Saturday, October 17, 2015

US response - retrospectives (from Sep 2012)

Did the U.S. Overreact to the 9/11 Attacks?

By John Horgan

September 10, 2012

Last year, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States, I posted a column arguing that the U.S. overreacted to these horrific acts of terrorism. Today, on the eve of 9/11, I'm posting an edited version of that column, the gist of which remains all too relevant.

My conclusion that the U.S. overreacted to 9/11 is based in part on risk-benefit analyses by John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University (and key source for my book The End of War), and Mark Stewart, a civil engineer and authority on risk assessment at University of Newcastle in Australia. In a paper published last year in Homeland Security Affairs, Mueller and Stewart noted that after 9/11, U.S. officials had warned that we could expect many more such attacks, and that terrorism represented an "existential" threat, as the former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff put it.

These fears triggered a surge in counterterrorism spending. Mueller and Stewart estimated that the response to 9/11 by federal, state and local governments as well as private corporations has totaled $1 trillion. The costs include measures such as beefed up intelligence, hardening of facilities and more robust airport screening but exclude the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even granting that terrorism evokes powerful emotions and hence deserves more attention than other dangers, Mueller and Stewart contended, "a great deal of money appears to have been misspent and would have been far more productive—saved far more lives—if it had been expended in other ways."

Mueller and Stewart noted that, in general, government regulators around the world view fatality risks—say, from nuclear power, industrial toxins or commercial aviation—above one person per million per year as "acceptable." Between 1970 and 2007, Mueller and Stewart asserted in a separate paper published in Foreign Affairs, a total of 3,292 Americans (not counting those in war zones) were killed by terrorists, resulting in an annual risk of one in 3.5 million. Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), a deer (one in two million) or on a commercial airliner (one in 2.9 million).

The global mortality rate of death by terrorism is even lower. Worldwide, terrorism killed 13,971 people between 1975 and 2003, an annual rate of one in 12.5 million. Since 9/11 acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim militants outside of war zones have killed about 300 people per year worldwide. This tally includes attacks not only by al Qaeda but also by "imitators, enthusiasts, look-alikes and wannabes," according to Mueller and Stewart.

Defenders of U.S. counterterrorism efforts might argue that they have kept casualties low by thwarting attacks. But investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies suggest that 9/11 may have been an outlier—an aberration—rather than a harbinger of future attacks. Muslim terrorists are for the most part "short on know-how, prone to make mistakes, poor at planning" and small in number, Mueller and Stewart stated. Although still potentially dangerous, terrorists hardly represent an "existential" threat on a par with those posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

In fact, Mueller and Stewart suggested in Homeland Security Affairs, U.S. counterterrorism procedures may indirectly imperil more lives than they preserve: "Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year."

The funds that the U.S. spends on counterterrorism should perhaps be diverted to other more significant perils, such as industrial accidents (one in 53,000), violent crime (one in 22,000), automobile accidents (one in 8,000) and cancer (one in 540). "Overall," Mueller and Stewart wrote, "vastly more lives could have been saved if counterterrorism funds had instead been spent on combating hazards that present unacceptable risks."

Mueller and Stewart’s analysis is conservative, because it excludes the most lethal and expensive U.S. responses to 9/11. Al Qaeda’s attacks also provoked the U.S. into invading and occupying two countries, at an estimated cost of several trillion dollars. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in the deaths of more than 6,500 Americans so far—more than twice as many as were killed on September 11, 2001—as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans.

The U.S. has also damaged its moral reputation by imprisoning without trial, torturing and assassinating alleged terrorists even in nations, such as Pakistan and Yemen, with which we are not at war. All these actions have helped arouse rather than quell anti-American sentiment among Muslims and others. In spite of its economic woes, the U.S. has doubled its annual defense spending in the past decade, which is now roughly equal to that of all other nations combined (as I pointed out in my previous column).

Osama bin Laden, who was finally killed by U.S. forces on May 2, 2011, never again pulled off an attack as cataclysmic as the one on 9/11. But he didn’t have to, because we—the U.S.—wreaked so much destruction ourselves. In 2004 bin Laden gloated that he was "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," the same strategy with which he and other jihadists—with U.S. backing—drove Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Mueller and Stewart—who present a detailed critique of counterterrorism policies in Terror, Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security (Oxford University Press, 2011)—noted that a major obstacle to more rational policies is a shortage of "that oxymoronic commodity," political courage.

But a few politicians have dared to question the view of terrorism as a peril to civilization. One is Representative Ron Paul, who has argued for deep cuts in military spending and abolition of the Department of Homeland Security, which he calls a threat to Americans' liberty. Another is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2007 said that people are more likely to be killed by lightning than terrorism. "You can’t sit there and worry about everything," Bloomberg exclaimed. "Get a life."

Actually, according to Mueller and Stewart, Americans’ annual risk of dying from lightning--one in seven million--is only half the risk from terrorism. The comments of Bloomberg and Paul nonetheless give me hope that as the traumatic memory of 9/11 recedes our leaders will begin devising more rational policies toward terrorism and other security threats.

Table from “Hardly Existential,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, Foreign Affairs, April 2, 2010.

South China Sea: Not Just About “Free Navigation”

Sep 4, 2012

East-West Centre


Denny Roy, Senior Research Fellow at the East-West Center, explains that “China is trying to implement a might-makes-right order, while the United States is trying to ensure that smaller countries do not get steamrolled. This is the real issue, and US officials should make it clear.”

