Stephen M. Walt

The Embarrassing Debate Over the ‘War on Terror’

Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants ...

Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr

Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who’ve been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you’d think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren’t focused on the United States and don’t have the capability to do much damage to us.

I raise this question because our leaders don’t seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won — in the sense that we’ve defanged the most dangerous anti-American types — and that what’s left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don’t matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero — indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future – it is just to say that it’s more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.

But now we’re being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.

I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn’t that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.

Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn’t Boston’s defiant and resolute reaction to the city’s marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn’t nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don’t go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.

It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?

My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan’s frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.

But like I said at the start, mostly I’m frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.

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

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