George W. Bush used to ask “why haven’t we found bin Laden?” with such regularity that an exasperated official once suggested sending a one-sentence reply back to the president. “Because he’s hiding.”
Now, almost a decade after 9/11, and according to President Obama, Osama bin Laden has finally been found and killed. His death offers an opportunity to declare an end to the “war on terror”. This is not the same as saying that the US and Europe can now stop worrying about terrorism. The west will need a serious counter-terrorism policy for many years to come.
But the Bush-inspired drive to make terrorism the main piece of US foreign policy was a mistake. A big one. The declaration of a “Global War on Terror” distorted American foreign policy and led directly to two wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war on terror has guzzled billions of dollars in wasteful spending and spawned a huge and secretive bureaucracy in Washington. The death of bin Laden gives President Barack Obama the cover he needs to start quietly unwinding some of these mistakes.
Getting the terrorist threat into perspective is difficult. The attacks on New York and Washington were so horrific that they are seared into the memory. It is also clear that al-Qaeda has spawned affiliates that may now be just as dangerous as the original al-Qaeda franchise, run by bin Laden from Pakistan. Intelligence officials say that dangerous plots are being hatched by branches of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and north Africa – and there is no reason to disbelieve them.
And yet, look at the numbers, and it becomes clear that the threat of terrorism has been seriously hyped. In a book published a couple of years ago John Mueller, an academic from the US, pointed out that the number of Americans killed by terrorists since 1960 is “about the same as the number killed over the same period by accident-causing deer”. In a report for the Rand Corporation, Brian Jenkins made a similar point: “The average American has about a one in 9,000 chance of dying in an automobile accident and about a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered.” However, in the five years after 9/11, and including the people killed there, “an average American had only a one in 500,000 chance of being killed in a terrorist attack”.
Yet incredible resources have been poured into the “war on terror”. In a report on “Top Secret America” published last year, the Washington Post pointed out that: “In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons.” And that is just the organisations created since 9/11. The CIA and the National Security Agency were hardly modest or under-resourced organisations before the “war on terror”.
By 2010, the US intelligence budget was $75 billion a year – a more than twentyfold increase since 9/11. That figure does not even include military activities run by the intelligence agencies, such as the drone attacks in Pakistan. Given all this, it is astonishing that it took a decade to track down bin Laden.
Nonetheless, the success in killing the leader of al-Qaeda – combined with warnings of new terrorist plots– may actually give a further boost to intelligence spending. This possibility is increased by the news announced last week that General David Petraeus, an empire-builder with a following on Capitol Hill, has been appointed as head of the CIA.
In fact, while good intelligence work is vital, there is plenty of evidence of massive waste and duplication in the US intelligence effort. According to the Washington Post, there are no fewer than 51 federal agencies entrusted with monitoring the flow of money to terrorist networks. The NSA intercepts 1.7 billion e-mails and phone calls every day – far more than could ever be usefully analysed.
An excessive concentration on intelligence-gathering is not just a waste of time and money. More important, it also distorts US foreign policy – as a dangerous merger takes place between intelligence and military capabilities. The line has already been blurred by the CIA’s role in fighting the Afghan war. It will be further eroded by the appointment of a general to run the CIA. Meanwhile, as the spies and soldiers are showered with money, conventional diplomacy and development aid have been run on a relative shoestring.
Given the flow of resources, it is hardly surprising that US foreign policy has become so militarised over the past decade. And yet the results have been dismal. The war in Iraq cost hundreds of thousands of lives and probably made the terrorist threat worse. The utility of waging a decade-long war in Afghanistan also comes into question – now that we have confirmation that al-Qaeda’s leadership was based deep inside Pakistan.
Meanwhile, as America poured money and resources into the GWOT, the truly epoch-making changes of our time were taking place in east Asia. The rise of new economic powers such as China and India – and the relative decline of the US – will ultimately shape the next century far more than the terrorist threat. But handling the rise of China and reviving the US economy are difficult and lengthy challenges – offering none of the emotional satisfaction of blowing away “America’s most wanted”.