It is not always about us

In a post titled Threat inflation, Stephen M. Walt takes the case of the US response to the recent events in Kenya to bemoan the practice of the US viewing any terrorist action as a potential threat to the US that needs to be countered. He asks whether al Shabab, the ones who carried out the shopping mall attack, really poses a threat to the US.

Walt points out that there is a cause and effect relationship to such actions and by focusing less on the causes that give rise to such tragedies and focusing only on the actions themselves, the US risks taking steps that make the situation worse.

For instance, here’s former counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin: “You never know when a terrorist attack in a faraway place could be a harbinger of something that could strike at the United States.” Of course, we also never know when such an attack is a harbinger of nothing at all. The article also quotes Katherine Zimmerman of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute: “One of the misconceptions is that we can let al Qaeda or other terrorist groups stay abroad and not fight them there, and that we would be safe at home.” The Times’ reporters adopt this same line themselves, writing that “the American government has learned the hard way what happens if it does not contain groups responsible for faraway attacks,” a point they illustrate by referring to al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the 1990s.

Got it? For Americans to be 100 percent safe on American soil, the U.S. government has to get more deeply involved in the local politics and national security problems of this troubled East African region — using the FBI, CIA, special operations forces, drones, whatever — in order to root out bad guys wherever they might be.

There are two obvious problems with this line of reasoning. First, it fails to ask whether America’s repeated interference in this and other parts of the world is one of the reasons groups like al Qaeda and al-Shabab sometimes decide to come after us. Indeed, to the extent that the United States might face a threat from al-Shabab, it might be because Washington has been blundering around in Somali politics since the early 1990s and usually making things worse. The same goes for Kenya too. Al-Shabab attacked the mall because Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 and their intervention had undermined al-Shabab’s position in that troubled country. Kenya may have had its own good reasons for intervening; my point is simply that the tragic attack it suffered wasn’t a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya’s own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack — it merely identifies cause and effect.

Ditto al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden didn’t get up one day and decide he wanted to launch a few terrorist attacks, pull out his atlas, and pick the United States at random. His decision to attack U.S. military forces and government installations, and then to attack the United States directly, was reprehensible and an obvious threat, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. On the contrary, the emergence of al Qaeda was a direct response to various aspects of America’s Middle East policy (e.g., blanket support for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf through the 1990s). As I’ve noted before, the United States has devoted most of its energy and effort since then to chasing down bad guys and killing them, but hardly any time trying to act in ways that would make the terrorists’ message less appealing to potential recruits.


  1. colnago80 says

    As I’ve noted before, the United States has devoted most of its energy and effort since then to chasing down bad guys and killing them, but hardly any time trying to act in ways that would make the terrorists’ message less appealing to potential recruits.

    Such as throwing Israel under the bus. It would appear that yellow belly Stephen Walt also wants to throw Egypt and Saudi Arabia under the bus to join Israel.

  2. colnago80 says

    Shorter Stephen Walt: if we leave terrorists like Osama bin Laden alone, they’ll leave us alone. How did that work out for Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s?

  3. trucreep says

    Both comments 1 + 2 are willingly ignoring or just misunderstanding what he’s actually saying, and I’d argue both of their attitudes are representative of why the US behaves this way.

    In no way is he suggesting any of what was said above. He’s pointing out that we devote all of our resources to combating these terrorist organizations without realizing much of what we do to “prevent” terrorism just fuels it. Drones are the absolute perfect example of this. We are causing more people to turn against the US because of it, way more than any actual “terrorists” we kill. And you can very plausibly argue that drone strikes are acts of terror themselves.

    colnago, you especially sound like someone who believes “they hate us for our freedom!”

  4. says

    Agreed. 1 and 2 are thoughtless and don’t actually show what portions make the claims that colnago80 says they do. I’m not going to just accept an assertion.

  5. unbound says

    I think 1 and 2 are just the typical person who prefers the world filtered into black and white. They probably genuinely believe that if we aren’t actively at war destroying things, then we are pacifists with no weapons at all. I really don’t understand how adults can think this way (just dealing with politics at work defeats the concept of a black and white world), but there seems to be plenty of them around. I guess we should thank 1 and 2 for providing the examples of why we get sucked into war all the time.

