Against terrorism, let’s try idealism

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesWhen terrorist atrocities are visited on civilian populations, the immediate emotional response is a combination of shock, sadness, and anger. That is natural and understandable. But the anger people feel fuels the thought that “something must be done; ” and political leaders, acutely aware of what is expected of them, immediately proceed to take some action or other. Thus, after the recent massacre in Paris, French president François Hollande ordered bombing raids on Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria. After 9/11 George Bush ordered a military campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. These knee-jerk responses may gratify the urge to act; they also satisfy the politicians' need to appear to be doing something. But these are unworthy ends. Always, the crucial question regarding any action a government takes should be: What are its likely long-term consequences? And very often, it seems, the long-term consequences of the responses to terrorist atrocities are quite contrary to what is intended or hoped for.

Without question, the violence threatened and perpetrated by organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda has to be addressed directly. Appropriate surveillance, improved security procedures, and sometimes military measures are all in order. But we should challenge the idea that those who support large-scale offensive military actions or draconian domestic security measures are the hard-heads, the realists, the pragmatists, while those who tend to be skeptical about the likely efficacy of such actions are weak, soft, unrealistic, and naïve. If anything, the opposite is true.

Let's face it, the track record of the hard-headed hawks is not exactly inspiring. After 9/11, a US military campaign in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban (who had provided a supportive platform for Al Qaeda). This was certainly applauded by most Afghanis. But fourteen years on, around 150,000 people have been killed,[1] about $700 billion dollars have been spent,[2] and Afghanistan was ranked a year ago by Transparency International as the fourth most corrupt country in the world.[3]

The cost of the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath has been even greater: over 224,000 deaths (according to the Iraq Body Count Project),[4] $815 billion dollars spent, and Iraq is ranked by Transparency International as the sixth most corrupt country in the world.

Moreover, the dollars and death stats just cited seriously understate the real costs. In addition to all the deaths there are hundreds of thousands of people who are crippled, blinded, deafened, maimed, disfigured, or traumatized, not to speak of millions who are widowed, orphaned, or suffer inconsolable grief at the deaths of their children, siblings, family and friends. Millions have lost or been forced to leave their homes.

The psychological and social consequences of all this on everyone affected will continue for years to come. So, too, will the financial costs. While a Congressional Research Service report published in December 2014 put the total cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at a mere $1.6 trillion, a study by Linda Harvard scholar Linda Blimes, estimates that the eventual cost will be between $4 billion and $6 billion once one takes into account such things as ongoing military and diplomatic assistance, replacement of equipment, and future benefits paid to veterans. In Blimes' view:

As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives. The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.[5]

It is worth recalling here what the hard-nosed hawks thought the Iraq war would cost. Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense in 2003, put the likely cost at “something under $50 billion,” although he expected some of that tab to be picked up by other counties. His deputy Paul Wolfowitz was even more sanguine, opining shortly after the invasion of Irag began:

“There's a lot of money to pay for this….the oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 billion and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years….We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”

In addition to the deaths, injuries, suffering, destruction of property, displacement of populations, and treasure expended, we also have to consider the political consequences of these enterprises. These include the destabilization of Iraq, the strengthening of Iran, the rise of ISIS, civil war in Syria, and an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis involving millions of refugees. To this list should also be added deepening distrust, resentment and hostility towards the US and other Western societies, both among the populations directly affected by military actions and among those who, like most of the terrorists behind the July 2005 bombings in London and the November 2015 massacres in Paris, grow up in but feel alienated from Western culture. These feelings are exacerbated further by other things in the news: drone attacks that kill civilians (even if by mistake); revelations that US troops have engaged in torture and willful humiliation of prisoners; the continuing disgrace of Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners (at least some of whom appear to be innocent of any crime) continue to be held indefinitely without trial; and the prejudiced attitudes towards Muslims that subtly informs news coverage in the West and is less subtly expressed by right wing politicians like Marine Le Pen in France, UKIP leaders in Britain, and most of those competing for the presidential nomination in the Republican primaries.

