Perhaps the most elemental management tool for judging Executive behavior is a “cost-benefit” analysis. For over a decade now U.S. Executive Branch officials have spoken only of the claimed “benefits” of our current “counter-terrorism” strategy, i.e., the handful of “senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders” they have killed, many of whom were replaced by more effective and/or more ruthless successors. But U.S. leaders could not win in Indochina even after dropping 6.7 million tons of bombs and claimed kills of over one million PRG and North Vietnamese soldiers. By comparison, assassinating the 73 “top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders” identified by the right-wing Long War Journal is at most a military pin-prick. All told, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham has said that drone strikes have killed 4700 people—either low-level militants and/or the 25% or higher who are civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

But, even worse than exaggerating the benefits, they—and the media, Congress, and vast majority of U.S. public intellectuals—have simply ignored the “cost.” The minimal “benefit” to national security of assassination is miniscule compared to the cost of convincing hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world that the U.S. is their enemy. If the U.S. Executive was protecting national security, it would be reducing the numbers of U.S. enemies. Instead it is exponentially increasing them.

The significance of Mr. Brokaw’s comment was not lost on conservative commentators. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly was the most vociferous, declaring:

Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, apparently putting some of the motivation for the Boston bombings on his own country. How exactly would you fight the war against terrorism, Tom? Do you want to invade Pakistan, is that what you want to do? Or do you want to sit back and let terrorists hatch their plots and watch Americans die at home and on the battlefield? It’s either-or, Tom, either-or, one or the other.

It drives me crazy. This stuff really makes me angry. We have a cadre of Americans who for some reason don’t feel that the USA has a right to defend itself. Every decent person laments civilian casualties anywhere. But again in war they happen. So it’s time to knock off the nonsense. The war on terrorism is real. The dead and wounded in Boston are real. And this ridiculous left-wing moral equivalency is insulting.

Not only the conservative but U.S. Executive mentality is revealed beneath O’Reilly’s trademark tinpot demagoguery. Brokaw hardly argued the U.S. doesn’t have a right to defend itself, after all, and conservative favorite General McChrystal made the same point as Brokaw when he declared that “for every civilian you kill you created 10 new enemies”. But the mindset underlying the vicious attack is deeply revealing. It sees  only two choices: wage the current failed drone and ground assassination war, or sit back and let terrorists kill Americans: “It’s either-or, Tom, either-or, one or the other.”

In fact, of course, simply halting a program whose cost is exponentially increasing the numbers of people around the world who want to kill Americans in return for the minor military “benefit” of killing a handful of top terrorists would greatly enhance national security. Both a deeply irrational O’Reilly, who is being “driven crazy” by this “stuff”, and delusional CIA chief John Brennan, who consistently claims that civilians rarely if ever die in his drone attacks, are irrationally promoting policies which make it far more likely that Americans will die both at home and on the battlefield.

But it is the inability of either Executive officials or conservatives like O’Reilly to even imagine a third alternative to the current failed strategy or “doing nothing” that is most disturbing. There is in fact a persuasive set of answers to the question Mr. O’Reilly posed: “So how exactly would you fight the war against terrorism, Tom?”

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Meet the Press’s Tim Russert, another purveyor of the conventional wisdom, reported that the consensus among national security experts he consulted was that the U.S. should respond the way the Israelis had after Munich: using patient and persistent police work to bring the perpetrators to justice.

And in his new book, The Way of the Knife, Pulitzer Prize-winning  New York Times reporter Mark Mazetti explains how the CIA and Pakistan’s powerful ISI (Directorate For Interservices Intelligence) worked closely together in the 2001-2003 period to do exactly that, capturing bin Laden lieutenants Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. This, Mazetti reports, “led many top Bush officials to believe the partnership was working.” He reports that Brigadier-General Asad Munir “thinks about the respect the two spy services had for each other, respect that might have been something approaching trust.”

But, Mazetti also explains, things fell apart after that because of ham-handed U.S. attempts to try and force the Pakistanis to support the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And it was in this crucial period, after the U.S. had chased Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and destroyed their training camps, that U.S. leaders in fact had a number of options going far beyond the either-or choice O’Reilly poses.

The U.S. could have negotiated a settlement and pulled out of Afghanistan, perhaps reserving the right to go back in the unlikely event that Al Qaeda returned there. Or, had U.S. leaders chased the Taliban out of Afghanistan and not gone to war with Iraq, they could have at least tried to bring to power a non-corrupt and democratic government that enjoyed the support of its people, helped develop Afghanistan economically, and sought to create a genuine nation. Instead, they put into power the monumentally corrupt Karzai government, relied on hated warlords who had brought the Taliban to power in the first place, and turned U.S. policy to Iraq. This helped lead to a resumption of war in Afghanistan  and a U.S. attempt to force the Pakistanis to support the U.S. war there against what they believed was their national interest. This wrongheaded U.S. policy made continued CIA-ISI cooperation on capturing al-Qaeda leaders impossible.

The basic fact, as Secretary of State John Kerry stated at the time, is that “in many ways, the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to the main event, if you will, that is next door.” Unfathomable U.S. Executive Branch incompetence, exhibited by both the Bush and Obama Administrations, has seen them allow the Afghan tail to wag the Pakistani dog. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people, and is incomparably more important than Afghanistan, an impoverished nation of 35 million. The U.S. has no higher strategic priority in the Muslim world than helping stabilize—and being seen as an ally not enemy by—Pakistan. Ending drone strikes and pressure on Pakistanis to support U.S war-making in Afghanistan is a small price to pay for achieving this priority.

And let us imagine even another possibility. Suppose the U.S. had not invaded Iraq and used a fraction of the money it wasted there to help fulfill the Pakistani’s government’s top domestic goal of bringing electricity to every home in Pakistan—and otherwise acting like a  genuine ally rather than enemy.

In that case, the U.S. could have continued its early collaboration with the ISI and no doubt have apprehended Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders years earlier.

And, far more importantly, were the U.S. seen as an ally rather than enemy by a majority of Pakistanis, the Pakistani government would be in a position to work with it on safeguarding its nuclear facilities and slowing down nuclear proliferation.

All Americans need to ask themselves some basic questions:

  • Would we be more secure today if we worked with the Pakistanis rather than against them, both on the police-work of apprehending Al Qaeda operatives and helping to secure their nuclear stockpile and reduce the dangers of nuclear proliferation?
  • Would the U.S. be more secure today if it had either withdrawn from Afghanistan or, in the early years when the Taliban had been expelled, helped create a popular, non-corrupt government focused on developing its economy?
  • Would the U.S. be more secure today if it had not spent $4-6 trillion long-term fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather invested it at home on job-creating infrastructure, new industries and taking the lead in the Green Revolution which alone holds the promise of creating jobs and driving economic growth and reducing catastrophic climate change in coming decades?

To ask such questions, of course, is to answer them.

It is long past time for critics of U.S. foreign policy to criticize not only its morality but its cult-like claim to be protecting “national security”. For only when Americans understand the extent to which the U.S. Executive branch is endangering their lives will there be any hope of developing both a moral and rational U.S. foreign and military policy.