Monday, September 12, 2011

Are We Safer?

Ten years ago, who would have thought that we would make it this long without another successful major terrorist attack? Note my qualifiers. Several follow-up attacks were stopped in the planning stage and some attacks succeeded but were on a different scale. The London Underground bombing is an example as well as more recent attacks in India. The most recent was just last week but it was an order of magnitude smaller than the September 11, 2001 attack.

This does emphasize that terrorism is a global issue, not one just for the US. The September 11 attack was planned outside the US and carried out by foreign nationals.

Since the attack there was a drumbeat of accusations that some policy or action made us less safe. This was mainly used as an attack on President Bush but more recently this has been used against President Obama. Let's look at some of the big ones.

The invasion of Afghanistan. Even before the fires were out in the World Trade Center some voices said that we needed to treat it like any other crime. The military should not be involved. An echo of this was heard when the Navy Seals killed bin Laden - that this is how it should have been handled from the start.

One problem with this - we tried it and it failed. We informed the Taliban that we wanted them to turn Osama bin Laden over for trial. They refused and threatened us. So we invaded and overthrew the Taliban as well as disrupting al Qaeda which had its leadership and training camps in Afghanistan. The immediate reaction from the left was "Now look what you did. You made them mad."

It was not until presidential nominee John Kerry said that Afghanistan was the "good war" that these voices were quieted. Even then some people like Michael Moore insisted that the invasion of Afghanistan had noting to do with terrorism. It was done on behalf of some oil companies in order to get the rights for an oil pipeline (which has not been started ten years later).

Result: With its training camps gone and its leadership in hiding, al Qeada no longer had the ability to mount an attack on the level of September 11.

The Invasion of Iraq. Iraq was not involved in 9/11 but it was sponsoring terrorism and it was assumed that Saddam Hussein was rebuilding his stockpiles of WMDs and had restarted his nuclear program. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to have made us less safe because 1) it angered people who would then turn to terrorism and 2) it distracted us from the real war against terror in Afghanistan.

Result: Al Qaeda was not in Iraq when we invaded but they soon established a presence as "al Qaeda in Iraq". Eventually it became obvious that they were more interested in stirring up civil war than helping the Iraqis expel the Americans. They also killed more Muslims than Americans. This realization led to the "awakening" movement which combined with the Surge to essentially win the war in Iraq. Al Qaeda lost credibility world-wide.

Iraq also got the nation past its Viet Nam Syndrome. Prior to Iraq, US presidents had been careful to avoid any long-term conflicts. The Powell Doctrine codified this. The theory was that the US citizens would not support another war that lasted more than a few weeks or had significant casualties. Both our leaders and our enemies believed this which strengthened opposition. Now our enemies know that we are willing to fight a decade-long war if we have to.

Guantanamo (Gitmo) - After the fall of the Taliban, the US had a problem. What to do with the POWs? The Geneva Conventions do not cover them and attempting to try them under US law was unworkable. The solution was to put them in a facility controlled by the US but not in the country. There they could be tried by a tribunal following precedents from WWII and other conflicts.

The members of the left who had wanted 9/11 to be treated like a crime insisted that this was unacceptable. We had to bring the prisoners to the US and try the under US law. After years or delaying the tribunals the left also started complaining about how long the prisoners at Gitmo had been held without a trial. Since they were the ones who had delayed the trials, this was a bit like the man who killed his parents and asked for mercy because he was an orphan.

Like Afghanistan and Iraq, the existence of Gitmo was supposed to inspire more acts of violence.

Result: Two and a half years after taking office, President Obama has not been able to close Gitmo. The one trial held in the US was a near-disaster with most charges being dismissed due to stronger rules of evidence. The Obama administration eventually restarted the tribunals.

The Patriot Act - I'm not sure that anyone actually claimed that this would make us less safe but there were major protests over it. Many of the protests had nothing to do with the Patriot Act proper. Any examples of government abuse such as overseas wiretaps were lumped together as Patriot Act abuses.
Result: While the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress they renewed and strengthened the Patriot Act.

Border Control - Several of the 9/11 attackers were here illegally. In addition, an attack planned for 1/1/2000 was stopped at the Canadian border.

Immediately after 9/11 the government reviewed the status of all known people who entered the country legally. Many people were deported or imprisoned until their status could be cleared. There were calls to strengthen controls on the Mexican border since there was no reason to believe that terrorists would only enter the country from Canada. These have been, at best, half-hearted.

More recently, President Obama instituted programs to force employers to check on job applicants' status and has deported a million illegal immigrants. These were not directly related to terrorism but would make it harder for terrorists to exist in the country.

At the same time, the recent stories about Obama's "Uncle Omar" showed flaws in the current system. Omar was ordered to leave the country years ago and simply ignored the order. After his current arrest he disappeared again. This has led to complaints that Obama's "catch and release" program makes us less safe.

Result: This is hard to determine. Disruptions to al Qaeda have kept it from trying to sneak terrorists into the US so stronger border controls are not as important as they could have been.

TSA Searches - After the Shoe Bomber we all have to take off our shoes. After the Underwear Bomber, people have to submit to a virtual strip-search.

Result: This has been referred to as "security theater". It is not being done to make us safer. It is being done to make us feel safe.

The Death of bin Laden - The execution of Osama bin Laden has sort of a dream-like quality to it. By the time it was announced, the body had been buried at sea and no photographs of the body will be released. Even so, some pundits claimed that this would trigger new terrorism in response.

Result: If al Qaeda was capable of doing major strikes they would not have waited for their leader's death to do them. The organization still exists and claimed credit for a bombing in India just last week but it has lost its charismatic leader.

Bottom line
: al Qeada has been discredited and has lost most of its experienced leadership. Ten years ago it was the organization that hit the US. Now it is the organization that brought death and destruction down on Muslims by angering the US. Follow-up attacks have been progressively smaller and more localized. It was bin Laden's idea to strike at the "far enemy" meaning the US. He believed that we were a hollow power and that a strong blow to our nation would cause us to implode much as the USSR did a decade earlier. We proved him wrong and showed that striking the US can bring horrible retribution. I doubt that al Qaeda would have planned 9/11 if they knew what things would be like a decade later.

At the same time we have proved that we are not a hollow power propped up with technology. We have the best fighting forces in the world.

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