A Foreign Policy for Terrorists

February 20, 1999 • Commentary

The twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last August injured 5,000 people; 224, including 12 Americans, were killed. The State Department later surveyed 260 diplomatic posts around the world and found 220 of them to be unsafe. A new report by the Accountability Review Board advocates spending $1.5 billion a year, five times current outlays on embassy security, for a decade to better protect U.S. missions.

Yet the cheaper, and much more effective, way to protect American facilities and national interests would be to adopt a more restrained foreign policy. Instead of being meddler of first resort, Washington should be the balancer of last resort, intervening only where allied states are unable to act and the United States has vital or at least serious interests at stake.

In the post‐​Cold War world, where America’s enemies are pathetic and few, terrorism may be, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argues, “the biggest threat to our country and the world as we enter the 21st century.” But terrorism does not occur in a vacuum.

After the embassy bombings, President Bill Clinton suggested that the United States was attacked because of “its dedication to political and religious freedom, economic opportunity, to respect for the rights of the individual.”

What makes the United States a target is its willingness to impose itself on other peoples.

Similarly, Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib argued that “the U.S. is a target not because of something that it has or hasn’t done, but simply because it exists.”

Obviously, there are people who reject American values. The United States is the primary international symbol of cultural liberalism and modernity.

Most of those who hate America would nevertheless leave us alone if we left them alone. What makes the United States a target is its willingness to impose itself on other peoples. As Clinton delicately put it: “Americans are targets of terrorism in part because we have unique leadership responsibilities in the world.”

But Washington does not have “unique leadership responsibilities.” Rather, it asserts such obligations. It chooses to put Somalia back together. It decides which politician should rule Haiti. It dictates policy in the Kosovo civil war. It decides that three warring factions should stay together in Bosnia. It supports a whole series of undemocratic, authoritarian regimes around the globe. And, of course, it micromanages the ugly, emotional and endless conflicts in the Middle East.

Americans, who tend to be largely oblivious to the rest of the world, don’t much notice what their government is doing abroad. As my Cato Institute colleague Ivan Eland notes in his new study, “Does U.S. Intervention Overseas Breed Terrorism?” they tend to underestimate “the offense caused by propping up undemocratic regimes with dubious human rights records through aid or the presence of troops.”

America has, paradoxically, grown more vulnerable to terrorism as its military dominance has increased. Not only has Washington become more arrogant — “What we say goes,” intoned George Bush at one point — but there is no longer any foreign conventional restraint on the United States. Terrorism is the one means for the weak to strike out against the strong.

The potential cost was high enough when it meant an airliner hijacking or tourist shooting. Now, however, terrorism means massive conventional bombing, such as of the World Trade Center, and even more destructive unconventional attacks utilizing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Of course, Washington can threaten massive retaliation, bomb suspected terrorist sites, and turn the United States into a police state. But that will only reduce, not eliminate terrorism. As Eland points out, “It is much easier (and after the Cold War, relatively painless) to change U.S. foreign policy than it is to change the American way of life.”

Today’s strategy of promiscuous intervention is aberrant, a product of the Cold War and America’s policy of global containment of communism. The existence of a malevolent grand puppeteer in Moscow forced the United States to worry about otherwise irrelevant sideshows. Today, they are truly irrelevant.

Of course, advocates of U.S. meddling offer new justifications. Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post argues that extending “military and intelligence outreach in Central Europe, the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East” should be considered “not as invitations to terrorism but as investments in stability.”

But most such stability is of little value to America, which is not threatened by, say, the Balkans’ imbroglio. Even in more important areas, like the Middle East, stability is a chimera. U.S. intervention has guaranteed permanent entanglement in bloody, insoluble conflicts involving weak, illegitimate and immoral regimes.

Of course, Washington should attempt to make U.S. embassies and other missions secure. Washington should also close nonessential facilities in nonessential countries, as proposed by the Review Board.

But the best way to protect Americans would be to stop turning them into targets. And that means Washington acting with more prudence and humility abroad.

About the Author