Keeping our Eyes on the Ball: a Refocusing of U.S. Foreign Policy


The news today is a whirlwind. You don’t know whether to pay attention to Trump’s misogynistic bantering about abortion, or Hillary’s cringe-worthy time with Bill de Blasio onstage. The Islamic State, however, has managed to stick to the headlines since the summer of 2014. Between their gruesome beheadings or admission to attacks in Europe, Africa, and Asia the Islamic State have managed to create their own publicity through the use of social media and panic-inducing mayhem currently being spewed across American media and the current presidential race.

While the threat of the Islamic State may seem very real, I see it important to take a step back. We must look at the hard data and other issues that should arguably take precedent. I am a firm believer that while terrorism can create huge political obstacles, cause chronic anxiety within societies (with the assistance of relentless coverage by media outlets), and has a place in the interests of U.S. national security, it is crucial our leaders and the American people as a whole keep our eye on the ball by committing ourselves to other issues.

Measuring the Islamic State’s threat and significance

So far in 2016, the Islamic State has conducted terror attacks in nine different countries, with a total of 314 victims and over 950 injured. These numbers are saddening. Innocent lives in countries such as Syria, Turkey, or Belgium have been lost forever. While these attacks make the headlines, it is important we compare other tragedies to place these numbers in perspective. Lets first compare gun deaths in America as of April 5, 2016 compared to all deaths caused by IS in 2016:

Remember, this data is only showing gun deaths in America – not globally. There have been 10x the amount of deaths caused by guns in just America than deaths linked to attacks by IS globally. Even more astounding, you are statistically more likely to be killed or injured by a toddler with a gun than a terrorist in the U.S. Not to beat a dead horse, but to quote national security analyst Peter Bergen, “More Americas die in their bathtubs by significant amounts, by accidental drowning. We don’t have a fear of accidental drowning.”

I am not attempting to push an agenda on guns or bathtub safety features – rather, I think it is important to focus on Bergen’s last words, that while many of us may live in constant fear of a terrorist attack, we do not think twice about accidental drowning in our bathtubs. My point here with the data is that while the media, our presidential candidates, and our general conversation surrounding politics focuses a lot on domestic and international terrorism – I worry we are being misguided and blinded while other more pressing and existential crises build up. This is not to say our security and intelligence apparatus built since 9/11 should disappear. It is a crucial feature of our domestic and international preservation. More importantly, a shift in our conversation is what needs to occur, with a focus on the issues that could cause everlasting and intractable problems in the next 30 to 50 years.

It is also important to note the waning significance of the Middle East for the United States in the foreseeable future. While the U.S. will most likely have a permanent foothold when it comes to the security of Israel and stability of Turkey, I am of the belief that the less resources and attention we devote to the area, the better. Strategically speaking, there is little economic opportunity to be had, and with the recent news of the Panama Papers, the idea that the Middle East is politically corrupt has only been further cemented. Even President Obama is of the same mind. He was recently interviewed by Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for an extensive and intimate article dubbed the “The Obama Doctrine,” detailing Obama’s thoughts and concerns about U.S. foreign policy. The controversial Syrian “red-line” controversy is brought up (quick explanation: Obama drew a supposed red-line where if Syrian president Assad used chemical weapons on his people, U.S. military action would occur against the Syrian government. Assad ended up using chemical weapons on his own population, and for a while, it seemed U.S. action was imminent. Obama backed out of using lethal force against him at the very last minute, and some see this as one of his greatest mistakes).

In the article, Obama admits that drawing the “red-line” was indeed a mistake, but defends his position when it comes to not using lethal force or bombs. As he stated, “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” This to me represents Obama’s long game strategy in the Middle East: intervene strategically and carefully when permitted (his use of Special Forces in Syria), but back off when the enemy could pull you in further. And I firmly believe if the United States had bombed Assad’s forces, Syria would be in much worse condition today.

In regards to ISIS, Obama’s strategy is similar to that of dealing with Assad. He is even quoted in the article saying, “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” and while the organization threatens elements of U.S. national security, it can be inferred from the article that Obama finds it not enough of a threat to order direct U.S. military action, which I ardently support. The U.S. has little room in terms of options when it comes to Syria: do we support the (non-existent) moderate rebels, depose of Assad, take out ISIS? Obama sees all of these as a trap, and he is keen to not step into one. It is still vital that the homeland is protected, and that our European, Middle Eastern, and Asian allies receive intelligence and assistance in removing Islamic State cells to prevent another attack. And while coalition airstrikes have played a crucial and effective role in slowly containing the Islamic State, Obama is aware of the old saying: how do you beat the best chess player in the world? Do not play.

