02/08/2013 07:37 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

From 9/11 to Targeted Killing

At the end of the Cold War, an American political consensus on the nature of the geostrategic environment dissolved along with the Soviet Union. A vigorous debate soon followed, but no consensus was reached. The events of 9/11 provided the next shock, and a new assessment of the geostrategic environment ensued. Lacking a coherent strategy to guide action, the U.S. reacted. Time has passed, strategy has evolved, and evidence has piled up. With a new national security team being formed, it's a good time to reexamine the problem and the response.

Post Cold War U.S. Thinking

The post-Cold War era spawned considerable debate about the future U.S. security environment. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987, 1989), Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1989, 1992), and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations (1993, 1998) were three of the most influential works of the era. Some very smart people thought hard about the national and international security environment following the Cold War.

Kennedy's thesis relies heavily on the linkage between a state's economy and its strategy. Great powers rise with growing relative economic strength. Great powers fall due to military overstretch and economic decline relative to their competitors. According to Kennedy, past empires fell because of the increasing costs of policing their empire, the increasing costs of military operations, and the growing strength of economic competitors. Deficit spending on the military is a primary reason for economic decline.

Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War was a tipping point in history when capitalism won out over communism. Hence forth, liberal democracy and market economy would spread to become the universal norm. Some already predisposed seized upon the idea and elevated the spread of democracy to be the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy, including the use of force.

Huntington's post-Cold War thesis includes a shift from state-on-state to nation-on-nation conflict. In the formal meaning, a nation is a people sharing a common sense of identity through language, history, culture, and values. In contrast, a state is a political entity with borders and institutions to defend and enforce the nation's norms. Some initially thought Clash would be used to justify continuing Cold War defense budgets. But 9/11 quickly removed that criticism, rightly or wrongly. There remains a legitimate debate today as to whether Huntington's culture-based understanding justifies defense budgets on par with the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation.

There was a fourth interpretation of the era following the Soviet Union's dissolution. Neoconservatives saw the absence of a competing superpower as an opportunity to accelerate the spread of democracy and capitalism through war without fear of interference from a competing superpower. Neocons in the Bush 43 Pentagon directed the Joint Staff to develop war plans to overthrow seven countries in five years.

Al Qaeda Strategy

While the U.S. was rethinking the geostrategic environment, al Qaeda was formulating and implementing strategy. The objective of al Qaeda's strategy is (was?) the establishment of a regional and then worldwide caliphate. The center of gravity, the point at which all effort is directed, is the U.S. economy. Suicide bombers, irregular military forces, and the Internet are the primary means of the strategy.

The U.S. response should be informed by, and perhaps be formulated to defeat, the opponent's strategy. The strategy formulated by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the intellectual lead of al Qaeda, was influenced by both Huntington's Clash and Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall.

  • From Clash, al-Zawahiri hoped to pit Islamic fundamentalists against Christian fundamentalists using religious language to infuriate and activate the crusading spirit of both sides.
  • From Rise and Fall, all efforts would be directed at the U.S. economy.
  • By committing terrorist attacks against the United States (e.g., 9/11, embassy bombings, USS Cole), al Qaeda hoped to draw the United States into invading a Muslim country (e.g., Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq) where al Qaeda had the advantage in a drawn out war of attrition. The presence of Western forces would have the desired effect of enraging the ummah (the people). Local resistance will form, outside jihadists will be attracted, and neighboring Muslim states will be drawn in.
  • By committing terrorist acts against other Western powers, al Qaeda hoped to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies. An increasingly isolated United States will bear the costs of war alone.
  • The growing economies of China and India would contribute to the relative economic decline of the U.S. at no cost to al Qaeda.
  • Economic collapse is the inevitable outcome of an increasingly isolated United States engaged in too many wars of attrition. Collapse of the worldwide economic system and global political instability will quickly follow and create the conditions for the Grand March leading to establishment of the caliphate.
Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia got mixed reviews. Al Qaeda considered it a victory, but it was denied the war of attrition it desired. Drawing U.S. forces into Afghanistan was considered a success and Iraq even more so. Deficit spending on the wars contributed to al Qaeda's strategic objectives. China and India have, in fact, grown in economic power relative to the United States. The terrorist bombing in Madrid led quickly to Spain's withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Post 9/11 U.S. Thinking

The attacks of 9/11 came at a time when there was a lack of anything approximating a U.S. political consensus on the geostrategic environment and a strategy to respond. Economy-based, culture-based, and policy-based explanations for the conflict were offered.

One of the earliest post-9/11 explanations was economic. Terrorism was an expression of poverty. But the movement leaders were well educated and some from wealthy backgrounds. The economic-based explanation didn't survive long, but it shouldn't be discounted entirely. There are plenty of young people looking at a bleak future without opportunity or hope. If poverty or unemployment is the problem, then economic development would be the solution.

