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CIAO DATE: 09/01

United States — Terrorist Aftermath

In Perspective©
The Oxford Analytica Weekly Column
September 13, 2001

Oxford Analytica

The World Trade Center's twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington were on Tuesday subjected to devastating terrorist attacks. The atrocities will prompt a wide-ranging review of US security and intelligence systems which, on Tuesday's evidence, failed spectacularly.

If the United States fails to prosecute an effective counter-terrorist strategy then, in the medium term, bi-partisan consensus on the basic principles of foreign policy will be difficult to maintain. Policy options could easily polarise between an even more assertive form of unilateralism and a new instinct for isolationism. The version of multilateral internationalism associated with the Clinton administration, with which most European governments were comfortable, may find itself exposed politically.

The nature and scale of the apparently coordinated terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington on Tuesday were of an unprecedented scale. The short-term consequences will influence domestic and foreign policy, while the medium-term effects could easily sharpen divisions within the United States as to its appropriate role in the international arena.

Short-term fallout. The issues that will need to be addressed in the near term include:

  1. Internal security. The apparent ease with which aircraft highjacking on such an audacious scale occurred yesterday will probably oblige the US authorities to reform, on a permanent basis, the pattern of internal US air transportation. In the past, it has been presumed by many in the country that flights coming into or departing from its shores were the most likely source of terrorist activity. By contrast, domestic flights have not generally been perceived as vulnerable and, as a consequence, security arrangements have been less strict than is true elsewhere. The tighter security arrangements announced yesterday for US airports, railroad stations and other transportation centres by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, are unlikely to be temporary. Further legislation and regulation in the coming months is almost inevitable.
  2. Intelligence. In the immediate few days after the attacks, the demands of bi-partisan unity will mute the criticism of the intelligence apparatus for their complete failure to anticipate this assault. However, once that period has passed, committees in both chambers of Congress will conduct sweeping enquiries. These are likely to focus on the alleged liability of the CIA and other bodies to collect the quality of human intelligence necessary to deal with sophisticated terrorists. Rules which some have argued restrict the options of the CIA may well be overhauled. However, to some extent, this process may be largely irrelevant. Even if all possible resources were devoted to the pursuit of human intelligence, it may yield few dividends in other countries such as Afghanistan.
  3. Counter terrorism. US counter-terrorism policy has already been subject to a set of major reviews recently. These include those conducted by the National Commission on Terrorism, the Gilmore Commission (the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction) and the Hart-Rudman Commission (the US Commission on National Security in the 21st Century). The administration has responded to these initiatives by appointing Vice-President Dick Cheney to oversee a complete review of federal agency roles with the objective of developing a national counter-terrorism strategy. This drive will acquire greater urgency and salience as a result of yesterday's events.

Foreign policy impact. These predominantly mechanical and technical issues will operate alongside the broader questions of how foreign policy should be recast to respond to the threat posed by terrorism:

  1. Retaliation. There is no doubt that if the administration can assemble evidence against individuals or groups (and perhaps states) responsible for yesterday's events, military strikes will quickly follow. Any initial set of military raids will command backing from US allies. However, the assumption in Washington will be that one set of intense raids will be an insufficient response.
  2. Military posture. Tuesday's events have been interpreted by some as both highlighting the need for 'rogue state' counter measures such as National Missile Defence (NMD), while simultaneously revealing the limitations of such a project as a stand-alone insurance policy against an attack from such forces. NMD advocates, including the administration, will feel obliged to recast support for the programme as but one measure in a more comprehensive defence blueprint. Those within the United States who oppose the expense, or diplomatic implications, of NMD will, by contrast, urge that the present plans be kept at the research stage while more tangible steps are taken to prevent terrorist organisations from operating within US borders.
  3. International outlook. During its initial months in office, the Bush administration has struggled to reconcile its intellectual commitment to a fundamental reappraisal of foreign policy along 'realist' lines with the many practical limitations which derive from policy commitments inherited from the Clinton era. Tuesday's terrorist attacks are likely to strengthen the hand of those within the administration (notably Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) who want policy to be more forcefully reoriented along realist lines, even if that results in diplomatic difficulties with allies.

Domestic politics. Tuesday's terrorist atrocities have transformed the political context in which the president and Congress will do business for the remainder of the year. The need for national unity and decent taste will demand that the forthcoming arguments over the budget are defused, at least temporarily. It will be harder therefore for Democrats to assert that the defence budget needs to be cut back to preserve the Social Security trust fund and social programme spending, while Bush may feel obliged to be less aggressive in his pursuit of tax cuts. The pressure for at least a short-term bargain, even if it involves 'massaging' current economic assumptions, to ensure that the budgetary arithmetic 'fits' will be powerful.

US worldview. The broader long-term questions concerning the impact of Tuesday's events on US perceptions of the country's role in the world are difficult to ascertain. It is clear, however, that they will be influenced by at least three factors: