Follow us on social

Shutterstock_726008992-scaled-e1644978560387

Has our appetite for addressing terrorism with war finally diminished?

There's a reason why no one really reacted to the news that another top leader of ISIS was "taken out" by US forces.

Analysis | Global Crises

This was originally published at The American Conservative magazine

"War has rarely if ever been a successful approach for eradicating terrorism.” So concludes a thoughtful and well-documented essay written by Jennifer Walkup Jayes and published by the Watson Institute’s “Costs of War Project.” If anything, that verdict errs on the side of generosity.

In fact, opting for war as the preferred method for addressing the (usually exaggerated) dangers posed by terrorism is a game for chumps. Twenty years after 9/11, I’m guessing that most Americans who are at least semi-alert have figured that out. Even among bellicose newspaper columnists formerly keen to invade and occupy countries—politeness dictates that I refrain from naming names—the appetite for waging war as an antidote to terrorism has noticeably diminished.

Even so, the Pentagon’s post-9/11 global anti-terrorism campaign—perhaps the defining episode in contemporary U.S. history—quietly continues even today. Note, if you will, the recent raid into Syria by elite U.S. forces that eliminated ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

This was a commendable achievement, of course. Yet it was simultaneously devoid of substantive meaning. It is, after all, almost a daily occurrence: Ostensibly indispensable leaders vacate the premises and then are quickly replaced. So count on ISIS finding someone to fill Qurayshi’s sandals. And count on the U.S. national security apparatus wasting no time in targeting that individual as well. Thus does the routinization of violence provide a handy excuse to avoid critical analysis. Look hard enough and you can pick out that flickering light at the end of the tunnel.

As the Costs of War study notes, “Between 1995 and 2019…3,455 U.S. citizens were killed in terror attacks”—by no means a trivial number. It also states that the U.S. wars undertaken in response to 9/11 “directly killed over 929,000 people,” an altogether jaw-dropping figure. Sadly, this exchange ratio of nearly 300 to 1 is indicative not of success but of strategic bankruptcy. It also raises profound moral questions that Americans have too casually ignored.

That first figure includes all the Americans who died on a single day: September 11, 2001. The second, much larger number testifies to recklessness to which the United States succumbed in responding to an attack mounted by 19 radical Islamists armed with boxcutters. In addition to being radically disproportionate, the cumulative body count has produced not peace, freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights, as promised by successive U.S. administrations, but political instability, widespread economic distress, and a harvest of death, while arguably contributing to the epidemic of anger and alienation afflicting so many of our fellow citizens.

As I write this, the editorial pages of leading American newspapers are filled with columns denouncing Russian threats to Ukraine, while summoning the United States to fulfill its responsibilities as chief defender of international peace and harmony. While that call to arms may find favor in the editorial offices of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Libyans, Syrians and other recent recipients of American beneficence are likely to entertain a different view.

Yes, Vladimir Putin is a brutal thug, as media commentators incessantly remind us. But, no, his decisions in office have not claimed the lives of over 900,000 nameless victims.

The Costs of War essay spells out the implications of the U.S. reliance on military power as its preferred instrument for dealing with perceived terrorist threats: “Government violence against people in the name of counterterrorism, wartime destruction of infrastructure, and long-term U.S. military presence abroad breed ill-will toward the U.S. and broaden support for the same groups that the U.S. post-9/11 wars officially aim to eliminate.” In sum, Washington’s ill-considered reliance on coercion exacerbates, rather than mitigates, the problem it is intended to address.

Crucially, Jennifer Walkup Jayes does not merely indict. She also details alternatives to what she rightly calls the war paradigm. These alternatives include familiar ideas such as treating terrorism as a criminal matter to be handled by police and courts, in lieu of relying on invasion, occupation, raids and drone strikes. Among her suggestions are approaches that will entail patience, while others may strike some readers as excessively touchy-feely. Yet the disappointments and costs that the United States has accrued by relying on the war paradigm warn against looking for short cut solutions. Patience and touchy-feely just might be the order of the day.

“Historically,” Jayes concludes, “groups most frequently abandoned their use of terror tactics when they came to believe that their aims could be met through the traditional political sphere.”

Some might charge that such sentiments smack of appeasing evil. I prefer to call it preferable to wars that are endless, counterproductive, and excessively costly.

Kirkuk, Iraq. December 2005 (Photo credit: serkan senturk / Shutterstock.com)
Analysis | Global Crises
The Ukraine War at two years: By the numbers


KYIV, UKRAINE - July 12, 2023: Destroyed and burned Russian military tanks and parts of equipment are exhibited at the Mykhailivska square in Kyiv city centre. (Oleksandr Popenko/Shutterstock)

The Ukraine War at two years: By the numbers

Europe

Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.

Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.

keep readingShow less
Navalny's death shouldn't close off talks with Putin

A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer

Navalny's death shouldn't close off talks with Putin

Analysis

President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.

For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.

keep readingShow less
Big US investors prop up the nuclear weapons industry

ProStockStudio via shutterstock.com

Big US investors prop up the nuclear weapons industry

Military Industrial Complex

Nuclear weapons aren’t just a threat to human survival, they’re a multi-billion-dollar business supported by some of the biggest institutional investors in the U.S. according to new data released today by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and PAX, the largest peace organization in the Netherlands.

For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest