Terrorism, and subsequently, counter terrorism is not a new phenomenon; indeed, there have been more than 12 UN conventions alone on the subject. It is the very question of how to deal with this issue universally that poses the greatest challenge. In this essay, I will address the question: Does the United States' “heavy handed” response to global non-state terrorism post 9/11, and its subsequent military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, show inability to deal with global non-state terrorism? I will analyze the US response and policy to terrorism, its potential shortcomings and what needs to be done to rectify its current erroneous policy.
Prior to the events of 9/11, the US had suffered three recent terrorist attacks; on the USS Cole in 2000 and the respective Kenyan and Tanzania embassy bombings of 1998. Although small in nature they highlighted an issue that was starting to gain political weight, more evidently in its foreign policy (Lansford, 2005). More significantly, it also experienced two notable events, the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, and before that, the first bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993.
The current administration, so far the main and only protagonists of US counter terrorist policy and the subject of analysis in this essay, has long blamed its predecessor for its shortcomings in the US' response to the terrorist threat, and continually cites its lack of policy and/or attention to the issue (Davis, 2005a), which ultimately resulted in the attacks on 9/11 and the current situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, this argument is tenuous for several reasons. In a comparative light, the US suffered a greater volume of terrorist attacks, and also neutralized a large quantity of threats in the preceding 8 years than it has post 9/11 (Lansford, 2005). The Clinton administration actually also spent more money on homeland security, counter-terrorism (primarily via the FBI), and the military than the previous Bush administration, inclusive of the 1st Gulf War. It also passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996, mostly in response to the Oklahoma City attack. President Clinton also approved the assassination of Osama Bin Laden by the CIA in 1999, as a response to the embassy attacks in Africa; and also as he and his Al-Qaeda organization were assessed as the most significant non-state threat to US security (Davis, 2005a).
In contrast, the current Bush administration's unilateralist “heavy handed” counter terrorism policy, characterized by its unilateralist tone and resulting in a security based foreign policy, has been plagued by several domestic and international scandals, and has left it in military quagmires and humanitarian catastrophes in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Berger & Borer, 2007). In fairness, the sheer magnitude of the attacks on 9/11 were clearly unprecedented, but this has led to numerous questions in regard to the issue of just war, and that the US' actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been completely disproportionate to that which it suffered on 9/11 (Freeman, 2006).
The notable difference here between the current Bush “with us or with the terrorists” approach and that of the Clinton administration, is although both adopted a primarily unilateralist policy, Clinton appeared to have adopted a position of primarily “selective” unilateralism; isolating and responding to specific threats internationally, whilst remaining largely pacifist from a military perspective, with the exceptions of interventions in Somalia and Kosovo; however they were not “terrorism” per se.
Contemporarily, terrorism has taken on several new dimensions and there are several challenges that face any counter-terrorism policy, many of which are being experienced at the moment.
Whitman (2005, pp. 99-111) highlights the inherent problems of a constantly globalizing world, represented foremost by the disseminative systems contained within. The continually rapid globalization and global integration of so many systems on so many different levels, has opened up many positive opportunities for the planet, but also proportionally opened up many opportunities for the likelihood of non-state terrorism.
Whitman further re-enforces that due to this unprecedented level of global integration, it is nigh on impossible for any one state or actor, even as imposing as that of the United States, to exert its influence monotheistically, and across such a vast and ever expanding lateral spectrum. It is primarily this problem that poses the biggest threat to the US counter-terrorism policy and greatly exposes its inability to deal with it. For example, the US SDI space based weapons system, designed to shoot down nuclear missiles, will not protect it from the threat of a suitcase bomb, or the acquisition of such by a terrorist group.
However, there are several other challenges facing the so called “war on terror”. The feasibility of a “war on terror” raises many questions as parameters of what falls within the guidelines of terrorism, definitions, etc. One of these is that the war on non-state terrorism, as compared to a “conventional war”, lacks a “front line” or a clear definition of the supposed enemy. Terrorists and their organizations are also considered non-state actors, and in an international legal perspective, there is intense conjecture as to what laws they are subject to, if any; are they the subject of international law or to be solved within the jurisdiction of states? (Davis, 2005b, pp. 45-60)
More importantly, there is also still no universally binding definition of terrorism. Many attempts, notably UN Security Resolution 1566 (UN, 2004), have been made to address this however; its definition is not universally binding on all of its members and thus considered ineffective. There also lies within a paradox of constituting what specifically terrorism entails, as most definitions of this can implicate states as perpetrating, directly or indirectly, the very activities it seeks to prohibit (Foot, 2005). It can furthermore give states grounds to persecute or portray perfectly legitimate political, social or minority groups as “terrorists” and justify enacting certain measures which would otherwise be deemed unjustifiable. The Chinese governments' persecution of the predominantly peaceful Uighur people in Xinjiang Province, as an exchange for co-operation in the war on terror, demonstrates this.
In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US claimed its right to self-defence under article 51 of the UN Charter, rather than follow the proviso's outlined in Security Council Resolution 1373 (UN, 2001), and utilized this to commence the invasion of Afghanistan. This initial action, although seemingly justified, proved controversial and also indicative, as although the UN Resolution allowed an unlimited mandate for the use of force, the US' decision to take sole charge of its subsequent response, effectively washed its hands clean of any UN involvement and oversight, or international responsibility with regard to the war and its consequences, in essence giving the US a “blank cheque.” The same pattern followed with regard to the Iraq war, the major difference being that there was no preceding provocation by Iraq towards the United States, and the justification for the war, although admittedly in retrospect, proved to be tenuous and later fraudulent (Roth, 2008).
The alarming trend of the US' to set its own rules with complete disregard to the grievances of the international community in light of this problem, indeed inflames the terrorism issue and undermines its own policy toward it. As Makinda (2003) & Roach (2008) point out, the flagrant contravention of norms, principles and institutions that is the defining characteristic of non-state terrorism; bears many similarities to the current policy being enacted by the US, nonetheless labeling it hypocritical.
It becomes quite clear that the prominent reason for the failure in the war on terror is the unilateral approach taken by the US, highlighted by several sub-factors at the base of its counter-terrorism strategy. The Bush doctrine, epitomized perhaps by its pre-emptive strike declaration, is in essence a purely military oriented response to a complex problem that is, for the most part, not confined to the military realm (Galatas & Thies, 2005). It is also generally taking a reactive, short term, symptomatic approach, over that of a preventative, long term orientation, to a problem that is the result of a combination of several more serious global problems such as poverty, political inequality and so on.
The military oriented nature of the US response is primarily flawed on the basis that it's oppressive means and ends, adds to a perpetual vicious cycle of terrorism and counter terrorism. This is especially the case in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with constant cycles of insurgency and counter insurgency plaguing both regions (Berger & Borer, 2007). It is also exceptionally expensive to fight such a war using a militaristic based framework. The amount of money consistently required to fight a war of this scope is a consistent economic burden, and is currently one of the primary contributors to the $10 trillion USD debt currently plaguing the US, amidst of its other economic woes (Office of Management and Budget, 2008). Although the majority of this spending is attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than homeland security, both of these were initially a by-product of the war on terror.
Furthermore, the continued US behavioural policy of consistent unilateral defiance, especially with regard to international institutions and norms and the United Nations' relevance to the matter, and adherence to policies only which are its self-interest, has in itself further added to the problem of non-state terrorism (Makinda, 2003). This very behaviour has inadvertently served as an example for which many other states, especially in the Western sphere, have also shown contempt for the very norms, institutions and principles in question, and in turn formulated their own policies in a similar vein. Acts of terrorism are therefore more likely as a result in response to this; and this becomes a rather self-defeating prophecy, as the more effort there is to clamp down on resistance, the more resistance results.
The prisoner abuse scandal of Abu Ghraib in 2004 and the ongoing detention of prisoners and their subsequent mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay, stained also by the Water Boarding scandal, also highlight a very serious human rights issue with its counter-terrorism policy. The current approach by the US has been heavily criticized (Denike, 2008), (Foot, 2005), for its contraventions of the Geneva convention, notably with reference to treatment of prisoners of war, whom the US deems “illegal non-combatants” and thus not subject to the requirements of the convention. For a country that is deemed as the shining beacon of freedom that prides itself, at least domestically, on it's upholding of human rights, fair trial and due process, gross violations of this are very contradictory, and adds further weight to the very oppression that a would-be terrorist would seek to oppose, in essence fueling the causal nature of terrorism (Dunne, 2002).
