What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.
The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.
There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership. There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.
Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.
What’s the bottom line? Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points I will come back to during our discussion:
- There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
- The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful. Politicians panic. Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem? In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
- The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war. How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
- President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.
I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.) Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!
(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The enemy: How terrorist groups and the threats they pose are evolving. Worth knowing.
- Spending too fight terrorism has been staggeringly high.
- Casualties: Ours, as compared to deaths/wounds in other US wars. [Plus 1m or so Iraqi and other foreign civilians.]
- The permanent war:
- Evaluations of GWOT:
- Short: It cost a lot, but do not call our efforts a failure. Recommended.
- Long RAND Corp. (20p pdf): We’ve done pretty well. Recommended
- Long US Army (17p pdf): No, the GWOT has not accomplished most of its objectives. Not
- Donald Trump will…
NEXT WEEK: The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.