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Our Reaction to Terrorism Is More Dangerous Than the Terrorists

From crazed demagogues like Donald Trump to uncoordinated, strategically incoherent, leaderless counterstrikes, we're spiraling toward a riskier tomorrow.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16:   Business mogul Donald Trump gives a speech as he announces his candidacy for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York City.  Trump is the 12th Republican who has announced running for the White House.  (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16: Business mogul Donald Trump gives a speech as he announces his candidacy for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York City. Trump is the 12th Republican who has announced running for the White House. (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)

Donald Trump could not do more to aid the terrorists of the Islamic State were he to put on a suicide vest and detonate himself in the lobby of one of his apartment buildings. His demagoguery and hate-mongering in suggesting that we create a national database of Muslims — or promoting the sick fantasy that on 9/11 crowds of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the destruction of the Twin Towers — is precisely the kind of reaction on which the extremists were counting to compound the impact of their depravity. It stokes the fears of Americans and alienates Islamic audiences worldwide. And having the leading candidate of one of America’s two principal political parties promoting such ideas suggests that they are not his alone but representative of the view of a great cross-section of the American people.

God help us if they do. Trump’s words are the most vile and ignorant sort of pandering. They test the bounds of free speech because they are, in fact, a kind of hate speech designed to turn one portion of the populace against another. They are also profoundly un-American, ignoring the values of openness and tolerance that are fundamental foundations of our national greatness.

Trump has undergone a metamorphosis as a candidate from being a joke to a curiosity to a phenomenon to a full-fledged force with a chance to win. That he now seems to be unwittingly playing directly into the hands of terrorists by producing just the kind of rhetoric that is certain to stir outrage across the Islamic world and drive recruitment efforts upward as he clearly has not concerned himself with either the lessons of past attacks or the moral implications of his proposed plans — is maybe the most disturbing development of this distended, perverse campaign so far.

Nonetheless, Trump’s actions are even more unsettling because they are symptomatic of a broader, deeper, and much more profound problem. Terrorism has, since 9/11, mushroomed into a greater global threat than it has ever been before — and it has been a problem in one form or another since the dawn of history. But as bad as terrorism is, our reactions to it have triggered a kind of worsening risk spiral that has made the world a much more dangerous place. Not only are we playing into the terrorists’ hands, and thus giving them needed momentum, the countries of the world are reacting in such an uncoordinated and even conflicting fashion that new geopolitical fissures are emerging that are far more worrisome than any strike or campaign extremists could orchestrate.

In 2002, the year after 9/11, there were fewer than 1,000 deaths from terrorist attacks worldwide, according to the U.S. State Department. This past year, that number was more than 30,000. Al Qaeda delivered a shocking blow to the United States in 2001, but it was a small organization, incapable of repeating such an attack. Today, the terrorists of the Islamic State have changed the game, controlling territory in Iraq and Syria, recruiting fighters globally, and essentially offering the world’s first open-source terrorist organization. Download a flag, embrace the name, and you are basically in. As open-source enterprises in other sectors have found, this is a great force multiplier. Suddenly, we are confronted with a “group” capable of brutality across many countries, and the threat posed by them and other terrorist groups that align with them or seek to rival them (see the recent New York Times article on the competition between al Qaeda and the Islamic State) only seems to be growing.

The problem, however, has been compounded since 9/11 by the spasmodic, impulsive, ill-considered, and generally uncoordinated response of major powers and victims of extremism to terrorist attacks. The invasion of Iraq was the alpha error in this respect. It was the wrong mission against the wrong country for the wrong reasons that produced, not surprisingly, the wrong outcomes.

But since then we have seen a stunning lack of strategy, coordination, or even coherent thinking about how to deal with the threat. We have had the “Obama doctrine”; a “light footprint”; the employment of a surgical approach when force was needed; massive overreach on the surveillance front; rhetoric about restraint; confusion about red lines; tactical half-measures; and strategic incoherence. In the Middle East, we continue to see a wide variety of approaches linked to some variation on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” doctrine and a kind of national hierarchy of hatreds and fears. This is complicated by the proliferation of terrorist groups with conflicting agendas. So, in Syria, we have the real possibility that Bashar al-Assad’s regime helped stoke the fires of the Islamic State through prisoner releases, etc., to justify its cause — which seemed to have worked to some degree as we now have the world’s leading powers being more patient with the Syrian strongman if he will help fight the Islamic State. We might even see, after a political deal in Damascus (which will likely create an “Assad-lite” regime after a transition period and provide amnesty for the brutal dictator currently in power), an alliance between that regime and major powers and an al Qaeda spinoff, al-Nusra Front, to work to defeat the Islamic State.

Key to the anti-Islamic State alliance will be the Kurds, who themselves are locked in a struggle with another key player, Turkey. The Turks are, of course, the same key player that this week shot down a Russian fighter jet. That a NATO nation could shoot down a Russian fighter plane and the story would be overshadowed by the hydra-headed threats of the current global security landscape says much about where we are. The Russians, of course, are ostensibly in Syria to fight extremists with us but are really there to defend Assad or whatever successor regime they may accede to. The Iranians are there doing likewise. The United States is not allied with these powers, as we regularly say, but if our primary immediate national security objective is degrading and ultimately defeating the Islamic State these days, the Russians and the Iranians are our most important allies. Even though the Iranians are themselves one of the world’s most important state sponsors of terrorism and even though the Russians are actually benefitting from the chaos in Syria, because refugee flows from there to Europe are stimulating the rise of the European right, a group that is likely to weaken the EU as it gains power — which is in Moscow’s interest.

