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The threat of terrorism is real, but America’s response to it is dangerously counterproductive, writes Penn political-science professor Ian Lustick in this excerpt from his new book, Trapped in the War on Terror. 

By Ian Lustick | Illustration by David Hollenbach

Plus |Rescuing a Hijacked Political System: An interview with the author

Excerpt | Trapped in the War on Terror

A specter haunts America: the specter of terrorism. The list of potential catastrophes is endless—a dirty radioactive cloud over Manhattan, hoof-and-mouth disease wiping out American cattle herds, bombs against a few tunnels or bridges bringing our transport system to a halt, smallpox unleashed on an airplane spreading almost immediately and unnoticeably throughout the country. As imagined disasters multiply, the scale of perceived danger inevitably outruns confidence in our defenses.

The government’s loudly trumpeted ‘‘War on Terror’’ is not the solution to the problem. It has become the problem. The War on Terror does not reduce public anxieties by thwarting terrorists poised to strike. Rather, in myriad ways, conducting the anti-terror effort as a “war” fuels those anxieties. By stoking these public fears and attracting vast political and economic resources in response to them, the War on Terror encourages, indeed virtually compels, every interest group in the country to advance its own agenda as crucial for winning the war. As a result, widening circles of Americans are drawn into spirals of exaggeration, waste, and fear.

The immense costs of the War on Terror, the self-inflicted wounds we suffer from it, and its permanently perceived inadequacy in comparison with the threats it forces us to imagine are more destructive of our national life than the damage terrorists are likely to inflict on us and our society. The War on Terror’s record of failure, with its inevitable and spectacular instances of venality and waste, will humiliate thousands of public servants and elected officials, demoralize citizens, and enrage taxpayers. The effort to master the unlimited catastrophes we can imagine by mobilizing the scarce resources we actually have will drain our economy, divert and distort military, intelligence, and law-enforcement resources, undermine faith in our institutions, and fundamentally disturb our way of life. In this way the terrorists who struck us so hard on September 11, 2001, can use our own defensive efforts to do us much greater harm than they could ever do themselves.

Above all, we need clarity. There is and will continue to be a terrorist threat, emanating not only from Muslim extremists abroad but also from Timothy McVeigh-type fanatics at home. This threat will, in time, produce some attacks and some casualties. In the world as it is, this prediction is as easy to make as the prediction that in the future airliners will crash and that disgruntled former employees will murder former coworkers. The question is not how any of these or other bad things can be absolutely prevented but how we can most effectively reduce their frequency and seriousness. Counterterrorism policies and programs are therefore important. They can and should be carefully designed and implemented. An undisciplined, spiraling, and hysterical War on Terror to forestall every catastrophe our best minds and our cleverest script writers can imagine, however, is itself more damaging and dangerous than the terrorist threats it is supposedly combating.

During the Cold War, America adapted to the ever-present threat of nuclear incineration. One reason we could do so is that the threat was clear, easy to understand, and emanated from a distinct and specific place, the Soviet Union. Accordingly, we were able to fashion a strategic posture and culture of nuclear deterrence. Safety was achieved, or at least an acceptable level of assurance of safety, because the Soviets were convinced that we were convinced that an attack by either of us on the other would mean the annihilation of both. As bizarre as this doctrine of mutual assured destruction was, it played an unchallengeable role in securing the peace and protecting the world from the disasters piled up in missile silos, in bomb bays, and onboard submarines.

Ironically, against far weaker enemies and a far less awesome threat, we may today find it much more difficult to achieve the level of security, or a comparable sense of safety, that we managed to establish during the Cold War. The fundamental challenge we faced in our 55-year confrontation with the Soviet Union was to remain steadfast against a horrifying but clearly visible threat. In 1947 George F. Kennan’s famous ‘‘X’’ article provided subsequent administrations with the fundamental intellectual framework for assessing and countering the Soviet threat in a sustainable manner. Kennan argued that the United States could be safe without ‘‘rolling back’’ communism and thereby risking a world war with the Soviet Union. If we were willing to commit the resources and mobilize the steely patience necessary to contain Soviet expansionism and deter Soviet nuclear weapon use, we could not only survive but prosper and emerge victorious following the collapse of a communist economic and political system unable to compete with ours.

