Washington, D.C.–The American people are trapped in an endless War on Terror fueled by interest groups and bureaucracies intent on securing ongoing funding for their own institutional purposes, argued speakers at an April 15 Independent Institute seminar. 

Al Qaeda represents only a relatively minor threat to the United States, said Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania; but our overreaction has provided Bin Laden a bonanza of publicity and recruiting opportunities.  In turn, “Hurricane Osama” offers unmatched opportunities for the press to catch readers’ attention, so journalists love the War on Terror, he commented.

Lustick noted that the “neocon cabal” that started the War has stepped aside as Congress has moved in to fund the War by identifying some 300,000 potential targets in the process of caring for its constituents.  In effect, the War on Terror itself is in control of the political process because it provides the perfect excuse for funding a wide range of activities, and no politician wants to be seen as weak on terrorists, no matter what the unreality of the threat.  In the Department of Homeland Security, there is now an Office of the Universal Adversary that creates fictionalized scenarios, he said.

Historian Gareth Porter pointed out that the armed services’ bureaucracies signed on to the War on Terror during the run-up to the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq.  Long reluctant to become engaged in counterterrorism, they accepted the neocons’ proposal to widen the War on Terror to include seven countries–Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia–that had not been involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 because it meant that the military could conduct warfare against regimes (and subsequently against insurgencies), which more closely matched its traditional bureaucratic and budgetary interests.

Analyst Ivan Eland argued that the the U.S. “occupation” of Afghanistan receives too much support from Americans.  Beating the Taliban made sense in 2001 as a means of denying al Qaeda a safe haven.  But then mission creep led us into stabilizing Afghanistan, engaging in national-building, and eradicating drugs–all tasks with dubious prospects.  We should instead withdraw, remaining ready to intervene again if al Qaeda re-establishes itself there.

In general, Eland called for a measured response to terrorist threats in a low-key, behind-the-scenes manner, with the focus on al Qaeda.  Lustick added that we need to get over our McCarthy-like hysteria and recognize that al Qaeda is a small group of fanatics.  Rather than honoring al Qaeda as an equal, we should use police and criminal justice methods to deal with it.

In response to the question of how to get their arguments across to the public, Porter said that a wealthy donor was needed to fund a campaign to delegitimize the military-industrial complex and its pursuit of its own goals, to the detriment of the interests of the public.

Kenneth J. Dillon


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