Debunked: Ten Conservative Myths About National Security
By Sara Robinson, Campaign for America's Future. Posted September 15,
Going after the most dangerous myths spun by conservatives after 9/11.
True confession: I was terrified on 9/11 -- for all the right reasons.
I wasn't afraid of the terrorists. There are plenty of countries where
people have lived for decades under the constant threat of unholy acts
of terror -- and yet people still get on buses and subways and
airplanes, and life goes on. I'd like to think that Americans are at
least as courageous as Israelis or Indonesians. Our "land of the free
and home of the brave" mythos insists we should be. So I was damned if
I was going to respond to the crisis by giving into irrational fears
and thereby, as we used to say, "let the terrorists win."
No, what I was really afraid of was that too many of my fellow
Americans would forget the lessons of their own history -- that they'd
lose track of who we are and where we've been and what we're made of.
I knew there was a real possibility that this time, we'd fail to live
up to our reputation for cool, calm clarity in the face of crisis, and
instead be goaded into taking counsel of our fears. I feared the bad
choices that would inevitably follow if we stampeded down that road.
And I dreaded that it would be the soul death of the country I loved.
I hate having been right about this, though I can hardly blame average
citizens for succumbing to the sirens of chaos. Americans trying to
make correct sense of the new reality found their efforts stymied
everywhere they turned. With the White House distorting intelligence
to sell a war, corporate opportunists fanning the coals of panic to
heat up vast new business opportunities, media editors milking the
drama to keep their ratings high, and terrified hordes quick to shout
"treason" whenever anyone dared to question the path we were taking,
it was hard for even thoughtful Americans to locate the truth of the
matter. And as long as confusion reigned, the terrorists really did
Seven years later, as the miasma dissipates, more and more of us are
able to calm down, take a step back, draw a big, cleansing breath and
start to sort things out more rationally. Unfortunately, though, a few
of the myths promulgated in those first few years have hardened firmly
into a new conventional wisdom -- some so stubbornly that you often
won't even find progressives questioning them any more. The time has
come to call out a few of these persistent myths that are still being
taken as fact and start firing back on them.
1. "Islamofascism" is America's biggest national security threat.
Not hardly. This is the hot new idea among far-right demagogues who
literally can't define who they are without a devil to contrast
themselves against, and military hawks looking for an excuse to keep
the military-industrial complex's big all-night party rolling in the
bleary morning-after of a post-Cold War world. But, as the Center for
American Progress notes in this article, it's a dangerous meme that
disables our ability to think clearly, and it will almost certainly
lead us into even more catastrophic misadventures.
To begin with, "Islamofascism" itself is an impossible idea, and those
who promote it betray a fundamental political ignorance. True fascism
can only occur within an industrialized nation-state, few of which
exist in the Islamic world. And many of our most intransigent problems
with terrorism come from the opposite problem: modern terrorists have
no state affiliations, and are thus free to drift across international
borders with fluid ease. Defeating them means coming to grips with
this fact. Calling them "fascists" makes it that much harder to grasp.
Worse, "Islamofascism" suggests that the Muslim world is some kind of
vast monolithic conspiracy, equal in might and will to the Soviet
Union or Nazi Germany back in the day -- and that's another dangerous
delusion. Just like Christianity, Islam covers a widely diverse range
of cultures and political attitudes. In fact, the overwhelming
majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are not jihadis, and
consider terrorism abhorrent. Turning one-quarter of the world's
people into The Enemy will blind us to the subtle but critical
distinctions within Islam. It will doom us to serious blunders,
alienate potential allies, and cost us important opportunities to make
real inroads against terrorism.
Spencer Ackerman suggests the term "anti-Western Salafist jihadism" as
a replacement. Less catchy, perhaps, but more specific and not nearly
so fraught with wrong assumptions that can cloud our thinking.
