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Shahid Buttar Headshot

Leaving Cards on the Counter-Terror Table: Ways to Better Wage the "War on Terror"

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When taking the oath of office last month, President Obama declared to "those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents...that, 'Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.'" His commitment to resisting extremism reflects the continuation of his predecessor's war paradigm in confronting international terrorism.

But as the Obama Administration crafts its approach to combating extremism, it enjoys a series of opportunities to engage the counter-terrorism mission more seriously than did the Bush Administration. For eight years, our nation has been presented a false choice between liberty and security. But the choice is simply false: we can better wage the struggle against militants by ending corporate subsidies that fan the flames of violence abroad.

If policymakers recognized how these instances of corporate welfare facilitate terrorism at its root, several debates (including those around civil liberties, agricultural subsidies, import tariffs, the war on drugs and foreign policy) would shift dramatically. We need not sacrifice our nation's fundamental constitutional freedoms to address extremist violence. Rather, we need merely stop pursuing corporate subsidies that -- while seemingly unrelated to terrorism -- inadvertently encourage it.

U.S. Support for Dictators Abroad

Oceans of ink, and too little sweat, has been spilled exposing the simple reality that U.S. military aggression in Iraq has encouraged and strengthened militant extremists by enraging and mobilizing their recruits. Bush Administration officials (e.g., Rumsfeld, Cheney, Yoo, Addington and sitting 9th Circuit Judge Jay Bybee) did the same by condoning torture. And U.S. military support for Israel, unmitigated even by flagrant human rights violations and the mass slaughter of civilians, further inflames this tension.

While these policies have proven contentious, many others have not even gotten a public hearing -- despite offering a slimmer political target, greater promise in preventing terror, and greater support for Rule of Law principles violated by the Bush Administration.

The U.S. gives billions of dollars each year to proxy powers across the globe governed by dictators. This "aid" largely takes the form of U.S. taxpayer-funded purchases from U.S. corporate weapons dealers to supply arms ultimately used to oppress freedom-seeking people abroad. Our willingness to place corporate welfare above democracy abroad at once both reveals our nation's hypocrisy and antagonizes the very same populations whose hearts & minds we need to win.

The three countries in which established U.S. foreign policy continues to most undermine our long-term security interests are not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Israel -- but rather Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. While the U.S. maintains a more subtle military presence in the latter three countries, our support for authoritarian regimes there has supported militants by undermining U.S. claims to support democracy abroad.

We have given over $25 billion in military aid to Egypt since 1979. Washington has pledged $20 billion for Saudi Arabia over the next 10 years. And $10 billion sent to Pakistan's former dictator since 2001 ultimately disappeared. These subsidies for U.S. corporate weapons manufacturers are even more expensive in terms of their costs to our international legitimacy. In sharp contrast, freedom is, after all, free.

Put simply, while the U.S. claims to its own citizens to support democracy abroad, that claim is a charade transparent to people in other countries. It's not "our freedoms" that "they hate," but rather our weapons -- and our longstanding penchant of giving them to regimes that deny freedoms and oppress their own people. Even conservative foreign policy experts have argued that, well before 9-11, the "presence [of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia wa]s known to contribute to anti-American sentiment."

The U.S. has somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the inexorable march towards democracy that it once helped start. And we have betrayed that value for crass economic reasons. Even the Federal Reserve Chairman conceded that invading Iraq was driven by ambitions to capture middle east oil resources. The variety of corporate interests driving militarism -- those of weapons dealers, military contractors or outright mercenaries seeking corporate welfare -- are well documented.

Princeton economist Alan Krueger argues that poverty and economic deprivation can not, without more, explain violent extremism. He is accurate, as is the implication that fixing poverty, alone, would not fix the problem. After all, the 9-11 hijackers were middle class; Saudi Arabia (where they came from) is a rich country; and poor sub-Saharan African countries have never exported terror to the U.S.

