Stephen M. Walt

A nation of swaggering sheep

I spent some time over the holidays thinking about the underwear bomber, the hyperventilating that occurred after his botched attack, and the various inconveniences and costs we will incur as the authorities scramble to "do something." Add to that the likelihood that we will now get more heavily bogged down in Yemen, in another fruitless ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

I spent some time over the holidays thinking about the underwear bomber, the hyperventilating that occurred after his botched attack, and the various inconveniences and costs we will incur as the authorities scramble to "do something." Add to that the likelihood that we will now get more heavily bogged down in Yemen, in another fruitless effort to remake a country that few, if any, Americans understand very well.

My first thought is to wonder whether Osama bin Laden and his buddies are really proud of Mr. Abdulmutullab. This latest attempt will cause the United States to spend a lot of time and money to make sure nobody sneaks another crude device through in their shorts, but does it really help al Qaeda’s image to have their latest hero become famous for his underpants? Yes, I know that real lives were at risk, and I’m not making light of an attempt at mass murder. But in the battle for hearts and minds, having an enemy known as the "underwear bomber" is a pretty good propaganda coup. Score one for our side.

Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

In particular, I’m struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America’s highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences. As a society, we seem to believe that we can send thousands of troops to invade other countries, send Reapers and Predators to fire missiles at people we think might — repeat, might — be terrorists, and underwrite the oppressive policies of a host of "friendly" governments, yet never pay any significant price for it back here at home. We are a nation of swaggering sheep: eager to impose our will on others yet terrified that doing so might inconvenience us, let alone put U.S. civilians in real danger.

I’m not for one minute justifying what groups like al Qaeda do; my point is that we shouldn’t be surprised by it. When a very powerful country spends a lot of time interfering in other’s affairs, and sometimes backing obvious injustices like the Gaza War, then it ought to expect some people to be very angry about it. And because there’s no such thing as a perfect defense, sometimes those angry people will hit back. They won’t do as much to us as we’ve done to them because they’re a lot weaker, but occasionally they will draw blood.    

Yet Americans still find this surprising, and demand more and more extreme measures to "protect" us. We are like a heavy smoker who gets upset when they get diagnosed with emphysema, or a glutton who thinks it is "unfair" when he winds up with diabetes and high blood pressure. Face it, folks: if you want to be the world’s dominant power, and you want to spend a lot of time telling millions of people how they should live, who their leaders should be, what weapons they are allowed to have, and what sorts of political beliefs are considered "legitimate," etc., and to back that agenda up with a lot of military force, then some amount of blowback is the price of doing business.  

Instead, Americans are shocked when someone like the underwear bomber appears, and politicians and "homeland security experts" immediately leap to the airwaves to dissect the latest Threat to Our Sacred Way of Life. Meanwhile, other "brave Americans" protest plans to move suspected terrorists from Gitmo to maximum security prisons, as if a set of incarcerated, heavily guarded, and disoriented prisoners pose a grave threat to their local communities. And just yesterday, the United States and several allies announced they were going to close their embassies in Yemen, citing the risk of terrorist attack. I can understand the desire to protect U.S. diplomats, but what does it say about our resolve, our staying power, and our recognition that world politics is a rough business and sometimes entails costs and risks? 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola