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February 25th 2009 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

Top global threat – terror or economics?

The Obama administration is desperate to distance itself as quickly as possible from the war on terror associated with the previous presidency. Unfortunately, its desire to downplay the terrorist threat is leading it down a strategic blind alley.

The Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community delivered by the new Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis C. Blair to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 12 gives expression to the Obama administration’s desire to down-play the threat posed by international Islamist terrorism, in favour of emphasizing very general concerns about the political and security implications of the global economic crisis.

Unfortunately, this desire to shift the focus obscures the crucial link that exists between terrorism and such crises.

While Blair’s testimony did identify a wide range of ongoing and substantial terrorist threats, he declared that “the primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications”, which “looms as the most serious global economic and financial crisis in decades”.

He observed that “the recession could further deepen and reach the level of the Great Depression”, threatening “the dramatic political consequences wrought by the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s”.

He pointed out that a third of all countries lack “sufficient financial or other means to limit the impact” of the crisis, and “much of Latin America, former Soviet Union states and sub-Saharan Africa lack sufficient cash reserves, access to international aid or credit, or other coping mechanism”. Moreover, “roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability”, and “Europe and the former Soviet Union have experienced [significant] anti-state demonstrations”.

All this is true. However, the problem with Blair’s testimony is that it fails to recognize that such a prolonged economic crisis will significantly increase the likelihood of large-scale terrorist activity, which is simply not going to disappear just because a new threat has moved up the agenda.

This will be particularly the case as vast numbers of unemployed young people become increasingly resentful and alienated as societies around the globe are economically devastated. They will form a rich breeding ground for existing and new extremist organizations, which will seek to capitalize on the crisis and direct the rage of these economically disenfranchised masses against the US and other Western countries, which can easily be portrayed as the source of the crisis and legitimate targets for terrorist actions. 

The Obama administration is desperate to distance itself as quickly as possible from the war on terror associated with the previous presidency. Unfortunately, its desire to downplay the terrorist threat is leading it down a strategic blind alley, from which it will have to retreat as it become clearer that the two global crises – economic and terrorist – will increasingly become entwined and feed off each other to further aggravate global instability.

The question that arises is whether Obama and his advisors have sufficient ideological room to maneuver in face of such a threat, or whether the antipathy to the war on terror that they share with the resurgent left of the Democratic Party will anchor them to a policy outlook that renders America strategically crippled as it confronts its greatest challenge for decades.  

Mervyn F. Bendle  is a senior lecturer in History & Communications at James Cook University