WASHINGTON – In a thoughtful piece in the NYT, (The Gift That Keeps Giving, December 3, 2014), Tom Friedman takes us back to the beginnings of the “War on Terror”, and to how this one single issue totally dominated US foreign and security policies during the 8 years of George W. Bush, while it has also affected the Obama presidency, in as much as the new president tried to distance his administration from the Bush approach, (with mixed results).
In hindsight, now we know what happened. Surprised and shocked by the 9/11 attacks, Washington engineered –from scratch– a new security policy labeled “War on Terror”. Launched in this major endeavor, America overdid almost everything, without in the end achieving its objective of destroying all terrorist organizations around the globe.
Now we know that the problem is in a profound disconnect between the nature of the “asymmetric” threat –small groups scattered in various countries that are potentially capable of spectacular acts of terror– and the means used to fight it –the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, coupled with horrendously costly efforts aimed at totally rebuilding these societies, so that democratic institutions would inoculate them against religious fanaticism.
Of course, after having suffered the unprecedented 9/11 blows, it was perfectly alright to go after al Qaeda and its supporters, argues Friedman. But what was not alright was the disproportionate response.
Counter terror yes, invasions no
One thing is to organize counter terror missions, quite another to launch the occupation of entire countries, with all the fantastic costs associated with any attempt to modernize their institutions and their economies.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. By focusing on the “War on Terror”, the Bush administration could not deal with anything else. Indeed, by devoting most resources to this conflict, the US government did not do much to make the American economy stronger and more resilient. In the end, we over invested in “Mission Impossible” –building democracies in the Middle East– and we starved America.
We could not do anything else
The main unintended consequence of the “War on Terror ” has been far less money spent on research, on education, and infrastructure in America. If you combine this misallocation of scarce resources with the horrible impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end, after the long “War on Terror”, America is not that much more secure, while its economy and society are far less resilient.
More of the same in Afghanistan
And the Obama presidency, while trying to separate itself from Bush’s “all out” approach, to some extent continued along the same lines.
While Obama decided to close the Iraq chapter, (now re-opened), it continued, in fact beefed up, the old (and failed) counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan, even though counter-insurgency could not possibly succeed, unless we postulate unlimited economic resources, and large numbers of US troops stationed there in Afghanistan, literally for decades.
We need good intelligence
Of course, terrorism is still a nasty enemy. And, after 9/11 no president wants to be caught off guard by yet another major attack.
But the problem with fighting terrorism is that what we need is mostly extremely good intelligence –and we do not have enough of it.
Gigantic and horribly expensive military expeditions, followed by lengthy and even more expensive occupations, are just the wrong tools to combat and defeat dispersed small cells that come up and disappear with relative ease.
Having said all that, even a few acts of terror get an enormous echo: think about the handful of homemade American jihadists who have recently attacked and killed people. The media demand action that will keep all US citizens safe, as if it were indeed possible to monitor, (or lock-up), each and every extremist or deranged copycat who may at some point do something really nasty.
And here is the problem. In our society we readily accept the very real risk of being killed in a car accident every time we get into an automobile. But, somehow, the extremely remote risk of becoming the victim of an act of terror is considered totally unacceptable.
Therefore we demand that the government will do anything in its powers, (and more), to prevent (extremely rare) acts of terror from happening.
Policy-makers forced to do more
This is illogical. Nonetheless, policy-makers are requested by an anxious public to shape a coherent, reassuring and bullet-proof public policy in order to face any and all possible terror attacks.
This is impossible. Still, policy-makers need to show that they are really busy working on strategies that will solve the problem. And so they tend to err on the side of overdoing, and this includes over spending.
In the meantime, we still do not take care of our schools, and of our decaying infrastructure.