Having dispatched "Islamofascism," though, the more important point
remains: Anti-Western Salafist jihadism isn't even America's biggest
security threat. It's on the short list -- but so are global
pandemics, loose nukes, our dependence on foreign energy, the
catastrophic effects of climate change, the U.S.'s vast and bloated
national debt, and our growing helplessness at producing essential
goods for ourselves. As long as we're mired in an endless war to
"defeat Islamofascism," we're going to remain weak, distracted, and
grossly unprepared for the other serious security threats we face.
2. We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here.
False. The image here is that Iraq is some kind of roach hotel for
global terrorism. The truth is, it's become the international
finishing school where a new generation of terrorists is getting a
front-line, real-time education against the American war machine --
and perfecting low-tech ways to close the gap against a high-tech
The U.S. official National Intelligence Estimate concludes that the
war in Iraq has made new Islamic radicals where none existed before,
greatly increasing the terror threat around the world. The number of
significant terrorist incidents worldwide has risen every year of the
war. In a bipartisan survey of national security experts last year,
the consensus found that the war in Iraq is making the world more
dangerous for Americans. (To be fair, this same panel is a bit more
upbeat this year, but still thinks the war is a grave mistake.) In the
meantime, al-Qaida has regrouped in Pakistan, and is back at full
strength -- while we've suffered more than 35,000 casualties and spent
more than $550 billion, while alienating friends around the world.
"Fighting them there" hasn't been nearly the solution we were promised
it would be. But too many of us were eager to buy into that promise,
because we'd already been sold on another persistent myth:
3. Military solutions are the only effective national security
Wrong. So wrong that Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich (who
is nobody's liberal) has written an entire book on America's
dangerously nave faith in the military as the only viable solution to
everything that ails us.
Which is ridiculous, when you consider all the things military force
can't do. Smart bombs won't stop global warming. Battlefield nukes
won't cure pandemics. Air strikes won't reduce our reliance on foreign
energy sources. Sending in the Marines is no way to reduce the
national debt. As we saw above in No. 1, terrorism is just one of a
number of real national security threats we're facing -- and as we'll
see, it's not even clear that the military is the right answer
On the other hand, there's a surprising level of consensus among
security experts on both the left and right on what real, effective
national security would look like:
We need to beef up our intelligence agencies -- in a way that's
consistent with the Constitution -- so they can monitor terrorist
groups and keep dangerous technologies out of their hands.
We need to provide consistent and effective domestic security around
ports, chemical plants, and other high-risk targets -- something that
should have been done immediately after 9/11, but is still largely
We need to revisit our national infrastructure for disaster
preparedness and response. Whether it's floods or fires, evacuation or
epidemic, insurgents or industrial accidents, we will be more secure
if we have a well-planned, coordinated response, and trained people
prepared and in place to handle it.
We need our friends. Diplomacy, alliances, international cooperation,
intelligence sharing and police work are the essential tools for
pre-empting real threats to our security.
We need to become more self-sufficient. Asked by the Foreign Policy
Index to rate strategies for strengthening the nation's security, 55%%
of Americans listed "Becoming less dependent on other countries for
our supply of energy. Only 17%% said "Attacking countries that develop
weapons of mass destruction" would enhance our security.
America has very few problems that can best be solved by military
means -- and a great many problems that require us to look for other
4. But -- what we're doing is working! After all, we haven't had
True, we haven't -- but not for the reasons you think. Which leads us
to another myth..
5. Everybody knows that "law enforcement" approaches to terrorism
False. They do work. In fact, they're about the only thing that really
does work. Every single terrorist plot that's been prevented since
9/11 -- both the serious ones, and the ones that were "more
aspirational than operational" -- were prevented through good
old-fashioned police and intelligence work.
Taking the wide view, the fateful choice to send in soldiers rather
than international cops turned out to be a major win for the
terrorists. Conservative blogger Steve Chapman explained it this way:
"By framing the fight as a global war, we have helped Osama bin Laden
and hurt ourselves. Had we treated him and his confederates as the
moral equivalent of international drug lords or sex traffickers, the
organization might not have the romantic image it has acquired. By
exaggerating the potential impact, we also magnified the disruptive
effect of any plots, which is just what the terrorists seek."