In the aftermath of 9/11 the challenge is different. It is to act prudently in the face not of a clearly locatable threat but of intractable uncertainty about painful, even catastrophic possibilities that may lurk almost anywhere, including within our own borders.

Franklin Roosevelt famously told us that the only thing we really have to fear is ‘‘fear itself.’’ If we can master the fear of terrorism that leaves us in the grip of the War on Terror, we can then fashion strategies to achieve genuine, if, as in the Cold War, incomplete, psychological and military security. A crucial element in this strategic posture will be to save ourselves from the self-inflicted disasters that, apart from the Vietnam War, we mostly managed to avoid during the long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union.

In a largely ignored, but astonishingly vivid and precise analysis broadcasted on Al-Jazeera on November 1, 2004, Osama bin Laden explained how al-Qaeda was exploiting America’s political gullibility, economic power, and corporate interests for its own purposes and how unintentionally cooperative the Bush administration had been. It is easy, said bin Laden,

for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin [jihadists] to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies . . . So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy . . . That being said . . . when one scrutinizes the results, one cannot say that al-Qaeda is the sole factor in achieving those spectacular gains.

Rather, the policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts to keep busy their various corporations—whether they be working in the field of arms or oil or reconstruction—has helped al-Qaeda to achieve these enormous results.

And so it has appeared to some analysts and diplomats that the White House and us are playing as one team towards the economic goals of the United States, even if the intentions differ . . . for example, al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event [the 9/11 attacks], while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost— according to the lowest estimate—more than $500 billion. Meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs.

In the spring of 2006 the tactic bin Laden described was being used by Iranian radicals, led by their fanatical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their bravado about Iranian uranium enrichment appears designed to polarize Iranian relations with the west to their faction’s internal political advantage. As if on cue, War on Terror pundits in Washington, including members of the cabal that orchestrated the American-led invasion of Iraq, have begun promoting the idea of the preventive bombing of Iran, followed up if necessary by an invasion.

Such political calculations, along with supercharged policy arguments regarding Iranian nuclear capacities, reflect nothing so much as the frightening capacity the mechanisms of the War on Terror may have to produce the enemies the war needs to sustain itself. Indeed, as even the advocates of such a policy acknowledge, the regime in Tehran and its Hezbollah allies based in Lebanon would respond to American attacks with a worldwide campaign of terrorism against U.S. targets. These attacks would dwarf anything al-Qaeda has been or could be capable of mounting, thereby contributing a list of 9/11-type outrages long enough to help sustain the War on Terror for many years to come.

The first and most difficult step to take is to open up debate over the logic and appropriateness of the War on Terror that American opinion leaders and the public at large have been trapped into serving. As a self-powered system the War on Terror permits them criticism of the way it is conducted but not questions about whether it should be fought at all. In this way the War on Terror transforms almost all criticism into its own cannon fodder. Only by publicly debating the existence and justification of the War on Terror itself can we begin to expose the psychological and political nets that entangle us within it and begin to cut them away.

This will not be easy. Those who begin the discussion, especially politicians, are likely to pay a heavy price. Their message can easily be misunderstood or distorted as a refusal to take the problem of terrorism seriously, to learn the lessons of our lack of preparedness on September 11, or to recognize al-Qaeda as the force for evil it is in the world. Many will find their political, economic, and even personal interests so well served by the discourse, fears, and escalating expenditures of the War on Terror that, consciously or not, they will resist evidence of its counterproductive effects and destructive dynamics. Inexorably, however, as the War on Terror continues to expand, breaking every barrier in our constitutional system and budgetary system, it will overextend itself so grossly that even many Americans who benefit from it will be emboldened to think critically and speak publicly about it.

Having seen the problem, how can we solve it? How can we break the vicious circles that transform our mobilization to combat terrorists into the raw material they need to succeed? Almost all experts agree that despite the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, such European countries as France, Britain, Spain, Italy, and Germany, with their large and sharply discontented Muslim minorities, face a substantially more serious terrorist threat than does the United States. Yet, in Europe the problem is dealt with productively and much less disruptively as a law-enforcement issue, not as a war that elevates the terrorists into a world historic force. Instead of glorifying terrorist groups as enemies of civilization on the order of the Axis powers, we should follow Europe’s example by treating terrorists as the dangerous but politically insignificant criminals they would be without our help. For to the extent that al-Qaeda and its clones are motivated by the overreactions they can trigger from us, mounting a ‘‘war’’ against them plays directly into their hands.

When America labels tiny bands of Muslim fanatics as posing the kind of existential threat to the United States and the western way of life associated with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, we enhance their stature enormously in the minds of all Muslims, whether they agree with al-Qaeda or not. Al-Qaeda terrorists are criminals in every western country, and in almost every other country, and should be treated accordingly. Yet one effect of the War on Terror has been to make the accusation that someone believes that terrorism is a law-enforcement problem a conversation stopper. To say as much is to provide prima facie proof of naiveté, to identify oneself as a holdover from the Clinton administration or as suffering from a “pre-9/11 mindset.” But we must understand that public intolerance for the notion that terrorism is a law-enforcement problem is a weapon used by the War on Terror against us.

Once terrorism is understood as primarily a law-enforcement problem, the most important asset America has in preventing terrorist attacks inside the homeland is the loyalty of millions of American Arab and Muslim citizens. They have an unparalleled ability to discern, identify, and help apprehend Arab or Islamic extremists who might be involved in terrorism. But the War on Terror, as a “war,” quickly became a confrontation between a distrustful government and communities of Muslim and Arab citizens treated as possibly aiding and abetting the enemy and as, in effect, “detainable until proven innocent.” Thus, by suspending normal procedures of legal due process, the War on Terror discouraged precisely those Americans most able to help identify terrorists from trusting the FBI, speaking freely with investigators, or even becoming available as informers and infiltrators.

Obviously, terrorism cannot be treated only as a law-enforcement issue. When terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda find command sanctuaries and build training facilities in countries such as Afghanistan, military power will be required to engage them directly and destroy their capabilities. But today’s terrorists do not rely mainly on state sponsors or even the shelter of states. They form transnational, global networks, seek refuge in anarchic regions, or nest inside well-organized societies, whether democratic and industrialized or authoritarian and backward. As such they confront the United States and its allies in the law-governed world with a challenge that is directly comparable to the challenge of organized crime and that must be dealt with in just the same way—not with superheated but clumsy wars, but with the well-funded, sustained, disciplined, professional, aggressive, internationally cooperative, but understated efforts employed to pursue, prosecute, and punish criminals.

Of course one implication of defining terrorism as a challenge to law enforcement rather than as an enemy to be vanquished militarily is that terrorism will not be entirely eradicated. We will always have crime, and we will always have terrorism, that is, violence used against civilians for political purposes. The question is whether we can build and maintain societies that are satisfying enough for enough people, and resilient enough, to sustain good lives for law-abiding citizens despite the possibility and occasional reality of crimes of violence, whether politically motivated or not.

The challenge of building resilient societies is not only, or even mainly, a law-enforcement problem. It is a problem of opening opportunities for peaceable people of all cultural backgrounds to lead free and satisfying lives. Indeed, the general policy implications for reducing Islamic-oriented terrorism are clear and have even been indirectly noted by the State Department. In response to a question about the violent results of worldwide Muslim anger against publication of the Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, State Department press secretary Sean McCormack stressed that “what we have called for is tolerance and understanding, not incitement to violence. And we call upon all governments to lower the temperature, to urge calm and to urge dialogue and not misunderstanding.”

Indeed it does makes sense to encourage tolerance, understanding, and dialogue; to “lower the temperature” as a way to make conditions in the Muslim world less combustible and less hospitable for violent elements. This same logic applies equally well with respect to substantive policies of the United States that lead Muslims to believe the worst about our country and to see us as agents of domination, humiliation, and injustice. Neither law-enforcement efforts nor wars can reduce the fanaticism that produces Muslim terrorists unless we lower the temperature in the Muslim world that creates more jihadis for every one killed or imprisoned. To think otherwise is to believe that water in a pot could be prevented from boiling not by lowering the temperature beneath the pot but by identifying and removing the individual molecules just as they appear ready to burst into steam.

