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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

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  4. Joyner, this morning: No doubt, much silliness has been written today from both sides. But the fact that US-UK-Pakistanis intelligence/police collaboration was apparently behind this stunning success story would seem to belie the lefty strawman that Bush and company

  5. Bithead says:

    Indeed; The take away from this appears to be that we did manage to stop something major, and just barely at that.

    Which means, of course, that the tools at hand are just barely adequate to the task. This would seem to indicate that the amount of intrusion that many liberals and those on the social left complain about, are actually required for security reasons .

    But perhaps the reaction on the left can best be judged in light of the situation that they have politically found themselves in. By this week and explain their rather disjointed braying reaction;

    The democrats find themselves in a position of having Republican control in all three branches of goverment. They also more specifically find themselves with a president who does not substantially disagree with them on any point in their platform, other than the war on terror. (Be it for good or ill, Bush is hardly the reincarnation of Hitler that the left tries to project him as being).

    Thus, we see that the war on terrorism is the only policy on which the Democrats can logically disagree with the president a political sense;The only possibility they have of regaining power .

    Yesterday’s events may have disabled that argument, too. Always assuming, of course, that the republicans are smart enough to take up that particular chance between now and November of 2008.

  6. LJD says:

    The ones complaining about our approach to the GWOT usually are the same ones whining about their ‘right’ to bring water on the plane. Perhaps we could offer up their skewed perspective to Al Qaeda as potential targets? It might change a few minds…

  7. Mark says:

    Would you agree that our resources for fighting terrorism are limited?

    If so, then we cannot do everything we would like to do, so we must pick and choose the most effective tactics.

    Most liberals I talk to think the resources spent in Iraq would have been better used elsewhere in the GWOT.

  8. LJD says:

    Most liberals I talk to think the resources spent in Iraq would have been better used elsewhere in the GWOT.

    That would seem the case to the layperson, that thinks Iraq has no role in the GWOT.

  9. Conn. Senate Race Still Likely to Have a Democratic Winner
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    CQPolitics.com – CQPolitics.com has analyzed Tuesday’s stunning primary upset of Connecticut Democ…

  10. War on Terror/2…

    Su Hot Air, gli ultimi dettagli che stanno emergendo sul piano terroristico sventato dai servizi segreti britannici. Mentre la sinistra americana (e i francesi) non sono terrorizzati dalla Jihad, ma dal fatto che Bush (e i repubblicani) potrebbero cr…..

  11. Bithead says:

    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?

    Apparently, the left wants to hold Mr. Bush responsible for the violent desires of radical Islam. They figure that if only the President was the type to kiss butt, that they’d not wish to hurt us. Of course this is foolish… they still have not brought themselves to understand what Boortz indicated yesterday:

    Right now, there are people in the world that want to kill you. These people are fanatics. They’re fanatics of the worse kind …. religious fanatics. They’re intelligent. They have money. They have resources. They’re determined. They don’t care if they die … and they’re very very patient.

    Their goal is to bring the entire world under Islamic law … or do die trying. Either way they believe they will receive the reward of eternal paradise.

    How do you fight an enemy like that? They will never stop trying to kill us. We say negotiations, they hear appeasement. We say peace plan, they hear surrender. We say peaceful coexistence, they plot to grow their numbers and their strength while we’re wallowing in our own political correctness.

    There is only one way to address radical Islam, and that is to completely and absolutely destroy it. We seek the Islamofascists throughout the world. We locate them, and then we destroy them.

    This global war on radical Islam is a fight for our Western civilization and culture. It’s a fight for our very way of life.

  12. Steve Verdon says:

    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.

    Ahh yes, the old either-or fallacy. Amazing how just basic logic could help people write better essays, blog posts and books.

