The Terrorism Index
Is the United States winning the war on terror? Not according to more than 100 of America’s top foreign-policy hands. They see a national security apparatus in disrepair and a government that is failing to protect the public from the next attack.
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans understandably rallied around the flag. Having just suffered the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil, huge percentages believed another attack was imminent. But Americans also had enormous faith that the Global War on Terror would help keep them safe. Just one month after 9/11, for instance, 94 percent of Americans told an abc News/Washington Post poll that they approved of how the fight against terrorism was being handled. The United States then quickly went to war in Afghanistan, closing down a terrorist sanctuary and capturing or killing a number of high-level al Qaeda operatives in the process.
Since 2001, terrorists have found their targets on almost every continent, with bombings in Bali, London, Madrid, and elsewhere. Five years on, however, America has yet to experience another attack. But Americans appear less convinced that their country is winning the war on terror. In the face of persisting threats, including a growing number of terrorist attacks around the world, numerous reports show that Americans are losing faith in their government’s ability to wage the war successfully and to protect them from the terrorists’ next volley. Barely half of Americans today approve of the way in which the war on terror is being handled, and more than one third believe the United States is less safe today than it was before 9/11.
These pessimistic public perceptions could easily be attributed to the high cost, in both treasure and lives, of counterterrorism efforts. After all, Americans are constantly being told by their elected leaders that their pessimism is wrong, that the war is being won. But they’re also told that another attack is inevitable. Which is it? To find out, Foreign Policy and the Center for American Progress teamed up to survey more than 100 of America’s top foreign-policy experts–Republicans and Democrats alike. The Foreign Policy/Center for American Progress Terrorism Index is the first comprehensive effort to mine the highest echelons of America’s foreign-policy establishment for their assessment of how the United States is fighting the Global War on Terror. Our aim was to draw some definitive conclusions about the war’s priorities, policies, and progress from the very people who have run America’s national security apparatus over the past half century. Participants include people who have served as secretary of state, national security advisor, retired top commanders from the U.S. military, seasoned members of the intelligence community, and distinguished academics and journalists. Nearly 80 percent of the index participants have worked in the U.S. government–of these more than half were in the executive branch, one third in the military, and 17 percent in the intelligence community.
Despite today’s highly politicized national security environment, the index results show striking consensus across political party lines. A bipartisan majority (84 percent) of the index’s experts say the United States is not winning the war on terror. Eighty-six percent of the index’s experts see a world today that is growing more dangerous for Americans. Overall, they agree that the U.S. government is falling short in its homeland security efforts. More than 8 in 10 expect an attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decade. These dark conclusions appear to stem from the experts’ belief that the U.S. national security apparatus is in serious disrepair. “Foreign-policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administration’s performance abroad,” says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and an index participant. “The reason is that it’s clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force.”
Respondents sharply criticized U.S. efforts in a number of key areas of national security, including public diplomacy, intelligence, and homeland security. Nearly all of the departments and agencies responsible for fighting the war on terror received poor marks. The experts also said that recent reforms of the national security apparatus have done little to make Americans safer. Asked about recent efforts to reform America’s intelligence community, for instance, more than half of the index’s experts said that creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has had no positive impact in the war against terror. “Intelligence reform so far has been largely limited to structural reorganization that in most cases produced new levels of bureaucracy in an already overly bureaucratic system,” says index participant Bill Gertz, a journalist who has covered the intelligence community for more than 20 years.
The index’s experts were similarly critical of most of the policy initiatives put forward by the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush since September 11. Eighty-one percent, for instance, believe the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, negatively affects the war on terror. The index’s experts also disapprove of how America is handling its relations with European allies, how it is confronting threatening regimes in North Korea and Iran, how it is controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and its dealings with failing states, to name just a few. “We are losing the war on terror because we are treating the symptoms and not the cause,” says index participant Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “[O]ur insistence that Islamic fundamentalist ideology has replaced communist ideology as the chief enemy of our time �? feeds al Qaeda’s vision of the world.”
These conclusions about the United States’ performance in the war thus far are all the more troubling considering that, although Americans appear to be growing tired of the war on terror, the index’s experts appear to believe that the battle has just begun. Accordingly, a majority agrees that the war requires more emphasis on a victory of ideas, not just guns. That is hardly surprising, considering that nearly 80 percent believe a widespread rejection of radical ideologies in the Islamic world is a critical element to victory. To win the battle of ideas, the experts say, America must place a much higher emphasis on its nonmilitary tools. More than two thirds say that U.S. policymakers must strengthen the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. At the same time, the experts indicate that the U.S. government must think more creatively about threats. Asked what presents the single greatest danger to U.S. national security, nearly half said loose nukes and other weapons of mass destruction, while just one third said al Qaeda and terrorism, and a mere 4 percent said Iran. Five years after the attacks of September 11, it’s a reminder that the greatest challenges may still lie ahead.
With Friends Like These
Wars have a way of making unlikely bedfellows, and the Global War on Terror is apparently no different.
Asked to name the country that has produced the largest number of global terrorists, the index’s foreign-policy experts pointed to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan–three of America’s marquee allies in the Muslim world. Nearly two thirds (62 percent) identified Saudi Arabia as the leading culprit. Thirteen percent pointed to Egypt, and 11 percent said Pakistan produces the most terrorists. “The jihadist movement,” says index participant and Sarah Lawrence College Professor Fawaz Gerges, “was born in Egypt in the late 1960s. After September 11, however, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leading theater of jihadist-Salafist thought and action.”
