Terrorism in a Teacup?

The bubble is bursting.

I’m not talking about the Greek economy, the collapse of which has bankers and finance ministers trembling from Athens to Antarctica. Nor am I talking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which reminds us once again that our current energy security rests on shaky foundations.

I’m talking about the Times Square bomber and the aborted terrorist attack that took place 10 days ago in New York City. U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad tried, quite ineptly, to blow up an SUV in midtown Manhattan and was apprehended as he attempted to flee the country. Initially tagged as a lone wolf, Shahzad has now been linked to the Pakistani Taliban.

Bubbles are built on illusions. We believed that our high-tech companies and, after that, our houses would continue to rise in value and then…pop! We believed that we could continue offshore oil drilling without environmental consequences and then…pop! And we believed that the drone program in Pakistan, which expanded in 2009 and has killed hundreds of civilians, would not generate any blowback and then…Faisal Shahzad.

A few skeptics remain indifferent to the effervescence. Last year, Andrew Exum and David Kilcullen, two hardnosed veterans of counterinsurgency, blamed the administration’s drone strategy and its collateral damage for radicalizing the population in Pakistan. “Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased,” they wrote in The New York Times.

Not surprisingly, since we are conducting a virtual war inside the country, 64 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy. Public sentiment in Pakistan against the drones, according to Alex Rodriguez and David Zucchino in The Los Angeles Times, is most pronounced among middle-class Pakistanis. This isn’t good news for America. Poor militants generally fight near to home. Middle-class militants, like Faisal Shahzad and the 9/11 bombers, range more widely.

Yet the Obama administration is still invested in drone attacks. It has signed on to a major expansion of drone activities by continuing to give the CIA permission to go after individuals whose identities the agency doesn’t even possess. Everyone in Pakistan has become a potential target, not just a narrow list of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. You might imagine how such a program could raise some eyebrows, even for Pakistanis who despise the extremists.

Moreover, in an interesting causal turnaround, the Obama administration believes that these drone attacks, rather than precipitating terrorism, have prevented it. “Because of our success in degrading the capabilities of these terrorist groups overseas, preventing them from carrying out these attacks, they now are relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training,” the administration’s top counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan recently told CNN.

These illusions of omnipotence — how on earth can we “degrade the capabilities” of all groups everywhere at the same time? — blind us to the more important task of addressing the motivations behind the attacks. We’re clearly losing the “hearts and minds” campaign in Pakistan. Drones aren’t the only reason for militancy in the country — there’s the conflict over Kashmir, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fundamentalist elements within the Pakistani government itself — but drones provoke a heat-seeking anger directed specifically at the United States.

This brings us to the other bubble on the verge of bursting: our conviction that the anger is simply “over there.” For years, European governments have faced the challenge of home-grown radicals. Only now is the United States waking up to this reality.

“The November 2009 incident at Fort Hood, the Texas Army base where Maj. Nidal Hasan is suspected of gunning down 10 fellow soldiers, presents the most striking case,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor M. Junaid Levesque-Alam in Muslim Blowback? “A steady stream of unsuccessful plots has also garnered attention: the 25-year-old Queens coffee vendor who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to destroy the New York City subway system in September 2009; the five youths who left Washington D.C. in December 2009 allegedly to join a Pakistani militant group; the middle-aged, self-proclaimed convert from Philadelphia who reportedly planned to kill a Swedish cartoonist last month; the 25-year-old New Jersey man who was caught in Yemen a week later purportedly trying to join al-Qaeda.”

Viewed in isolation, the Times Square incident is terrorism in a teacup. It was a poorly planned and poorly executed effort that has garnered mass attention and not a small amount of derision (even the Taliban has disowned the “idiot bomber”). The example of Faisal Shahzad, however, suggests a potentially more virulent strain of anti-government action in the offing. The Pakistani-born American citizen was facing considerable economic hardship, including foreclosure on his house in Shelton, Connecticut. Shahzad’s case is thus reminiscent of Joseph Andrew Stack, whose own economic difficulties prompted him to fly his Piper Dakota plane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas back in February, killing himself and one other person, and injuring a dozen others.

If anger over U.S. actions abroad combines with anger over U.S. inactions at home, the resulting jihad tea party could whip up to a true tempest. No, Glenn Beck is not likely to go off to train in Pakistan any time soon. But anti-government militants, responding to despair over the status quo, could very well feed over each other’s anger and create an insurrectionary atmosphere.

You don’t have to be an expert in ordnance disposal to defuse this ticking time bomb. The Obama administration could draw down our foreign wars and redirect that $100 billion toward domestic needs, winning hearts and minds at home and abroad. But would the Obama administration even consider such a transformation of the war machine?

I don’t have the heart to burst this final bubble.

Anger Elsewhere

Mexico is a mess. Levels of violence continue to rise. At the end of last month, masked gunmen killed two human rights activists — Bety Cariño of Mexico and Jyri Jaakola of Finland — in the southern state of Oaxaca. Much of this violence, FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen explains, stems from the government’s refusal to investigate paramilitary activities and high-level corruption.

“Human rights violations in Mexico have been on the rise in the last few years, with a sixfold increase in complaints against the armed forces since it launched the drug war,” she writes in Mexico’s State of Impunity. “Civilian deaths have increased in the context of drug war militarization. The nation faces a crisis of confidence in the government’s ability — or willingness — to provide even the most basic human security.”

In the United States, politicians have increasingly acknowledged the failure of the “war on drugs.” But Washington continues to push the same failed policies. “Although the U.S. government may have learned a lesson about forced eradication in Afghanistan, it has yet to apply it to Latin America,” writes FPIF contributor Coletta Youngers in Drug Policy Disconnect. “On the contrary, U.S. officials have consistently stated that such an approach should not be adopted in Latin America, erroneously claiming that the existence of stronger institutions provides the conditions for successful implementation of forced eradication. Yet, as in Afghanistan, forced eradication in the Andean region has failed to achieve its desired objectives. Over the last two decades, coca production has remained remarkably consistent at about 200,000 hectares. And the program has pushed people deeper into poverty and generated human rights violations, social unrest, instability, and violence.”

Such programs have also pushed people to emigrate. Farmers displaced from the land often have nowhere to go except down or out.

The Democrats are offering an anemic immigration reform plan that focuses more on sticks than carrots. What we really need, argues FPIF contributor Tim Wise, is a comprehensive plan that addresses labor, agriculture, and trade. “The United States certainly needs a new immigration policy,” he writes in Going Beyond Immigration Policy. “But we also need new agricultural policies that allow farmers to earn a decent price for their products. We need new trade policies that help our trading partners grow and create jobs, rather than opening the doors for agribusiness and dumping cheap products on poor farmers. And we need new labor policies that protect the rights of workers — citizens and immigrants, with and without documents — rather than the rights of multinational firms.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.