The power of terrorism is its ability to provoke counterproductive and irrational state responses that make citizens less secure and less free in the long run. This is what the Obama administration must guard against as it adjusts its counterterrorism strategy in the aftermath of the attempted downing of a Northwest airliner on Christmas Day by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Above all, the president must avoid being pushed into the terror trap by right-wing critics like Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Their calls for stepping up intervention in Yemen and rolling back civil liberties at home are exactly the kind of actions we should avoid.
In response to hawkish critics, the administration and some of its supporters–including a few progressive commentators–have been reinforcing some of the wrong lessons. They cite the administration’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the military’s increasing drone strikes and not-so-secret war in Pakistan, and the dispatch of Special Forces to Yemen to attack the local Al Qaeda group there. And the administration’s decision to subject all citizens from fourteen nations to intensified airport searches is an egregious case of ethnic/national profiling that will do little to stop terrorism but will be quite effective at spreading anti-American sentiment.
The attempted Christmas attack, along with other incidents of the past year, should call into question key parts of the Obama strategy. For there is increasing evidence that the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are generating new terrorist threats. Those wars–specifically, American and British killings of Muslims on Muslim soil–were probably a major factor in the turn to radical Islam and terrorism of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the five Virginia men who were recently arrested in Pakistan, much like the London bombers before them and Abdulmutallab as well.
The Christmas incident demonstrates ever more clearly that the best antidote to terrorism is not military action but good intelligence and police work and appropriate security measures designed to keep terrorists out of the country. That is why there has been so much attention (appropriately) given to the intelligence failure to connect the dots and to have a coordinated no-fly list. It also demonstrates the importance of Obama’s emphasis on restoring America’s good name in an effort to deny Islamist radicals a sympathetic audience. Indeed, the first line of defense against terrorism is the Muslim community. We have seen that in the case of the families of the five Virginia men and again with Abdulmutallab’s father, who warned the US Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s radicalization.
It would be a catastrophic mistake to treat Yemen as a new terror launching pad that requires US military action. To be sure, the Al Qaeda group there has taken credit for the attempted attack, but its purpose may be to draw the United States further and more openly into the conflict in Yemen in the hope of garnering more support from a public that for historical reasons is largely anti-American.
The appropriate response to the failed Christmas attack is not to open yet another military front but to wind down our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and emphasize those things that make America an integrated society of many races, faiths and ethnicities. Such a strategy would cost far less than our wars and would provide much greater security in the long run.