The Best Defense Is a Good…Defense

Unfortunately, the allure of offense is irresistibly in Washington these days.
February 4, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared in Huffington Post on February 4, 2016.

During the week leading up to the Super Bowl it seems like a good time to discuss the American foreign policy establishment’s love affair with the old saying: “The best defense is a good offense.” But football fans know: as fun as it is to watch the offense score, it is defense that wins championships. The same is true when it comes to terrorism. Smart foreign policy makers should know that a good offense is no substitute for a good defense when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, the allure of offense is irresistibly in Washington these days. During his recent stop in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at an expanded U.S. offensive against ISIS, while Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has said the U.S. was looking for ways to put more troops in Iraq and Syria to confront ISIS. The Republican presidential candidates are all but united in their desire to ramp up the use of military force in the Middle East. Even the two Democratic candidates have both called for pursuing an aggressive global war on terror. Other than Senator Rand Paul, who has now suspended his presidential campaign, there are no national political figures calling for military restraint in the fight against ISIS.

As a result, it is a foregone conclusion that by the time the next president takes office, the United States will be more deeply engaged in military action in the Middle East than it is today.

Policy makers should know better; we’ve heard this refrain before. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration repeatedly argued that the United States needed to take the fight to the terrorists. In a speech from the Oval Office following the invasion of Iraq, for example, Bush said “…the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans. We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.”

Giving a talk at the Heritage Foundation just after the second anniversary of 9/11, Vice President Cheney made the administration’s focus on offense even clearer: There is only one way to protect ourselves against catastrophic terrorist violence, and that is to destroy the terrorists before they can launch further attacks against the United States.”

And despite talk of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he campaigned for office, President Obama has found himself following a similar strategy, surging in Afghanistan, vastly expanding the drone campaign, and now once again sending more troops to Iraq.

Going on the offensive may have been reassuring in the months following 9/11, but the offense‐​as‐​defense strategy has proven to be a disaster. The U.S. has invaded two nations and executed military operations in another five at a cost of more than four trillion dollars. It has sent two and a half million military members into harm’s way, nearly 7,000 of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice. Despite the enormous costs, we’re less safe.

After fourteen years of intense efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda, the Islamist terrorism threat, which measured in at around 500–1,000 core operatives in 2001, has now morphed into a much bigger threat. The Islamic State alone has a fighting strength estimated at 30,000, not to mention the emergence and growth of numerous other terrorist groups. The result? The number of Islamist‐​inspired terror attacks within the homeland is higher than before 9/11 and terrorists are killing more Americans each year since 2001 than before.

Beyond these grim numbers is the fact that the American emphasis on offense has unleashed chaos in the Middle East, promoting the very instability and resentment o U.S. foreign policy that experts acknowledge motivates terrorist groups in the first place. The tragic irony is that U.S. military intervention has ensured a longer and bloodier battle against terrorism than anyone imagined after September 11.

Even though it is the less sexy approach, the superior strategy is to focus on defense. Putting an end to military intervention will immediately save lives, save money, and allow the United States to focus greater attention on how to improve homeland security here at home. Though vulnerability to small‐​scale terrorism is inevitable in any open society, the United States has made important strides in its ability to prevent major attacks since 9/11. And perhaps the most important thing a defensive strategy will do is stop the United States from creating new enemies and giving them fresh reasons to kill Americans.

So the next time someone tries to argue that the best defense is a good offense, remind him or her that defense wins championships.

About the Authors
A. Trevor Thrall

Trevor Thrall is a senior fellow for Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department.