The recent spate of high-profile intelligence failures -- most notably the attempted Christmas Day bombing on board Northwest Airlines fight 253 -- put me in mind of an old Groucho Marx line: "Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms." In the days following the foiled terrorist plot, the usual suspects in and out of official Washington demonstrated their own faulty intelligence.
On one hand, Obama administration officials struggled to save face in the wake of an embarrassing, and potentially catastrophic, security lapse. On the other, a handful of House Republicans sought to score a few political points -- and raise a little campaign money in the bargain -- by politicizing this latest terrorist episode. Meanwhile, syndicated columnists and cable TV pundits were working overtime, spinning the story this way and that. As usual, the ensuing debate over intelligence failures and security breaches generates more heat than light.
For instance, speaking at the White House last week, President Barack Obama used uncharacteristically stern language when he acknowledged widespread intelligence failures. "The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list," Obama said at Tuesday's press conference.
"A chorus of Republicans denounced the president for being too harsh on the intelligence community."Without missing a beat, a chorus of Republicans denounced the president for being too harsh on the intelligence community. Instead, they placed the blame squarely on the president, and the Democrats, for being "soft on terrorism." And yet, by most accounts, Obama's national security policies are not all that dissimilar from those of his predecessor. At least that's what former Bush administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times last week.
In the wake of the failed terrorist attack, the Obama administration announced its intention to impose even more stringent security measures on air travel -- from full-body imaging scans to stepped-up information gathering and data mining efforts. It remains to be seen if any of this will enhance national security. Nevertheless, for all of the political chatter and media discourse about the need to "connect the dots," these measures fall short of the mark.
Lost in the uproar over intelligence failures is a basic but unspoken question: Why? Why would a young man from a well-to-do family in Nigeria embrace a radical ideology determined to take innocent lives? By the same token, why would a 32-year-old Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, take his own life, and those of seven CIA employees, at a base in Afghanistan?
"By most accounts, Obama's national security policies are not all that dissimilar from those of his predecessor."More to the point, why is Islamic extremism on the rise across the globe? This question is rarely brought up for discussion in either political circles or in the mainstream press. And yet, if we are really serious about "connecting the dots" in the so-called war on terrorism, this fundamental question needs to be answered.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration's response to this sort of question was unequivocal as it was simple-minded: "They hate us." To this, Bush and company might add: "They hate our freedom," or the equally ludicrous, "They hate our way of life." Craven politicians and a subservient U.S. press corps dutifully repeated this nonsense as if it were some keen insight into the mind of a terrorist.
To be clear: Terrorism is an abhorrent political tactic, one that cannot be justified by any person, group or nation-state, regardless of any injustice they might face. But the fact of the matter is that Islamic extremists do not have a monopoly on terrorism. Across the globe, innocent lives are lost everyday to extremism perpetrated in the name of any number of ideologies -- including U.S. neoimperialism. Failure to acknowledge that an encounter with American economic, political and military power may breed Islamic extremism is to ignore the long history of U.S. oppression throughout the Middle East.
What's maddening about all of this is the willful ignorance that prevents us from recognizing this dynamic. Instead, we bury our heads in the sand, reluctant to acknowledge our complicity in fostering anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiment. And yet the signs of this are everywhere to be seen.
"Across the globe, innocent lives are lost everyday to extremism perpetrated in the name of any number of ideologies -- including U.S. neoimperialism."For instance, buried in a Jan. 6, 2010, Associated Press report out of San'a, Yemen, comes the following tidbit: "The government is concerned that too public an American role in the anti-terror campaign could embarrass the government, presenting it as weak before a Yemini public where mistrust of the U.S. runs high."
Or how about this item, also from the AP, regarding increased use of predator drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: "The Obama administration views its airstrikes as too effective to abandon, even though they are unpopular with civilians and the U.S.-backed governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
These passing references to the tension U.S. military action causes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, the latest front in the "war on terror," only scratch the surface of worldwide antipathy toward American empire.
In short: while we're busy connecting the dots in the war on terrorism, we had better keep in mind that the lines go both ways.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.