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So Over “Overblown”: J.P. Crowley Reponds to John Mueller’s Latest Book

Posted by K.E. White on January 26, 2007

I recently sat down with Philip J. Crowley, Director of National Defense and Homeland Security at the Center for American Progress, and chatted about John Mueller’s recent book Overblown.P.J. Crowley

Crowley, President Bill Clinton’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, was not bowled over by Overblown, as his responses to my questions make clear.

While finding value in Mueller’s contention that America may have already overreacted to the threat of terrorism, Crowley finds Mueller’s policy prescriptions lacking substance, evidence questionable, worldview dangerously isolationist, and perception of American foreign policy after WWII “idealistic and naive.”

Among his many critiques, Crowley highlights the danger of using past state-on-state diplomacy to understand the threat posed today by international terrorism. This leads him to consider Mueller guilty of the same fallacy—albeit in the opposite direction—of the Bush administration: forcing a statist paradigm onto terrorism.

Question: What do you make of Mueller’s view of America caught in a terror iron-triangle: with an irrationally concerned public egging on elected representative to feed funds to an insatiable terrorism industry?

 

Philip J. Crowley: It’s a clever formulation, but it’s a secondary consideration. The fundamental consideration is, is there a residual threat of terrorism to the United States? There is.

Certainly Mr. Mueller is likely right in thinking that we have overestimated its severity and have portrayed terrorists as an omniscient threat. And certain actions that the United States has taken since 9-11, most specifically the diversion into Iraq, have actually been counterproductive.

Much of his analysis is fair, but the board theme in terms of what the country should do in response is to basically to ignore the threat.

In the construct in the current threat of terrorism, he may be partially right that to some extent our overreaction actually makes terrorists more emboldened than they may otherwise be.

But his historical analysis of the manner in which the United States has handled what it perceived to be major threats in the past, is deeply, deeply, deeply flawed.

To suggest that on Dec. 8, 1941, in the face of the most significant military attack [Pearl Harbor] against the United States in our history, the proper course of action for President Roosevelt was to ignore and contain it is naive.

Certainly his portray of the McCarthy psyche that gripped the country in the 1950s is fair. On the over hand, many of the steps that we did take militarily, economically and diplomatically throughout the Cold War were directly responsible for the eventual demise of the Soviet Union.

What I found disappointing in the book was Mueller’s attempt to use history to justify an under reaction to the current situation. The ultimate right answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

While we are at risk of overreacting to the threat of terrorism because of 9-11, we are at risk of under reacting by not taking the proper steps to mitigate the residual risk that does exist, and is going to exist for some time.

 

Is Mueller’s provocative example of Pearl Harbor useful in adding depth to how America responded to security threat in the past and how we should respond to the threat of international terrorism today?

 

[Mueller’s view of Pearl Harbor] is historically inaccurate.

Mueller bases his analysis on almost purely on mathematical formulas.

He sees our response to Japan as such: The United States lost 2,500 citizens at Pearl Harbor, and in response the United States lost 100,000 or more troops in the Pacific theater.

So, in his mind, [since America’s response lead to greater human losses] the cost of the war did not justify a declaration of the war.

He ignores the fact that through World War II the role of the United States changed. He ignores the positive impact that the United States gained in terms of its impact on the world as a consequence of the war.

There is a just war theory, and it’s very controversial. But I find very few people who believe, as Mr. Muller seems to believe, that World War II was not a just war.

 

What is the goal of Muller’s book? What is the book’s view of America’s role in the world?

Mueller espouses an isolationist view. In his mind, we should never react to a provocation. You know, I keep using the word naive, and I think it is.

While there is a gain of truth and a seductive logic behind that view, there are simply times you have to respond.

The intervention in Bosnia, for example, was expressly not because the United States was threatened. In fact while the intervention cost American treasure, it cost not a single American life. In that intervention the United States was making a broader statement to Europe and to the world that it would not tolerate ethnic cleansing that threatened our significant national interests.

Now one could argue not that America should not do less, but more. Most people who look at the places the United States has interceded and the places the United States has failed to intercede, say America has not done enough—Darfur being the latest example, and rightfully so.

Mueller is trying to shift history in the opposite direction. And to suggest that it is not worth the United States making, what in my mind, the very important moral and political statement that the United States would hold leaders like Milosevic to account for policies that kill or displace hundreds of thousands of people, is wrong.

And because of the Serbian intervention—it was not perfect, it was not pretty at times—we now have European continent that is more united and is highly unlikely to experience any kind of major conflict in the foreseeable future.

Given where the world was in 1914, where a world war started owing to a series of overlapping alliances, to be at the point today where you’d probably think major war in Europe is no longer possible is an enormous achievement. And that would arguably not happen in the logic that John Mueller applies to the world.

 

The book’s theoretical perspective relies on lumping together America’s foreign policies towards other nation-states in the past, such as Germany and Japan during World War II or the Soviet Union, with America’s policy towards international terrorism today. Is this a useful approach to understanding American security policy after 9-11?

Mueller ends up, to some extent, contradicting his own argument, conflating the threat [of international terrorism] in ways the Bush administration has.

The Bush administration came into office in 2001, and then came 9-11. The Bush administration could not envision that Al Qaeda could do what it did without formal state sponsorship. And it was that logic that ultimately moved us from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Notwithstanding the existence of a safe heaven in Afghanistan and the shelter the Taliban, as the ruling government in Afghanistan, provided to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda primarily pulled off 9-11 without meaningful state support.

And the Bush administration could not bring itself to accept that fact. So it started to look around for rogue states that are involved in terrorism and had been in the past. The shift then happened from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Mr. Mueller seems to tread that same path in reverse. In order to try to buttress his argument that we have overreacted to the threat of Al Qaeda, which by itself may be true, he then goes back and to use as justification the United States and how it has dealt with various state-related challenges in the second half of the twentieth century. I think he ends up mixing up apples and oranges.

There is logic to what he says about the risk of overreacting to what is not an existential threat. But you cannot confuse how the United States deals with a transnational non-state actor with how the United States deals with state-to-state relations—whether it be Japan after Pearle Harbor, or the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or a European state like Serbia that was responsible for the worst ethnic cleansing of modern time.

Now if one accepts there is a danger of politically overreacting to the threat of terrorism, he does give some rhetorical support to things we have to do—but little substance. I think that is what is missing in the book.

 

What does Mueller accomplish in this book? And what substance is missing in particular?

He sets up a straw man effectively: There is a fundamental risk that America can and perhaps has overreacted to a threat. But, by the same token, he does not go into any depth of where the right balance is.

He mentions in many parts in the book that while it is hard to envision that Al Qaeda could successfully build or explode a nuclear weapon, he nonetheless accepts the idea that we should do everything possible to keep fissionable material off the market. Okay, how do you do that?

He believes that we should primarily attack terrorism through law enforcement means. Okay, how do you do that?

To the extent that we have a residual threat of terrorism, and there are systems that are valuable to us that could be attacked, whether transit systems or port system, to what extent do you protect them?

His solution is largely just to tell the American people, “Don’t worry be happy.”

He misses the opportunity to find the pragmatic middle ground that would help those who want to know how to effectively govern.

 

Let’s say someone plans to read this book, or already has. What book would you tell them to read next that would fill in the deficits you have pointed out in Mueller’s work?

 

It hasn’t been written yet—which is exactly a problem. We’ll get there eventually. I think that is a very good point at which to critique here.

Mueller offers a useful admonition that there is a serious risk that America will overreact if it hasn’t already. The next piece is—if we are able to maintain perspective that his is a serious issue but not an existential threat, and that the adversary is capable but not omniscient—what should we do? Where is the right balance?

That is missing from Mueller’s book and really is the logical next step in the development of our concept of homeland security. What are the enduring things we can do so that we can protect what is important to us, without stoking fears in the population?

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