Wars in the Middle East have not delivered ironclad security at home. The Christmas Day plot in the skies above Detroit show that power has its limits. Such humbling realities are not unwelcome, as false hopes about the effectiveness of using force can be an even greater threat than the threats themselves. But hopes, however baseless, are not easily abandoned.
The apparent hand of an Al Qaeda-affiliate in Yemen in the attempt to bring down Northwest Flight 253 has some unsheathing their swords. Joe Lieberman, undeterred by his advocacy of the Iraq debacle, is hastily conjuring new foreign adventures. “Somebody in our government said to me in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, Iraq was yesterday’s war,” he told Fox News. “Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.”
Liberman’s warning highlights that, like the drug war, the “War on Terror” will never end. New enemies, real and imagined, will emerge while old ones metastasize. Thus, the campaign in Afghanistan, the first salvo in the War, had yet to conclude in 2003 when the terrorist threat was said to migrate to Iraq. It has now moved back, pendulum-like, to Afghanistan, with Yemen waiting in the wings.
So it is that the interminable War marches on seamlessly from one hot spot to another. Today’s terrorist redoubt du jour is tomorrow’s forgotten backwater. While terrorism is a real danger, as was made clear last week, more dangerous still is our overreaction to it. The misbegotten war in Iraq has cost the US far more in blood and treasure than any single terror attack, 9-11 included. Such spectacular own goals hearten our enemies. “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al Qaeda,” bin Laden once said, “in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything.” This tactic, he assured, would “bankrupt” the US, just as it did the Soviet Union.
The threat of overreacting to a threat is one paradox of the War on Terror. Indeed, Islamic extremism’s longevity is an open question. The Middle East, the heart of the Muslim world, is a backwater replete with authoritarian regimes incapable of providing jobs to their young and restive populations. Adding a religion that has yet to come to terms with modernity makes matters combustible. But it is very possible that militant Islam’s appeal will quickly fade just as other once-ascendant movements in the region did, like pan-Arabism, as it cannot deliver what matters most to most people: a better life.
A second paradox is that the quixotic War on Terror is a costly sideshow distracting from far more serious threats. Those multifaceted dangers derive, fundamentally, from growing global poverty. Consider that 60 million people are added to the world’s population annually, with almost all that growth happening in developing nations, the very ones least equipped to absorb the onslought.
A host of maladies, from destabilizing migrations to ethnic strife, are part and parcel of a world of want. Such problems are not localized. This year, for example, saw a record number of hijackings in one of the busiest maritime routes off impoverished Somalia—a potentially serious problem when 95 percent of global commerce moves by sea. Abduction of western oil workers riddles Nigeria, another African country on the brink. Swine flu fizzled but similar and more virulent pandemics are more likely when increasing numbers of subsistence farmers live in close proximity to their livestock.
The coming chaos will test the US. The country will have to use its power prudently lest it be overwhelmed by the challenges of a Hobbesian world. The War on Terror does not inspire confidence. An overreaction to one threat has imperiled the country’s ability to address a host of others coming down the pike. Shifting course will not be easy. Indeed, terrorism, by definition, seeks to sow fear in outsized proportions to the risk it presents. The urge to react irrationally will be great. With that in mind, taking careful note of Bin Laden’s boasts about inducing imperial overstretch and ignoring Joe Lieberman’s pompous saber rattling would be a healthy first step.