The bane of most policy debates is failure to define precisely and clearly what the problem is. The current debate on drone assassinations of U.S. citizens abroad and related issues vividly demonstrates that truth. The unspoken premise is that the country is menaced by powerful forces that could strike the United States of American targets at any time. We remain in thrall to the horrific images of 9/11. So awful is the prospect of a repeat, so raw are the emotions, so lingering is the dread that it distorts our thinking and warps assessments of what actual threats are out there. As a consequence, we have trapped ourselves in a nightmare where we are hostage to our own irrational impulses.
For over a decade, the American body politic has been in a heightened state of alert -- primed to deal with external dangers. All the 'fight' mechanisms have been mobilized as adrenalin races through the blood stream and hormones are elevated. Defense systems are bolstered, the pulse quickens and muscles tighten. We acted: a few times calculatingly, most of time impetuously. Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban and fracture al-Qaida made sense in terms of its ends-means logic. So, too, did the hunt for al-Qaida's senior operatives. Both succeeded, albeit the latter mainly through the efforts of the Pakistanis.
But most of our frenetic violence in the "war on terror" has been misguided: its chosen targets of uncertain threat to the United States, its methods crude, its implementation incompetent and corrupt (except in narrow and tactical military terms), politically obtuse, ethically deeply compromised and counter-productive. It has come to be robotic as muscle displaces mind. Driven by fear rather than foresight, the trumpeted "WAR ON TERROR" has seriously damaged American. The gravest, most enduring damage has been done to American self-identity and the country's capacity for somber, discriminating action -- as opposed to disjointed, aimless flailing. As with an auto-immune system run amok, the over stressed body politic began to attack itself. The killing of American citizens by drones, the gross abuses of civil liberties represented by massive surveillance and now the draconian provisions of the NDAA that VOID basic habeas corpus provisions of the Constitution, and the suppression of criticism are doing irreparable harm to the health of the Republic.
It is imperative to realize that these wounds are not sacrifices made in the pursuit of a necessary cause. For America today is not endangered as it was in September 2001. In fact, such threats as may be lurking are quite minor by any reasonable measure -- absolute or relative. They are far lower than those faced by Western European governments in the 1970s and 1980s and roughly comparable to the dangers experienced here at that time.
It is not a question of whether we have enemies who wish us ill -- but rather whether the lethal intent of some is matched by the requisite capability and will to do us grievous harm. Who exactly are we so terrified by? The old al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden which pulled off 9/11 (in good part because of our own lapses) ceased to exist as a viable, competent entity years ago. Its remnants that haunt the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands are barely able to provide for their own survival. The violence in that region is perpetrated by the Afghan Taliban, its quite autonomous Pakistani cousin Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), semi-autonomous associated groups like the Haqqani network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, and various freelancers.
Both Taliban groups, moreover, have strictly local agendas. They have not killed a single American, or Westerner, outside of Afghanistan. Yes, the former did provide hospitality to al-Qaeda on ideological grounds and as a carry-over from their solidarity within the mujahedeen (and American backed) insurgency against the Soviets). However, that is the past. There is no reason or interest for them to contemplate doing so again. Their Pashtun-based movement cannot regain the position of power or freedom of action they had in 2001 as all knowledgeable observers agree. The Taliban clearly are prepared to confirm a practical and formal break with al-Qaida as part of the inescapable negotiations with Washington and the Karzai government.
Then there is Hezbullah concentrated in Lebanon. The Shi'ite, Iran linked organization has no connection to militantly Sunni al-Qaida. Its range of interest and capability is parochial. Its obsession is with Lebanese sectarian politics and Israel. Its members, too, have never attacked Americans outside of Lebanon.
Of course, the name al-Qaida lives on to awe us and frighten us. We have al-Qaida in Mesopotomia that is a reaction to the American invasion and occupation. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsular has the House of Saud in its sights and is challenging the American sponsored government in Yemen as one element in the multi=party civil wars there. Al-Qaida the Horn of Africa is the rebranding of
Somalia's al-Sabaab which has been fighting its own sectarian war for a couple of decades. The latest spin-off is al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa -- a disparate coalition of jihadi groups drawn from Algeria, Algeria and Sahel states including Mali where it, along with its non-jihadi partners, have been routed by the French. These al-Qaeda franchises are self-contained groups each with its own local agendas, highly limited means and only local organization. There are some currents in Europe but they are inchoate and unable even to act within their own countries. That's it folks -- there ain't no more.
The paucity and weakness of real as opposed to fanciful terrorist threats to the United States from Islamist jihadis is reflected in what has not happened in the past 11+ years. Over that entire period, we have experienced a couple of amateurish attempts to bring down airliners -- awful to contemplate but nowhere near on par with 9/11. We also have experienced a number of FBI fomented so-called plots domestically of the Keystone Kops variety which, in another day and age, would be laughed off the front pages. It should have added that this relatively benign state of affairs is in no way due to the infringement of Americans civil liberties -- at home or abroad, nor due to rendition and torture -- the tall tales of Zero Dark Thirty notwithstanding.
America's political class has mobilized the country for total war. Its open-ended dedication to a Global War on Terror has entailed spending a couple of trillion dollars, launching great armies to Iraq and Afghanistan, building an elite corps of 60,000 Special Forces and dispatching them to scores of countries, deploying 1,700 drones, enlisting legions of bashi bazouk mercenaries, expanded an already vast intelligence apparatus that spends $83 billion per annum and embraces 843,000 people with Top Secret security clearances, accepting casualties in the tens of thousands, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of locals, and staining the good name of the United States. The extravagant use of our physical might shattered a country that had nothing to do with 9/11; it leaves Afghanistan in the same turbulent state it was in early 2002; and generates great ill-will toward America across the Islamic world. The enemy? Long since reduced to small scattered groups who could not inflict even modest damage on the United States -- assuming that at some future point they might acquire the means and the inclination to do so.
To mask this vast discrepancy between a less than terrifying reality and the well cultivated images of a monstrous enemy, our leaders have reverted to systematic dissembling. They exaggerate the size and capability of the jihadist groups. They expand the definition of the 'threat' to include those with only local agendas. They confuse non-violent Islamic Salafists with violent jihadis. They lump together incongruous couples among the world's bad guys in concocted conspiracies: Sunni al-Qaida and Shi'ite Iran; Islamic jihadis and Latin American drug cartels. They mark as suspect entire communities at home and abroad. They create the enemy they need -- its fictitious nature notwithstanding.
What we have experienced is a level of pervasive cynicism among our leaders, in and outside of government, that serves selfish interests - be they political, doctrinal, pecuniary or purely careerist.
Osama bin Laden may be living with the fishes -- but he still haunts the American mind and soul. His malevolence is marching on. That is not because we've been beaten or outsmarted. We simply have frightened ourselves literally out of our wits.
How did the American people become so gullible and passive? That's another part of this sad tale.