The Paris attacks were barbaric but also startling, leading many to ask what can be done to prevent this kind of terrorism. One man has a clear answer. “That attack you saw in Paris? You’ll see an attack in the United States,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told the New York Times. Elaborating on how to stop this from happening, he told the Times and CNN that prevention will require a more aggressive strategy from the U.S. military across the greater Middle East, with ground troops and a no-fly zone in Syria and more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This theory was sometimes described during the Iraq war as “we fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here.” It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
Other politicians and commentators have noted that many jihadis have connections to the new badlands of the Middle East, including Yemen and Syria, where order has collapsed, civil strife is rampant and Islamic terrorist groups have staked out havens. This is the “blowback” from the chaos in Syria. It has almost become conventional wisdom that if only Washington had gotten more involved there earlier, we would be safer.
But what do the jihadis say? CNN reports that in a 2007 court deposition, Cherif Kouachi, one of the Paris terrorists, revealed the source of his radicalization: “I was ready to go and die in battle. . . . I got this idea when I saw the injustices shown by television on what was going on over there [in Iraq]. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans have inflicted on the Iraqis.” So U.S. intervention in the Middle East caused him to become a jihadi. But apparently more intervention would have had the opposite effect.
Scholars Robert Pape and James Feldman analyzed all of the more than 2,100 documented cases of suicide bombings from 1980 to 2009 and concluded that most of the perpetrators were acting in response to U.S. intervention in the Middle East rather than out of a religious or ideological motivation. In their book “Cutting the Fuse,” the authors note that the largest strikes in Western nations after 9/11, the Madrid and London bombings, were “specifically inspired by the invasion of Iraq.” (Max Boot wrote an intelligent critique of the book for the Weekly Standard.)
In a well-documented report for the Brookings Institution on the threat of terrorism from foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro examine all the known reasons for these jihadis to become engaged. The reasons vary from a sense of adventure to religious radicalism, but battling a foreign (Western) intervention is often high on the list. They point out that the exception is Syria, where the allure appears to be more sectarian and where the ease of traveling to and from that country may help explain the large numbers of foreign fighters. But were the United States to get deeply involved there, it would surely excite and attract even more foreign fighters, who could feel that they could fight the great crusader superpower and not just Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime. That’s why the Islamic State has been targeting Americans. It wants the global attention that comes from battling “the Great Satan.”
There is also the awkward reality that if the goal is to intervene in Syria to kill the jihadi forces, it places the United States squarely in the same camp as Assad. It would be nice if an American intervention could identify the moderate Syrians, ensure that they defeat the (much stronger) radical Islamists and then the (much stronger) Assad army, and then stabilize and rule Syria. More likely, it would help Assad and add fuel to a raging fire.
Let’s review the record. The United States’ non-intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s is said to have spawned Islamic radicalism, as did the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s, as did the partnership with Pakistan’s military, as did drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, as did the surge in Afghanistan, as did the withdrawal of troops from that country. When the United States intervenes, it is said to provoke terrorists; when it doesn’t, it is said to show that Washington is weak. No matter what the United States has done over the past two decades, Islamic radicalism has been on the rise, often directed against the United States and its Western allies, and it always finds a few alienated young men who act on its perverse ideology.
To argue that the only way to stop terrorism at home is for the United States to intervene militarily and stabilize the many parts of the Middle East that are in conflict is to commit Washington to a fool’s errand for decades. Scholar Andrew Bacevich has pointed out that before Syria, Washington had already launched interventions in 13 countries in the Islamic world since 1980. Would one more really do the trick?
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