The United States national security system is the best funded, best equipped, and most powerful the world has ever seen. In the years since the September 11 attacks, if a terrorist group anywhere in the world posed a potential threat to Americans, eradicating that threat became an immediate national priority. And yet, here we are today, contemplating the likelihood of more than 100,000 American lives lost to COVID-19. This disconnect has revealed that our national security priorities have been completely wrong. It is past time to rethink what national security should mean.
After the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the country embarked on an unprecedented global mission to eradicate international terrorist threats to the U.S. and U.S. allies. Countering terrorism had long been part of the overall U.S. national security picture, but it was not the central mission. That changed shortly after September 11. The first step was the decision to launch a war to eradicate terrorist safe havens used by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was believed to be living, and from where he planned the attacks.
The law passed by Congress on Sept. 18, 2001 authorized the president
to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
What followed was a radical reorientation of the U.S. national security apparatus and American foreign policy around countering the threat of terrorism. Once the terrorist camps in Afghanistan were destroyed, the Taliban government defeated, and a U.S.-supported government installed, the mission was far from over. The 2001 law became the framework for a global counterterrorism campaign that has now lasted almost two decades and extends today, according to one recent study, to 39 percent of the world’s countries.
This counterterrorism program did not come cheap. A 2018 study by the Stimson Center put the cost at $2.8 trillion during fiscal years 2002 through 2017. Spending on counterterrorism made up nearly 15 percent of the $18 trillion in federal discretionary spending during that period.
But how many American lives were really saved by this program? Terrorism does pose a real threat to life, of course, and those threats can be devastating. But in most years, there have been comparatively few terrorism deaths worldwide. (It’s true that the U.S. counterterrorism effort may have suppressed attacks against Americans and U.S. allies, but the trendline does not show a big dip in terrorism deaths post-2001. If anything, they have increased as a share of total deaths.) The 9/11 attacks, which killed 3,000, was the world’s most fatal terrorist event of recent times. But overall, terrorism deaths are relatively rare—not just in the U.S. but around the world. They are most common in Iraq, where 4.3 percent of all deaths were due to terrorism in 2017, followed by Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, where over 1 percent of deaths were due to terrorism. Globally, however, they account for just 0.01 percent of deaths.
As devastating as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were, the death toll of COVID-19 is already higher in New York state alone, where more than 4,000 had reportedly died as of April 5. The overall U.S. death toll from coronavirus is now close to 10,000. Estimates suggest that the final death toll could be well over 100,000. Indeed, President Donald Trump recently suggested that 100,000 American deaths would mean “we all together have done a very good job.”
If one believes, as I do, that the fundamental goal of a national security program should be to protect American lives, then we clearly have our priorities out of place. Just as the 9/11 attacks led to a reorientation of national security policy around a counterterrorism mission, the COVID-19 crisis can and should lead to a reorientation of national security policy. There should be a Commission styled on the 9/11 Commission to assess the failures of the U.S. government, both federal and local, to respond to the pandemic and to chart a better course forward. Until then, a few key steps that we should take are already clear:
First, we should spend less time and resources on counterterrorism efforts abroad. The “endless wars” that began after 9/11 should finally come to a close. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and associated terrorist groups, are primarily focused on local and regional aims in countries where bad governance and systemic conflict enable them to thrive. We should reassess which of our programs are actually making Americans safer or are essential to other important foreign policy goals. The argument that we should spend less on counterterrorism is far from new. “End the endless wars” has now become something of a Democratic rallying cry. Political Scientist John Mueller made the argument that the odds of an American being killed by international terrorism are microscopic in his 2009 book, Overblown; anti-war advocates have long argued that the U.S. counterterrorism program is counterproductive; and many have argued that the programs are not only ineffective but have led to loss of innocent civilian lives. The COVID-19 crisis lends these arguments even greater force.
Second, that money should be redirected in part to global health programs and rejuvenating international institutions capable of responding to global threats like COVID-19. One clear lesson of this crisis is that when it comes to a pandemic, no nation can protect itself on its own. International cooperation is essential. The World Health Organization has played an important role in battling the virus. But it has been hobbled by limited funding, and it’s busy fundraising to support its work even as it’s trying to undertake ambitious programs. The United Nations Security Council, meanwhile, has been mostly absent from the conversation. The pandemic is global and it requires a global approach. But these international institutions have not had the funding or the international support to play the role they should have in coordinating a quick global response to the spread of the virus. When this crisis is over, it will be essential to evaluate how to coordinate a faster, more effective global response when the next pandemic arises.
Third, we should recognize that U.S. national security is put at risk by our inadequate health care system. As Jacob Hacker and I wrote last month, it’s now clear that universal health care is a national security issue. Americans are at risk of dying at higher numbers in this pandemic than in any war since the Civil War. Some Americans may have delayed seeking care in the early days of the pandemic by worries that they could not afford health care. And now that millions have lost their jobs in the midst of the pandemic, our employment-based health care system seems more obviously unjust and dangerous.
Last, we should broaden the lens of national security to think about all serious global threats to human life. Terrorism should be a part of the conversation, but it should be considered next to other, more pressing threats to American lives, including pandemics, other public health threats, and climate change. The assessment of threats should be based on scientific assessments of real global threats that require serious global solutions. That’s what “national security” must mean in the post-COVID-19 world.