A second explanation quickly followed and took hold in the public debate. The cultural explanation was that terrorism was an expression of an extreme version of Islam, and for some an expression of mainstream Islam. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis gained traction. Fundamentalists were energized. If culture is the problem, then we should prepare for continual conflict and social engineering on a grand scale. There is little reason for optimism.

Economic and cultural explanations were state centric. States across North Africa through the Middle East and Southern Asia had failed to modernize their forms of government and economy. Failed or failing states were the problem and a state-centric problem demanded a state-centric solution--regime change followed by nation building, state building, and economic development--a lengthy and costly course of action. But it was a causal explanation that fit the neocon's strategy of spreading democracy and capitalism through forced regime change.

Thinking from Counterterrorist Professionals

Some prominent people in the counterterrorism community put forward a policy-based explanation. I'm unaware of any prominent politician who was willing to present this view to the public. The thesis is that U.S. policies are seen as a continuation of Western colonial policies and that terrorism is the inevitable blowback.

Religion or policy? According to Mike Scheuer, chief of the CIA's former bin Laden task force and author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism (2004), the principal failure of U.S. decisionmakers is viewing the source of the conflict in terms of fundamentalist religious beliefs rather than as a reaction to U.S. policies toward the region. "They hate us for what we do, not for who we are." Scheuer thus rejects Huntington's cultural explanation.

The existence and character of terrorism during the Cold War supports Scheuer's policy-based explanation. Middle East terrorism was coincident with European terrorism. While the Red Brigade and Baader-Meinhof Gang were terrorizing Europe, the Palestinian Liberation Front and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine operated in the Middle East. They shared a common opposition to what they saw as fascist governments and the imperialist policies of the West, including the U.S. war in Vietnam and the West's support for Israel against Palestinians, and they even collaborated on occasion. Some of the most notorious Middle Eastern terrorists--like Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, and Carlos the Jackal -- were from the Cold War era. They conducted terrorist acts without reference to Christianity or Islam, in fact, terrorists and terrorist organizations were generally secular, nationalist, and Marxist-Leninist.

Additional support for Scheuer's policy-based explanation comes from Osama bin Laden himself. In 1996, bin Laden declared war on Americans occupying the Arabian Peninsula, the land of two holy mosques. Bin Laden made explicit his casus belli. Scheuer, lists six U.S. policies considered by bin Laden to be anti-Islamic.

  • U.S. support for Israel that keeps Palestinians in the Israelis' thrall.
  • U.S. and other Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula.
  • U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • U.S. support for Russia, India, and China against their Muslim militants.
  • U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low.
  • U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and tyrannical Muslim governments.

States or terrorists? According to Richard Clarke, former national security advisor on terrorism and author of Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters (2008), the principal failure of U.S. decision makers was to direct their efforts not at al Qaeda but at its state sponsor, protector, or enabler. Specifically, a primary way in U.S. strategy was state centric, leading to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq followed by nation building amidst insurgency. The U.S. response was as hoped by al Qaeda.

A Change in Strategy

The United States appears to have affected a shift in the ways of its strategy. Less emphasis is given to forced regime change followed by lengthy nation building, and more emphasis is given to a manhunt for al Qaeda leadership. The shift initially reduced and focused the necessary resources. The shift represents a considerable reduction in resources applied, but classic mission creep increased it again.

The hunt for those who plot attacks on the U.S. quickly grew to include those who plot attacks on local governments in Afghanistan, Yemen, and North Africa, for example. If terrorists are the enemy, then the manhunt list is large and growing. But if the enemy includes only those who plot terrorism against the U.S., then the list is far more manageable. Honest people can debate where the line should be drawn, but there can be no disagreement on which is the more costly.

There are certainly moral and legal arguments about target killing, by drone or other means, but I'll limit myself here to effectiveness. Soon after 9/11, General Al Gray, former commandant of the Marine Corps, cautioned us that if our actions created more enemies than we killed, then we were losing and slowly committing suicide. Should targeted killing be added to Scheuer's list of policies that increase the national security threat? The same question can and should be asked about torture, holding captives at Guantanamo, and spreading democracy by force. Targeted killing by drone has proven to be tactically effective but, as evidenced in Vietnam, overwhelming success at the tactical level does not necessarily translate into success at the strategic level.

It's easy to see why the religious/cultural explanation took hold and the policy explanation did not. The cultural explanation appeals to those whose primary world view is through a religious lens. The policy explanation requires tough self examination of American foreign policy. Self examination should be heralded by those who hold dear to the principle of personal responsibility, but it will be called "blame America first" by others. Holding to the religious over policy explanation requires no change in policy. The U.S. is highly unlikely to rethink its policies even if policy makers believe in the policy explanation. The domestic political costs are too high.