Imperial by Design

Imperial by Design

Mini Teaser: Like his two most recent predecessors, President Obama is embarking on a disastrous foreign policy bent on global domination.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

This assessment of America’s terrorism problem was flawed on every count. It was threat inflation of the highest order. It made no sense to declare war against groups that were not trying to harm the United States. They were not our enemies; and going after all terrorist organizations would greatly complicate the daunting task of eliminating those groups that did have us in their crosshairs. In addition, there was no alliance between the so-called rogue states and al-Qaeda. In fact, Iran and Syria cooperated with Washington after 9/11 to help quash Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Although the Bush administration and the neoconservatives repeatedly asserted that there was a genuine connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, they never produced evidence to back up their claim for the simple reason that it did not exist.

The fact is that states have strong incentives to distrust terrorist groups, in part because they might turn on them someday, but also because countries cannot control what terrorist organizations do, and they may do something that gets their patrons into serious trouble. This is why there is hardly any chance that a rogue state will give a nuclear weapon to terrorists. That regime’s leaders could never be sure that they would not be blamed and punished for a terrorist group’s actions. Nor could they be certain that the United States or Israel would not incinerate them if either country merely suspected that they had provided terrorists with the ability to carry out a WMD attack. A nuclear handoff, therefore, is not a serious threat.

When you get down to it, there is only a remote possibility that terrorists will get hold of an atomic bomb. The most likely way it would happen is if there were political chaos in a nuclear-armed state, and terrorists or their friends were able to take advantage of the ensuing confusion to snatch a loose nuclear weapon. But even then, there are additional obstacles to overcome: some countries keep their weapons disassembled, detonating one is not easy and it would be difficult to transport the device without being detected. Moreover, other countries would have powerful incentives to work with Washington to find the weapon before it could be used. The obvious implication is that we should work with other states to improve nuclear security, so as to make this slim possibility even more unlikely.

Finally, the ability of terrorists to strike the American homeland has been blown out of all proportion. In the nine years since 9/11, government officials and terrorist experts have issued countless warnings that another major attack on American soil is probable—even imminent. But this is simply not the case.3 The only attempts we have seen are a few failed solo attacks by individuals with links to al-Qaeda like the “shoe bomber,” who attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001, and the “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009. So, we do have a terrorism problem, but it is hardly an existential threat. In fact, it is a minor threat. Perhaps the scope of the challenge is best captured by Ohio State political scientist John Mueller’s telling comment that “the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s . . . is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts.”

One might argue that there has been no attack on American soil since 9/11 because the GWOT has been a great success. But that claim is undermined by the fact that al-Qaeda was trying hard to strike the United States in the decade before 9/11, when there was no GWOT, and it succeeded only once. In February 1993, al-Qaeda exploded a truck bomb in a garage below the World Trade Center, killing six people. More than eight years passed before the group struck that same building complex for the second time. None of this is to deny that 9/11 was a spectacular success for the terrorists, but it was no Pearl Harbor, which launched the United States into battles against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, two truly dangerous adversaries. Roughly 50 million people—the majority of them civilians—died in that conflict. It is absurd to compare al-Qaeda with Germany and Japan, or to liken the GWOT to a world war.

This conspicuous threat inflation has hurt the American effort to neutralize al-Qaeda. By foolishly widening the scope of the terrorism problem, Washington has ended up picking fights with terrorist groups and countries that otherwise had no interest in attacking the United States, and in some cases were willing to help us thwart al-Qaeda. Enlarging the target set has also led American policy makers to take their eyes off our main adversary. Furthermore, defining the terrorist threat so broadly, coupled with the constant warnings about looming attacks that might be even more deadly than 9/11, has led U.S. leaders to wage war all around the globe and to think of this struggle as lasting for generations. This is exactly the wrong formula for dealing with our terrorism problem. We should instead focus our attention wholly on al-Qaeda and any other group that targets the United States, and we should treat the threat as a law-enforcement problem rather than a military one that requires us to engage in large-scale wars the world over. Specifically, we should rely mainly on intelligence, police work, carefully selected covert operations and close cooperation with allies to neutralize the likes of al-Qaeda.


TO DEAL effectively with terrorism, it is imperative to understand what motivates al-Qaeda to target the United States in the first place. One also wants to know why large numbers of people in the Arab and Muslim world are so angry with America that they support, or at least sympathize with, these types of terrorist groups. Simply put, why do they hate us?

There are two possible answers to this question. One possibility is that al-Qaeda and its supporters loathe us because of who we are; in other words, this is a clash of civilizations that has arisen because these extremists hate Western values in general and liberal democracy in particular. Alternatively, these groups may hate us because they are furious with our Middle East policies. There is an abundance of survey data and anecdotal evidence that shows the second answer is the right one. Anger and hatred toward the United States among Arabs and Muslims is largely driven by Washington’s policies, not by any deep-seated antipathy toward the West.4 The policies that have generated the most anti-Americanism include Washington’s support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War; U.S. support for repressive regimes in countries like Egypt; American sanctions on Baghdad after the First Gulf War, which are estimated to have caused the deaths of about five hundred thousand Iraqi civilians; and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

None of this is to say that the hard-core members of al-Qaeda like or respect American values and institutions because surely most of them do not. But there is little evidence that they dislike them so much that they would be motivated to declare war on the United States. The case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—who the 9/11 Commission described as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks”—tells us a great deal. The Palestinian issue, not hatred of the American way of life, motivated him. In the commission’s words, “By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” The commission also confirmed that bin Laden was motivated in good part by America’s support for Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians.

Not surprisingly, President Bush and his advisers rejected this explanation of 9/11, because accepting it would effectively have been an admission that the United States bore considerable responsibility for the events of that tragic day. We would be acknowledging that it was our Middle East policies that were at the heart of it all. Instead, right after 9/11 happened the president stated, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Despite all the evidence to the contrary, this argument sold well in America—at least for a few years. But what were the policy implications of portraying the fight with al-Qaeda as a clash between two different ways of life?

There was no chance that the United States was going to change its basic character to solve its terrorism problem. Instead, the Bush administration decided to carry out social engineering on a grand scale. No lessons learned from the dismal record of nation building in the Clinton years. Yes! We would bring liberal democracy and Western values to the Arabs and the Iranians, and our troubles with terrorism would go away. “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values,” the president said, “because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.”

Image: Pullquote: The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight.Essay Types: Essay