The good news about reducing the temperature in the Muslim world is that official American policies need not change; they need only be implemented. The United States stands for democracy, justice, and peaceful relations among the states and peoples of the Middle East. We are also committed to implementing all United Nations Security Council resolutions. The importance of implementing American policies is the good news. It is also the bad news, because of the domestic political difficulty of pressing any Israeli government to do anything—even something it may wish to do.

Let us be clear about this argument. Our enemies are clever and they know more about us than we do about them. They know that political pressures in the United States constrain American governments to take positions on Israel-related issues that can cripple any American effort to build effective alliances in the Muslim world or redeem its image among average Muslims. They know that when Americans talk to Arabs and Muslims they almost always try to change the topic when Israel comes up. So naturally al-Qaeda will always try to make Israel the topic that is front and center. If we use our influence in concert with European allies and moderate Arab countries, however, we can deprive al-Qaeda of this public-relations trump card by quickly orchestrating a solution acceptable to the vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis. By implementing our own policy on this issue we can significantly ‘‘lower the temperature’’ that inflames the minds of ordinary Muslims helping to provide a constant stream of recruits for the jihadis.

Again, it is not that al-Qaeda and the jihadis care particularly about the Palestinians. They do not. They were not motivated by the Palestinian cause when they struck on September 11, and they will not cease their activities no matter what happens in Palestine. What they do care about is exploiting our political weaknesses to multiply their political opportunities. Accordingly, in virtually all of bin Laden’s interviews and fatwas and in the writings and interviews of al-Zawahiri, vastly disproportionate attention is directed to the ‘‘Crusader-Zionist alliance,’’ the Palestine question, Israeli abuse of Palestinians, and Jewish and Zionist influence in America. In a 2000 al-Qaeda recruitment video Palestine and Israel are mentioned or visually featured 21 times, compared to 10 visual or verbal references to Saudi Arabia, the Hijaz, or Mecca and Medina. Al-Qaeda harps on the Palestinian problem partly because of widespread anti-Semitism among Muslims, but even more because America is so conveniently and so tightly tied in Muslim minds to Israeli governments and to anti-Palestinian policies. Al-Qaeda knows its audience: the masses of Muslims whose hearts they want to inflame and whose minds they want to capture. Regardless of whether al-Qaeda genuinely cares about Palestine per se, its leadership knows their audience does and tends to deeply resent the double standard they see in Washington when it comes to anything related to the Jewish state.

However, no matter how effectively America joins with its allies to bring the power of the law to bear on the criminals who use violence against innocent civilians; and no matter how wise our foreign policy may become or how greatly we may alleviate the hostility in Muslim countries toward the United States, we will never eradicate terrorism. Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the federal building in Oklahoma City, and abortion clinics in various locales before September 2001, and they will attack other targets in America after September 2001. That is a difficult idea for Americans to accept, that they must live in a world in which vicious terrorist attacks on our soil can and probably will happen.

Of course, Americans tolerate without panic on the order of 5,000 workplace-accident deaths annually, 17,000 homicides, and 50,000 auto-accident fatalities. These victims are as permanently and as tragically dead as those who die from acts of terrorism. But it seems to be a psychological fact that when the threat of death appears to be associated with the intent to do harm rather than as a product of chance or of avoidable circumstances, it is more feared and more likely to impact the way we live our lives. It is in part that psychological irrationality in humans that terrorists leverage into the outsized political impact they hope to achieve.

Therefore, the more rational we can be, the less exploitable or vulnerable we will be to terrorist manipulation and attack. In that regard we need to change the fundamental way we approach the problem. Inevitably, our society will be vulnerable to destructive things that individuals or small groups could do. Trying to eliminate all such vulnerabilities would be as impossible as trying to eliminate all individuals who might have such intentions, and much more expensive as well.

