neglected relations with Central and South America (notably that rising BRIC Brazil), or the devastation being wrought through Africa via ongoing chronic conflicts and disease. I could go on, but these challenges matter too, do they not?

We are a great power (yes, still), and there are more than Sunni terror groups to be concerned about on the world stage. Our national psyche was profoundly wounded after 9/11, and understandably so, but I fear we have stumbled into an age of gross paranoia and incompetence, myopically focused on one single threat we deem the existential one of the age, while around us critical relationships/issues flounder because of abject neglect. This is a sad testament I believe to a foreign policy elite that has lost its moorings, and is in critical need of fresh thinking. Perhaps hope beckons with a new Administration incoming, though I've learned these past years to restrain my optimism.

Anyway, excuse the quasi-rant, as well as the length of this missive, and consider this a provocation to our group about question prompt 3 [ed. note: see Matt's response here], keeping in mind I certainly don't believe terrorism to be an unimportant issue, it is very important indeed and requires continued maximal vigilance and sustained attention, but am flagging for discussion whether it is really the defining challenge of the 21st Century, say, which we seem to hear too often in think-tank conclaves, or on the campaign trail.

P.S. Some other 'salon' posts here and here (mostly some back and forth w/ Peter Bergen on the Afghanistan issue).

Posted by Gregory at July 31, 2008 09:46 AM

Great to see you back.

I'm one of those people that doesn't think al-Qaeda is much of a threat. Besides the rare exploitation of a vulnerability (e.g. cockpit doors), I don't see what tools they have to wreak havoc. They're a nuisance, for sure, but is al-Qaeda connected in any meaningful way with dissident groups in various failed (or near-failed) states? That would be where they can do the most damage, but even then, those failed states don't impact the U.S. much, economically or strategically.

What al-Qaeda did on 9/11 was spectacular. Two tall buildings going down, all while people were watching on television. That had enormous psychological impact. So much so, that an engineering analysis (of the vulnerability: access to the control component of a flying missle) was basically ignored.

In answer to your post's question, should we de-emphasize the terror threat? I'd say Yes.

Posted by: Quiddity at August 1, 2008 06:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Impossible to say anything about the whole century, but the defining challenges of the first part of the century are going to be the twin problems of energy and climate change. The US is in the enviable position of having sufficient resources to deal with the energy problem pretty much on its own, but climate change cannot be addressed without a substantial global effort, and I see creating an adequate and enforceable (or at least observed) agreement in this area as the major foreign policy issue of the next decade. Terrorism is simply not as important, although I don't see that a sensible terrorism policy is in any substantial conflict with working for a sound climate policy.

Posted by: matt wilbert at August 1, 2008 08:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The greatest impact of al Qaeda and its like, dwarfing the WTC strike, has been its use by the US administration as excuse, pretext and cover.

That use produced a death toll roughly 100 times greater than 9/11, robbed the US of diplomatic leverage and moral authority, stymied effective anti-terrorism efforts, inflated energy costs, boosted terrorist recruitment, enabled anti-democratic US executive strategies, rendered unprosecuted US executive criminality mundane, fanned anti-ecuminical polarisation, amped up xenophobia, masked massive US war-support corruption, ran the US into unprecedented public debt, distracted from global warming and infantilized US political discourse.

The defining challenge of the 21st century is to find a way to prevent a US that is now characterized by hubris, exceptionalism, ignorance, greed, lawlessness, extremism and zealotry from sending the planet down the plug hole. That a once-great nation could come to this is beyond alarming.

Your post is in no way a rant Greg. Even this comment is far from a rant.

Posted by: AlanDownunder at August 5, 2008 11:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Glad to see you back, even if it is probably for a short spell. In the spirit of your own post -- if terrorism is not worth the time and dollar suck, given our many other challenges, then why is is the endless Isreali-Palestinian failure to agree (ongoing for 60-years)? The Middle East is still willing to sell us oil, regardless of where we have put our thumbs on the scale of the Isreali-palestinian fight.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at August 5, 2008 03:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mr. D, can you shoot me an email when you get a moment.

Posted by: Eric Martin at August 8, 2008 10:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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