The Terrorism Index
In the third Terrorism Index, more than 100 of America’s most respected foreign-policy experts see a world that is growing more dangerous, a national security strategy in disrepair, and a war in Iraq that is alarmingly off course.
Foreign Policy, September/October 2007
Americans are thinking more about the war on terror than ever before. But that doesn’t mean they’ve come to see this issue in the black-and-white terms preferred by many elected leaders. The combination of bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued terrorist attacks from Britain to Somalia, and a presidential election in which candidates are defining themselves based on how they would stare down the threats has many seeing shades of gray. Six years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, just 29 percent of Americans believe the United States is winning the war on terror—the lowest percentage at any point since 9/11. But Americans also consider themselves safe. Six in 10 say that they do not believe another terrorist attack is imminent. Likewise, more than 60 percent of Americans now say that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake. Yet around half report that they would support similar military action to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Such seemingly incompatible points of view may stem in part from the fact that we are increasingly asked to reconcile a bewildering array of threats—and a nebulous enemy that defies convention. In Iraq, for instance, the same surge in U.S. forces that is meant to help pacify Baghdad only escalates violence elsewhere in the country. In the broader Middle East and South Asia, some of the same countries that are now the United States’ most crucial allies have also been guilty of cultivating the very terrorists we look to bring to justice. Deciphering priorities from such difficult paradoxes can be hard. So, how can one determine whether the war on terror is making America safer or more dangerous?
To find out, FOREIGN POLICY and the Center for American Progress once again turned to the very people who have run the United States’ national security apparatus during the past half century. Surveying more than 100 of America’s top foreign-policy experts—Republicans and Democrats alike—the FOREIGN POLICY/Center for American Progress Terrorism Index is the only comprehensive, nonpartisan effort to mine the highest echelons of the nation’s foreign-policy establishment for its assessment of how the United States is fighting the war on terror. First released in July 2006, and again last February, the index attempts to draw definitive conclusions about the war’s priorities, policies, and progress. Its participants include people who have served as secretary of state, national security advisor, senior White House aides, top commanders in the U.S. military, seasoned intelligence professionals, and distinguished academics. Eighty percent of the experts have served in the U.S. government—including more than half in the Executive Branch, 32 percent in the military, and 21 percent in the intelligence community.
The world these experts see today is one that continues to grow more threatening. Fully 91 percent say the world is becoming more dangerous for Americans and the United States, up 10 percentage points since February. Eighty-four percent do not believe the United States is winning the war on terror, an increase of 9 percentage points from six months ago. More than 80 percent expect a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decade, a result that is more or less unchanged from one year ago.
On the positive side, many of the key agencies charged with ensuring the United States’ national security appear to be getting better at their job. Six of nine agencies, including the Departments of State and Defense, scored above average on the experts’ scale of 0 to 10. One year ago, only one agency scored above average. The National Security Agency fared the best, with an average ranking of 6.6. Many of the policies that these agencies pursue, however, did not fare as well. Nearly every foreign policy of the U.S. government—from domestic surveillance activities and the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to U.S. energy policies and efforts in the Middle East peace process—was sharply criticized by the experts. More than 6 in 10 experts, for instance, believe U.S. energy policies are negatively affecting the country’s national security. The experts were similarly critical of the CIA’s rendition of terrorist suspects to countries known to torture prisoners and the Pentagon’s policy of trying detainees before military tribunals.
No effort of the U.S. government was more harshly criticized, however, than the war in Iraq. In fact, that conflict appears to be the root cause of the experts’ pessimism about the state of national security. Nearly all—92 percent—of the index’s experts said the war in Iraq negatively affects U.S. national security, an increase of 5 percentage points from a year ago. Negative perceptions of the war in Iraq are shared across the political spectrum, with 84 percent of those who describe themselves as conservative taking a dim view of the war’s impact. More than half of the experts now oppose the White House’s decision to “surge” additional troops into Baghdad, a remarkable 22 percentage-point increase from just six months ago. Almost 7 in 10 now support a drawdown and redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq.
Chastened by the fighting in Iraq, the U.S national security community also appears eager not to make the same mistakes elsewhere. For instance, though a majority—83 percent—do not believe Tehran when it says its nuclear program is intended for peaceful, civilian purposes, just 8 percent favor military strikes in response. Eight in 10, on the other hand, say the United States should use either sanctions or diplomatic talks to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Similarly, a majority of the experts favor some kind of engagement with groups that may be labeled terrorist organizations but have gained popular support at the ballot box, such as Hamas in the Palestinian Territories or Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s one indication that, after six years, we may be entering a new chapter in the war on terror.
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