The Europeans are all over the place on these issues. They are united in outrage at the Paris attacks and working together to stem related terrorist threats like those which emerged in Brussels this past week. But whereas the French are eager for action (except to the extent that it involves ground troops), their neighbors on the continent are not. European attitudes toward refugees are equally muddled. There is only one constant: Almost every response European leaders and opinion-shapers have had has exacerbated the problem. Hate speech empowers extremists. So, too, do anti-refugee politics that make ethnic tensions worse. So, paradoxically, do symbolic airstrikes without methodical follow-up on the ground. So, too, do apparent divisions among the nations of the world’s leading military alliance about how to handle these situations or even about who the enemy is. (This last problem is worse still among America’s allies in the Middle East.)

That is to say nothing of the conflicting views toward terrorism in places like Africa (see Mali or Boko Haram’s continuing depraved run through Nigeria or the growing extremist threats in the Horn of Africa or the likely consequences of a further meltdown in Libya) or Asia, where China, India, Indonesia, and other nations face similar threats with differing approaches.

In my view, we have long overstated the threat posed by terrorists. This threat has not been strategic or existential. Creating an analogy between the “War on Terror” and past global conflicts (like the Cold War or World War II) was a great error. We have devoted too many resources to this issue, and the opportunity costs associated with our being distracted by it have been enormous. Further, overreaction is precisely the wrong response to terrorism. And it’s exactly what terrorists want. As noted at the outset, it does the work of the terrorists for the terrorists. Focused, purposeful retaliation, sound intelligence and police work, national vigilance and a resolve not to let extremists change our way of life or control of our airwaves, fears, or national debates are the essential elements of a wise reaction.

But such moderate reactions have not been the norm. We have had the worst possible combination of overreaction, misreaction, underreaction, and a lack of both international leadership and coordination. The result has been the vastly more complicated and dangerous landscape we face today. And whereas I believe, even in its current state, the threat posed by terrorists is considerably less than much hysterical political rhetoric and understandable post-attack emotion would suggest, I am now concerned that the compound effects of our reactions to terrorism are creating a genuinely perilous situation warranting the urgent attention of global leaders.

The problem stems not from the terrorists directly but from the conflicts and instability that are being left in the wake of our responses to their attacks. Invading Iraq was step one. Pulling out too quickly compounded it. Failure to address the issues of Sunni representation in that country compounded it and led to the rise of the Islamic State. Failure to address the problems in Syria when they were early enough to contain compounded it. Belated, uncoordinated halfway measures against the Islamic State were another problem. Failure to stand up to allies funding extremists compounded it. Conflicted policies in Afghanistan did too. Conflicting policies among allies on issues like Mohamed Morsi’s government, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iran nuclear deal, the future of the Assad regime, the situation in Libya, the situation in Yemen, inaction in the face of spreading threats in Africa, and a host of other related problems now have us in a grave situation. In the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are in chaos. Lebanon and Jordan are bending under the weight of the refugee burden. Refugee flows are posing a major political challenge in the EU. Nationalists and political opportunists are inflaming the situation and further weakening alliances with their rhetoric. There is very little alignment and very serious conflict among a wide-ranging group of powers that are allegedly in some areas working together. This list of collaborators at risk of coming to blows with one another includes the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Israel, France, Iraq, and others.

I once referred to the risks associated with the destabilization of the region as echoing the problems in Europe prior to World War I when complexity and miscommunication led to a conflagration. “The Balkans on steroids” is what I called it. The thicket of interconnected problems has only grown more complex and thorny. The more we struggle with it, the worse the problems become for us.

This is the kind of problem that comes from a lack of leadership on the international stage. As the world’s richest and most powerful nation and the historic leader of its largest alliances, the United States bears a special responsibility in this regard — but it is not alone. This is a moment when the world’s leading powers need to work toward greater collaboration, set clearer priorities, and focus on the long-term issues (many economic and social in nature) associated with stabilizing the regions at risk from which these spreading problems are emerging.

It was very heart-warming in the wake of the Paris attacks to see so many people take to social media with new decorations for their Facebook and Twitter sites — tiny French flags were very popular. Setting aside for a moment the fact that similar displays did not crop up after the Beirut or Mali attacks, it is touching that people seem to care and want to show solidarity. The problem is that we have anything but solidarity among our leaders. And if we do not find our way to better coordination and a focus on effective collaboration and common goals soon, we are going to be inviting a further deterioration of the global situation of the type we have witnessed over the past decade-and-a-half. What is more, we will be inviting the kind of accidental conflict that comes from situations like these, situations in which everyone wants to take action but no one is leading.

Photo credit: Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

About the Author

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is <i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Great-Questions-Tomorrow-TED-Books/dp/150111994X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=">The Great Questions of Tomorrow</a></i>. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.

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