The Cato Institute’s Malou Innocent sparked an interesting conversation last week on the nature of the terrorist threat America faces. Writing at the The Skeptics, in a post appropriately titled “They Hate Us Because We Don’t Know Why They Hate Us,” Innocent says of the trend of Western-born Muslims who have become radicalized in recent years,
The narrative that most of these men subscribed to in the wake of 9/11 was that America sought to weaken and control the Islamic world. To them, the West was not only fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also threatening to launch a third against Iran. The West bombs remote villages in nuclear-armed Pakistan, may soon expand operations into Somalia and Yemen, and holds untold numbers of Muslims in secret prisons around the world.
Western policies may have fueled the self-fulfilling prophecy that these radicals were fighting against the West’s cultural domination and toward the ultimate goal of a global Islamic caliphate.
As a 2006 Government Accountability Office report noted, “U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations.” A 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board report observed, “Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather, they hate our policies.”
While she specifically cites the 2004 Defense Science Board Report that should have put to rest the ridiculous notion that terrorists “hate us for our freedom,” her argument echoes the same logic put forth by Robert Pape in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism and his more recent work with James K. Feldman, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Pape’s thesis is that the common motivating force behind groups who employ suicide terrorism to further their aims—from Islamic extremists like al Qaeda to Marxist-secular groups like the recently defeated Tamil Tigers—is occupation by a democratic, foreign power. There are other factors that contribute to suicide terrorism—and Pape does not seek to diminish them—but the main causal link is foreign occupation. Ignoring the fact that U.S. government policies might have negative consequences, in favor trite platitudes about freedom-hating terrorists, does little to keep the American people safe. As Innocent notes,
For far too long, politicians and pundits have danced around these uncomfortable truths. But it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.
Greg Scoblete weighed in at the Compass soon after Innocent’s post and, while generally agreeing with her, felt there was an important argument contradicting her point, and it came from her Cato colleague Benjamin Friedman. He quotes Friedman as saying,
It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.
The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent — no one would call Mohammed Atta that — or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like [would-be Times Square bomber Faizal] Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.
The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason. They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.
Scoblete wonders how the threat could be so bad that we should change our foreign policy to avoid it, but not be so bad that we should really worry about it. He asserts, “It seems to me you can’t argue that on the one hand, the threat from terrorism is rather small and manageable, and on the other that it is so grave that we need to make major changes to American foreign policy.” Right on cue, Daniel Larison offers Scoblete a rebuttal:
It isn’t that the threat is huge. The threat isn’t huge. What matters is that it is avoidable. When calculating the costs and benefits of U.S. policies, it becomes important then to consider whether these policies are doing enough to serve the national interest that they merit the risk of incurring regular attacks on Americans at home and around the world. Whether the threat is relatively large or small, there is no reason to expose the United States to needless dangers. The threat is nowhere near as dire as warmongers make it out to be, but it is much greater than it has to be, and the threat exists in no small part because the people demagoguing and exaggerating the threat frequently prevail in seting [sic] policy.
Scoblete is not wrong to question what might seem like a contradiction, but Larison is correct in his response—as are both Friedman and Innocent in there statements. Terrorism is a complex problem that offers no easy answers, but it is a problem that can be managed. Understanding the reasons for terrorist attacks are a good place to start. When that reason is traced back to a policy of the U.S. government, then that policy should be examined. It doesn’t necessarily mean the policy should be immediately changed or rescinded, but it needs to be determined if the policy is necessary to advance the interests of the United States and the American people—and then, if it is not, it should be changed or rescinded. This is also true of how the United States responds to the threat of terrorism—or to actual attacks themselves. If one of the most prominent reasons cited for the September 11th attacks was the stationing of U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula—home to the holiest sites in the Islamic faith—invading and occupying the home to more of the holiest places in Islam might just make the problem worse (in other words, invading Iraq was probably not a good idea).
Of course, defining which policies are in America’s interest and which merely exacerbate the threat of terrorism is complicated by the fact that America does little to prioritize its interests. An America that defines it interests more narrowly than it does currently would find that to be a much easier process, but it is still a process that can started immediately. Until then, the question that needs to be asked is what level of terrorism is acceptable to maintain the interventionist foreign policy that enjoys bipartisan support inside the Beltway?