DARING TO REASSESS TERRORISM'S THREAT
It is a common experience for journalists covering low-intensity conflicts to see masses of civilians running from the mere rumor of far-off attacks. They flee in motor vehicles driven at high speed down narrow, overcrowded roads, often at night without lights for fear of enemy fire. The result is a death rate from accidents that often dwarfs the losses from enemy action. Yet despite the wrecks littering the sides of the roads, nothing will persuade the drivers that they are making a false calculation of risk. They think they know how to drive. They do not understand the relative risks of war.
In this important book, John Mueller dares to raise this issue with regard to the United States: whether the entire response to 9/11 — not just the war in Iraq, but the “war on terror” itself, and the monstrous security bureaucracy it has spawned — is, in his word, “overblown.” He suggests that 9/11 was probably a one-time event that cannot be repeated; that the threat from domestic terrorist groups in the United States is almost nonexistent; and that the administration, politicians, security bureaucracy and news media have whipped the American population into a state of terror over terrorism that is simply not justified by the facts.
In his words: “Which is the greater threat: terrorism, or our reaction against it? ... A threat that is real but likely to prove to be of limited scope has been massively, perhaps even fancifully, inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety. This process has then led to wasteful, even self-parodic expenditures and policy overreactions.”
As Mueller explains in “Overblown,” fear of flying after 9/11 led to increases in long-distance driving that probably killed far more people in accidents than died on the four hijacked planes on 9/11. More Americans have now been killed in Iraq than were killed on the day of the attacks, while the number of Iraqi and Afghan deaths exceeds the 9/11 figure by orders of magnitude.
Mueller points to the pathetic results of domestic antiterrorism efforts compared with the rhetoric accompanying them. In six years, with the exception of the 9/11 conspiracy itself, no serious terrorist cell on American soil has in fact been identified, and no serious terrorist attack has occurred in the country itself. Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of several books on international affairs, admits that tightened immigration security may have been partly responsible for the failure of international terrorists to penetrate the United States, but he suggests that the notoriously porous character of the Mexican border would have given them ample opportunities had they really been determined to exploit them.
A good deal of the domestic war on terror does indeed provide material for merciless fun — like the 80,000 potential terrorist targets in the United States listed by the Department of Homeland Security, including the Weeki Wachee Springs water park in Florida. Except of course, as Mueller observes, none of this is a joke in terms of money. Domestic security has proved a magnificent porkfest for a great range of beneficiaries, some of them even more unlikely than Weeki Wachee Springs. The expense in taxpayers’ dollars, in turn, pales beside the damage caused by sometimes illegal antiterrorism measures to the Constitution and to America’s prestige in the world.
Mueller looks to history to demonstrate a tradition of American overreaction to vastly overblown domestic and international threats. These included the supposed threat from German-Americans during the First World War and Japanese-Americans during the Second, and of course from American Communists during the McCarthy era and beyond.
Internationally, Mueller correctly notes episodes like the — entirely artificial — “missile gap,” exploited by John F. Kennedy and the Democrats to win the 1960 elections; and to the belief that the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would inevitably lead to the fall of countries across Asia. He talks of the tendency of the American establishment, all too often backed by the news media, to pick “devils du jour” like Sukarno of Indonesia (remember him?), and build them up into great Hitlerian menaces to American interests and well-being, when in many cases these were tinpot figures barely capable of controlling their own countries.
We know from the historical examples Mueller cites that there is a great deal to this picture. And if we had doubts about the capacity of today’s Americans to behave in the same way, the campaign for war with Iraq should certainly have dispelled them. So Mueller’s critique is in general accurate, timely and necessary. Unfortunately, he partly spoils his case by a lack of realism, and by a failure to relate American behavior to that of other countries. A particularly drastic example of these failings is in his discussion of America’s response to Pearl Harbor, an attack he compares to 9/11. He suggests that the United States had alternatives to all-out war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, and should have adopted a limited strategy of military containment and harassment. But the recommendation is absurd. The result of such a strategy would have been a victory by Japan and its long-term hegemony over most of Asia.
A better argument would be to say that in the cases of both Pearl Harbor and 9/11, an all-out response was absolutely inevitable — just as it would have been by any major state capable of fighting back. But after Pearl Harbor, the United States fought imperial Japan, and — following Hitler’s declaration of war — Nazi Germany. It did not veer off to confront other states completely unconnected to the attack.
This is the mystery that Mueller’s book does not fully address: The fact that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 has not been an all-out struggle against the perpetrators. On the contrary, Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants were allowed to slip away and are still at large. The high command of the Taliban was also permitted to escape, and is now engaged in a ferocious counteroffensive. One critical reason for this was that within weeks of the Taliban’s overthrow, the Bush administration, with the support of much of America’s political class and news media, was already diverting troops and attention toward planning the war with Iraq.
If, God forbid, Islamist terrorists do succeed in launching another major attack on the United States, then Mueller will be accused of having underplayed the danger. There is something to this. He is, in my view, too complacent both about the inexorable spread of the technologies of mass destruction and the spread of extremist ideologies, especially among the Muslims of Europe. These threats need to be taken extremely seriously. Where Mueller is quite right, however, is in arguing that all too many of the responses to terrorism adopted by the Bush administration have ranged from the pointless to the disastrous. Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author, with John Hulsman, of “Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World.”