Although these three states may be widely believed to be incubating terrorists, the cooperation they have offered the United States in fighting terrorism presents a more mixed picture. Approximately two thirds of the experts say that U.S. cooperation with Egypt and Pakistan has been effective. The experts are more divided as to whether Saudi Arabia is doing what it can to counter the terrorist threat.
These perceptions cut to the heart of some of the dilemmas facing the United States. Egypt, for instance, has received more than $50 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance since 1979, yet it resisted recent U.S. efforts to promote political reform. America designated Pakistan a major non-nato ally in 2004, despite allegations that it has not done enough to capture bin Laden. Saudi Arabia has helped crack down on financial support flowing to terrorist groups, but Saudi leaders have been slow to move against radical elements within their own population. Is the United States doing a poor job of choosing its friends? Maybe. Then again, it may just be keeping its friends close, and its enemies closer.
The Next Attack
Americans are consistently told that the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a question of when, not if. The index’s results overwhelmingly agree that the next attack is just a matter of time.
Eighty-four percent of the experts said they believe a terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, is likely or certain to happen in the next five years. More than a quarter said a 9/11-scale attack is certain to occur in America within the next decade. Asked about the likelihood of a smaller strike akin to the July 2005 London bombings, 91 percent agreed that such an attack is likely or certain by 2016; more than half said that such an attack could happen this year.
But how will the terrorists strike? Roughly two thirds of the experts said that some part of America’s infrastructure–a port, train station, or major landmark–will be targeted. That is no surprise, given that terrorists have repeatedly struck these locales in the past. But it may be more alarming that almost the same percentage predict that the next attack will come in the form of a suicide bombing. These results, says index participant Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., “reflect a recognition of how easy terrorism has become.” Such attacks, he says, “are cheap, unpredictable, and difficult to prevent. All that is required is the will to kill and the will to die, neither of which seems in short supply today.”
Americans have never feared a suicide bombing the way the people of Amman or Jerusalem have. But there may be reason to think that will soon change. A recent study by Rand found that 81 percent of all suicide attacks in the past 30 or so years have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001, and the primary motivation for each of these attacks was a military intervention or occupation such as the ongoing operations in Iraq. The odds that America can continue to elude the world’s most popular form of terrorism may be fading fast.
Energy’s Highest Price
If you could make something a higher priority in fighting the war on terror, what would it be? A little more than one third of the index’s experts said killing or capturing terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. About the same number favored promoting democracy in the Muslim world. More than two thirds said stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states. But devising a more aggressive energy policy?
It may surprise, but the index’s experts said that ending America’s dependence on foreign oil may be the U.S. government’s single most pressing priority in winning the war on terror. Eighty-two percent of the experts said that policymakers should make ending America’s dependence on foreign oil a higher priority. And nearly two thirds said that current U.S. energy policies are actually making matters worse, not better. “We borrow a billion dollars every working day to import oil, an increasing share of it coming from the Middle East,” says index participant and former cia director James Woolsey. “[F]or example in Saudi Arabia, billions are transferred to the Wahhabis and like-minded groups who then indoctrinate young people to hate Shiites, Sufis, Jews, Christians, and democracy, and to oppress women horribly.”
If U.S. policymakers don’t take this vulnerability seriously, terrorists do. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s No. 2, has labeled the global energy infrastructure a key strategic target for terrorists. In February, Saudi Arabia’s government foiled an al Qaeda plot to attack the Abqaiq oil facility, the country’s largest. Some 30,000 security forces are now guarding the country’s oil fields. Global oil markets are so tight that even the threat of a supply disruption can cause a spike in price. These tight markets are partially responsible for the higher prices Americans will pay at the pump this summer. But the index suggests that there may be a greater price for our energy policy: losing the war on terror.
Grading the Government
A room full of foreign-policy experts can be a tough crowd. So it’s hardly surprising that the index experts were highly critical of how the various branches of the U.S. government are fighting the war on terror. Only the National Security Agency received an above-average score of 5.2, on a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 represents the worst possible job of guarding the United States. Every other agency received below-average marks.
Experts gave the Department of Homeland Security (dhs) the worst grade. Its average score was just 2.9. In fact, 36 percent of the experts indicated that the newly created dhs has had a negative impact on America’s national security, and nearly 1 in 5 thought the department’s funding should be slashed. The U.S. State Department received relatively high marks. Surprisingly, this opinion was not limited to the liberal internationalist wing of foreign-policy elites. Even conservative experts, who have sometimes taken a dimmer view of the State Department’s diplomatic efforts, believed that the department’s budget is a good investment and that it should be moderately or substantially increased. Overall, 87 percent of the index’s experts believe that Foggy Bottom requires more funding, including 72 percent of conservatives.
The index’s experts also have a strong opinion of how that money should be spent. Nearly 80 percent agree that a widespread rejection of extremist ideologies around the globe is critical to “winning” the war on terror. Yet the experts simultaneously rated America’s public diplomacy efforts the lowest of any policy initiative, with a median score of just 1.8. Clearly, few believe that the United States is doing its best to win friends and influence people.
Want to Know More?
For a detailed look at U.S. government funding of the war on terror, read “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” by Amy Belasco (Congressional Research Service, April 24, 2006). Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991) traces the impact of oil on geopolitics. Ehud Sprinzak looked at the phenomenon of suicide bombers–and how to stop them–in “Rational Fanatics” (Foreign Policy, September/October 2000). The National Counterterrorism Center’s annual “Report on Incidents of Terrorism” tracks terrorist incidents around the world.
For links to relevant Web sites, access to the FP Archive, and a comprehensive index of related Foreign Policy articles, go to www.ForeignPolicy.com.
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