The South China Sea territorial dispute increasingly looks like a point of strategic friction between the United States and China after a nasty exchange between the two governments earlier this month. The US Department of State criticized China for its plan to base a new military garrison in the Paracel Islands, saying this would increase international tensions. Beijing shot back that the United States should mind its own business. Many observers wonder why Washington and Beijing are allowing a new irritant to emerge in the incalculably important US-China relationship. Unfortunately, there is widespread misunderstanding about the US rationale for America’s diplomatic intervention in a territorial dispute to which the United States is not a party. Although US officials have named several specific US concerns about China’s policies and activities in the South China Sea, the US concern most widely understood and repeated is the potential threat to “freedom of navigation”: the PRC might be moving toward imposing restrictions on foreign ships sailing in the South China Sea. This, however, is not the real issue. It is really about bullying.

To be sure, the United States is a strong proponent of freedom of navigation in international waters. This stance reflects not only America’s commitment to the general principle of liberty but also the interests of a trading nation with the world’s most capable navy. There should be no doubt that if freedom of navigation was in jeopardy in the South China Sea, the United States would spring to its defense. At present, however, freedom of navigation is not at issue.

The Chinese say they do not interfere with international navigation in the South China Sea and do not intend to in the future. Their position has some merit. China has a particular beef with surveillance by US ships and aircraft near the Chinese coast. This has resulted in Chinese harassment, with several incidents reported in the press. The UN Law of the Sea Treaty allows for spying in the region between a country’s internal waters limit—12 nautical miles—and its exclusive economic zone limit which is usually 200 nm.

The Chinese argue that spying is not “innocent passage” and should not be allowed within the EEZ. It is not an unreasonable argument. So this situation has resulted in some interference with the “free navigation” of the US Navy, but this is a very limited and special case. The other circumstance in which Chinese vessels have interfered with non-Chinese ships is when the latter are engaged in activities that involve taking resources— fishing or preparing to drill for hydrocarbons—or when foreigners are attempting to arrest Chinese fishermen. These, as well, are special cases. Otherwise, the Chinese have not
interfered with the passage of cargo ships of any flag or of US Navy vessels passing through the waterway.

Consequently, the Chinese assert that the freedom of navigation argument is bogus, and the assertion is persuasive to many neutral onlookers. From here the Chinese charge that the Americans are using freedom of the seas as a pretext to extend the alleged “containment” strategy to Southeast Asia, limiting Chinese influence and recruiting new allies to join in the military encirclement of China.

Instead of providing fodder for Chinese rhetoric, the freedom of navigation argument should remain in the background. Rather, what the US government should be talking about is making the world safe from unlawful international coercion. Ironically, the Chinese have begun practicing what Beijing’s diplomats have for decades condemned as “hegemonism” or “power politics”—strong countries forcing their self-interested preferences onto smaller countries.

Six governments claim ownership of parts of the South China Sea. None has a slam-dunk case. China is not the only claimant that has moved unilaterally to strengthen its control over South China Sea territory and resources in recent years. China, however, has distinguished itself in two important and negative ways. First, China’s claims are both unusually expansive and intentionally vague. Beijing has stubbornly refused to clarify its claims based on the guidelines in the international Law of the Sea treaty, to which the PRC is a signatory. This is part of a strategy of ambiguity by which the PRC tries to minimize global concern and to avoid being constrained by the Law of the Sea guidelines while taking actions aimed at intimidating individual rival claimants.

Second, the actions China has taken to assert ownership over the South China Sea and its tiny “islands” are stronger than those taken by the other claimants. These acts include threatening and damaging foreign ships, declaring a fishing ban for part of the year in half of the South China Sea and arresting foreign fisherman who do not comply. There is also the recent announcement of increased Chinese militarization of the region—not only the new garrison, but the statement by PLA spokesman Geng Yansheng in June that China has begun “regular, combat-ready patrols” in the South China Sea.

China’s actions are threatening because China is big. No other state in Southeast Asia can match the military power China is able to project into the South China Sea. China’s massive economic weight, rapid growth rate, and commitment to strengthening its military forces ensure that the gap will only grow larger in the future. To make the contest even more lopsided, the Chinese government recently announced plans to greatly increase the number of quasi-military patrol ships—operated by the PRC Coast Guard and other agencies—it will deploy in the South China Sea.

In effect, this is a struggle between two visions of international order for Asia. The US vision includes a system of norms and international laws that ensure, among other things, that small states are protected from predation by larger states and that dispute resolution procedures should be fair.

China, on the other hand, appears to favor restoring a Chinese sphere of influence in East and Southeast Asia such as the Middle Kingdom enjoyed anciently. Under this arrangement, the rules of international interaction would reflect basic Chinese interests. Beijing would expect regional governments not to take major decisions that run contrary to Chinese preferences. Beijing’s current unwillingness to base Chinese claims in the Law of the Sea treaty may reflect the sentiment that this mostly Western-written body of law will not be needed when China resumes its historical position of regional dominance.

Some observers see the China-US contention over the South China Sea as simply a squabble between two great powers that are both seeking regional domination. Each is acting in its respective hegemonic self-interest rather than in defense of some higher principle. In this case, however, US intervention is clearly aligned with the interests of the Southeast Asian countries, which seek to avoid domination by China or any other great power. China is trying to implement a might-makes-right order, while the United States is trying to ensure that smaller countries do not get steamrolled. This is the real issue, and US officials should make it clear.

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