6. We don't need allies: we can do this on our own. Besides, moral
authority doesn't matter when you have superior firepower.
More fatal hubris. One of the more noxious side effects of American
exceptionalism is that we cling stubbornly to the idea that we're the
only country on earth that matters and owe nothing to anyone else.
That wasn't even true back in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson duly noted
the new nation's obligation to have "a decent respect" for "the
opinions of mankind" in the first paragraph of the Declaration of
Independence. It's considerably less true now that we are so dependent
on so many for so much. Insisting that we can go it alone in this
deeply interconnected world -- where our oil comes from the Saudis,
our cars come from the Japanese, and our money and everything else
comes from China -- is very much like a headstrong 14-year-old who
insists that they don't need Mom and Dad for anything -- except maybe
housing and food and an allowance and a ride to the mall.
And that's about how Americans look to the rest of the world whenever
we strike this "I'll do it myself, so there" posture: immature,
petulant, spoiled and ignorant of all the ways we depend on the family
of nations for our continued well-being. Yes, we're big and strong and
capable of doing tremendous damage if we get angry. But we can only
throw that weight around for so long -- by and by, the other nations
will band together to find alternatives to dealing with us, and may
even start actively looking for ways to knock us down to size. In some
places, this is already happening, and it's not in our long-term
interest for it to continue.
It's time for us to remember our grown-up manners and return to our
seat at the global family table.
7. Negotiating with "irrational" dictators is pointless, and a sign of
Catastrophically dumb. Conservatives condemn the idea of presidents
talking to their counterparts from "enemy" countries, but 67 percent
of Americans disagree, according to a June 2 Gallup poll. "Large
majorities of Democrats and independents, and even half of
Republicans, believe the president of the United States should meet
with the leaders of countries that are considered enemies of the
United States," the poll says. Fifty-nine percent of Americans, for
example, would support the U.S. president meeting with the president
of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
If FDR could confer with Stalin and JFK could negotiate with
Khrushchev and Nixon could go to China and sit down with Mao, there's
no reason whatsoever our current president can't arrange a meeting
with Ahmedinejad. Bush's refusal to do this is a sign of his essential
smallness of character and the narrowness of his worldview. The
problem with all ideologues is that once they decide that "you're with
us or against us," then no further discussion -- let alone compromise
-- with the other side is possible. That's a dangerous trait in a
president, and one we should watch out carefully for in the future.
8. Government spending on national security is different than
pork-barrel spending on other programs.
Another myth busted. Recall that when the Republicans controlled
Congress, they devised a formula that diverted security money from
high-risk (and mostly liberal) states like New York and California to
lower-risk (and mostly conservative) places like Wyoming and Nebraska.
This made no logical sense from a security standpoint -- the only
explanation was that the Republican Congress was using 9/11 as an
excuse to dole out pork.
Homeland security has grown up to become one of the biggest pork
barrels in American politics. Security professionals are quick to
point out that too many of these efforts aren't designed to provide
objectively effective security -- in fact, as we'll see below, many of
them are based on flawed assumptions about how effective security
works. Instead, the contracts are written in such a way that the only
way to fulfill them is to funnel our tax dollars into the pockets of
well-connected conservative cronies. The upshot is that we spend more
than we should, and get less real protection than we deserve.
And perhaps worst of all: Seven years of this unregulated, unfocused
spending has created a booming new industry that can only survive as
long as it keeps selling us on new threats to fear -- which has
long-term implications for our entire national culture.
9. Airport security is a critical part of our anti-terrorism effort.
True, but not as true as it should be. Security experts are still
deeply concerned about at least two big holes in the system that make
the high drama of the passenger screening area into nothing much more
than a farce.
The first one is that we're still not adequately inspecting air cargo.
