Archive for the ‘Al Qaeda’ Category

The Price of Doing Business

January 5, 2010

Yesterday, published an article by foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt in which he argues that Islamic terrorism is blowback from US foreign policy decisions that affect the Muslim world and not simply the work of evil men looking for thrill kills.  His blog post comes in the wake of a recent attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an extremist affiliated with Al Qaeda, to blow up an airliner headed for Detroit.

Mr. Walt does not say that America’s foreign policy is wrong (with the exception of America’s virtually unconditional support for Israel); he merely says that living with an increased terrorist threat is “the price of doing business”  for a superpower that interferes in the affairs of other nations around the world.  He claims that most Americans fail to see the connection between terrorism and US attempts to dominate the international arena, and he believes they are overly concerned and unreasonable about their security.

Mr. Walt is right in asserting that Islamic terrorists are motivated by aspects of America’s foreign policy, such as its military presence in the Middle East, civilian casualties resulting from US attacks and America’s unwavering support for Israel in its conflict with Palestinians.  He is also correct in saying that certain elements of US strategy do not necessarily need to be changed in response to the danger posed by Al Qaeda and other militant groups (after all, it would be impractical for America to pull out of the Middle East where the world’s the main oil supply that the global economy relies upon is located).  However, taking precautions when it comes to things like airport security is reasonable, and implementing measures like full body scans for airline passengers is prudent in light of terrorism incidents over the past decade. 

Americans will have to live with the terrorist threat and accept the fact that complete safety is an impossible goal.  The government and the public should try to avoid the opposite pitfalls of overreaction and complacency, and policies will have to be modified when they are too close to either folly.

Yemen: Al Qaeda’s New Haven

December 29, 2009

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently told the BBC that his government needs more international assistance to combat Al Qaeda elements in his country.  He said that Yemen has the will to take on the militants but needs additional financial and military support from Western nations.  His comments came in the wake of an attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who was living in Yemen until earlier this month, to blow up a civilian airliner that was traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Yemen is very unstable and its weak government is engaged in two civil wars.  This chaotic environment is ideal for terrorists who seek a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks.  Somalia, which lies directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, has similar problems, and both countries have reportedly become destinations for Al Qaeda members who leave Pakistan for security reasons.  US policymakers and military leaders, including Gen. David Patrareus, the head of Central Command, are concerned about the threat posed by militants in that part of the world, and American special operations forces have reportedly carried out raids against suspected terrorists from nearby bases and offshore platforms.

The US has sought to improve the counterinsurgency capabilities of countries that are fighting Islamic extremists, including Afghanistan , Pakistan and Iraq, but those attempts have been on a large scale relative to most American efforts to help foreign governments with internal defense.  Given manpower and budget contstraints, the US will have to rely on Special Forces and other small units to train soldiers in partner nations.  For the same reasons, it is unlikely that the US will engage in more nation-building in lawless states where militants thrive, but providing a small number of trainers and a few billion dollars to bolster the security forces in countries of concern would be a fairly minor expense when viewed in the context of America’s overall defense budget, and it is a strategy that the Obama administration will likely pursue.

Pakistanis Harassing American Diplomats

December 17, 2009

In an article published today in the New York Times, journalists Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt detail a campaign by Pakistani authorities to harass American diplomats and other US officials.  Pakistan has repeatedly refused to grant visas to American personnel and declined to extend those that have expired.  Pakistani security forces have also been searching diplomatic vehicles at checkpoints, which is illegal under international law.  These actions have hampered America’s ability to conduct its affairs in the country.  Pakistani officials have complained that American foreign service officers have been acting arrogantly and inappropriately. 

The harassment illustrates the ambivalence about the alliance with the US among Pakistani officials.  The main Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has reportedly helped the US carry out drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas while also maintaining ties with the Taliban.  Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who heads a weak civilian government, has tried to ally himself with the US and has accepted an offer of financial assistance for military and development projects, but high-ranking military officers have opposed the agreement on the grounds that it infringes on Pakistan’s national sovereignty.

Pakistani public opinion is strongly anti-American, partly because the US has been launching attacks against militants inside Pakistan, and civilians have reportedly been killed as a result.  The US has also pressured the Pakistani military to carry out offensives against Afghan Taliban insurgents which have been costly in terms of lives lost and people displaced, amd many Pakistanis believe their country is being forced to fight America’s war.  For domestic political reasons, the Pakistani government has condemned American military operations that target people in Pakistan, but they are reportedly supporting the efforts behind the scenes.

Pakistan will probably continue to provide some assistance to the US while hedging its bets by not fully committing to the American war effort because officials are concerned that the Taliban will regain power in Kabul if US involvement in the region wanes.  The Pakistanis do not view the Afghan Taliban as a threat, but they are engaged in a battle against the Pakistani Taliban, a separate group, which has recently carried out several high profile attacks against government facilities and personnel.  The US has aided that effort with airstrikes and other measures.

American officials are frustrated that Pakistan has not done more to combat the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, but they believe the alliance is important for US national security interests.  Pakistani officials share that sentiment in that they want America to be a strategic partner, but they chafe when the US tries acts in a way that they perceive as domineering or arrogant.  The relationship between America and Pakistan is ultimately a marriage of convenience rather than one of affection, which explains why it is often strained.

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on

The One Percent Doctrine

December 10, 2009

In an op-ed piece published yesterday in the New York Times, Tom Friedman argues that the US should adopt former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” when it comes to climate change.  Mr. Cheney’s doctrine applied to national security threats, and he advocated taking preemptive military action against potential aggressors, such as Saddam Hussein’s regime, if there was a one percent chance that hostile elements would attack the US or American interests abroad.  Mr. Friedman says that America should implement measures to combat climate change even if there is only a slight possibility that greenhouse gas emissions will have disastrous effects if unchecked (it should be noted that Mr. Friedman believes that the odds of CO2 threatening the planet are much higher than one percent).

There is a consensus among the scientific community that global warming is real and man-made, and that the international community needs to take major steps to cut emissions in order to avoid serious climate problems; therefore the US and other countries, including developed and developing nations, should implement policies that will mitigate pollution even if it slows economic growth for a while.  But the world should only take such drastic actions because the likelihood of global warming being severely problematic is much higher than one percent.  The one percent doctrine should not be embraced as a guide to policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.  Doing so would create unnecessary conflicts and bankrupt America.  There might be a one percent chance that China will attack Taiwan; does that mean the US should preemptively attack Chinese naval and air forces?  There is probably more than a one percent probability that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons; does that mean the US should bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?  If there is a one percent chance that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not well secured should the US invade Pakistan and try to seize control of its nuclear facilities?  All of those actions would be very destabilizing and costly, and would almost certainly prove counterproductive.  The world is a dangerous place and all nations will have to live with a certain amount of risk, including the US.  The question policymakers have to ask is how much risk is acceptable; a reasonable conclusion would be that one percent is tolerable.