Be that as it may, poverty -- especially when combined with the political deprivation implicit in supporting dictatorships -- doesn't help. And militants themselves have shared a recurring message explaining their motivation: it is political deprivation, at root, fueling escalating global dissent against U.S. foreign policy.

Rather than support dictatorships, we should support democracy. It is our strongest, most significant and most honored export. For 50 years, confused and counter-productive "aid" from Washington has entrenched autocrats perceived as friendly to our short-term interests. We need to set aside subsidies for weapons dealers in favor of investing instead in our international goodwill.

Agricultural Subsidies

Agricultural subsidies play a key role in facilitating terrorism, while also failing to achieve the benefits claimed by supporters. In the short term, humanitarian assistance in the wake of major disasters can in the short-term help build pro-U.S. sentiment in areas torn by crisis, as it did in Pakistan after a major earthquake in 2005. But "development assistance" over the longer-term often takes the form of food aid, which can destabilize local food production capacity, predisposing recipient countries to discontent that militants leverage in their outreach and recruitment efforts.

When U.S. grain is dumped on foreign markets at less than the cost of local production, the ultimate effect is to drive small farmers in those countries out of the market, leaving their countries dependent on U.S. grain. When it becomes scarce (like when we squander it on ethanol), they suffer price shocks: less supply increases the cost, which quickly grows out of reach, leaving millions hungry.

Pakistan is a classic example. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last year, the country was roiling from shortages and resulting price shocks affecting everything from milk to wheat. If ever there were a recipe for uncontained violence, a starving population would be it.

Moreover, while systematically encouraging the overproduction driving food aid, farm subsidies don't even help their intended recipients. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, "although farm subsidies are promoted as being necessary to provide income maintenance for poor farmers, they . . . function as the largest corporate welfare program maintained by the federal government. . . . [F]ar from saving America's family farms, the current farm subsidy system is destroying them." Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that "10% of recipients receive 66% of the payments," while "80% of producers get just 16% of all subsidies."

The next time corporate farm enterprises lobby Congress to maintain subsidies through which they fleece the American people of billions of dollars, they should face tough questions. They should address how subsidies displace small farmers, and by encouraging overproduction, fuel an outmoded industrial production paradigm risking catastrophic environmental costs. And international development and counter-terrorism experts should explain how the uses of that overproduction abroad undermines international stability and lays a foundation for militant recruitment.

Textile Tariffs

Tasneem Noorani, the former Secretary of several federal agencies in Pakistan, including the Departments of Commerce and Interior, said in an interview last year that "the single most effective thing that Washington could do to stop terrorism" would be to lift textile tariffs. Doing so would let people from Central Asia make a decent living under the free trade principles long championed in DC.

Market theorists counsel developing countries to focus development efforts on their comparative advantages: products in which they are most uniquely suited to fill global demand. For Afghanistan, Morocco, or Pakistan artisans, the local comparative advantages would include textiles, which account for nearly half of Pakistan's manufacturing base.

But U.S. markets -- as advocates for global justice have long noted -- are not free. In sharp contrast, tariffs on textile imports place developing countries at an enormous economic disadvantage. Despite pursuing Washington's advice to build capacity to fill western demand for cheap fabrics and clothes, they are largely excluded from the U.S. market. Nor is the observation recent; diplomatic proposals to allow Pakistan access to the U.S. textile market have been steadily rejected for years in order to protect the vestigial remains of an industry once powerful in the American south.