So what do we do? We establish levels of acceptable risk. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to the risk of benzene pollution has been to set ‘‘an upper limit of acceptability of 1 in 10,000 lifetime cancer risk for highly exposed individuals’’ along with ‘‘a target of protecting the greatest number of persons possible to an individual lifetime risk level no higher than approximately 1 in 1,000,000.’’ In other words, the EPA and the public are aware that some people in fact will die as the result of even these low levels of benzene exposure, but we accept those levels, believing that the cost of trying to reduce those odds even more would prevent us from using our resources much more productively.

The same logic applies to security concerns. We need to accept that politically motivated violence will be a chronic problem, just like crime and pollution. Just as every large company and government agency has to conduct environmental impact studies and take into consideration the effects of its policies on pollution levels, so do large companies and government agencies now need to take security against terrorist attacks into consideration when designing new projects and in the normal course of their work. Taking into account problems and risks of pollution or security vulnerabilities does not mean allowing such considerations to dominate our thinking or rule out activities that are of interest and value to our society. Rather it means that reasonable and cost-effective measures to reduce those risks will become standard expectations along with detailed formulas and standards that will evolve over time as technologies, values, and specific challenges change.

In this connection, note that we treat contamination that might arise from nuclear power plant accidents or waste disposal differently than we approach problems of PCBs in drinking water, arsenic in wells, or sulfur dioxide in the air. Nuclear plant meltdowns can be sudden and catastrophic. Therefore we regulate the building and operation of nuclear power plants in exquisite detail, going far to ensure their safety even as the costs involved discourage their construction. The analogy with terrorism is that the public and the government are correct to view the potential of a terrorist attack using an improvised nuclear device with particular seriousness. Indeed it is one of the implications of what we have learned that the War on Terror is so out of control and so resistant to criteria of rationality and cost effectiveness, that we will almost certainly not direct our counterterrorism resources with the necessary focus and effectiveness on nuclear or other unlikely but extremely high impact threats.

Good work on the threat of nuclear terrorism is being done. One key to dealing with the nuclear threat is recognizing that building a crude device and bringing it into the United States or near its shores is not the most difficult challenge facing potential nuclear terrorists. Their most difficult problem is accumulating enough of the properly enriched nuclear material for a bomb and then establishing confidence that it will work without testing it. With these bottlenecks in mind, our military, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies, in cooperation with those of our allies participating in the nuclear-nonproliferation regime, can conduct aggressive, effective, but necessarily secret operations to market faulty plans for building a bomb.

Finally, let us stare straight into the face of the possibility that our country could be hit by a nuclear terrorist attack. Although even al-Qaeda has tended to shy away from actual threats to use nuclear weapons, for both ideological and political reasons it is conceivable that such an organization could attempt such an attack. Experts agree that an attack designed to contaminate an urban area with deadly levels of radioactivity would be far easier for terrorists to mount than the explosion of even a crude atomic bomb. Such an attack, however, delivering death and disfigurement over generations to thousands of random individuals, lacks the sort of heroic or dramatic profile that jihadi terrorists require. A spectacular nuclear explosion would be more consistent with their objectives and their modus operandi. The national planning scenario for a nuclear attack by terrorists on Washington, D.C., projects the scale of devastation to be orders of magnitude greater than any other type of terrorist action, including a radiological bomb. The scenario predicts tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of fatalities, many more injuries, including tens of thousands of blinded victims, destruction or severe damage to buildings within 3,500 feet of the blast site, contamination of up to 3,000 square miles depending on wind conditions, a substantial increase in the cancer rate, and a recovery period of years with a cost of many billions of dollars and the strong possibility of a national economic downturn.

