Since the attacks of 9/11, the United States has overthrown regimes in two Muslim countries at a cost of trillions of dollars, nearly doubled baseline defense expenditures, run up a massive federal debt, curbed civil liberties at home, violated international law, set up a new cabinet department, and alienated many of our traditional allies. All of this was justified in the name of dealing with what was perceived as the existential threat posed by Al Qaeda.
But now, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the individual who most personified that threat, the United States has the opportunity to adjust its national security policy and put the harm posed by global terrorist groups — like Al Qaeda — into proper perspective. It can do this by recognizing that, while serious, the threat from Al Qaeda is not existential and that Americans actually face even more serious threats to our safety and security. This recognition will free the United States to take direct, interrelated actions that will more fully enhance US national security.
First, the United States can adopt what political scientist John Mearsheimer labels an “offshore-balancing” national security strategy. Rather than invading, occupying, and keeping hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground in countries around the globe, the United States should rely on its air and naval power and only selectively engage with ground forces. The Libyan intervention, which involves only air and naval assets and no ground forces, is an excellent example of offshore balancing.
Second, as a result of employing offshore-balancing, the United States can change its defense strategy from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. This would mean relying more on US Special Forces to target specific terrorist groups — rather than sending large land armies into countries to try and remake them in our own image. Doing this will enable the United States to begin a significant withdrawal from Afghanistan starting this July and to begin negotiations with the Taliban. This strategy will also allow the United States to significantly lower its defense budget and to deal with a burgeoning national debt. After all, in a baseline defense budget of $558 billion, the portion devoted to US Special Forces, the group that killed bin Laden, is just $10.8 billion. Moreover, by making it clear that the US military commitment in Afghanistan is not open-ended, there will be more of an incentive for neighboring countries to work together to stabilize the region.
Third, the United States can put the threat from the Arab and Muslim world into proper perspective. The real problem in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region of South Asia is not Al Qaeda; it’s that what happens in these two countries — one of which has nuclear weapons — can destabilize a strategically important part of the world. Therefore, we need to undertake a serious diplomatic offensive with all the countries in the region to encourage stability. In other words, the threat posed by Pakistan’s nuclear capability outweighs the Al Qaeda menace.
Since 9/11, Pakistan has had the United States over a barrel. The United States has given the Pakistanis about $20 billion in military and economic aid, because it believed Pakistan was needed to fight Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. For this, the United States has received very little. Not only have the Pakistanis allowed the Taliban and its Al Qaeda supporters, including bin Laden, to find a safe haven in their country; they have increased their nuclear weapons stockpile and facilitated a terrorist attack on India. With the death of bin Laden and a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States can make it clear to Pakistan that US foreign aid will depend on Pakistan playing a more substantive role in stabilizing Afghanistan and on engaging with India more constructively.
Finally, bin Laden’s death will give the Obama administration the ability to focus, in cooperation with other nations, on the more critical threats to our security — specifically, nuclear proliferation. President Obama is in a unique position: He now has the national security credentials and the political capital to try to compel the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty; the president can also begin to work with Russia on eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Concentrating on these more critical and existential global threats will give the United States the moral high ground to work with the rest of the world on nuclear proliferation and on the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran.
If the United States capitalizes on bin Laden’s death by taking all or many of these steps, it will not only make Americans safer; it will undo some of the damage to US homeland security that we brought on ourselves when we overreacted to the 9/11 attacks and overlooked looming nuclear threats.
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