  13. Daily Summary…

    NEWS: – White House Assures Americans It Is Safe to Fly – British Police Looking for Remaining Plotters – Parties Claim Edge as Terror Is Reinforced as Campaign Topic – Muslim Group Upset by Bush’s Use of ‘Islamic Fascists’ -……

  14. Anderson says:

    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?

    Well, of course. Who denies that?

    The valid point is that when Kerry referred to a law-enforcement-based paradigm for defeating terrorists, the GOP went ballistic on him for being a left-wing pansy who didn’t understand that this was WAR b’gosh.

    IIRC, Kerry was even making the point that the law-enforcement paradigm was our *goal* for terrorism, as in, we’re not there yet, military responses are still needed. As in Afghanistan, all too obviously.

    Bush’s greatest error has been not military response in general, but the Iraq war in particular. When Dems attack the Repubs for misconceiving the “war on terror,” they’re responding to 3+ years of hearing Iraq characterized as a major front in that war.

  15. I’m sorry, but I’m a bit confused here. I understand the concept from the left that if we weren’t in Iraq, we could use the soldiers elsewhere (what the 120K soldiers would be doing is never fully explained, but I can grasp the concept). But wasn’t it the left complaining about the US tracking terrorist financing and terrorist communications just a short time ago. So when we prevent more civilian lives being lost in blown up airplanes than the US military losses in Iraq, this is somehow also a failure of the Bush administration.

    I think the average US voter is smart enough to figure this out.

    One side wants us to leave Iraq (if not now, then on a date certain with no consideration of anything beyond that date). That should make the terrorists tremble in their caves. I can’t imagine the sight of US troops being seen driven from the battlefield by Islamic resistance to be of any use in recruiting terrorists. Muslim nations like Pakistan that apparently helped foil this plot would rest easy knowing that the US would bear any burden, endure any hardship to win this fight against terrorism. Yep, anyone could clearly see that running away from Iraq would greatly enhance the US defense and offense against the terrorists.

    Add to that the left’s concern for making sure the terrorists get at least the rights US criminals get and that we expose any secret plans to capture terrorists because it might be seen as a violation of US civil rights even though the law and court cases don’t support such a view. Events like this bomb plot will certainly be seen as convincing to the average US voter that is the democrat’s vision of how to track and capture terrorists is given full sweep that we can be sure we won’t see more such plots unfolded.

  16. Anderson says:

    YetAnotherJohn, do you read any actual liberals, or just the b.s. that’s made up about them at RedState, etc.?

    But wasn’t it the left complaining about the US tracking terrorist financing and terrorist communications just a short time ago.

    No, it wasn’t. Andrew, the new conservative poster over at ObWi, will explain the relevant distinctions to you:

    Yes, I’m all for the things mentioned in the first quote, as I suspect are most Americans. However, I think I’m safe in declaring that we’d like those actions to be taken in accordance with the Constitution. I suspect that, when it comes to this area at least, I can get some love for my strict construction views on the Constitution: that just because the President is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that doesn’t grant him carte blanche to run the war however he likes. If he’s got some ideas for some good anti-terrorism programs, then he needs to run them by Congress just like any other program. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t have a problem with the President making some unilateral decisions. Five years later is way too late for him to be bringing the senior branch of government into the play.

    Remember the kind of thing that conservatives used to believe? Like, unfettered power in gov’t hands will be abused?

    Remember hearing “checks and balances” in 7th-grade civics class?

    This administration has consistently refused to treat Congress (or the courts, for that matter) as coequal branches of government. And, those branches being packed with Republicans, Bush has mostly gotten away with it. With horrible results.

  17. […] James Joyner’s riposte to some of the criticism seems relevant here: 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? […]

  18. Bithead says:

    So, tell us, Anderson;

    Where at the moment would you appprove of deployment of troups in the war on Islamic Terrorists?

    And would your fellow leftists approve?

  19. James Joyner says:

    Anderson:

    All the writers quoted in the post seem to be arguing that ONLY a law enforcement paradigm is worthwhile. Now, Daalder certainly doesn’t believe that. Presumably, Marshall has better sense, too. But it seems to be the thrust of their anti-Bush argument.

