Debunked: Ten Conservative Myths About National Security

News & Politics

True confession: I was terrified on 9/11 -- for all the right reasons.

I wasn't afraid of the terrorists. There are plenty of countries where people have lived for decades under the constant threat of unholy acts of terror -- and yet people still get on buses and subways and airplanes, and life goes on. I'd like to think that Americans are at least as courageous as Israelis or Indonesians. Our "land of the free and home of the brave" mythos insists we should be. So I was damned if I was going to respond to the crisis by giving into irrational fears and thereby, as we used to say, "let the terrorists win."

No, what I was really afraid of was that too many of my fellow Americans would forget the lessons of their own history -- that they'd lose track of who we are and where we've been and what we're made of. I knew there was a real possibility that this time, we'd fail to live up to our reputation for cool, calm clarity in the face of crisis, and instead be goaded into taking counsel of our fears. I feared the bad choices that would inevitably follow if we stampeded down that road. And I dreaded that it would be the soul death of the country I loved.

I hate having been right about this, though I can hardly blame average citizens for succumbing to the sirens of chaos. Americans trying to make correct sense of the new reality found their efforts stymied everywhere they turned. With the White House distorting intelligence to sell a war, corporate opportunists fanning the coals of panic to heat up vast new business opportunities, media editors milking the drama to keep their ratings high, and terrified hordes quick to shout "treason" whenever anyone dared to question the path we were taking, it was hard for even thoughtful Americans to locate the truth of the matter. And as long as confusion reigned, the terrorists really did keep winning.

Seven years later, as the miasma dissipates, more and more of us are able to calm down, take a step back, draw a big, cleansing breath and start to sort things out more rationally. Unfortunately, though, a few of the myths promulgated in those first few years have hardened firmly into a new conventional wisdom -- some so stubbornly that you often won't even find progressives questioning them any more. The time has come to call out a few of these persistent myths that are still being taken as fact and start firing back on them.
1. "Islamofascism" is America's biggest national security threat.

Not hardly. This is the hot new idea among far-right demagogues who literally can't define who they are without a devil to contrast themselves against, and military hawks looking for an excuse to keep the military-industrial complex's big all-night party rolling in the bleary morning-after of a post-Cold War world. But, as the Center for American Progress notes in this article, it's a dangerous meme that disables our ability to think clearly, and it will almost certainly lead us into even more catastrophic misadventures.

To begin with, "Islamofascism" itself is an impossible idea, and those who promote it betray a fundamental political ignorance. True fascism can only occur within an industrialized nation-state, few of which exist in the Islamic world. And many of our most intransigent problems with terrorism come from the opposite problem: modern terrorists have no state affiliations, and are thus free to drift across international borders with fluid ease. Defeating them means coming to grips with this fact. Calling them "fascists" makes it that much harder to grasp.

Worse, "Islamofascism" suggests that the Muslim world is some kind of vast monolithic conspiracy, equal in might and will to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany back in the day -- and that's another dangerous delusion. Just like Christianity, Islam covers a widely diverse range of cultures and political attitudes. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are not jihadis, and consider terrorism abhorrent. Turning one-quarter of the world's people into The Enemy will blind us to the subtle but critical distinctions within Islam. It will doom us to serious blunders, alienate potential allies, and cost us important opportunities to make real inroads against terrorism.

Spencer Ackerman suggests the term "anti-Western Salafist jihadism" as a replacement. Less catchy, perhaps, but more specific and not nearly so fraught with wrong assumptions that can cloud our thinking.

Having dispatched "Islamofascism," though, the more important point remains: Anti-Western Salafist jihadism isn't even America's biggest security threat. It's on the short list -- but so are global pandemics, loose nukes, our dependence on foreign energy, the catastrophic effects of climate change, the U.S.'s vast and bloated national debt, and our growing helplessness at producing essential goods for ourselves. As long as we're mired in an endless war to "defeat Islamofascism," we're going to remain weak, distracted, and grossly unprepared for the other serious security threats we face.
2. We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here.

False. The image here is that Iraq is some kind of roach hotel for global terrorism. The truth is, it's become the international finishing school where a new generation of terrorists is getting a front-line, real-time education against the American war machine -- and perfecting low-tech ways to close the gap against a high-tech army.

The U.S. official National Intelligence Estimate concludes that the war in Iraq has made new Islamic radicals where none existed before, greatly increasing the terror threat around the world. The number of significant terrorist incidents worldwide has risen every year of the war. In a bipartisan survey of national security experts last year, the consensus found that that the war in Iraq is making the world more dangerous for Americans. (To be fair, this same panel is a bit more upbeat this year, but still thinks the war is a grave mistake.) In the meantime, al-Qaida has regrouped in Pakistan, and is back at full strength -- while we've suffered more than 35,000 casualties and spent more than $550 billion, while alienating friends around the world.

