Foiled Terror Plots and Strawmen
Scott Lemieux cites several bloggers on the right touting yesterday’s announcement that a mega 9/11 reprise had been foiled as evidence that the war on terror has been a success, that liberals are fuddy duddys, and Ned Lamont is a joke. He argues the idea that “This whole war on terror thing is a phony construct made up by Bush” is a strawman and concludes, “if anything looks stupid today, it’s the idea that we should be focusing on a variety of techniques to stop terrorism rather than randomly invading countries with virtually no connection to anti-American terrorism.”
No doubt, much silliness has been written about this from both sides. But the fact that a UK-US-Pakistani intelligence/police collaboration was apparently behind this stunning success story would seem to belie the lefty strawman that Bush and company aren’t using “a variety of techniques to stop terrorism.” Whether one of these “techniques” should include military action against unfriendly regimes is an open question but, rather clearly, force is not the only tool in the box.
Indeed, yesterday may have put the final nail into the coffin of another meme popular on the Left, namely that the war on Iraq has distracted us from keeping our eye on al Qaeda. Not hardly.
UPDATE: Apparently, the second meme isn’t dead. John Amato writes, “Today’s news shows how ineffective Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy has been.” What, exactly, would be evidence of an effective foreign policy? Isn’t foiling a plot through the application of intelligence (perhaps including electronic surveillance on international calls) a good thing?
He adds, “The British are foiling plots and our immediate solution is stopping our citizens from taking bottled water on planes.” Uh, no. For one thing, the Brits are stopping people from taking bottled water on planes, too. And all the accounts say that the Brits did this is collaboration with the US.
Josh Marshall argues that yesterday’s events are a “reminder that President Bush’s War on Terror, the way he’s chosen to fight it, is at best irrelevant to combatting this sort of danger. These are homegrown Brits apparently trying to blow up planes over the Atlantic. Good thing we’ve got a 150,000 or so troops in Iraq to take the fight to them.” Even Ivo Daalder goes down that path, writing, “Taking the offense in this war — by which the administration means using military force — is worse then useless. For who are you going to bomb? Safe houses in High Wycombe or Birmingham?” So, because there are homegrown terrorists in the UK, there are no terrorists in the Middle East. Really?
Daalder continues, “What appears to have cracked this case is not a war strategy or military offensive, but good intelligence, skilled detective work, and months of careful surveillance — the kind of traditional law enforcement strategies and defensive measures that Bush and his administration have always shunned.” But the Bush administration took part in these activities! And they’ve done the same thing domestically, with the FBI and other agencies foiling numerous would-be terrorist plots since 9/11.
The idea that because police-intelligence operations are effective in one case means military action is never effective is nonsensical. It’s like arguing that, because defense wins championships, a team doesn’t need an offense. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, surely we can agree that toppling the Taliban regime and destroying al Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan was a useful step?
To return to the sports analogy, it’s true that good pitching and defense is incredibly useful in winning a baseball game. If one’s team pitches a shutout, it’ll never lose. But it’s awfully nice to score a few runs; indeed, one can’t win without doing that. Foiling terrorist plots is great news, to be sure. But, eventually, we’ll fail.
A defense-only strategy will never win the ballgame. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the best defense possible. It’s not either-or.