However, there are games in which we should defintely step up to the plate.

Not to be swept under the rug

While Obama mentioned that he does see ISIS as a short-term threat to U.S. national security, he mentions other issues that have the possibility of posing a serious long-term risk. As described in the Atlantic article, Obama has consistently been challenged in having to “distinguish the merely urgent from the truly important, and to focus on the important.” This is not an easy task. His focus could suddenly be disrupted by “North Korean aggression, or an assault by Russia on a member of NATO, or an ISIS-planned attack on U.S. soil.” So while Obama chooses to place the security of Syria and Iraq as #1, I suppose he wishes he could attack other domestic and international problems. If I were an advisor to the president, I would encourage him to bump the following five issues to the top of his list (in no particular order):

Global climate change – the obvious one, the big one, and little to be said. Climate change is one of the hardest to tackle because it touches and disrupts almost every facet of society including politics, economy, and lifestyle. It is the ultimate test for a country (especially the growing Asian economies) where the short-term gain of economic growth can be so much more appealing than long-term environmental planning. As Obama has stated, “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.” One could argue since it does involve everyone, the chances are better for something to be done. Only time will tell. The issue to me boils down to short-term vs. long-term strategy.

Polarization of U.S. politics – a seemingly non-existent threat, but in reality has the potential to push fringe political-actors (like Trump) to the front and center of our government. In my first piece, I described how social-media and the rise of authoritarianism has contributed heavily to this phenomenon. Ideas that are otherwise seen as taboo – like the total blockade of Muslim refugees – would not be seriously considered by a voting bloc without the subsequent polarization of our politics.

Gun issues – politics aside, its imperative we look at this problem from a purely empirical standpoint to reveal the real issue. Why do we invest billions in domestic and foreign intelligence? To protect American lives, and the preservation of the sovereign. Why do we seemingly fear and react so heavily to the threat of terrorism? As obvious as it sounds, the unpredictability of it is what deep down scares us. We fear for our lives, and that is a completely natural and normal response. However, the fact that ten times the amount of people have been killed by firearms in the U.S. than people killed by ISIS globally this year, it should be apparent to everyone that there is empirically a more pressing matter at hand.

Better integration of Muslims, domestically and worldwide – I would argue that if one really wanted to contain and ultimately defeat terrorism, it would start with integration. Why are most of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq coming from France? Banlieues, which are dilapidated suburbs in France that house a high population of minorities (and Muslims) are just one example of the division and disenfranchisement many face when attempting to integrate into Western cities. Looking even broader, a very important point was brought up in my Islamic studies class, that Americans are generally unaware of the religion and it’s intricacies as a whole. This is not their fault, but more of a failure on the side of the U.S. education system, and what is chosen to be taught. Information about Islam should be directed towards students in theology classes early on. While many in the U.S. may possess an understanding of Christianity, and to a lesser extent Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Islamic studies seems to be missing in the U.S. education system. For a religion in which 1.6 billion follow, it is a serious failure.

Stepping up the “U.S. pivot” to Asia – Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and professor at the National University of Singapore, is noted for mentioning that “it took Britain and the United States fifty-eight years and forty-seven years, respectively, to double their per capita output, but Japan did it in thirty-three years, Indonesia in seventeen, South Korea in eleven, and China in ten.” For all the domestic issues listed above, I would argue that geopolitically this is where the U.S. should be placing its energy. While the Middle East is currently embroiled in strife and infighting, multiplied with religious violence and regional competition, Obama points out how its important to “contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.” And rather than the U.S. viewing rising China and the rest of the region as a threat, it would be of everyone’s benefit to join together under the mutual interest of economic growth and peace, which could have positive and everlasting effects on the world. Easier said than done, but attainable.

Focus

Where the U.S. government, the media, and American people ultimately choose to direct their energy will determine many of the political and economic outcomes of the 21st century. In the end it comes down to balancing between a short-term myopic strategy over long-term foresight, and I urge many of the world’s leaders to pursue the latter. In terms of the current presidential race, it would be beneficial to all of us if more pressing issues were discussed, and that is on both sides of the aisle. Terrorism is not to be taken lightly, lives are being taken all over the world in gruesome and barbaric ways. Intelligence sharing must be increased throughout the world to take down IS cells. Containment must be pursued. However, we should be cautious when dealing with the Islamic State, and not forget that other issues are knocking at our door everyday. The knocks may not be as loud, but what is behind the door is just as dangerous.