Strikes against terrorists dominate the news but there are far fewer stories about the long term consequences of operations against terrorists. There are many stories that could be discussed about the consequences of inaction in Syria or over-involvement in other conflicts: the global War on Terror has shown how difficult it is to fight terrorism with the correct strategy.
The High Cost of Inaction
The first case of Syria is a good example of the consequences of inaction. There are many negative consequences to action advanced by American isolationists that often prevent intervention. These include the idea that America has serious problems at home they should address instead of occupying themselves with foreign military adventures abroad. Isolationists say that intervention has blowback and makes certain groups like the military industrial complex or munitions makers rich rather than benefiting America – think of the fictional Tony Stark from the movie Iron Man. We saw many of these viewpoints represented in the last US presidential campaign. Donald Trump complained about endless wars in the Middle East, called the Iraq war a mistake, and promised to get America out.
But the consequences to inaction can be just as great or worse than the consequences of action. Almost 10 years ago the Syrian government led by Bashar al Assad seemed on the brink of collapse to be replaced by a broad spectrum of insurgent groups that sought freedom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the dictator’s days were numbered. Instead of replacing a dictatorship with a more representative replacement, the Obama administration dithered with unenforced red lines to the point that the civil war has now dragged one for 10 years. It has spawned a massive humanitarian and migrant crisis and helped ISIS consolidate control over territory in multiple states.
Very Little Discussion of Solving Root Causes
Both issues have faded from the news and ISIS has lost its territory. But recent offensive operations near Idlib have sparked another 700,000 displaced persons that might create another migrant crisis. These crises have also sparked political debates across Western countries and have increased the strength of anti-immigration parties and new nationalistic governments across Europe. Yet there was very little discussion of solving the root cause of the problems exacerbated by dilatory military action military intervention or at least establishing no-fly zones.
While many people balk at intervening in yet another supposed endless war, the problems that create the need for military force don’t go away just because Americans choose to ignore them. Despite talk of endless wars, the strategic benefits to intervention in Syria would include limiting Iran, protecting vital oil supplies and aiding counter insurgency operations against terrorists. As the refugee crisis and explosion of ISIS—both the result of inaction in Syria—should show us, when the problems do become apparent, they usually explode at America’s doorstep in the form of a 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. And then, when America does intervene—like they did in Iraq—it is in worse condition than before they ignored the problem and much harder to restore to stability.
The Dangers of Action
There are many homegrown terrorists that provide lessons about the dangers of military action. Years ago the FBI reported that they have over 850 terror investigations in each of the 50 states. Through a combination of state agencies like child services investigating complaints of abuse and tips from suspicious neighbors, the FBI discovered this camp before they could carry out any attacks.
But citizens must remain vigilant. This is easy to say in an article but much tougher in real life. Before the San Bernardino terrorist attack, for example, neighbors noticed the future shooters acting strangely, but they were afraid of being labelled as racists. There are unfortunate incidents of racism and a significant number of white supremacist-motivated terrorists which makes this a subject fraught with tension. Unscrupulous politicians don’t help the situation as they find advantage in accusing vigilant policies and behaviors as being equivalent to racism. This makes defensive policies that root out homegrown terrorist camps harder to implement, and provides radicals with a ready-made shield any time they are justifiably suspected of being radical. Home grown terror camps show that citizens need to separate rhetoric from reality and report suspicious behavior regardless of the risk of being labelled racist.
Conclusions from These Two Examples
So what can we say about terrorists by looking more closely at these examples? They largely rely upon the disaffected in society. Syria for example has millions of displaced persons that are often from a different religious sect than the rulers that displaced them. Recruiters target those who are adrift economically and angry at the political class. Therefore, sometimes the best policy to prevent terrorism isn’t more bombs but providing the disaffected with economic opportunity and political integration. In other cases, the people come from affluent backgrounds, live a life of luxury and attend the best schools. They find their lives are materially successful but devoid of meaning. Economic opportunity then must be coupled with promoting nonviolent religious or civic meaning in the lives of citizenry so that they don’t become terrorists in the first place.
American terrorists often have political freedom and space due to the lack of excessive government control. In the case of the US, they abuse liberal laws regarding guns and home schooling to stay away from the prying eyes of government officials. (But large parts of the third world are awash in guns so they are no better.) The San Bernardino shooters benefited from political correctness as the neighbors of the attackers were afraid to alert authorities over fear of being labelled racist.
Their tactics consist of small arms fire and improvised explosive devices which makes the caches of these weapons found in homegrown camps across the US particularly disturbing and why preemptive action to seize suspected terrorists and their weapon caches are extremely important.
As we consider the threat from terrorism it is important to look past the headlines and consider important matters such as how they are recruited and what long term trends action or inaction represent. Trying to avoid blowback or giving into isolationist tendencies can create mass humanitarian crises and miss important opportunities to bring better governments. But being overly reactive in taking action can also lead to mutual recrimination and accusations of racism. Trying to alleviate economic suffering and promote civic meaning is one way to begin preventing terrorism but is also not a cure-all solution. All of the competing costs and benefits require careful analysis as the world continues to grapple with terrorism.