    Part of the backlash against Kerry’s statement was political grandstanding. Much of it, though, was legit. The problem with the LE paradigm is that it’s reactive. Cops seldom stop crimes from happening; they wait for the dead bodies and then go about trying to gather evidence for the trial.

    Counter-terrorism will obviously involve a great deal of police work but the goal is actionable intelligence not prosecution. The mindsets are very different even if the tools are similar.

  20. Anderson says:

    Where at the moment would you appprove of deployment of troups in the war on Islamic Terrorists?

    Troups? I don’t think that circus acts are really going to help us. Just like a Republican to turn this important issue into a joke …

    Oh, troops. Well, Afghanistan, obviously. Pakistan, arguably–the NW Province is scarcely under Pakistan’s control, assuming of course that Pakistan is our good and loyal friend (cough).

    In general, military force is needed where there’s either (1) state-sponsored terror that we can’t oppose without going to war, or (2) a failed state that gives terrorists a base either willingly or through impotence. Where stable, non-terror-sponsoring states exist, we can use law enforcement and intel agencies to good effect.

    Of course, “Islamic terrorism” is a misnomer. Hezbollah has an terrorist wing, but calling them part of “Islamic terrorism” is rather like calling the IRA’s terror wing “Catholic terrorism.” So I wouldn’t favor, at present, the U.S. occupation of Lebanon or Iran, even assuming that we had the wherewithal (which we don’t, thanks to our fool’s errand in Iraq).

  21. Anderson says:

    All the writers quoted in the post seem to be arguing that ONLY a law enforcement paradigm is worthwhile. Now, Daalder certainly doesn’t believe that. Presumably, Marshall has better sense, too. But it seems to be the thrust of their anti-Bush argument.

    To the extent you’re right, I think it’s rhetorical overstatement, b/c “military” has been identified with the Iraq fiasco. As you imply, if we asked any of those people whether they really think LE should be the sole tool, they would be unlikely to agree.

    The problem with the LE paradigm is that it’s reactive. Cops seldom stop crimes from happening; they wait for the dead bodies and then go about trying to gather evidence for the trial.

    See, you’re stuck in pre-9/11 thinking! (I never get a chance to say that.) I’m not talking about everyday “cops”; I’m talking about joint CIA/FBI counterterror units that would go after Qaeda the way we went after the Mafia, except moreso. There’s no reason to expect that such agents would be “reactive.”

    And, lord knows, the occasional well-aimed airstrike or Special Ops raid is a tool in the box. But the “war” paradigm creates all kinds of problems. Even in our actual war in Iraq, the insistence on fighting a “war” rather than a counterinsurgency has cost us dearly.

  22. Anderson,

    Are you seriously trying to say that the democrats aren’t the ones arguing for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq or raising the biggest stink about NSA international intercepts or SWIFT financial tracking?

    Lets see. The ‘six for 06’ calls for “begin the phased redeployment of US forces from Iraq in 2006. ” Now admittedly this could mean nothing (troops are constantly being redeployed from Iraq, the total number goes up and down depending on events on the ground), or it could be exactly what Lamont and company are saying, immediate withdrawal.

    And if you missed the democratic office holders comments on the NSA intercepts and SWIFT finance tracking, you need to get out more.

    I know you may not like the implications of the democratic positions on these issues, but that won’t go away by closing your eyes.

  23. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anderson, are you suggesting we occupy Afghanistan, and invade a corner of a nuclear armed Pakistan? I understand from your position, you believe Saddam was not a threat. That view was not shared by a vast majority of the Congress or the United Nations. It was just when action was to be taken, did the sell out cowards come out of the closet. I invite you to revisit what J. F. Kerry said about Iraq and Saddam prior to 2003. All of your reasons why we should not be in Iraq have been refuted.

