As the war on terror—or whatever we’re calling it this week—approaches its tenth anniversary, much of the popular analysis is founded on the premise that, following Osama bin Laden’s death and numerous other setbacks for the terrorist group, the threat from al-Qaeda has been radically reduced, perhaps even eradicated. As White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said today, al-Qaeda “has taken it on the chin.”
The big point of debate at the moment seems to be whether we need to maintain the current level of counter-terrorist activity or whether we can safely relax our vigilance. At Intelligence Squared U.S. last night, I witnessed two expert teams of debaters hash out that very question. (Rich Falkenrath and Michael Hayden won the debate by convincing a substantial portion of the audience that we shouldn’t “end the war on terror” just yet.)
The always-provocative Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has another perspective: He argues in this Atlantic article that al-Qaeda is actually winning. To back up that startling claim, he makes several arguments, including noting that predictions of al-Qaeda’s demise have been wrong before and pointing out al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and elsewhere are still going strong. But his big point is to argue that “even if al-Qaeda has experienced a decline in the past decade, then the U.S. has declined more steeply,” because of our economic woes. “Overspending on homeland defense….” he argues, “has been one of our key errors over the post-September 11 decade.”
I give Gartenstein-Ross credit for an ingenious argument that goes completely against the conventional wisdom. But I am largely unconvinced. For one thing, as he himself acknowledges, “we can’t blame everything on the fight against terrorism: al-Qaeda didn’t trigger the sub-prime mortgage crisis, for example.” In reality security spending is minuscule as a percentage of the overall, $15 trillion economy: Even by a generous count, we are spending only $85 billion or so a year on homeland defense. That is no more responsible for our economic woes than is the overall defense budget: the culprit is lack of economic growth which has to do with high tax rates, a high regulatory burden, and so forth. Homeland defense isn’t even responsible for our federal budget woes which are driven by entitlements.
The broader point is that I find it hard to believe al-Qaeda is winning when it has not managed to topple a single government, and it appears to have been superseded as an agent of change in the Middle East by the Arab Spring. By all accounts, the core al-Qaeda organization has been decimated, its capabilities vastly reduced from what they were in 2001.
But if Gartenstein-Ross goes too far in the direction of pessimism, many other commentators veer too much toward excessive optimism. They ignore the important point that Gartenstein-Ross makes about the dangers from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other al-Qaeda affiliates which are actively plotting attacks against the West. To his list I would organizations such as the Haqqani Network and the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani) which, while not formally affiliated with al-Qaeda, are pursuing a similar agenda.
It’s certainly not time to declare victory in the war on terrorism. But nor is it time to concede defeat. The reality—as it usually is in these murky low-intensity wars—is somewhere in between: We have made impressive progress since 9/11 but considerable danger remains. That danger will grow, I might add, if, as a result of feelings of complacency, we dismantle the security infrastructure erected after 9/11, as some urge us to do.