Panic as Policy

Last week’s arrests of 24 British citizens accused of planning massive suicide missions against U.S.-bound airplanes unleashed widespread chaos and delays in airports around the world. In the aftermath of the arrests, amid the ensuing code red alerts, panic levels across Europe and the U.S. spiked. Hours after the plot was revealed, President George W. Bush boasted that, “This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11.” While the plot’s disruption may have averted a catastrophe, there is little evidence to support the president’s claim.

Bush’s Iraq policy polls poorly, yet the president enjoys significant public support for his counterterrorism strategies. Talking “tough on terror” has proved to be popular with the public and last week’s disruption of the apparent suicide attacks will certainly play to this strength. Lost in the rhetoric is the fact that this plot was beaten by good old-fashioned police work, international cooperation and patience, rather than by fighting a “Global War on Terror.”

Despite Bush’s insistence that the nation is safer thanks to the “war on terror,” there has been a significant increase in terrorist attacks past few years, and the death toll resulting from these attacks has also grown. In 2005 the State Department and National Counterterrorism Center counted worldwide 11,111 terrorist attacks, 14,602 people killed as a result of terrorism, and 74,087 people killed, injured, or kidnapped as a result of terrorism. In contrast, the center reported that in 2004 there were 3,192 terrorist attacks that left 28,433 people killed, injured or kidnapped.

And while the Bush administration’s open-ended “war on terror” wages on, the forgotten ringleader of al-Qaida– Osama bin Laden–remains at large. Widespread fighting continues in Iraq even after the U.S. succeeded in killing al-Qaida’s top man there, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, months ago.

The British plot underscores the weakness in Bush’s counterterrorism strategy of “Taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.” Reports note that all of those arrested in connection to the plot were British citizens. Even though many of the suspects appear to be of Pakistani descent, this operation was launched from within the country, just like 9/11.

The rising number of attacks, failure to capture bin Laden in five years, and the persistent and unabated threat of terror underscores the fact that our nation is not safer than it was before September 11, 2001. Bush has relied too heavily on military action and panic planning in the aftermath of attacks rather than addressing the root causes of terrorism, supporting effective prevention strategies and investing in the domestic infrastructure needed in case of an attack.

Instead of hiding behind the rhetoric that the terrorists “hate us because of our freedom,” our leaders should examine U.S. policies that inflame radicalism.

As a global power, the United States is always likely to be a potential target for terrorists. But our best defense is to insure that our foreign policies defend and promote basic human rights and democracy. Instead, the Bush administration has strayed from this noble and pragmatic goal. Democratization programs have been hampered by Washington’s longstanding support for authoritarian regimes in the region. Recent attempts to push democracy in the Middle East have relied too much on elections without supporting the reformers from within. And open calls for regime change have tended only to harden repressive regimes.

The United States’ unabated support for the Israeli occupation and a wider war in the region, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and tolerance of torture, renditions, and indefinite detentions have all provided excellent recruiting tools for terrorists. Far too often, the U.S. has taken a militarized approach to the region, resulting only in greater levels of radicalism and fighting.

Attacks on terrorist strongholds in Iraq have failed to reduce the number of fighters, just as Israeli attacks on Hezbollah have failed to quell their missile launches into Israel. Repeated bombing runs in Afghanistan have not succeeded in stopping the resurgence of the Taliban. Modern history offers few examples where military action has defeated terrorists.

Similarly, the presence of U.S. military power abroad through hundreds of military bases serves as a constant reminder of our global ambitions. Indeed, the presence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia was Osama bin Laden’s chief rationale for the attacks of 9/11.

The police work resulting in the arrests of the 24 suspects suggests an alternative approach to fighting terrorism. News reports indicate that there were months of investigations in the United Kingdom coupled with coordinated actions taken in the United States, the United Kingdom and in Pakistan. This longstanding British approach treats terrorism less as a war and more as an ongoing threat that requires a coordinated international strategy focused on law enforcement.

The excellent police work surely resulted in the savings of hundreds, if not thousands of lives. But we are likely to find ourselves in the same situation unless we start taking a different course that addresses the motivations of the attackers. Otherwise we will see panic posing as policy over and over again.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project. He was a contributor to FPIF’s Task Force on Terrorism that produced “A Secure America in a Secure World .”