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A Counterproductive 'War on Terror'

By Ivan Eland
April 23, 2008


Editor’s Note: Though George W. Bush sold many Americans on the idea that the “war on terror” began on 9/11, it actually traces back much further to the reaction of Muslims to what they viewed as U.S. covert and overt interventions in the oil-rich Middle East.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland takes note of an earlier phase of this conflict and how Bush’s overreaction to 9/11 made matters worse:

At the passing of the 25th anniversary of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon—the first large suicide bombing to target Americans—the time is right to ask the perennial question: has the Bush administration’s “war on terror” since 9/11 made Americans safer?

Although the Bush administration regularly boasts that its war on terror has been effective because no large terrorists attacks on U.S. soil have occurred since 9/11, such terrorism in North America has historically been a rare event.

It’s like bragging that efforts to prevent lightning strikes have succeeded because a dwelling has not been struck or burned.

In fact, 9/11 was shocking to Americans not only because of the magnitude of the casualties, but because North America had seen very little terrorism coming from abroad. The last major international terrorist attack on U.S. soil was eight years before, in 1993 (also on the World Trade Center).

Predictions of terrorist attacks are hard to make, but the dramatic surge in suicide bombings overseas since the Bush administration’s war on terror began should increase our worries that another major attack could occur in the American homeland.

According to data from U.S. government terrorism experts, which were reported in the Washington Post, in 2000, the year before the war on terror began, 37 suicide attacks occurred worldwide. Since 9/11, the total climbed steadily to several hundred attacks in each of 2005 and 2006 and then exploded to a whopping 658 attacks in 2007.

What’s more, the attacks have occurred in dozens of countries on five continents. Yet according to U.S. intelligence officials, two-thirds of all suicide attacks since 1983 have targeted U.S. policy goals.

In other words, the war has been disastrously counterproductive.
Although the American homeland has been fairly safe since 9/11, suicide attacks against U.S. facilities overseas, such as embassies and military assets, and allies have skyrocketed. So the Bush administration’s bragging that its war on terror has made Americans safer is ludicrous.

In fact, the administration’s war on terror has played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands. A common strategy of terrorists is to strike the stronger aggressor, hope for an overreaction, and thus gain zealous recruits and funding for the terrorists’ cause.

Instead of using intelligence, law enforcement, and limited military and covert action in the shadows to capture or kill terrorists in a low-key way after 9/11, the administration’s highly publicized cowboy invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were overreactions that must have put a smile on bin Laden’s face.

With a tin ear for why bin Laden was attacking the United States in the first place—the superpower’s military presence and policy of political meddling in Muslim lands—the Bush administration has further inflamed Islamist radicals worldwide with more of the same.

That two-thirds of suicide attacks since 1983 have targeted U.S. policy goals is a euphemistic way of saying that the U.S. government is largely responsible for the problem of anti-U.S. terrorism.

The Bush administration has vehemently and publicly denied what the empirical data point to--by blaming anti-U.S. terrorist attacks on hatred of American freedoms. Polls taken in Islamic countries counter this viewpoint.

The American people, as if supporting their local sports team against a rival, would prefer to buy into this administration’s Tarzan-like foreign policy (“America good; others bad”).

Instead, we should be engaging in the more difficult, soul-searching task of discovering the root causes of anti-U.S. terrorism.

Americans could continue to give the benefit of the doubt to their government’s aggressive foreign policies in the Middle East, during both Democratic and Republican administrations, but that would be a delusional and dangerous choice.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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