As Yale students, we step into a new school year inevitably affected by the experiences we have had during the summer. We gain something useful from them — we hope — and learn new ways to navigate through the academic year. Similiarly, as a nation emerging from a summer marked by the outbreak of a new war in the Middle East and a narrowly avoided terrorist attack on British and American airlines, we are afforded an opportunity to reassess our foreign-policy goals based on the changing nature of our security needs.
The threats of this past summer were different from those we have grown accustomed to during the past five years of the so-called “war on terror.” While news of bombings, beheadings and shootings have become commonplace, we had yet to face the possibility of a post-Sept. 11 attack on the scale of the British bombing plot or one organized by such a motley crew of European Islamist extremists. Nor had we to face the threats posed by a rising Middle Eastern power like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, one willing to wage proxy war against our allies and hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The novel nature of these threats offers distinct, new lessons.
First, we have been reminded that, despite the significant weakening of al-Qaida’s operational capacity, the threat posed to us by small groups of Islamist terrorists still exists. In the foiling of the British bombing plot, however, we have witnessed one of the greatest success stories in the campaign against terror and have learned how well-organized and diligent police effort, international law-enforcement coordination, and the sharing of intelligence can effectively combat terrorist threats before they are realized. This comes as a shock to a nation bombarded with the rhetoric of warfare, battle and impending apocalypse. But Scotland Yard’s excellent work has given us an effective, nonmilitary model to deal with the increasingly decentralized and diffuse nature of international Islamist terror.
We should consider this success an overdue reality check. A world free of terrorism is impossible, even with the mightiest military in history at our disposal. If we recognize this fact, we can shift the focus of our security strategy away from military pre-emption toward better integration of our domestic law-enforcement and intelligence services. This will enable us better to combat particular threats as they arise, and unburden our military from the impractical goal of crushing every possible source of terror throughout the world. While military force will remain necessary at times to deny terrorists sanctuary, we should bear in mind what terrorism has always been and what it will remain: criminal activity used by the weak and alienated, not means of conventional warfare waged by an able and equal enemy. The hands of the military must be freed to deal with the possibility of greater, state-based security threats, such as those posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.
This brings us to a second important lesson: Iran’s repeated aggressions against Israel and the West throughout the summer have implicitly reminded us of what ill can come from responding to terrorism with exaggerated and inappropriate military action. It has become cliche to speak of the ways the United States’ poorly planned and executed invasion of Iraq has abetted the rise of Ahmadinejad’s regime. Indeed, by toppling Iran’s most powerful regional adversary in Saddam’s Iraq and granting Iran a sphere of influence in Iraq’s predominantly Shiite regions, the United States practically guaranteed that Iran would test its newfound power by goading the West into further conflict. Moreover, the arrogant dismissal of our allies by the Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq conflict has made it increasingly difficult to produce a unified front against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although cooperation between European and American diplomats has admittedly improved during the last few months. The strategic tunnel vision we have displayed throughout the Iraq war has undeniably made the region more dangerous and has given Iran the strength and audacity to trick and tease the West at every occasion.
Let’s not forget the lessons of this summer. If we keep in mind that even the most deadly of terrorist threats can be effectively combated by nonmilitary means and that overly ambitious military endeavors can have very dangerous consequences, then we can chart new strategic responses to security threats as they emerge. Remember exactly the effect bin Laden desired from Sept. 11: an American military response in Afghanistan that would lead to the kind of quagmire that helped topple the aging Soviet Union in the 1980s. The greatest threat now posed to us in this conflict is the possibility of being pulled into more unnecessary and debilitating military campaigns against illusionary foes. If we are not to become our own worst enemy, we must remain patient and humble in distinguishing which threats require handcuffs and which require bombs.
Jamie Martin is a senior in Silliman College.