Clark Kent Ervin is director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program and a partner at Patton Boggs LLP.
The Cold War and the years immediately following 9/11 were bad, but even so, policymakers may well look back on them as the “good old days.”
At least during the Cold War years, we knew who the enemy was and where to find him. Communism was an ideology, yes, and, thus impossible to kill, but it was an ideology with a face and an address. The leaders of the Soviet Union and China, and their respective satellites, were well-known, and they resided in locations that could be pinpointed.
In the years immediately following 9/11, we knew that the enemy was an ideologically motivated organization, al-Qaida, though it was unclear who all the members were and where, exactly, to find them all. At least we appeared to have only ONE enemy, albeit a formidable one.
Nowadays, the ideology of al-Qaida remains. It is just as hard as ever to determine who all the members are and where to find them. Making things harder still is that there is no one “al-Qaida.” There are multiple al-Qaidas. The organization has grown, hydra-like, and spread throughout the globe like a virus.
“Core al-Qaida,” the original organization along the Afghan/Pakistan border that Osama bin Laden founded and led, is but a shadow of itself today. However, elements of that group, notably, titular leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain, and those elements are as determined as ever to strike American interests and, if possible, the homeland itself again.
Arguably, the very fact of their widely acknowledged weakened position makes al-Qaida even more determined to strike again to prove its continued relevance and potency. Given that the odds of success are necessarily always in terrorists’ favor, even an enfeebled al-Qaida is cause for real concern.
A number of factors have combined to constrain our ability to confrontal-Qaida and its affiliategroups that were not present a decade or so ago. Our military is exhausted, and political support for further large military engagements is next to nonexistent, and not just among traditionally antiwar Democrats but increasingly, among traditionally pro-war Republicans. And our budget situation limits even robust complementary diplomatic and development initiatives. On top of this is the bipartisan backlash against intelligence gathering that the Snowden revelations have caused, requiring the intelligence community to ratchet back collection at the very moment we need it most.
Perhaps the national security community’s greatest challenge is the ephemeral nature of public support for its efforts to keep us safe. We tend to let events -- or the absence of events -- whipsaw us between hysteria and complacency. Let a few years, or even months, pass without a terror attack or a serious scare, and the cry is: “Why are we doing too much?” In the aftermath of a 9/11 or a Boston Marathon attack, the cry is: “Why are you doing too little?”
I fear that events and our nature have conspired to make us especially vulnerable today to another terror attack, and that very vulnerability makes an attack more likely. ■
Clark Kent Ervin is director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program and a partner at Patton Boggs LLP.