On Saturday night, three terrorists drove a white rental van to London Bridge and began mowing down pedestrians. They proceeded to a nearby market to continue their attack with knives while wearing fake explosive vests to add to the fear and chaos. By the time the attackers were fatally shot by police, they’d murdered seven people and injured about two dozen more. The violence was claimed by the Islamic State the next day, though it remains unclear whether ISIS had any real contact or merely ideological simpatico with the three men.
As the investigation into this horrific crime continues in Britain, here across the pond, the London Bridge attack occasions a fresh examination of the United States’ approach to the war on terror: Is what we’re doing working? Does it keep us safe? Is our counter-terror strategy effectively defensive?
The basic bipartisan assumption in Washington for the past decade and half has been that the best way to stop terrorism is an interventionist, military-first foreign policy. In this approach—accepted with surface variation but little fundamental difference by three consecutive administrations—the U.S. pursues a strategy of preemptive military strikes against terrorist targets and oppressive regimes across the greater Mideast, following them with expensive, long-term nation-building obligations that often re-escalate into military action as new unsavories arise in the power vacuums those very strikes help create. On the home front, meanwhile, Americans are asked to accept as the price of security enormous national debt and an expansive surveillance state that runs afoul of constitutional privacy and speech protections.
After 16 years, it is impossible to argue Washington’s approach is working.
Though still statistically rare as compared to decades past and other regions of the world today, terror attacks are clearly on an upward trend in the West. Before London, it was Manchester. Before Manchester, Stockholm. Before Stockholm, the Berlin Christmas market. Before Berlin, London again. The list is grim and growing.
This rise in terror attacks coincides with an increasingly frenetic U.S. foreign policy defined by increased military intervention at massive cost to the American taxpayer. Washington has already spent or promised some $12 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone—while expanding unauthorized engagements of at best debatable value in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. In Syria, for example, U.S. military action continues apace despite a no-win situation in which America has little to gain and much to lose. Ditto Yemen, where the U.S. is playing second fiddle to a Saudi-led intervention with appalling humanitarian ramifications and counterproductive security outcomes.
Review this foreign policy in toto and it is evident the conventional political wisdom isn’t wise at all. It is costly and detrimental, an enormous drain on limited counter-terror resources that seeks to apply external military solutions to internal political problems of the Middle East. This is not the path to stability, let alone peace.
To answer our initial questions: It is not working. It does not keep us safe. It is not effectively defensive.
The diagnosis of domestic counter-terror policy is no better. That expansive surveillance state is largely an exercise in futility, as would-be terrorists are lost in a swarm of useless data about innocent Americans.
“The intelligence community has never made a compelling case that bulk collection stops terrorism,” notes Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who introduced the PATRIOT Act back in 2001 but has since become skeptical of the spying architecture it created. Rather, he added, the “bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle.” This leaves intelligence agencies bogged down in a flood of irrelevancies, missing useful details more mundane (and constitutional) detective work would catch.
The “lone wolf” terrorists—those, like the London Bridge attackers, who typically have a mere digital connection to ISIS and its fellows—can thus escape notice until it is too late. Big Data obscures their plots, and their independence and sheer physical distance make them generally impervious to the circumstances of their Mideast inspirations.
Politicians from both parties frequently respond to lone wolf terror by recommending further U.S. military action, but this facile suggestion would have no practical effect on the type of violence we saw in London this weekend. ISIS is losing territory, and fast—but that did nothing to stop three men armed with knives and a van.
Ill-considered military intervention can exacerbate the lone wolf problem. Though ISIS “is clearly weakened on the ground,” writes Hassan Hassan at Foreign Policy, “the nature of the losses it is suffering has strengthened its legitimacy” among supporters. And, even “where armed intervention has achieved a semblance of tactical success—the ousting of some unsavory dictator, for example—it has yielded neither reconciliation nor willing submission nor even sullen compliance,” explains Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, at The Boston Globe. “Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them.”
After London, the need for a new approach is palpable. At home and abroad, Washington’s bellicose security strategy post-9/11 has shown itself a consistent, expensive, and dangerous failure.
Of course, there are no easy answers to a problem as grave as terrorism, but rejecting the discredited interventionism of recent years ought not be controversial. In its place, as Bacevich has argued, should be a new realism endowed with “a sober appreciation for recent miscalculations” that have proved incapable of producing “promised results [of] disorder curbed, democracy promoted, human rights advanced, terrorism suppressed.” Our guiding values must not be reflexive military action nor misguided hopes of remaking the world in America’s image. Rather, our foreign policy should be guided by realism, prudence, and diplomatic common sense.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.