So what is to be done? How should governments combat terrorism? How should the activities and influence of al Qaeda and ISS be opposed? These are fair questions to put to anyone critical of the militarist approach favored by hawkish politicians and their advisors.

In my view, the best approach would be to think long term and give idealism a chance.

To unpack what this means, let's ask a very basic question: What should be the ultimate goal of any country's foreign policy? A common answer is that in its foreign policy a government's first priority should be to promote its country's national interest (however that may be conceived). But in my view this answer is misguided. Yes, advancing self-interest is natural, normal, and legitimate up to a point. But just as we'd criticize individuals who always put their own interests above those of their family, friends, and neighbours, so we should be critical of countries that systematically do something similar.

A better guiding objective for a nation state in both its foreign and domestic policy is to make itself worthy of admiration, and if possible of love. This will strike some as ridiculously idealistic, but in fact the idea often has, to some extent, underlay what many governments have done throughout history, from the building of architectural splendours like the Parthenon, or the palace at Versailles, to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's decision to welcome the first planeload of Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto earlier this month.

Applying this idealistic principle to the problem of what the US government should do in fighting the influence of ISIS and others who reject Enlightenment values, here are just a few modest proposals. The purpose behind them all is to remove or reduce legitimate grounds for anger and resentment, to occupy the moral high ground wherever possible, and to make the US more admired the world over.

  • Stop either giving or selling weapons to any other country. In 2014 the US sold 66.3 billion dollars worth of weapons. This represents more than three quarters of all weapons sold by countries around the world. No country that produces and sells so many machines whose purpose is to kill people will ever be able to claim the moral high ground on anything.
  • End support for authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia (where last year Ali al-Nimr, a seventeen year old protester, was sentenced to execution by beheading followed by crucifixion) or in Egypt (where according to Human Rights Watch the government has killed, imprisoned, and tortured thousands of dissidents since Sis came to power in 2013.)[6]
  • Lead a campaign in the UN to drastically reduce the number of weapons of all kinds that are manufactured and traded.
  • Close Guantanamo Bay and either release or offer a fair trial to all those still imprisoned there.
  • Join the International Criminal Court
  • Greatly increase aid of the kind proved most effective to needy countries around the world. What sort of aid is most effective is controversial, but helping to build, staff, and supply medical and educational facilities, helping to improve infrastructure, and offering scholarships at US colleges seem to have few downsides. The US currently gives $0.19% of its national income in foreign aid ($32 billion). Yet as the richest country in history it could obviously give much more. There is no shortage of money swishing around the system that could be used in this way, as the philanthropic initiatives of wealthy individuals like Bill Gates shows.
  • Lead an international initiative to relieve the Syrian refugee crisis by asking American families to volunteer to take in refugees, and put in place staff and procedures to administer this program.

The list of such initiatives is endless, and it could also include domestic policies to reduce poverty and inequality at home through such measures as universal health care and a much more progressive tax code.

Obviously, proposals of this sort are idealistic in the sense that they are not likely to be put into effect by the current political establishment. But I would say they are quite pragmatic in the sense that they are more likely to have good long term consequences, both in general and in the fight against terrorism, than the tried, tested, and failed policies of the past few decades.

Again, none of this means that we should neglect present threats. Necessary surveillance and security procedures are vital and have to be employed. Sometimes specific, limited military actions may be justified. Nor it is reasonable to see such proposals as a complete fix. But skeptics and cynics should ask this question: Would the world now be worse off if US policies had been guided by idealism of this sort? After all, it's not as if the policies actually pursued have been so wonderfully successful.

[1] A Congressional Research Service report in Dec. 2014 put the cost of the war in Afghanistan at $686 billion, the cost of the war in Iraq at $815 billion, and with additional costs thrown in, the total cost of the two military enterprises at $1.6 trillion.

[2] According to a report in the Washington Post, June 1, 2015, 149,000 people have been killed since 2001 in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the war.



[5] Bilmes, Linda J. “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets.” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP13-006, March 2013. []

[6] “Egypt: Year of Abuses Under al-Sisi” []