How the US Plays Into Bin Laden’s Hands

Failed strategy decisions have left the “Nonzero” author pessimistic about the outcome of the war on terror. What’s needed, he says, is a reprise of FDR’s “fear itself” speech.
  • Transcript


Question: Since 9/11, has America adopted wise short-term and long-term policies in the war on terror?

Robert Wright: Well I am much more pessimistic about the chances of our – I guess I’m more pessimistic about the outcome on the so-called war on terror now than I was shortly after 911. And I would say the mistake I think we’ve made is to overestimate the near term threat and underestimate the long-term threat. So, the big threat is still years off when you might have terrorist groups truly in possession of nuclear weapons, or truly devastating biological weapons. And I don’t mean anthrax, which is not – doesn’t leave anything contagious. But truly devastating biological weapons. That’s the thing to worry about. And the trouble is that if you get scared about the short term and start overreacting to that threat by doing thing like invading countries, what you wind up doing is making it more likely that the long-term threat will be realized because you increase the number of people who hate you and you kind of help do the job of terrorist recruiters for them. And just little things like reacting to a failed attempt to bomb an airplane by saying, “Well, maybe we should start doing ethnic profiling in airports and stuff.” I mean, if you don’t think Osama Bin Laden would love to see us do ethnic profiling, then I think you really don’t understand what he’s after. I mean, that’s exactly playing into his hands. And so, I just think that’s the sense in which – one of many in which being kind of panicked about the short term, when in truth, there aren’t any massive short-term threats out there, is making it more likely that the more apocalyptic scenario in the long-term could unfold. I think that’s the big mistake we’ve made is to just not realize that hatred will be increasingly lethal as time goes on, so it’s better to generate less of it than more.

Question: If the US were to start over in its strategy in the war on terror, what would you advise?

Robert Wright: I would say, first of all, think about establishing structures of international governance that would effectively police weapons of mass destruction. And we haven’t made any, if much, progress on that front since 911. And don’t be distracted from that by short-term adventures that are kind of focused on a single seeming manifestation of the same threat. Like in Iraq. I mean, we actually knew there were no – no one thought there were actual nuclear weapons, per se, in their – or truly contagious biological weapons for which we lacked a vaccine or anything like that. So, we should not have gotten sidetracked by these various things. And I think what that would call for is a president who really gave the “nothing to fear but fear itself” kind of sermon in an inspirational way. In other words, that irrational fear is the greatest enemy. It’s going to lead us to play into their hands.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen