The two bullets that killed Osama bin Laden cost less than one dollar. Yet, it took the world’s last superpower nearly a decade and many billions of dollars to make it happen. In terms of time and resources this project was on a scale with President Kennedy’s mandate to put a man on the moon by the end of his decade. Certainly, the world is a better place without Bin Laden in it. But his death has also shown deep deficiencies in U.S. strategic thinking.
As a thought experiment, imagine what would have happened if the United States did nothing (or very little) after 9/11. The US government has spent on the order of 1-2 trillion dollars reacting to the September 11 attacks. The defense budget soared, the Department of Homeland Security was created, intelligence efforts were pumped up, etc., etc. If we reacted in a reduced but more selective way to Bin Laden’s attack in 2001, conceivably a trillion public dollars (to say nothing of the costs borne by the private sector) would have gone toward other productive investments.
These have been mass diversions of capital from other productive uses in the economy. Washington has heavily mortgaged the future to fund a huge effort that is premised on flawed assumptions about the terrorism threat that nobody questions because Washington is so heavily committed to this course of action. Multi-billion-dollar corporations (as well as the community of experts and think-tanks) have a big stake in the existing threat model being sustained. But it seems the overall threat of terrorism against the United States did not abate because of the massive defense and security programs we have funded. In the end, the dissolution of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its ilk will be the result of underlying dynamics Washington has almost no effect upon.
Simply look at the so-called Arab Awakening. Washington has been largely irrelevant. Social and governmental reorganization is progressing, facilitated by social media. Washington’s influence is inversely related to the influence of the masses. Washington had leverage with the leaders, not the populations.
And looking ahead at the dynamics in the Middle East it appears that the role of the United States will get smaller. If more governments become responsive to their populations, the impact of Washington will diminish and less can be blamed on America. And as Washington reduces budgets, inevitably, the US military presence in the region will shrink. Politicians will find it hard to continue such huge expenditures when the returns are so uncertain.
If this renaissance movement absorbs and redirects the energy of those who might otherwise seek to attack the United States, then what was the net effect of our massive counterterrorist actions? While we thwarted some attacks in progress or in planning, our massive expenditures did little or nothing to diminish the will of the enemy. A revised model of the overall threat should conclude that doing less is far better.
The most effective efforts to identify and interdict attacks have been CIA programs and military Special Forces that cost relatively little within the national-security budget.
Looking forward, al-Qaeda will recede in relation to other nontraditional, less kinetic threats. Despite the creation of a Cyber Command, we are at a very early stage of understanding risks and operations in the virtual world. For example, we are extremely vulnerable to attacks in the financial world that our current national-security structure cannot deal with or, for that matter, even recognize. The organizational flaws that the 9-11 Commission noted as they relate to terrorism are nothing compared to the stovepipes between financial and national-security structures that exacerbate our weaknesses. Critical expertise lies in the Fed and in the Treasury Department, but their mindset is not one of national security.
If I were looking at the United States from the outside and wanted to degrade our power, I would invest less in aircraft carriers and more in talent to conduct virtual operations including running intelligence operations and manipulating financial and currency markets. We can significantly reduce our spending on military hardware, but we need to accelerate our efforts to understand threats that are unconstrained by geography or borders. The era of kinetic warfare is receding, and we cannot remain fixated on these hardware wars. Our enemies will not do us the favor of playing to our strength.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently noted about our NATO allies lacked the will to contribute their share to NATO. At some level, they just don’t think it is worth it and have logged off. We need to rethink the value in NATO as well. Will NATO help us in the threats we face in the future? If Libya is an example, of the need for NATO, there will be much debate.
The problems we associate with Iran and China have not gotten any better over the last decade. Some use a potential Chinese military threat to scale our military requirements. But the problems with China are far from military. And Iran, to the extent we have had any success in thwarting its nuclear ambitions, it has been through financial tools and possibly cyber techniques.
An early evaluation of these trends will be a real test of General Petraeus as he moves from running the wars in Afghanistan (and earlier Iraq) to running the CIA—the agency that is charged with understanding the dynamics and making assessments of the future in this region. To have the individual most highly invested in the recent costly war efforts move to the position responsible for objectively evaluating their results will be a challenge to credibility. It would be a strong individual indeed who could objectively consider the possibility that his decisions that cost so many lives and resources may have had no positive effect or, worse, even inhibited the positive trend the Arab Awakening that may have been lurking beneath the surface in any case.