The prospect is truly horrific, and we must do what we can to minimize the likelihood of it happening. But even with respect to this kind of catastrophe we must be prepared to think clearly. The energy and recruits our blundering War on Terror has provided al-Qaeda and its clones, along with the continuing waste of our resources, confidence, and international reputation, shows that wounds inflicted by the impulsive use of our own enormous power can be the most damaging result of terrorist actions against us. The number of Americans killed and maimed in Iraq has already far surpassed the awful casualty toll on 9/11. Accordingly, even if the worst occurs and, despite our best concentrated, focused efforts to prevent it, we are struck by terrorists wielding a crude but devastating nuclear device, we must remember that we can and will recover from such a blow. Whether we would be able to recover from the effects of the destruction we would be tempted to immediately inflict on others is a much more difficult question. Only a society based on confident resilience, not debilitating hysteria, and leaders acting out of courage and discipline rather than impulse and bravado could survive such an ordeal without lashing out so massively as to render the planet unsafe for Americans for generations. Since 9/11 Americans have not been well served by their leaders. It is therefore up to all Americans to build the society we need and choose the leaders we deserve, not only to escape the War on Terror trap but to protect ourselves from the real threats we face.

Dr. Ian S. Lustick, professor of political science and Bess W. Heyman Chair at Penn, is the author of many books and articles, including Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank/Gaza (1993). Reprinted by arrangement with University of Pennsylvania Press from Trapped in the War on Terror by Ian S. Lustick. Copyright © 2006 by Ian S. Lustick. Some text and all footnotes have been omitted from this excerpt, which includes portions from the preface and the concluding chapter.


Shortly after Trapped in the War on Terror was published in September, Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes interviewed Dr. Ian Lustick, the author and political-science professor. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What was the impetus for writing this book?

After 9/11, I felt, like so many Americans, that I wanted to do something to help protect the country. When the FBI asked me to help organize a conference at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, I said yes, and the University of Pennsylvania helped support it. In the context of putting that conference together, I had some conversations with high-level officials that left me concerned. One had to do with my advice that the government suggest to television networks that they not show the destruction of the twin towers so often, because of the danger that Americans would come to have a much higher level of anxiety than was warranted and come to believe that that kind of catastrophic terrorism was much more likely than it really was to happen again, or to affect individual viewers. The response I received was that that was one of the first things recommended to the higher-level political echelons by government professionals. The advice, however, was rejected by political leaders who wanted to maintain a very high level of anxiety in the country. This imperative came from a particular part of the government that was in favor of using a general “War on Terror” to justify the specific war that it wanted to launch in Iraq.

Over the next year I started to see how many other agendas, of many other groups—from the gun-control lobby to the NRA, from Dunkin Donuts to veterinarians—were using the War on Terror as a way to further their own ambitions. I gradually began to see that it was not real threats that were producing spiraling expenditures and a national obsession with the possibility of terrorist attacks. Rather, our entire political system had been hijacked via the War on Terror, and the War on Terror itself was serving the interests of al-Qaeda, by bleeding America and casting Osama and his band of criminal fanatics into the role of a world-class adversary. Designed by the architects of the Iraq War to help them launch the invasion, the War on Terror took on an uncontrollable life of its own, feeding on the political and economic rewards of every interest group, politician, and lobbyist who claimed rewards for contributing to a “war” against an enemy that couldn’t be seen, could never be defeated, and with respect to which any scheme—no matter how expensive or how improbable—couldn’t be ruled out as unnecessary.

You mention the “cabal” that orchestrated the invasion of Iraq and also is promoting the “preventive bombing” of Iran. Who makes up that cabal and what is their agenda?

Perhaps it sounds overly conspiratorial to put it this way, but sometimes small groups of people do have a big impact on history, and this is one of them. The organization called the Project for the New American Century [PNAC] was formed in the mid-’90s. Bill Kristol, who used to teach in the political-science department here and is the editor of The Weekly Standard, was one of the founders of PNAC, and remains its leader. Articles and manifestos that were written by Kristol and others, and the petitions and letters that were submitted to the Clinton administration by PNAC, bore the signatures of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle and Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz—officials who comprised the key group of supremacist hawks who, after 9/11, were able to gain control over American foreign policy.

