Misunderstanding the Threat

At the core of this debate is a disagreement over the operational consequences of misunderstanding the threat. Clark Ervin employs the analogy of the Cold War and of personal faith to argue that these consequences are not significant enough, comparatively speaking, to weigh against accepting an expansive view of the terrorist challenge.

I take a different lesson from the Cold War (and leave personal faith to a different blog). With the possible exception of in 1945-48 and 1978-1979, the United States systematically overestimated the actual threat posed by the Soviet Union. Largely making the same argument as Clark Ervin, many U.S. policymakers pushed for defense budgets and a level of domestic fear that in retrospect appears not only unnecessary, but may have also contributed to the prolongation of the Cold War. The argument went like this: the Soviets are bad, have WMD and want world domination; therefore we must assume that we face annihilation and anyone who argues otherwise is irresponsible or worse. It is no accident that two of the proponents of the current war in Iraq and of the imperial presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were among the most vociferous defenders of the view in the 1980s that the Soviets were 12 feet tall and working to launch a first-strike on the U.S. Instead, the USSR was on the verge of collapse.

My point is that our system rarely offers up precise threat assessments. We either see a threat as all-encompassing or we tend to ignore it. What I read (and agreed with) in both Veronique de Rugy and John Mueller’s pieces was a plea for a more realistic assessment of the current threat and, accordingly, a smarter response. We all believe Al Qaeda is dangerous and that the terrorist threat extends beyond bin Laden’s group. Patriotic chest-thumping, however, is of little help when the problem is the recruitment of new operatives and suicide bombers. Can we somehow deter these recruitments? Are our military actions counterproductive in the political struggle for these people? By making bin Laden the focus of our public efforts are we not helping him stay visible and symbolic? We have already seen some of the costs of the overreaction. Leaving aside the hard question of whether the Iraq war in any way triggered the attacks in London last year, there can be no doubt that the U.S. government’s credibility with the American people has yet to recover from the WMD war propaganda before the invasion of Baghdad.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Five years after 9/11, are we any safer? In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller offers a set of provocative reflections on what that question might mean. Along the way, Mueller argues that the terrorist threat to American lives is overblown, and that the attempt to protect ourselves against any possible attack is impossible, and a waste of taxpayer money. “It would seem to make more sense,” Mueller writes, “to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.”

Response Essays

  • Clark Kent Ervin, Director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack counts himself among those who “strongly disagrees with both [John Mueller’s] premises and his conclusions.” Ervin stresses al Qaeda’s repeated intention to again attack the United States, and the alleged proliferation of terror cells in the United States and abroad. Ervin takes issue with what he calls Mueller’s “argumentum ad statisticum”–comparing terrorist murder to accidental death–and maintains that in a context of uncertainty about future attacks, “I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!”

  • Veronique de Rugy, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent. “Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.” The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

  • Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, argues that “the threat is getting wider without being deeper,” with new terror recruits failing to form “the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland.” Naftali argues that though the Bush administration deserves credit for weakening Al Qaeda, it has otherwise been “largely incompetent” in denying terrorists sanctuaries, and discouraging recruits to violent extremism. The main danger, Naftali contends, is that a terror group acquires a loose nuke, and the U.S. needs to attend more to this specific problem.