Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 4, 2006

War on terror: time to declare victory?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 4, 2006

James Fallows has a startling proposal in the cover story of the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly: that it’s time for the United States to declare victory in the war on terror. It’s a long and complex article, full of logical twists and turns, but the core of his argument is this passage:

For the past five years the United States has assumed itself to be locked in “asymmetric warfare,” with the advantages on the other side. Any of the tens of millions of foreigners entering the country each year could, in theory, be an enemy operative—to say nothing of the millions of potential recruits already here. Any of the dozens of ports, the scores of natural-gas plants and nuclear facilities, the hundreds of important bridges and tunnels, or the thousands of shopping malls, office towers, or sporting facilities could be the next target of attack. It is impossible to protect them all, and even trying could ruin America’s social fabric and public finances. The worst part of the situation is helplessness, as America’s officials and its public wait for an attack they know they cannot prevent.

Viewing the world from al-Qaeda’s perspective, though, reveals the underappreciated advantage on America’s side. The struggle does remain asymmetric, but it may have evolved in a way that gives target countries, especially the United States, more leverage and control than we have assumed. Yes, there could be another attack tomorrow, and most authorities assume that some attempts to blow up trains, bridges, buildings, or airplanes in America will eventually succeed. No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.

But the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.

Fallows goes on to make a case in support of this thesis. He makes some very important points, most notably the extent to which the successful integration of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the United States has served as one of the critical bulwarks against large-scale terrorism in the United States since 9/11 (in contrast with the European Muslim experience). But overall, I’m not convinced by his general argument, in part because I think “core al-Qaeda” still poses a direct threat to the United States, and I fear that the Internet and other new means of communication are providing training in a way that makes even “franchise terror groups” capable of carrying out a massive attack.

Fallows also touches on issues of homeland security at various points in the story, but more at a superficial level, perhaps as a result of the people who he interviewed, comparatively few of whom have deep knowledge of U.S homeland security efforts. For example, he points out the problems with the student visa system but doesn’t mention steps taken to address this issue, which has led to a solid turnaround in the number of F1 visas granted. And he has an odd passage where he bashes spending money on homeland security activities related to prevention of attacks:

Four analysts—Mueller, of Ohio State; Lustick, of the University of Pennsylvania; plus Veronique de Rugy, of the American Enterprise Institute; and Benjamin Friedman, of MIT—have written extensively about the mindlessness and perverse effects of much homeland-security spending. In most cases, they argue, money dabbed out for a security fence here and a screening machine there would be far better spent on robust emergency-response systems. No matter how much they spend, state and federal authorities cannot possibly protect every place from every threat. But they could come close to ensuring that if things were to go wrong, relief and repair would be there fast.

Really? Is the best thing that we could spend money on cleaning up after the attack? I would argue that we need to spend money on both, and that in terms of state & local grants, there probably has not been enough emphasis on prevention to date. And more broadly, if Fallows wants to seriously go after wasteful spending, he’s looking at the wrong target. He should follow James Surowiecki’s lead in the New Yorker this week, and focus on the tens of billions that DOD is still spending each year to fight the Cold War. Surowiecki notes:

Even more strikingly, while we pour money into all these new projects we’re underfunding crucial homeland-security programs. In the past few months, Congress has eliminated six hundred and fifty million dollars for port security. Funding for New York City’s security projects was cut forty per cent. And we cut nearly a hundred million from the requested budget for preventing the use of nuclear weapons in the U.S. Those cuts were considered necessary for budgetary reasons, yet the price of all of them together was less than a third of what it will cost to build a single destroyer. That ship will offer us not a whit of protection in the war on terror. But we can be sure it will keep the seas safe from the Soviet Navy.

Overall though, Fallows’ story in worth reading. It contains a number of interesting quotes from experts in various fields, and makes solid contribution to the debate on the war on terror.

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