Beyond the phony war and missing enemy

Beyond the phony war and missing enemy

September 25th, 2006 | Posted in Future of Terror

Here is one way we are blowing the future. By pursuing a phony “war on terrorism.” Just a few thoughts on this. If, as President Bush claims, the world is in a decisive war for civilization, then why have so few resources been devoted to the battle? Undermanned armed forces. No national sacrifice. No particular direction. By these and other signs, one can know the “war” is make believe, designed for domestic consumption for the purpose of maintaining political power and not taken all that seriously even by those mouthing the slogans.

Second, terrorism cannot be dealt with militarily anyway. Instead, dealing with terror, which can never be fully eradicated, is a matter of intelligence, police work, and international cooperation, coupled with international diplomacy and political/economic development. These are the tactics that have been proven to work in the past, while the military responses have been generally counter productive.

Third, the whole terror threat is greatly, even wildly exaggerated. This is explained persuasively by John Mueller in Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct. 2006. I am often asked what are the great threats to humanity, and how does terror fit in? My answer. Terrorism is not an “existential” threat, by which I mean a threat that could wipe out humanity, destroy civilizations, or bring down advanced and powerful nations. There are such threats, namely a killer asteroid, or out of control climate change, and the very small possibility of a global plague. But not terrorism. Terror is a background threat, and ought to be treated as such. Not ignored, even vigorously pursued, but treated at its true level. More people drown in bathtubs than are killed by terrorists. An individual is more likely to be killed by an asteroid, in fact, than by a terrorist.

And global terrorists are generally disconnected, local, and focused on private, immediate and historical grievences. The idea that there is a vast global terrorist conspirancy is much more fantasy and wishful thinking sold for PR purposes than reality.

James Fallows makes a similar point in his recent in-depth article in Atlantic Monthly, arguing that Al Queda, such as it was, has been effectively defeated. It is time to “declare victory” he says, and to move on to more targeted responses to the kind of threats that actually exist. Really worth reading.

The recently leaked Intelligence Estimate which argues that the war in Iraq has indeed increased the terrorist threat does cause one to wonder if the threat will eventually lead to an actual event. It certainly confirms that this ill-conceived war has backfired.

Until we get this right, and there are signs that this re-thinking is underway, we’ll miss the real issues shaping and threatening the future, and the longer it will be before really important possibilities are exolored and developed. And it will be our reactions to terror that threaten us, more than terror itself.

Glen Hiemstra

About Glen Hiemstra

Glen Hiemstra is the founder of An internationally respected expert on future trends, long-range planning and creating the preferred future, Glen has advised professional, business, and governmental organizations for three decades.


  1. Derrick Smalls   |   Mar 27, 2008

    I am a little confused with this piece. Quoting a couple of international affairs experts is not the same thing as evidence. Your argument is by no means the prevailing view in international affairs circles, and the articles you cited are by no means accepted without dispute. To say it is a phony war betrays the fact that you don’t understand the threat. 9/11 was a wake-up call to a threat that already existed. In fact, Al-Qaeda had been at war with us for some time (Bin Laden’s declaration of war on the US was printed in 1996). The real threat is that weapons of mass destruction (radiological, chemical, biological, or nuclear) could fall into the hands of terrorists. If you read the writings of jihadi leaders, (I highly recommend this site for those who are interested it becomes clear that we are at war with people who consider slaughtering innocent “infidels” to be a sacred act. In other words, it is a safe assumption that if Al-Qaeda or another jihadi organization acquires WMD, they will use it. I’m sure you know all this, but the frightening part is that this is a serious possibility. Whether one agreed with the invasion of Iraq is to some extent now irrelevant, if we leave before the Iraqi’s can control their country, AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq) will use it as a base. Furthermore, in the jihadis will claim Iraq as a defeat of the Americans. The invasion definitely contributed to a rise in insurgents and jihadis, but the propaganda victory from a US retreat will do so even further.
    But regardless of Iraq, this is the main flaw, as I see it, in this article:

    “And global terrorists are generally disconnected, local, and focused on private, immediate and historical grievences. The idea that there is a vast global terrorist conspirancy is much more fantasy and wishful thinking sold for PR purposes than reality.”

    This argument fails on all levels. Private? What “private” grievance does a Saudi Arabian boy have for traveling to Iraq and taking up arms against US troops? (I might add, troops from the same country which prevented Saddam from invading his own). Immediate? I’m not quite sure what you mean here. Certainly some of the violence in Iraq is linked to the instability and lack of security in the immediate situation. But this is just one front. Again, what about the jihadis who flock to Iraq or Afghanistan? As for historical grievances, there is some truth to this. But does it matter? Hitler rose to power because of historical grievances. So what? History cannot be changed, and if you think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would pacify Bin Laden, then you have no understand of the man or the movement. I would strongly urge you to do some reading of jihadi documents and communications. There is a global jihadi war being waged, and pretending like it is not there will not make it disappear. It is an asymmetric war, but the fact that we have far more economic and military power does not mean that we are not in danger.

  2. Glen Hiemstra   |   Apr 17, 2007

    Les, thanks for the comments and question. My understanding is that the difficulty of acquiring and even more so of making nuclear weapons, even dirty bombs, is quite great. Not impossible in an imaginable future, but not easy at all. At the same time, suppose one such event were to happen. The question of its impact would be totally about how humanity responds. Would it be a focused, non-fearful, and deliberate response? Would it be panic and chaos? Would certain “leaders” try to exploit the moment to consolidate their power? These are the questions. A nuclear event is not the end of time, unless we decide that it is.

  3. Les Mace   |   Apr 17, 2007

    Congratulations on an excellent and informative website. I essentially agree with all of your points about terrorism in that it is not now a major threat to civilization. The references you cite are excellent reminders of how this apparent threat has been grossly overestimated.

    However, even knowing the complexity of constructing and then delivering a nuclear (or “dirty”) bomb targeted at some major international city, what are the chances that eventually a terrorist group could actually successfully pull that off? That single event could somewhat alter the suggestion that nuclear terrorism would not result in global chaos boarding on an “existential” threat. (Of course, the same could be said for the same event occuring as a result of any existing nuclear/biological-equipped nation recklessly if sufficiently preturbed resorting to the same act.)

  4. Glen Hiemstra   |   Oct 7, 2006

    Francis, I can\’t give you particular advice on how to invest for next economic catharsis. I am not familiar with F. Hayek. What we do know is that a big energy transition is coming, and within that will be many opportunities. On the larger picture, it does at times seem that we are working harder to keep a house of cards from collapsing.

  5. Francis T. Nicosia   |   Oct 6, 2006

    Someday our country’s buerocracy is going to be so hugh that our economy won’t be able to support it.In order to pay the debt,the gov’t will devalue the dollar and cause inflation.We won’t be able to buy or borrow are way out of the next one. F. Hayek said the longer the boom the longer the bust. I would like to know how to invest for the next economic catharsis. F. Nicosia