Sunday, February 19, 2006

Why Iraq is a hideously expensive distraction, Part II

Today, for better or worse, Iraq is the central front of the war on terror.

Should it be? This is the second of two articles looking at the terror threat and the Iraq experience through a cost/benefit lens.

Part II: How big is the terror threat, and what should we do about it?

How much would you pay to avoid a 0.0000008% chance of dying?

It's not an idle question. When allocating limited resources, the first step has to be defining the risk. We spend a lot of money researching cancer cures because cancer kills millions of people every year. We spend almost no money researching a cure for mucopolysaccharidosis, which usually kills its victims by age 25 but only affects about 200 people nationwide. That stinks if you're one of the 200, but it makes perfect sense to spend more money on the biggest threats.

Such analytical methods were developed because, quite frankly, people suck at assessing risk. We tend to overemphasize the danger of rare but spectacular events and minimize the danger of common incremental events. That's why more people fear flying than fear driving, even though driving is many times more dangerous.

What happens if we apply the same logic to terrorism?

One way to measure the danger posed by terrorism is to compare the risk of dying in a terror attack to other causes of death in the United States.

Since 1990, there have been four major terrorist attacks in the United States: Oklahoma City, the first Trade Center attack, the Olympic bombing in Atlanta and 9/11.

That's four attacks in 14 years; hardly a crisis. Further, half of those attacks were the work of disgruntled individuals, unrelated to any broader terror movement. And they come against the background of a steady 20-year decline in the number of terror attacks worldwide. Attacks have increased in lethality and spectacle, but there are fewer of them.

Now let's look at casualties. Those four attacks caused roughly 3,175 deaths over 14 years, in a population of about 300 million. That's an average of 230 deaths a year -- far closer to mucopolysaccarhidosis than cancer. Put another way, the average American has a 0.0000008% chance of dying in a terror attack in any given year.

If you look at causes of death in the United States you'll find that terrorism is right up there with such national crises as falling from a ladder (406 deaths in 2002), drowning in your bathtub (352 deaths), riding a "special agricultural vehicle" (149 deaths) and "overexertion, travel and privation" (128 deaths). Heck, on average more people accidentally shoot themselves to death (243) than die at the hands of terrorists.

Put into perspective, terrorism isn't even close to a national threat. It does not threaten our national survival, and it does not threaten the life of average Americans in any meaningful way. One could plausibly argue that our response to terrorism has done more damage to Americans than terrorism itself. 9/11 killed 3,000 people and caused several billion dollars in economic damage. Our response has killed even more people and cost $400 billion, all of it borrowed. The terrorists could only dream of inflicting as much harm on us as we have inflicted upon ourselves.

Of course we still have to combat terrorism, and of course our response should be outsized; we don't just passively accept the murder of American citizens. And there are psychological and economic aftershocks from spectacular stunts like 9/11. But by any measure our response has been way out of proportion to the risk.

So how much effort should we put into fighting terrorism? That requires an honest national debate, but I think critics of the Iraq campaign had it right: terror is better handled as a law enforcement and intelligence matter than as a military one. Not only would that be more effective, it would be far cheaper.

When clear targets are identified, military force can be beneficial: the campaign in Afghanistan is a prime example of that. But the military clearly should play a supporting role, not a starring one. We are better served keeping our soldiers available as a credible deterrent and to fend off true threats to national survival.

So what works? In Part I, I explained why the "war on terror" justifications for Iraq are nonsense. Instead, I think four broad strategies offer the most chance of success:

Go after the terrorists directly. Continue the ongoing effort to boost our intelligence-gathering abilities, so we can root out terrorist cells and choke off terrorist financing. This includes the less noxious parts of the Patriot Act, allowing law enforcement and intelligence communities to share information. We also need to hone our strike and raid capabilities so that we can effectively act on the intelligence we receive.

A homeland focus. If they can't get in, they can't attack us, so the bulk of our anti-terror money should go to domestic security - ports, airports, borders, etc. Such spending pays other dividends as well, tightening the defenses against smuggling and illegal immigration. This category includes investing in alternative energies, mass transit and conservation, because reducing our reliance on oil (and especially foreign oil) will reduce our need to become enmeshed in volatile regions of the world, as well as reduce the political influence of oil-rich countries.

International cooperation. Work with foreign intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to infilitrate and destroy terrorist cells. Work with foreign militaries to spread the burden of military operations. Isolate and destroy regimes that are active supporters of terrorism, using a clearly-drawn definition so that every nation is aware which side of the line they are on.

Foreign aid. It does no good to kill terrorists if we don't change the conditions that generate them: oppression, poverty, hopelessness, lack of education, lack of opportunity. We spend a paltry $18 billion a year on foreign aid; we should double or triple that number and target it on areas and issues related to terror. This means ending support for repressive regimes in the Middle East and devoting money to promoting education, democracy and opportunity in the region. Even if we spend $50 billion a year on foreign aid, it would be cheaper than the staggeringly expensive war we're currently pursuing. And you get a lot more PR benefit out of building schools than you do from dropping bombs.

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