Trapped in the War on Terror

"Ian Lustick has written a brave, forceful, and very valuable book. I wish that every politician promising to 'defend' America would read what he has to say. Failing that, the voters should."—James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly

Trapped in the War on Terror

Ian S. Lustick

2006 | 200 pages | Cloth $24.95
Political Science
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Imperative of Triage
Chapter 2. Perceptions of the Terrorist Threat
Chapter 3. Measuring the Terrorist Threat: What Is the Evidence?
Chapter 4. The Cabal, the Invasion of Iraq, and the Origins of the War on Terror
Chapter 5. The War on Terror Whirlwind
Chapter 6. Freeing America from the War on Terror


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


A specter haunts America, the specter of terrorism. The list of potential catastrophes is endless—a dirty radioactive cloud over Manhattan, hoof and mouth disease wiping out American cattle herds, bombs against a few tunnels or bridges that bring our transport system to a halt, smallpox unleashed on an airplane and spread almost immediately and unnoticeably throughout the country. As imagined disasters multiply, the scale of perceived danger inevitably outruns confidence in our defenses.

The government's loudly trumpeted "War on Terror" is not the solution to the problem. It has become the problem. The War on Terror does not reduce public anxieties by thwarting terrorists poised to strike. Rather, in myriad ways, conducting the antiterror effort as a "war" fuels those anxieties. By stoking these public fears, and attracting vast political and economic resources in response to them, the War on Terror encourages, indeed virtually compels, every interest group in the country to advance its agenda as crucial for winning the war. As a result, widening circles of Americans are drawn into a spiraling maelstrom of fear, waste, exaggeration, and opportunity for profit.

In this book we shall see that the immense costs of the War on Terror, the self-inflicted wounds we suffer from it, and its inevitable inadequacy in comparison with the threats that can be imagined, are more destructive of our national life than the acts terrorists are likely to carry out against us, no matter what we do to try to stop them. The War on Terror record of failure, along with inevitable and spectacular instances of venality and waste, will humiliate thousands of public servants and elected officials, demoralize citizens, and enrage taxpayers. The effort to master the unlimited catastrophes we can imagine by mobilizing the very scarce resources we actually have, will drain our economy, divert and distort military, intelligence, and law enforcement resources, undermine faith in our institutions, and fundamentally disturb our way of life. In this way the terrorists who struck us so hard on September 11, 2001, can use our own defensive efforts to do us much greater harm than they could ever do themselves.

Above all, we need clarity. There is and will continue to be a terrorist threat, not only emanating from Muslim extremists abroad but from Timothy McVeigh-type fanatics at home. This threat will, in the fullness of time, produce some attacks and some casualties. In the world as it is this prediction is as easy to make as the prediction that in the future airliners will crash and that "disgruntled" former employees will murder former coworkers. The question is not how any of these or other bad things can be absolutely prevented, but how we can cope most effectively to reduce their frequency and seriousness. Counter-terrorism policies and programs are therefore important. They can and should be carefully designed and implemented. However, an undisciplined, spiraling, and hysterical War on Terror, to forestall every catastrophe our best minds and our cleverest script writers can imagine, is itself more damaging and dangerous than the terrorist threats it is supposedly combating.

During the Cold War America adapted to the ever-present threat of nuclear incineration. One reason we could do so is that the threat was clear, easy to understand, and emanated from a distinct and specific place, the Soviet Union. Accordingly we were able to fashion a strategic posture and culture of nuclear deterrence. Safety was achieved, or at least an acceptable level of assurance of safety, because the Soviets were convinced that we were convinced that an attack by either of us on the other would mean the annihilation of both. As bizarre as this doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" was, it played an unchallengeable role in securing the peace and protecting the world from the disasters piled up in missile silos, bomb bays, and on board submarines.

Ironically, against far weaker enemies and a far less awesome threat, we may today find it much more difficult to achieve the level of security, or a comparable sense of safety, that we managed to establish during the Cold War. The fundamental challenge we faced in our fifty-five year confrontation with the Soviet Union was to remain steadfast against a horrifying but clearly visible threat. In 1947 George F. Kennan's famous "X" article, provided subsequent administrations with the fundamental intellectual framework for assessing and countering the Soviet threat in a sustainable manner. In a nutshell Kennan argued that the United States could be safe without "rolling back" communism, thereby risking a world war with the Soviet Union. If we were willing to commit the resources and mobilize the steely patience necessary to contain Soviet expansionism and deter Soviet nuclear weapon use we could not only survive, but prosper and emerge victorious following the collapse of a communist economic and political system unable to compete with ours.

In the aftermath of 9/11 the challenge is different. It is to act prudently in the face, not of a clearly locatable threat, but of intractable uncertainty about painful, even catastrophic possibilities that may lurk almost anywhere, including within our own borders. The purpose of this book is to explain the real reasons for the War on Terror. We will analyze its self-reinforcing dynamics, using that analysis to find a way out of the trap of the War on Terror and then advance a sustainable approach to the threats we face from al-Qaeda and others who would use massive violence against our citizens. Franklin Roosevelt famously told us that the only thing we really have to fear "is fear itself." If we can master the fear of terrorism that leaves us in the grip of the War on Terror, we can then fashion strategies to achieve genuine, if, as in the Cold War, incomplete psychological and military security. A crucial element in this strategic posture will be to save ourselves from the self-inflicted disasters that, apart from Vietnam, we mostly managed to avoid during the long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union.