It Is How You Deal with the Threat that Matters

This blog has certainly gotten to be fun. Clark says that I misconstrued his God analogy in my first response. Actually what I did was not engage it because I thought it beside the point. But since Clark repeated it, I will engage it now. Essentially Clark’s argument is that it is better to be safe than sorry and he tries to draw the parallel to a person opting to believe in God because this is a decision with no downside and potentially limitless upside. Not believing in God, on the other hand, may have a huge downside.

John, Veronique and I, however, are not debating the existence of the terrorist threat (see why I didn’t want to touch the God analogy!). We are discussing how we assess it and how we ought to deal with it. Clark prefers to dwell in an existential discussion, while we are grappling with the practical consequences of something we know exists.

I don’t know Clark, so I won’t ascribe motives, but his argument is reminiscent (in dulcet tones, though) of the harmful polemics of the Cold War. “Don’t trust X because he won’t do enough to protect your child.” “X doesn’t believe the Soviets want world domination. That is naïve. Why should we as Americans entrust our security to that person?” Both political parties tried to outbid each other in the 1950s on national security terms and the results were the Bomber and Missile Gaps, periods when we overbuilt our national security state to face what turned out to be a much more manageable threat.

Next week I have a new book coming out on the 50s and 60s called Khrushchev’s Cold War (with Aleksandr Fursenko) that uses Presidium/Politburo and KGB records to reconstruct what our adversary was thinking and doing in that period and how our government generally misunderstood what was going on. The Soviets were bad and Khrushchev was belligerent, but unless you were a freedom fighter in Hungary or Poland, they were a paper tiger. They knew it and used propaganda to scare us and we fell for it. The U.S. Air Force argued that even if there was no evidence of a large Soviet missile force, because we know their intentions, we must assume they have the largest missile force a dictatorship could build. So, the Air Force believed the Soviets had 500 InterContinental Ballistic Missiles [ICBMs], when they had about 40.

In the Cold War we had an economy robust enough to allow us to absorb the strategic errors of our leaders and so far the same holds true today. The housing market sustained our economy while we needlessly drained billions into creating a terrorist sanctuary in what was once known as Iraq. Now that the air is coming out of the housing bubble, we may start feeling the pinch.

My point is that it is not good enough for governments to accept the existence of a threat. What matters is how they deal with it. The Bush administration made a series of questionable strategic decisions about how to use U.S. resources to fight a terrorist gang with international affiliates. I believe that once official documents are opened (and the politicians whose fates are linked to our perception of reality have moved on) we will discover that there have been intelligence successes. There were some under Clinton in 2000, by the way, but outside the U.S. But I think the record will also show that the Bush doctrine of trying to prevent terrorism by remaking the world on the cheap helped to fuel the transformation of the Al Qaeda problem into the wider challenge of multiple gangs owing allegiance to an elusive and now near mythic bin Laden. “Mission Accomplished,” indeed.

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.