The Long War’s Long Tail
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross's new book, Bin Laden's Legacy, wonders which side actually is winning the war on terror.
What if someone came up with a terrific approach to surviving the war on terror and nobody listened? That is the dilemma at the heart of Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, the new book from counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.
That’s not to say the book won’t be read or talked about. Bin Laden’s Legacy is a remarkable and laudable work. Gartenstein-Ross has created both a road map and a score card for the 10 years since the 9/11 attacks redefined America’s sense of security. In a narrative that somehow manages to be both concise and comprehensive, the author lays out the multiple battlefields and competing strategies of both al Qaeda and the United States.
The American approach, as Gartenstein-Ross describes in unrelenting detail, is defined by extravagance, putting its emphasis on security at all costs — with cost being the operative word. Because of a combination of missteps, hypervigilance, and political fear, virtually any program, policy, or plan that offers a shred of reassurance to the American public can get funded in this environment, whether it’s sci-fi technology for airports or an intelligence community so big that no one knows how many people it employs. This results in vast expenditures for security benefits that are sometimes marginal, sometimes nonexistent.
Al Qaeda’s strategy, unhappily, is exactly the same: provoke the United States into profligate spending and interminable military engagements, with a vision of the country’s eventual economic collapse. Inspired by Osama bin Laden’s romanticized view of the Soviet Union’s back-breaking war against the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the terrorist network has defined its strategy as bleeding the United States to bankruptcy. This strategy does not require traditional tactical success. In recent years, al Qaeda has learned that even its most embarrassing operational failures can produce an expensive response.
Gartenstein-Ross is not the first person to point out this conundrum, but his book is the first comprehensive look at the evidence for al Qaeda’s success, cutting across security disciplines and niche interests to paint on a broad canvas, while still providing plenty of specific examples. One of the most memorable concerns the October 2010 cargo-bomb plot executed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Two bombs were cleverly disguised as printer cartridges and shipped to the United States via UPS and FedEx. Both were intercepted before they could be detonated.
Approximately 20 days after the bombing was averted, AQAP published an issue of its English-language propaganda magazine Inspire that trumpeted the attack with a banner headline reading "$4,200" — how much it cost to mount the attack. Inside, the magazine explained that the plot was called "Operation Hemorrhage" because its goal was to cost Western countries "billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world or you do nothing and we keep trying again." This, the issue explained, is "the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death."
Although it’s obvious that AQAP would have preferred a successful attack, the strategy laid out in Inspire had already been articulated by al Qaeda leaders — most prominently bin Laden — in repeated communiqués over the course of multiple years.
Although some will surely quibble about the fine print, the conclusions of Bin Laden’s Legacy are impossible to ignore or dismiss. Gartenstein-Ross is apolitical, unsentimental, and unsparing in his analysis of America’s missteps, which start and to some degree end with a failure to listen as al Qaeda’s leaders cheerfully outlined their "bleed-to-bankruptcy" plan, crowing over specific examples of how it was working.
Bin Laden’s Legacy concludes with a series of smart policy recommendations for reducing the amount of money that the United States spends while mitigating the effect of those reductions on actual security. These include using behavioral profiling rather than exorbitant technologies for airport security, avoiding expensive overseas adventures, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and building resilience among Americans to face future attacks without overreacting. Most importantly, Gartenstein-Ross argues, is depoliticizing terrorism so that Republicans and Democrats are not locked into a race to see who can spend the most money as proof of their "seriousness" about terrorism.
Each of these ideas is rational and compelling. But when you put the book down it’s difficult to imagine how they play out in the real world, particularly the last two. This is not a failing of the book or its author. The prescription is sound. But how do you get the patient to swallow the pill?
Gartenstein-Ross accurately diagnoses how terrorism creates an incentive for political grandstanding on both sides, such as the vitriolic debate seen during the 2004 presidential election and the skewed pork-barrel distribution of counterterrorism funding that resulted in excesses like a $202,000 grant to the tiny town of Dillingham, Alaska, for the installation of 70 surveillance cameras downtown. The combination of fear and public spectacle makes it difficult to suggest spending less, for fear of being politically dismembered should American lives be lost.
Terrorism is by its nature a political act, so it’s unsurprising that it would become a hot potato. The problem is that rancor, economic profligacy, and magical thinking now pervade almost every aspect of the U.S. political process. Homeland security is not necessarily even the most problematic example, though it’s probably one of the top five.
The standoff over the debt ceiling that paralyzed Washington in July and led inexorably to the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating in August illustrates the extent to which both Democrats and Republicans will go in pursuit of short-term political gains while behaving as if their actions don’t have consequences. And the 2008-2009 Troubled Asset Relief Program demonstrated in epic form that both parties — when faced with worried voters and a hysterical media — are more than happy to throw money at a complex problem first and ask questions later, much later, or possibly never.
Whether the issue is health care or immigration, in the overcharged U.S. media and political environment, the appearance of action matters far more than a substantive strategy — or even a clearly articulated wish for an end state. The result is perpetual motion and perpetual noise, and a series of ad hoc policies that are based on the headline of the moment. At its heart, the fundamental issue is an almost unshakeable aversion to setting out coherent operating principles and then living by them.
Consider the current intervention in Libya. Claims that the intervention was necessary to prevent atrocities cannot account for Western inaction everywhere from Rwanda to Sri Lanka. If the United States can ignore the inhuman hell on earth that afflicts Congo, it can hardly claim its policies are driven by humanitarian concerns. The strategic argument for Libya similarly fails when compared with Western passivity regarding Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, where the United States has much clearer interests.
The decision to intervene was instead a reaction to media coverage and political criticism, a Hail Mary pass based on fleeting hopes for an easy win and a couple of glowing news cycles crediting Barack Obama’s administration with vanquishing another mustache-twirling villain, Muammar al-Qaddafi. Despite the more limited nature of U.S. engagement in Libya, these factors are depressingly similar to the considerations that led the United States to war with Iraq under another president, a mistake that U.S. leaders have not fully assimilated. And the ultimate end states in both Libya and Iraq remain unresolved and fraught with the specter of unintended consequences.
Gartenstein-Ross brings his rational voice to an irrational world, proposing a set of operating principles to a security-policy machine that has inoculated itself against the very concept. Can rationality hope to defeat magical thinking? Perhaps. Certainly the alternative — surrendering the field to the ad hoc movement — is unacceptable. But we can hear the tick-tock of the clock that looms over this discussion, and no one knows exactly how much time is left before the current economic turbulence explodes into a hurricane.