It’s been almost a decade and a half since 9/11, but the foreign-policy establishment still cannot admit that continuous American intervention in the Middle East has been a failure.
I recently attended a conference entitled “Hindsight: Reflections on 15 Years of the War on Terror.” With a wide range of highly respectable speakers, I naively expected that the panels would conclude that the so-called “global war on terror” had been a misguided project ab initio, that the United States continues to repeat mistakes in its national security policy that promote rather than discourage terrorism—and that the terrorism threat itself has been grossly inflated for largely political and economic reasons.
Apart from a single comment by a former U.S. Army general who correctly characterized American involvement in the Middle East as an overly robust response to what is in reality a “low threat, low national interests” situation for Washington policymakers, I was greatly disappointed. Everyone seemed to accept without any real question the presumption that the United States has a preemptive right to use military force to change foreign governments, ignoring that factor as a source of terrorism and only criticizing those actual interventions that have been badly implemented like Iraq and Libya.
Some of the speakers predictably were either promoting personal agendas or the agendas of their political patrons and employers. One keynote speaker blasted Republican foreign policy positions while praising Bill Clinton, and by extension Hillary, for their brilliant foreign policy team, which tempted me to shout out the name “Sandy Berger!” followed by “the Balkans!” and “Sudanese pharmaceutical factory!” The same speaker also refused to address a reasonable question about the well-attested massive Israeli spying operation in the U.S. in 2001, denying that it existed. Indeed, neither Israel nor Palestine were mentioned at all in an hour and a half panel discussion on foreign policy “challenges” coming from the Middle East, an omission that one has to consider to be curious.
While some speakers robustly condemned erosion of personal liberties due to increased security, it was all carefully done in a legal context, which is what I personally find most annoying about existing criticism of the war on terror. What is legal and what isn’t appears to trump how certain developments actually play out in practical terms and it should be accepted that any White House can always find a Department of Justice lawyer willing to affirm that nearly anything is legal, meaning that the distinction is meaningless.
Increasing oversight was promoted by several speakers, which is also a type of legal remedy. Admittedly, some panelists did note that existing oversight does not protect against abuse as the overseers generally do not oversee at all. Officials from all branches of government instinctively and consistently collude with the expectations of the administration, meaning that oversight does not equate to either transparency or accountability. And there was no consideration by panelists whether torture, rendition, data collection and telecommunications backdoors actually enhance national security. This was to my mind a major omission as the public is generally deluded into thinking that the “enhanced interrogation” and “acceptable” ethical lapses funded by the hundreds of billions of dollars invested annually in the warfare state are “making us safe.”
Only one speaker mentioned that existing terrorism cases in the U.S. generally come out of FBI entrapment operations, that the government has rarely caught terrorists in flagrante and that fewer than 50 Americans have been killed by Islamic terrorists since 9/11, suggesting the extent to which the terror threat has been dramatically hyped for reasons that have little or nothing to do with ISIS or al-Qaeda. A “pressure cooker bomb plot” cited by New York’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism as a great success involved a Muslim student who was reportedly only thinking about doing something but who did not even possess the pressure cooker that he was allegedly considering using as a weapon. Muslims arrested for terrorism plots rarely have the capability to carry out any offensive actions and are frequently reliant on FBI informants to provide them with a gun doesn’t work or a bomb that doesn’t explode. Or in this case possibly a pressure cooker with a hole in it.
There were nearly four hours of more and the same, to include hubristic snapshots of Russia and China as eternal enemies and several comments suggesting that Syria would not be so bad now if “we” had taken down Bashar al-Assad a few years back. After an unctuous hymn of praise regarding the effectiveness of the New York Police Department notably minus any mention of its domestic spying operations directed against Muslims, it occurred to me that the narrative being fed was conditioned by one overriding factor: nearly every speaker benefits personally from the continued existence of the war on terror. They are all part of the establishment and supporters of the Washington foreign policy consensus even if they don’t identify themselves that way. Even those academics and lawyers who criticize the war frequently do so in a restrained and high-minded fashion because the status derived from being a player in the continuation of the unending global conflict is as much in their interest as it is in the interests of those who are working for the government or a defense contractor.
Few in the United States and in Western Europe challenge the nature of the terrorist threat and governments have learned that if they shout “terrorism” often enough they will get a free pass on budgets and on approving legislation that restricts the freedom of the average citizen. Freedom is, unfortunately a zero-sum game, power taken from the people is gone forever and is given over to what we Americans have begun to call the “unitary executive,” a transitional process welcomed by heads of state in both parliamentary and presidential government systems.
The war on terror is the driving concern that fuels much government aggrandizement as well as spending. Depending on what one includes in the numbers it is plausible to suggest that as much as $1 trillion per year is being spent to fight against the alleged threat. The “counter-terror” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the most expensive in U.S. history and they are not over yet. The ongoing intervention in Afghanistan, justified by President Obama as a war to prevent a resurgence of al-Qaeda, continues to cost more than $3 billion per month and is currently undergoing a “surge,” as are also operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The federal government employed 2,726,000 as of 2014 compared to 1,500,000 in 2001, not including the military, which itself has 2,100,000 personnel in uniform, including reserves. Most of the new hires have been directly related to the War on Terror for manning the 200 post-9/11 military and CIA bases that have sprung up around the world. The number of reported federal employees does not include contractors, who add considerably to the payroll. More than half of the employees in key sectors within the intelligence community and at the Defense Department are contractors and every contractor costs three times as much as a normal employee.
It is projected that Uncle Sam will spend $4.2 trillion in 2017 compared with $1.863 trillion in 2001, $503 billion of which will be borrowed, reversing 2001’s budget surplus of $127 billion. The Department of Homeland Security, which did not exist prior to 2001, gets $40 billion and employs 180,000; the intelligence agencies get an estimated $100 billion and employ 100,000; the FBI gets nearly $9.5 billion; and the Department of Defense gets $632 billion, which does not include a slush fund to cover the war in Afghanistan and other contingencies. In 2001, the Pentagon budget was $277 billion. When all the increases are added up and compared to the baseline of 2001, the war on terror currently costs the American taxpayer directly more than $500 billion per year as part of an overall defense and national security budget that approaches $1 trillion. As there may be only 100 or so terrorists interested and plausibly capable of attacking the United States directly, that works out to something like $10 billion per year per terrorist.
And that is only at the federal level. Most states now have their own departments of homeland security, and most have dramatically increased both the numbers and firepower of their police forces. There is full-time security manning the entrances of nearly all federal and state and even many local office buildings and schools. The total costs of state and local expenditures to counter the essentially bogus terrorist threat might well exceed the federal expenditures, and then there is the spending on security, often mandated by the government, in the private sector. The conference I attended also demonstrated the extent to which universities, institutes, and security firms have become part of the huge and growing terrorism business, all feeding off of the false assumption that the twenty-first century is the age of the terrorist.
Apart from the benefit to defense industries, money spent directly on the war on terror is essentially wasted. But even as bad as all those numbers in terms of current spending are, consider for a moment the legacy costs and institutional damages that are not so readily visible. Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University estimates that Iraq will cost as much as $5 trillion when all the costs, including interest paid on borrowed money and medical treatment for life for the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers, are paid off. The bill for Afghanistan, which appears to lack an exit strategy, will be proportionate, depending on how long the U.S. stays there and at what commitment level. The money spent and the debt continuously incurred explain in part why the United States stumbles along with an antiquated infrastructure and a dysfunctional health-care system. The country cannot continue wasting resources on overstated terrorist threats without paying the price at home.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.