Many Carribbean countries, and some in Africa, receive preferential status for their textile imports. But why limit the supposed benefits of free trade to these countries? To whatever extent tariffs and other import protections help domestic textile manufacturers (which is itself limited for several reasons), any potential competition impedes those benefits. The source is arbitrary. Is the U.S. interest in economic stability really greater in, say, Jamaica, than in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

The War on Drugs

Perhaps the strongest step we could take in the short-term would be to cut militant networks off from one of their primary sources of fundraising: the poppy trade in Afghanistan.
I will not here reiterate the overwhelming arguments against the failed War on Drugs: that it has led to institutional racism throughout our criminal justice system; that it has enriched domestic smugglers who have taken advantage of black markets that inevitably emerge to fill unabated demand; that it violates the fundamental principle that individual behavior in a democratic society should be regulated only to the extent it imposes concrete harms on third parties; or that it forms a legal subsidy for alternative industries left unregulated, like alcohol and beverages.

The salient point for now is that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan continues to climb, and that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have largely captured the industry's profits in return for protecting shipments. The poppy trade has become a vital financing vehicle for militants. Senior U.S. government officials testified as long as five years ago that "profits from the production of illegal narcotics flow into the coffers of warlord militias, corrupt government officials and extremist forces."

Unfortunately, the trend is in the wrong direction. After dropping dramatically under Taliban control, it is the only sector of the global drug trade expanding in recent years, with the crop doubling in size since 2000 under NATO stewardship. Afghanistan now accounts for 92% of the global heroine supply, worth over $3 billion (nearly half the country's GDP) per year.

The current U.S. strategy -- unsupported by our NATO allies -- is to try eradicating the poppy crop. That strategy is even more futile than it is expensive: last June, DEA agents arrested an Afghan police chief with 30 kilos of heroine worth over $1.5 million. There is no reason to presume that his participation in the drug trade was any more the exception than the rule. Noting the economic pressures facing Afghan farmers, several U.S. agencies and the British and Canadian governments have agreed with the conclusion, written in a report by the State Department's Inspector General in 2007, that eradication efforts are "not realistic." Eradication can succeed only in further inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment.

Proposing an alternative policy, former U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scrowcroft has gone so far as to suggest that "NATO should buy the whole poppy production" to keep it from falling into terrorist hands. Getting the poppy trade out of militant hands is absolutely crucial. However, this may be an arena in which markets can do more effectively what we might otherwise leave to the government. A response taking into account the free market principles championed by Scowcroft's allies would suggest letting end users (like medical patients in India, or heroin users in Europe, rather than U.S. taxpayers) purchase Afghanistan's poppies.

Either approach would save the $420 million spent on eradication in 2006 alone, and a market-based solution would further save the $3 billion annual cost of buying the crop wholesale in Afghanistan. Moreover, end users buying at retail would generate nearly $40 billion, over 10 times as much as a wholesale purchase by the U.S. government. Letting that money go to Afghan farmers -- with the beleagured central government taxing it -- would both support the resurgence of Afghan civil society while also striking a vital financial blow against violent extremists.

Lose Subsidies, not Liberty

Despite the bluster and supposed focus of the Bush Administration, it did shockingly little that actually helped advance national security and, in fact, a great deal to actively undermine it. Like port security issues highlighted by Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections, these policies represent the Obama Administration's opportunities to address security needs unmet by the "muscular" flailing of the last eight years.

They also represent policy choices that persist due only to political inertia and special interests. The President last month criticized "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Unfortunately, those hard choices that we failed to make have yet to receive the attention they deserve.

Three sets of interests have long been patronized in Washington, largely because their counter-terrorism implications are widely overlooked or ignored. Weapons dealers and mercenaries seeking military contracts; corporate farms clamoring for agricultural subsidies; textile producers pressuring their Senators to preserve tariffs on foreign competition; and police departments seeking federal largesse for a discriminatory War on Drugs would all meet a very different reception on Capitol Hill if policymakers recognized how their policy aims encourage international terrorism.

We have proven willing to sacrifice liberty on the altar of national security. But this choice is inapt. Domestic spying, torture and preventive detention have shattered bedrock liberty principles, while doing little to actually help the struggle against extremism. In sharp contrast, our national security could be vastly enhanced by ending corporate subsidies that drive recruits into the arms of our enemies by denying economic and political opportunity abroad.