Commentary

Exploiting the New War on Terrorism

It is regrettable but hardly unexpected that various political groups are using the September 11 terrorist atrocities to boost their own pet causes. All Americans should support a vigorous war effort to locate and eliminate those responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocents. But we must be vigilant that the war against terrorism doesn’t become a convenient facade for an assortment of irrelevant and even bogus measures.

There are precedents that should worry us. America’s involvement in World War I was a major factor leading to the adoption of Prohibition. In World War II, the government acquired the power to withhold income taxes from workers’ payrolls — a “temporary” measure that is with us still and serves to disguise the extent of the tax burden on Americans. During the Cold War the “national defense” justification was used to pass laws that had nothing to do with that task. It is not coincidental that the legislation that gave the federal government a foot in the door on educational matters was the National Defense Education Act.

Already the advocates of pet causes are citing the terrorist threat as a reason for their schemes. Several pundits have argued that the attack occurred because America had allowed its military to atrophy during the 1990s, and they insist that we should increase the military budget by tens of billions of dollars per year. That argument ignores some inconvenient facts. At the time of the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States was spending well over $300 billion a year on the military. That sum was six times greater than the country with the second largest budget (Russia) and was more than the spending levels of the next eight countries combined.

If such a vast military apparatus failed to deter the terrorists, is it credible that a $350-billion or $400-billion budget would have done so? The United States does not lack military resources to deal with the terrorist enemy. It needs to reallocate the resources it already has. Maintaining 100,000 troops in Europe — including an armored division in Germany — to guard against an invasion by a Warsaw Pact that no longer exists led by a Soviet Union that no longer exists is one example of wasted resources.

The advocates of ever-larger military budgets are not the only people exploiting the terrorist threat. Some of the usual suspects have used the occasion to call for a resumption of conscription. Such a proposal makes even less sense. We’re not going to send mass armies against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. That mission requires air strikes and attacks by highly trained Special Forces. Knights on horseback would be about as relevant as infantry conscripts in a war against terrorism.

Not surprisingly, anti-immigration forces have used the September 11 tragedy to call for tougher measures to bar foreigners from this country. It’s not clear how excluding Mexican agricultural workers or computer programmers from South Korea and India would have stopped the terrorists, but those who hate immigration aren’t about to let such inconvenient details undermine their case.

And then we have the bashers of global capitalism. One pundit argued that economic globalism contributed to the rise of terrorism because it “dislocated” people. Indeed. Hundreds of millions of people from China to Chile have been dislocated from poverty by the rise of the global economy over the past two decades. Presumably, though, we should abandon that course and revert to the “enlightened” policies of trade protectionism, high taxes, and onerous regulatory regimes. That would apparently have stifled the upsurge of terrorism.

There will likely be more misuses of the terrorism issue in the coming months and years. Americans should recognize that political and ideological opportunists are not above exploiting any issue. We should also understand that not everything advertised as essential in the fight against our terrorist enemy is worthy.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 13 books on international affairs.