For years, my colleagues and I have been arguing that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda does not require the occupation of Afghanistan or anywhere else. Wars are incredibly wasteful and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism. Would-be terrorists, moreover, have reduced their dependence on “base camps” and “physical havens” because they can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world.
That is the notion that it is the responsibility of the US government to keep Americans safe from all terrorist attacks, at all times; the insistence that one attack amounts to failure, that the standard for homeland security is perfection.
We await an American political leader who will tell us the Whole Truth: That in the emerging connected and networked world, we cannot be made totally safe. That despite their level efforts, life—and strategy—are full of choices, and tradeoffs. In so many ways, American public life these last few decades has been all about the avoidance of truth, and choice, and tradeoff, the promise that we could have everything and avoid the bill. Many bills are now coming due; long-delayed tradeoffs are being foisted. And one of them, sooner or later, will be the simple, unalterable fact: We cannot dominate the earth, and so we must accept some risk at home.
Indeed, we are not perfect. In fact, as foreign policy planners were ordering American soldiers to invade and occupy two foreign countries simultaneously, back at home their fellow Americans were exposed to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Ft. Hood shooter, and other failed and foiled terrorist plots and near misses. Clearly, these terrorists did not get the memo that we were supposed to be fighting them “over there.”
Unfortunately, U.S. officials remain hostage to the outdated notion that a specific territory matters—they remain possessed by a sort of safe haven syndrome. But perhaps even more crucial is that government officials also remain fixated on heading off every conceivable hazard through greater government action.
I must admit, however, that the belief that America must stop any and all terrorist attacks by controlling the world’s ungoverned spaces makes sense if one believes what the 9/11 Commission wrote on page 362 about warding off al Qaeda.
In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’ In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet. [Emphasis added]