In the mid-’90s PNAC had argued for a revolution in American foreign policy, to make American foreign policy energetic, heroic, and dedicated to the destruction of “monsters” overseas, especially Saddam Hussein, as one way to change American politics. They argued that only by leading Americans to think of themselves in a way that would put a premium on national greatness—not on social, democratic, and economic well-being—would conservatives be able to rule America. In fact, William Kristol and Robert Kagan argued in a famous Foreign Affairs article in 1996 that without revamping American foreign policy this way, conservatives could not win elections. This group had tried mightily to gain control of the national-security/foreign-policy apparatus as soon as President Bush took office in 2001, but were met with stiff and effective opposition from the uniformed military, from the intelligence community, from old foreign-policy hands close to the first President Bush, and from Secretary of State Colin Powell. In fact, until 9/11 there was very little change in U.S. foreign policy from that followed by the Clinton administration. Ironically, the only way in which it did change is that it had more or less given up the attempt to strike at Osama bin Laden. But after 9/11 the cabal seized the issue of terrorism and exploited it ruthlessly to build support for the series of wars they had long planned to mount—beginning, once Afghanistan was taken care of, in Iraq. When the President adopted the slogan “You’re either with the terrorists or with us” and coupled that slogan with the doctrine of pre-emptive war, he established just the unlimited justification for the unilateral use of American military power that the cabal needed to pursue its fantasy of an “American Century,” marked by conservative rule at home and an expanding neo-imperial American presence abroad.

Some people say we’ve abandoned protecting our infrastructure—the chemical plants and ports and whatnot. Is there a real threat to them, and should that be addressed better than it is now? Or is that part of the hysteria?

Consider this. For a Democratic candidate, the easiest thing in the world is to say what you just said, that instead of fighting the war in Iraq the government should be protecting refineries, ports, subways, cattle herds, the milk supply, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, and power plants. But if a wise policy is defined as that which protects every important thing in the country from any bad thing anyone might think of doing, then no policy can be wise and every official can be made to look foolish. My point is that to be drawn toward that tempting kind of argument is to be drawn into playing the War on Terror game and helping it to become even more in control of our lives than it already is.

We’ve got to turn away from a definition of the problem that gives every interest group the ability to invent the enemy and the dangers that it would profit from most if they existed. Instead we must concentrate our resources on the real enemies we have, and especially on making sure that nuclear-weapons grade materials do not get into the hands of the wrong people. That’s not done through warfare; that’s not done through loud, politically sexy campaigns. It’s done through discreet, professional intelligence and law enforcement, with surgical and mostly clandestine use of military force when necessary. It requires close and trusted cooperation with our allies in Europe and in the Muslim world. The kind of War on Terror rhetoric we’ve been pursuing is exactly what interrupts those important efforts and complicates them.

What’s the single best example of something that could lower the temperature and effectively keep the nation safe from a terrorist attack?

One obvious thing to do is get out of Iraq. That can be done by building the international support and cooperation that would come from admitting, publicly, that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic mistake, that it won’t be repeated by the U.S., and that it should not be used as a precedent for unilateral ambitions by powerful countries. That statement alone would be an enormous contribution to lowering the temperature.

But a crucial part of making that process work will be vigorous U.S. policies to finally bring about a Palestinian-Israeli peace based on two real states. That’s the single most important thing we could do to take away the issues that al-Qaeda and its clones thrive on and set the stage for a reassertion of American wisdom, statesmanship, and effectiveness in the Middle East.

Anything else you want to touch on?

One of the big differences between the U.S. and Europe, one reason why the British and French and other European countries face a more dangerous challenge than we do, and one reason why there’s been more terrorist activity there than here since 9/11, is because their Muslim communities are so different than ours. Ours have had the expectation of integration into the U.S. and the aspiration to become full Americans of the Islamic persuasion. But in Europe there are encapsulated Pakistani Muslim or North African Muslim communities that incubate extremism because they don’t feel that they are real parts of European society. In the United States, our War on Terror has the unfortunate effect of tending to treat the Muslims in our country as part of the enemy and may actually push them into the mold that is producing the problem in Europe. Now, there are other reasons to think this won’t happen so fast, but it is a big danger that we can avoid if we adopt a sensible law-enforcement approach that would treat our loyal and patriotic Muslim citizens as the crucial allies they are in the struggle against violent extremists, rather than as part of the problem.

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