Any competent engineering student can make and ship a timed bomb,
which is why the 9/11 Commission Report insisted on aggressive
inspection of all air cargo. At this point, most airports are doing
random profiling and screening of parcels; but it's a far cry from the
careful one-by-one inspection being given to people and luggage
traveling on the same plane. In 2007, the Transportation Security
Administration spent $5 billion inspecting passengers and luggage, and
just $55 million on cargo going on the same planes. Cargo inspectors
comprise less than 1 percent of the TSA workforce. Feeling safer yet?
The other security hole big enough to fly another 9/11 through
comprises the various programs that allow crew members, frequent
fliers, people with security clearances, and other "trusted travelers"
to bypass inspection. As Bruce Schneier points out, these programs are
based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular
profile, and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we
only can identify everyone and get them all on watch lists.
Schneier, who has consulted with the TSA, is emphatic that dividing
the world into "trusted travelers" and people on watch lists creates
more security problems than it solves. "Most of the 9/11 terrorists
were unknown and not on any watch list. Timothy McVeigh was an
upstanding U.S. citizen before he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal
Building. Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel are normal,
nondescript people. Intelligence reports indicate that al-Qaida is
recruiting non-Arab terrorists for U.S. operations." Furthermore, if
you create a low-inspection loophole in the system, would-be
terrorists will aim for that loophole -- and are more likely to get
through it. The only way to prevent this is to throw out the watch
lists and inspect everyone -- no exceptions.
Schneier and other airline security experts will tell you that most of
the safety gains since 9/11 come about through just two developments:
hardening cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may
have to fight back. "Everything else -- Secure Flight and Trusted
Traveler included -- is security theater," writes Schneier. "We would
all be a lot safer if, instead, we implemented enhanced baggage
security -- both ensuring that a passenger's bags don't fly unless he
does, and explosives screening for all baggage -- as well as
background checks and increased screening for airport employees."
10. It's always necessary to give up our civil liberties in a time of
Wrong. So horribly wrong, in fact, that my very conservative
eighth-grade civics teacher wouldn't have graduated a kid who failed
this part of the exam. She put the fear of the Founders in us, along
with a clear sense of our obligations and rights as citizens. There
hasn't been a day since 9/11 that I haven't mourned the fact that
America has not produced nearly enough Mrs. Hermans.
Last night, I was watching NBC's presentation of "9/11: As It
Happened," a two-hour summary of its coverage that awful morning seven
years ago. At one point, late in the broadcast, Tom Brokaw made a
comment: "We are a country at war now..we're going to have to
reconsider some of the freedoms we now enjoy." The smoke of the towers
was still rolling up the streets of Manhattan, and NBC's senior anchor
was already declaring a new era in which patriotic Americans must be
willing to surrender their liberty for security. I was left wondering
how someone who wouldn't have made it out of eighth grade at Home
Street School ended up in a national anchor spot -- and remembering
all over again just what it was on that day that made me so deeply,
truly afraid for my country.
Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War, and FDR claimed
extraordinary powers for himself during World War II -- but neither of
them ever tried to argue that being at war was a natural excuse for
suspending the entire Bill of Rights. In fact (as we have seen) the
more dangerous the times, the more important those liberties become.
In times of huge social transformation or economic upheaval, when
everything else is up for grabs, our worldview and our values -- the
internal qualities that define who we are, the things nobody can ever
take away from us -- move to the front and center. Everything else can
go up in smoke; but as long as we hold onto those core beliefs, we
will be able to survive the worst, and find everything we need within
us to rebuild the world anew.
The Declaration and the Constitution are the defining documents of our
country, expressing the central ideals that determine who we are. If
we abandon those ideals, we will simply cease to be American -- and,
perhaps, lose the chance of ever restoring America again. If we are
truly concerned about national security, this is, beyond a doubt, the
worst thing we could ever allow to happen.
Sara Robinson is a twenty-year veteran of Silicon Valley, and is
launching a second career as a strategic foresight analyst. When she's
not studying change theories and reactionary movements, you can find
her singing the alto part over at Orcinus. She lives in Vancouver, BC
with her husband and two teenagers.