"Fighting them there" hasn't been nearly the solution we were promised it would be. But too many of us were eager to buy into that promise, because we'd already been sold on another persistent myth:
3. Military solutions are the only effective national security solutions.

Wrong. So wrong that Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich (who is nobody's liberal) has written an entire book on America's dangerously nave faith in the military as the only viable solution to everything that ails us.

Which is ridiculous, when you consider all the things military force can't do. Smart bombs won't stop global warming. Battlefield nukes won't cure pandemics. Air strikes won't reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources. Sending in the Marines is no way to reduce the national debt. As we saw above in No. 1, terrorism is just one of a number of real national security threats we're facing -- and as we'll see, it's not even clear that that the military is the right answer there, either.

On the other hand, there's a surprising level of consensus among security experts on both the left and right on what real, effective national security would look like:

  • We need to beef up our intelligence agencies -- in a way that's consistent with the Constitution -- so they can monitor terrorist groups and keep dangerous technologies out of their hands.
  • We need to provide consistent and effective domestic security around ports, chemical plants, and other high-risk targets -- something that should have been done immediately after 9/11, but is still largely neglected.
  • We need to revisit our national infrastructure for disaster preparedness and response. Whether it's floods or fires, evacuation or epidemic, insurgents or industrial accidents, we will be more secure if we have a well-planned, coordinated response, and trained people prepared and in place to handle it.
  • We need our friends. Diplomacy, alliances, international cooperation, intelligence sharing and police work are the essential tools for pre-empting real threats to our security.
  • We need to become more self-sufficient. Asked by the Foreign Policy Index to rate strategies for strengthening the nation's security, 55% of Americans listed "Becoming less dependent on other countries for our supply of energy. Only 17% said "Attacking countries that develop weapons of mass destruction" would enhance our security.

America has very few problems that can best be solved by military means -- and a great many problems that require us to look for other strategies.
4. But -- what we're doing is working! After all, we haven't had another 9/11…

True, we haven't -- but not for the reasons you think. Which leads us to another myth….
5. Everybody knows that "law enforcement" approaches to terrorism don't work.

False. They do work. In fact, they're about the only thing that really does work. Every single terrorist plot that's been prevented since 9/11 -- both the serious ones, and the ones that were "more aspirational than operational" -- were prevented through good old-fashioned police and intelligence work.

Taking the wide view, the fateful choice to send in soldiers rather than international cops turned out to be a major win for the terrorists. Conservative blogger Steve Chapman explained it this way: "By framing the fight as a global war, we have helped Osama bin Laden and hurt ourselves. Had we treated him and his confederates as the moral equivalent of international drug lords or sex traffickers, the organization might not have the romantic image it has acquired. By exaggerating the potential impact, we also magnified the disruptive effect of any plots, which is just what the terrorists seek."
6. We don't need allies: we can do this on our own. Besides, moral authority doesn't matter when you have superior firepower.

More fatal hubris. One of the more noxious side effects of American exceptionalism is that we cling stubbornly to the idea that we're the only country on earth that matters and owe nothing to anyone else.

That wasn't even true back in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson duly noted the new nation's obligation to have "a decent respect" for "the opinions of mankind" in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. It's considerably less true now that we are so dependent on so many for so much. Insisting that we can go it alone in this deeply interconnected world -- where our oil comes from the Saudis, our cars come from the Japanese, and our money and everything else comes from China -- is very much like a headstrong 14-year-old who insists that they don't need Mom and Dad for anything -- except maybe housing and food and an allowance and a ride to the mall.

And that's about how Americans look to the rest of the world whenever we strike this "I'll do it myself, so there" posture: immature, petulant, spoiled and ignorant of all the ways we depend on the family of nations for our continued well-being. Yes, we're big and strong and capable of doing tremendous damage if we get angry. But we can only throw that weight around for so long -- by and by, the other nations will band together to find alternatives to dealing with us, and may even start actively looking for ways to knock us down to size. In some places, this is already happening, and it's not in our long-term interest for it to continue.

It's time for us to remember our grown-up manners and return to our seat at the global family table.
7. Negotiating with "irrational" dictators is pointless, and a sign of weakness.

Catastrophically dumb. Conservatives condemn the idea of presidents talking to their counterparts from "enemy" countries, but 67 percent of Americans disagree, according to a June 2 Gallup poll. "Large majorities of Democrats and independents, and even half of Republicans, believe the president of the United States should meet with the leaders of countries that are considered enemies of the United States," the poll says. Fifty-nine percent of Americans, for example, would support the U.S. president meeting with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If FDR could confer with Stalin and JFK could negotiate with Khrushchev and Nixon could go to China and sit down with Mao, there's no reason whatsoever our current president can't arrange a meeting with Ahmedinejad. Bush's refusal to do this is a sign of his essential smallness of character and the narrowness of his worldview. The problem with all ideologues is that once they decide that "you're with us or against us," then no further discussion -- let alone compromise -- with the other side is possible. That's a dangerous trait in a president, and one we should watch out carefully for in the future.
8. Government spending on national security is different than pork-barrel spending on other programs.