  24. Anderson says:

    Are you seriously trying to say that the democrats aren’t the ones arguing for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq or raising the biggest stink about NSA international intercepts or SWIFT financial tracking?

    The “stink” is about the alleged violation of the law in so doing, not the intercepts or tracking themselves. (The Swift program’s legality was less in question, IIRC.)

    As for getting out of Iraq, sure. So what? The Iraqi gov’t thinks we should get out. The White House keeps promising withdrawals (indeed, thought we would be *gone* within 3 months of the invasion). You can argue whether Iraq is FUBAR or not, but it’s highly dubious that we can accomplish much worthwhile at this point.

    Myself, I don’t think you walk into a country, trash it, & then say “oops” and leave. We at least should be committed to training the Iraqi army. But our gross mismanagement of the occupation has made even that a doubtful prospect.

  25. Stix Blog says:

    Terrrorist Plot Thwarted…

    Go down to bottom for updates. British authorities have twarted a 9/11 kind of attack. The terrorist plot involved airplanes and homemade bombs made out of liquid, so it was easier to get through security in the airport. I will…

  26. Anderson says:

    Anderson, are you suggesting we occupy Afghanistan, and invade a corner of a nuclear armed Pakistan?

    Zelsdorf, I thought we already occupied Afghanistan, in name at least … As for Pakistan, sure they’re “nuclear armed.” So are we, and I daresay our bombs are bigger.

    The downside to sending troops into the NW Province is of course the PR disaster & consequent inspiration of our enemies, additional recruitment, etc. Now, with the Iraq FUBAR and our shipping Israel bombs to kill more civilians, I’m not sure how much that matters … but it’s a factor. And it’s certainly possible to imagine Pakistan with an even worse gov’t than it now has.

    But see this item for a reminder that the existing regime is an uncertain ally at best.

  27. LJD says:

    our shipping Israel bombs to kill more civilians

    Just when you start sounding like an intelligent person, you say something really, really stupid.

  28. Bithead says:

    Oh, troops. Well, Afghanistan, obviously. Pakistan, arguably—the NW Province is scarcely under Pakistan’s control, assuming of course that Pakistan is our good and loyal friend (cough).

    the fact of the matter is, that we’d not ahve managed to control, or even monitor that area of the world, the already dealt-with Afghanistan included, with Saddam still in place.

  29. Anderson says:

    Just when you start sounding like an intelligent person, you say something really, really stupid.

    Well, at least I came close that time.

    But, given Israel’s track record, it’s pretty obvious who the majority of victims of those bombs are going to be. Nor has the obvious escaped everyone in the U.S. gov’t:

    But some State Department officials have sought to delay the approval because of concerns over the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the diplomatic repercussions. The rockets, while they would be very effective against hidden missile launchers, officials say, are fired by the dozen and could be expected to cause civilian casualties if used against targets in populated areas.

    Which, we know, Hezbollah tends to operate within. So it’s a good bet that these bombs will kill more civilians than Hezbollah … as has been the case during the entire war, even with (supposedly) precision-guidance munitions.

    Each rocket contains 644 submunitions that kill enemy soldiers operating artillery in the area. * * *

    After the Reagan administration determined in 1982 that the cluster munitions had been used by Israel against civilian areas, the delivery of the artillery shells containing the munitions to Israel was suspended.

    Israel was found to have violated a 1976 agreement with the United States in which it had agreed only to use cluster munitions against Arab armies and against clearly defined military targets. The moratorium on selling Israel cluster weapons was later lifted by the Reagan administration.

    But I’m sure that Israel would never do anything like that today.

    You say “stupid,” I say “obvious” … let’s call the whole thing off?

  30. Anderson says:

    the fact of the matter is, that we’d not ahve managed to control, or even monitor that area of the world, the already dealt-with Afghanistan included, with Saddam still in place.

    How are you using that word, “fact”?