Perhaps the defining critique (Department of Naval Intelligence, 2007, pp. 1-7) towards the US counter-terrorism policy is the fact that all 16 of its intelligence agencies, agreed unanimously in 2007 that its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and its overall “heavy handed” approach to combating non-state terrorism has severely jeopardized its security situation, and has subsequently put it seriously at risk of further terrorist reprisals. Furthermore, the inability of the last 7 years, despite the efforts of its entire intelligence network, to apprehend the “Ace of Spades”, Osama Bin Laden, again re-enforces the failure of its policy (Roth, 2008), and perhaps epitomizes this point more poignantly than the previous critique.
It becomes apparent then, that the solution to the current US counter-terrorism conundrum exists in the plane of multilateralism, or as Makinda (2003, p. 56) and Lee (2006, p. 246) define it, “a return to global governance”. An attitude shift towards adherence to international norms, principles and institutions, the essential basis of global governance, from that of hegemonic self-interest, is a crucial component to this change in policy. The US' decision to “go it alone”, has ultimately revealed its ineffectiveness to appropriately address the situation, let alone worsened it; and several alternative methods and perspectives must be considered and enacted for the US to improve its current theological and practical position.
Falk (2002, pp. 50-53) outlines that a number of certain approaches and frameworks are necessary to successfully address the problem of non-state terrorism, rather than a purely militaristic one. He advocates a combination of three ideologies, consisting of non-militant pacifism, legalism as well as militarism. Whilst Falk argues a military approach may be a necessary one when addressing short term threats, it should be of a last resort and when other avenues of redress have been expended or are impractical. The US certainly does not lack this capacity; however the application of discretion of when to use force is the capacity it indeed lacks. The legal element in itself presents a problem for the US, as this view also espouses the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court and the adherence to international law, two facets that the United States has not been a proud supporter of, or adherer to for various reasons, primarily being that of self-interest (Roach, 2008). The support of the ICC and the enforcement of international law are perhaps crucial for the US to be of a legitimate position when pursuing terrorists and their networks. This is not just confined to the counter-terrorism issue, however, as efforts also need to be made in the support of other treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, Ottawa Treaty on Land Mines, etc.
Admiral Dennis Blair (in Makinda 2003, p. 55) further emphasizes the need for multi-lateral co-operation and that the terrorism issue is multi-dimensional; and that the most appropriate response for the United States to take is that which involves “diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence, economics, business, information, media, academia, community leadership and religion.” In summary, he also recognizes that the solution does not solely exist in a largely military framework.
Ultimately, as Lee (2006) points out, addressing the multitude of global issues that give rise to the threat of terrorism, particularly those of poverty, political persecution, etc are perhaps the most significant and most effective way to deal with the threat of non-state terrorism, particularly in the long-term. The “developmental” approach (Makinda, 2003), which confronts the threat of terrorism by the investment, economic development and assistance of states and groups that are prone to these issues, is, although far from an easy task, perhaps a much more productive one to that of perpetual action-reaction. They are, predominantly poverty, also collectively a much greater threat to US and global stability than terrorism ever will be and sadly “despite the magnitude of the threat it poses, is an issue that the West cares little about.” (Lee, 2005, pg. 242)
It appears certain that the current policy of the United States towards countering terrorism is erroneous for several reasons, the most prominent being its unilateral approach to the matter, particularly in an increasingly globalizing world. In an ideal world, not only would more consultation and co-operation with the international community, fore mostly through the United Nations, be of great benefit, but due to its sole hegemonic position and the subsequent example it sets because of its stature, this would have potentially positive subsequent international repercussions and increase its effectiveness in solving the problem. It is a long term issue “that cannot be solved with bombs and brigades alone.” (Wolfensohn, 2002, in Makinda, 2003, p. 57).
With the Bush administration inside the final 100 days of its governance, it will be very interesting to many observers who will assume the reigns in November, as both potential candidates have counter-terrorism views at opposite ends of the political spectrum. One thing remains certain however, being that both men face an indeed daunting task attempting to correct the monumental political damage caused by the administration that preceded it.