    While we are likely stuck with the military presence that we have, we really just need to start treating them as actual people overall and stop trying to interfere. Diplomacy is not the only thing that can be done, but I see no reason to never use diplomacy.

  6. Richard Simons says

    How did that work out for Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s?

    As I understand it, Neville Chamberlain had little choice given the state of the British armed forces at the time. OTOH, how did sending troops to Vietnam (Afghanistan, etc) work out for the US? Colnago80: you need to realize that the people you see as terrorists usually see themselves as freedom fighters and vice versa. Remember the King David Hotel or the enthusiasm with which Bostonians contributed to the IRA bombing campaign?

  7. Levon Marcesant says

    “If there is a musket hanging on the wall over the fireplace in Act 1,
    It must be fired at someone in Act 3”
    –garbled quote from some playwright
    If we have these weapon systems, they will be put to use. The drones
    will go up, no matter how many former Somalis it drives into the arms
    of al-Shabab.

  8. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Chekov (?spelling?) I think?

    Because its not like Al Shabab ain’t already a problem? Not.

    Also, wonder how many people the drones might *deter* from joining Al-Shabab. Always going to be a very hard figure to determine that ain’t it?

    Here’s a thought for ya : maybe, just perhaps, the military experts in the field and in charge just possibly know what they’re talking about and doing – especially given they are the ones who most have to live with it?

  9. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Pretty bloody badly if memory serves.

    But y’know what they say about the lessons of history and those who fail to learn them ..

  10. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    What if the “local citizens” (I.e. “the Arab street”) are anti-Semitic, misogynist, genocidal brain-washed fools whose desires will lead them and others into terrible calamities? If so, then should we still pander to and humour them in your opinion?

    My opinion is that we should NOT do so under such circumstances. But, hey, maybe you are fine with Judaeophobia and self-destructive globally harmful mob rule? Are you?

  11. colnago80 says

    Oh I am heartily sick of reading these excuses for Chamberlain’s policy at the Munich Conference. The fact is that Germany was in no condition to initiate a European war in the Spring of 1938 and the General Staff knew it. That’s why many of them were talking about a coup to remove Frankenberger from power as a dangerous opportunist. However, in selling out Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain shot himself in the foot because the Czech armed forces were the most modern and well equipped in Europe at the time. This is in addition to eventually conceding the Skoda works to Germany a few months later when German overran the rest of Czechoslovakia. IMHO, Britain and France would have been much better off supporting Czechoslovakia with their modern well equipped and fully mechanized army then they were supporting Poland the following year with their antiquated army which depended on horse cavalry for mobility. This in addition to the fact that the mountainous terrain in Czechoslovakia was much better suited for defense against mechanized forces then the plains of Poland.

    The sad fact is that Chamberlain greatly underestimated the military ability of Czechoslovakia and greatly overestimated the military ability of Poland.

    The excuse made for Chamberlain was that he needed time for rearmament of Great Britain. Well, he got an extra year+. In the event, who made better use of the time, Germany or Great Britain? Nuff said.

  12. says

    Y’know, Doc, your comment section is going downhill, being utterly dominated, more or less every post, by the same two. Who are commenting here more because they’ve been stopped from commenting other places.

    So, so tiresome.

  13. Jared A says

    I think I know why this makes you feel “heartily sick”. By showing how Chamberlain made major strategic miscalculations about the best time to challenge the Nazis (they seem like reasonable arguments to me), you have already conceded your original point that his intention was not appeasement. I’d feel sick, too, if I kept losing debates this way.

  14. Jared A says

    I think I put a double negative in there. What I mean is, you have abandoned the original position: that Chamberlain’s intention was appeasement.

  15. Mano Singham says

    Yes, looked at one way, they can be somewhat tiresome. But there is another way to see it. I actually find it amusing that I can predict with uncanny accuracy what comments will appear by whom in response to certain posts, down to the very wording sometimes! And when, right on cue, they appear, I often find myself laughing.

    I guess I am one of those people who are easily pleased.

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