Monday, July 09, 2007

Questioning the Nature of the Threat

Since 9/11, I have been in an intellectual debate with myself about the nature of the threat posed by global terrorists to the United States. On the one hand, I look at the low numbers of people killed by terrorists, even in hot spots like Israel, and question how this problem could truly threaten the stability of the free world. The arguments of people like John Mueller make an convincing argument that the threat is overblown, largely because the government reacts to the irrational fears of a skittish public, and that scarce resources would be better spent protecting the nation from more serious threats.

On the other hand, I understand the ultimately fragile foundation on which liberal democracies rest: belief in the ability of government to provide security and order. If citizens do not believe that the government is in charge and can protect society, the social order unravels as people do what they can to protect themselves. No free society can exist if people lose faith in their government. Now, the case of Israel demonstrates that that faith can be sustained even in the face of a sustained campaign of suicide bombings; it's not the amount of risk that matters, but whether citizens believe the government is doing what it can to deal with the threat.

I go back and forth on this issue and find myself perhaps more conflicted on this than on any other question in international politics.

Which is why I found a story in yesterday's New York Times so disturbing. The Times reported that, in 2005, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld aborted a raid on a meeting of al Qaeda chiefs in Pakistan, a meeting at which Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number 2 in the terrorist organization, was believed to be attending. According to the article, "Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said."

Furthermore:

the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.
...
Officials said one reason Mr. Rumsfeld called off the 2005 operation was that the number of troops involved in the mission had grown to several hundred, including Army Rangers, members of the Navy Seals and C.I.A. operatives, and he determined that the United States could no longer carry out the mission without General Musharraf’s permission. It is unlikely that the Pakistani president would have approved an operation of that size, officials said.

Some outside experts said American counterterrorism operations had been hamstrung because of concerns about General Musharraf’s shaky government.

“The reluctance to take risk or jeopardize our political relationship with Musharraf may well account for the fact that five and half years after 9/11 we are still trying to run bin Laden and Zawahri to ground,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

In and of itself, there is nothing particularly surprising or troubling about the decision to cancel the raid. Politics is a messy business, and goals always need to be considered in the larger picture. Given the uncertainty about Zawahiri's presence, given the risk to US personnel, given the risk to the stability of the Pakistani government, a plausible case for canceling the raid isn't hard to grasp.

However, the decision can't even be examined solely in those lights. It was made in the context of a "War on Terror" in which this country is being asked to place extraordinary trust in our government. We are being asked to permit our government to listen in to our phone calls without warrants, to use coercive interrogation techniques, to suspend habeas corpus for those suspected of terrorism, to spend billions of dollars on protecting this country (not to mention impose idiotic regulations like the restrictions of liquids on planes), to sacrifice thousands of our soldiers, and many other leaps of faith.

I do not support all of the policies that the Bush Administration has implemented, but I have tried to view all of them in the context of the nature of the threat. I believed that the Administration believed terror to be a primary threat to this country and that the policies represented honest attempts to do what would best protect the US.

But how can the Bush Administration justify these requests when it won't take risks to apprehend or kill one of the two most important global terrorists? If the threat from terrorism has been overblown and isn't really that serious, then the decision to abort the raid makes sense: Why take all those risks to deal with something that isn't all that threatening? But in the context of the policies that the Bush Administration has implemented, the decision cannot be justified. If terror is the primary threat, or at least one of the primary threats, if combating terror requires the encroaching on civil liberties, then shouldn't the potential risks of the mission been outweighed of neutralizing Zawahiri?

This one instance does not resolve the argument in my head, but it certainly tips the scales.

1 comment:

Aden Ramsey said...

The wisdom of Rumsfeld's decision is indeed questionable, but consider the political ramifications of a U.S. attack on Pakistani soil with sufficient collateral damage that did not result in the death of al-Zawahiri. Even if we were successful, Pakistanis would have taken to the streets and Mush's legitimacy would have been significantly undermined. If we weren't successful, Pakistani cooperation would have diminished significantly.

Now, combine that slippery cost-benefit analysis with an insufficiently developed agenda in the War on Terror, and the discussion circles back to your intellectual debate. The most reasonable opinion I've heard in that debate is this: 9/11 exposed the U.S. vulnerability to global terrorism, whether through insufficient domestic security mechanisms or failures of foreign policy. As for foreign policy, Bush began by striking out against the most prominent supporters of foreign terrorism, Afghanistan and alQaeda, but that soon turned into a game of Whack-a-Mole. The policy became even more murky as Bush attempted to shift the dynamic of Middle East politics through the "liberation of Iraq." By 2005, policy and mission priorities were in a state of chaos. We remain in that situation today, trying to tread water for lack of a better policy.

Nevertheless, the failure of current policy does not remove the necessity that inspired that policy. Instead, it makes the premise for the War on Terror ripe for re-investigation and calls for new policy proposals. I'd be interested to read your intellectual debate on those premises and proposals...