Another myth busted. Recall that when the Republicans controlled Congress, they devised a formula that diverted security money from high-risk (and mostly liberal) states like New York and California to lower-risk (and mostly conservative) places like Wyoming and Nebraska. This made no logical sense from a security standpoint -- the only explanation was that the Republican Congress was using 9/11 as an excuse to dole out pork.

Homeland security has grown up to become one of the biggest pork barrels in American politics. Security professionals are quick to point out that too many of these efforts aren't designed to provide objectively effective security -- in fact, as we'll see below, many of them are based on flawed assumptions about how effective security works. Instead, the contracts are written in such a way that the only way to fulfill them is to funnel our tax dollars into the pockets of well-connected conservative cronies. The upshot is that we spend more than we should, and get less real protection than we deserve.

And perhaps worst of all: Seven years of this unregulated, unfocused spending has created a booming new industry that can only survive as long as it keeps selling us on new threats to fear -- which has long-term implications for our entire national culture.
9. Airport security is a critical part of our anti-terrorism effort.

True, but not as true as it should be. Security experts are still deeply concerned about at least two big holes in the system that make the high drama of the passenger screening area into nothing much more than a farce.

The first one is that we're still not adequately inspecting air cargo. Any competent engineering student can make and ship a timed bomb, which is why the 9/11 Commission Report insisted on aggressive inspection of all air cargo. At this point, most airports are doing random profiling and screening of parcels; but it's a far cry from the careful one-by-one inspection being given to people and luggage traveling on the same plane. In 2007, the Transportation Security Administration spent $5 billion inspecting passengers and luggage, and just $55 million on cargo going on the same planes. Cargo inspectors comprise less than 1 percent of the TSA workforce. Feeling safer yet?

The other security hole big enough to fly another 9/11 through comprises the various programs that allow crew members, frequent fliers, people with security clearances, and other "trusted travelers" to bypass inspection. As Bruce Schneier points out, these programs are based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular profile, and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone and get them all on watch lists.

Schneier, who has consulted with the TSA, is emphatic that dividing the world into "trusted travelers" and people on watch lists creates more security problems than it solves. "Most of the 9/11 terrorists were unknown and not on any watch list. Timothy McVeigh was an upstanding U.S. citizen before he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel are normal, nondescript people. Intelligence reports indicate that al-Qaida is recruiting non-Arab terrorists for U.S. operations." Furthermore, if you create a low-inspection loophole in the system, would-be terrorists will aim for that loophole -- and are more likely to get through it. The only way to prevent this is to throw out the watch lists and inspect everyone -- no exceptions.

Schneier and other airline security experts will tell you that most of the safety gains since 9/11 come about through just two developments: hardening cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. "Everything else -- Secure Flight and Trusted Traveler included -- is security theater," writes Schneier. "We would all be a lot safer if, instead, we implemented enhanced baggage security -- both ensuring that a passenger's bags don't fly unless he does, and explosives screening for all baggage -- as well as background checks and increased screening for airport employees."
10. It's always necessary to give up our civil liberties in a time of war.

Wrong. So horribly wrong, in fact, that my very conservative eighth-grade civics teacher wouldn't have graduated a kid who failed this part of the exam. She put the fear of the Founders in us, along with a clear sense of our obligations and rights as citizens. There hasn't been a day since 9/11 that I haven't mourned the fact that America has not produced nearly enough Mrs. Hermans.

Last night, I was watching NBC's presentation of "9/11: As It Happened," a two-hour summary of its coverage that awful morning seven years ago. At one point, late in the broadcast, Tom Brokaw made a comment: "We are a country at war now….we're going to have to reconsider some of the freedoms we now enjoy." The smoke of the towers was still rolling up the streets of Manhattan, and NBC's senior anchor was already declaring a new era in which patriotic Americans must be willing to surrender their liberty for security. I was left wondering how someone who wouldn't have made it out of eighth grade at Home Street School ended up in a national anchor spot -- and remembering all over again just what it was on that day that made me so deeply, truly afraid for my country.

Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War, and FDR claimed extraordinary powers for himself during World War II -- but neither of them ever tried to argue that being at war was a natural excuse for suspending the entire Bill of Rights. In fact (as we have seen) the more dangerous the times, the more important those liberties become. In times of huge social transformation or economic upheaval, when everything else is up for grabs, our worldview and our values -- the internal qualities that define who we are, the things nobody can ever take away from us -- move to the front and center. Everything else can go up in smoke; but as long as we hold onto those core beliefs, we will be able to survive the worst, and find everything we need within us to rebuild the world anew.

The Declaration and the Constitution are the defining documents of our country, expressing the central ideals that determine who we are. If we abandon those ideals, we will simply cease to be American -- and, perhaps, lose the chance of ever restoring America again. If we are truly concerned about national security, this is, beyond a doubt, the worst thing we could ever allow to happen.

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