The Flaws of Interventionism

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office stated bluntly: “The United States’ foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations.” Indeed, the link between America’s global interventionism and retaliatory acts of terrorism against the United States is nearly undeniable. As such, the United States must immediately cease foreign intervention operations.

What some claim to be the root causes of terrorism—poverty, disease, political instability, and hopelessness—do not tell the entire story. If these problems offered sufficient explanations for terrorist action, sub-Saharan Africa would be teeming with terrorists, and the 9/11 hijackers would have hailed from the most impoverished sectors of their societies. In reality, terrorist cells in destitute areas of Africa are rare, and the members of al-Qaeda who executed the terrorist attack in 2001 predominately hailed from well-to-do families.

The fact remains that almost no link between a nation’s economic conditions and its export of terrorism exists. As research by Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger shows, our enemies do not hate us because they are poor, hopeless, and desperately jealous of American prosperity. Among other data, Krueger has found that Palestinian suicide bombers are less likely to be from poor backgrounds and more likely to have finished high school. He has also found that the number of terrorist incidents is higher in countries that spend more on social welfare programs. Based on these findings, it is reasonable to assert that terrorists do not despise us for who we are—with our relatively high standards of living—but rather, for what we do.

A study conducted at New York University’s Center on Law and Security further bolsters the assertion that American interventionism has increased the prevalence of terrorism. Data from the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) database, a public index of terrorist incidents established after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, informed this research. Following the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the study reported a 607 percent rise in the average annual occurrence of jihadist attacks worldwide and a 237 percent rise in the average fatality rate from those attacks. The bulk of this increase occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The study also observed a surge in anti-American plots in the wake of the invasion. There were six jihadist attacks on the home soil of America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies during this period, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 London subway attacks. Conversely, no attacks occurred during the 18 months following 9/11.

The fact that acts of jihadist terrorism surged worldwide after the Iraq invasion does not, in itself, prove that American interventionism spurred terrorism. Yet, a recent National Intelligence Estimate, declassified last year, asserts that “the global jihadist movement…is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.” The report, endorsed by John D. Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence, goes on to describe the Iraq War as a “‘cause célèbre’ for jihadists.”

The war thus deepened existing animosity towards America and reinforced the mandate of international jihad. Indeed, according to MIPT data, acts of jihadist terrorism on Western citizens and interests outside of Afghanistan and Iraq have risen by 25 percent since the invasion—a statistic that provides compelling evidence for correlation between America’s heedless interventionism and the recent boom in global terrorism.

The conclusion that the White House should draw from this data is obvious: the U.S. must stop encroaching in the internal affairs of other countries, except when they explicitly threaten our territorial integrity. Rather than justifying a crusade, the events of 9/11 underscored the need for caution and prudence in American foreign policy, neglected in forming the spurious links between Osama Bin Laden, Sadaam Hussein, and Weapons of Mass Destruction that justified the Iraq intervention.

Surely, America must work to dismantle the al-Qaeda terrorist network worldwide. More importantly, though, it must avoid creating new terrorist enemies and exacerbating already fierce hatred of the United States. An understanding of what motivates terrorists to attack us, and a recognition of the links between our heedless interventionism and the upsurge of terrorism, are crucial components of a successful American foreign policy.

In determining what directly pertains to national security and warrants intervention, the United States must recognize that not every conflict or instability in the world impacts its own security. Many of the conflicts currently threatening the international balance, such as civil wars and ethnic strife, are intractable to exogenous solutions, even by an actor as powerful as the United States. For example, in Bosnia, United Nations peacekeepers functioned more often as observers, hostages, and even victims themselves than as agents of constructive change.

Furthermore, despite this administration’s sweeping characterization of all failed states—like Sudan, Haiti, or Cote d’Ivoire—as threats to national integrity, the overwhelming majority of failed states pose no security threat to America. Any dangers that emanate from these nations do not derive from the state itself, but from other organizations within the state, such as terrorist cells. The fact that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups operate from within failed states is not very telling. They operate just as successfully in Germany, Canada, and other countries that are certainly stable.

The notion that the United States has both the responsibility and the right to ensure world peace, spread democracy, and punish violators of its own enlightened norms—in short, the right to intervene—is ludicrous. This perverse strategy has increased our nation’s enemies, while a prudent one would have reduced and divided them. To be effective, our foreign policy must be markedly less interventionist—the less interventionist, the better, and the safer Americans will be from terrorist attacks.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.