Magical thinking on terrorism

In a recent column for The Washington Post, Jackson Diehl excoriates the Obama foreign policy for its "sloppy thinking" that there is no military solution to the key international challenges facing our country. "Political and military solutions are not mutually exclusive but intertwined; political solutions are often dictated by military conditions," Diehl argues. He goes on to suggest that what's harming our national security is the failure to take aggressive enough military action in Syria and Ukraine.

But who's doing the sloppy thinking here? Where is the evidence that more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought us any closer to political solutions that can be sustained beyond the departure of U.S. forces? After spending over $1 trillion and deploying over 100,000 troops, are we any safer now?

News flash: The global war on terrorism isn't working. A video-game style approach to national security, where we gain points and ultimately "win" by killing as many "hostiles" as we can before they kill us, is not based on a realistic assessment of the facts and evidence. Drone strikes and "building partner capacity" have not proven to be effective ways of making the world more stable and secure.

According to the second annual Global Terrorism Index, which comprehensively surveys trends in global terrorism, both the number of terrorist incidents and the number of deaths from terrorism have risen sharply since 9/11. Nearly 18,000 people were killed in terrorist incidents in 2013, a 61 percent rise over the previous year. Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to gain strength, with recent estimates showing an "unprecedented" surge in the number of foreigners joining its ranks and those of its allies.

It's sheer fantasy to believe that our military interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan have been successful in achieving their political aims. Billions of dollars in military training didn't make the Iraqi army ready to stand up to ISIS, and the departing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, admits there are unsustainable casualty and desertion rates among the Afghan forces. As The New York Times editorialized, "calling Yemen a success story" — as Obama did in making the case for airstrikes against ISIS — "is absurd."

The first step toward a course correction is to stop making things worse. Sending in more troops or delaying their withdrawal, stepping up the bombings, and arming and training poorly disciplined and corrupt forces will only dig our hole deeper. As the old adage goes, often attributed to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time.

Admitting that our current tactics have been a failure does not mean that we must stand idly by and do nothing as innocents are slaughtered. There is a wide range of non-military alternatives, several of which are described in the expert contributions to the Global Terrorism Index: negotiating power-sharing deals and political settlements, cutting off terrorist funding streams, providing humanitarian assistance, reducing opportunities for bribery and corruption. Many of these things we are doing already, and they might work better if they weren't being undermined by the use of force.

Second, we need to stop hyping the threats to Americans posed by global terrorism. In the United States, according to the Global Terrorism Index, there were 3,029 deaths from terrorism from 2000-2011, but 195,948 homicides. Ninety-five percent of the terrorist fatalities in the world since 2000 have occurred in developing countries, the overwhelming majority of those in just five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria). And the Pentagon has reported that, among our military men and women, suicide has now surpassed war as a cause of death.

Third, we must stop pretending we have all the answers. Our profoundly dysfunctional political system, our unwillingness to confront and address longstanding issues of racial inequality and injustice, and our refusal to guarantee living wages, a decent education, and affordable healthcare to our own population limits our diplomatic and inspirational power. As Stephen Walt incisively argues, you don't need to be an isolationist to admit that "there is a trade-off between our ambitions abroad and our capacity to build a better nation here at home."

The Congress has wisely chosen to defer consideration of a new authorization for the use of military force until it reconvenes in January. Let’['s hope that all the magical thinking ends with Christmas.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Project on Prosperity and Development and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.