Stephen Walt posed a pretty provocative question in his blog today. Walt, a key realist IR theorist, was commenting on the response to the failed Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound airliner. The attempt (now dubbed the underwear bomber) led to a 24-hour news cycle discussion of what new security measures were needed to protect Americans. Shortly after the attempt, the Transportation Security Administration announced tight restrictions on flyers. But the calls to “do something” remain. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, criticized the Obama Administration for failing to do enough to protect Americans, and calls for new strikes against terrorists intensified.
But in his post today, Walt offers some important points to consider before rushing off to “do something.” Walt writes,
most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume “terrorists” are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things…But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
In particular, I’m struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America’s highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences. As a society, we seem to believe that we can send thousands of troops to invade other countries, send Reapers and Predators to fire missiles at people we think might — repeat, might — be terrorists, and underwrite the oppressive policies of a host of “friendly” governments, yet never pay any significant price for it back here at home. We are a nation of swaggering sheep: eager to impose our will on others yet terrified that doing so might inconvenience us, let alone put U.S. civilians in real danger.
Walt phrasing may be controversial, but his conclusions should not be. Terrorist activities are most often used in situations of asymmetrical warfare [glossary], when the weaker party cannot defeat the stronger party directly. Al Qaeda lacks the capacity to fight a conventional war against the United States (and most other countries, for that matter). Al Qaeda’s choice to engage in terrorist bombings is not the action of crazed zealots. Rather, it is a rational decision given the balance of force between the two parties. And, as Walt suggests, U.S. policy likely contributes to the success al Qaeda enjoys in recruiting operatives and launching attacks. The challenge is for Americans to understand this. The success of the U.S. counterterrorism effort likely depends on it.