1.) The most spectacular terrorist attack ever carried out -September 11th – was put together on the cheap. Why can’t a group that supposedly poses an existential threat to the United States simultaneously plan suicide bombings in Baghdad and carry out another hijacking?
2.) The 9/11 hijackers were thoroughly Westernized; your average insurgent probably isn’t. In other words, the people you need to recruit to infiltrate Western countries aren’t drawn from the same pool as the under-educated, radicalized Muslim youth planting IEDs in Iraq.
3.) On a broader level, I think that indiscriminately “taking the fight to the enemy” is a morally questionable approach to international terrorism. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at around 100,000 casualties, which is roughly thirty times the human cost of September 11th. Our military’s direct culpability for many of these deaths is tenuous, but I’m not willing to accept massive foreign body counts as a necessary trade-off for domestic security.
UPDATE: Sonny Bunch has another response up:
That being said, I think that Will is probably underestimating the importance of “not giving [terrorists] room to breathe, time to plan, or a place to hide.” 9/11 was driven by al Qaeda’s leadership; they provided funding, a timeframe, and the plan, as the 9/11 Commission Report points out. It’s easy to say “Well, how difficult is it really to plan such a simple operation while simultaneously plotting battlefield activities on innumerable fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, trying to figure out how to circumvent the funding restrictions imposed upon us, and running for our lives every time we see a Predator drone buzzing overhead?” But I think it’s harder than Will makes out; without a safe haven in Afghanistan, I don’t think 9/11 could have happened.
Though I tend to think that international terrorism is increasingly detached from a discrete geographic base of operations, I don’t think we’ve reached a point where you can plan any attack from a hotel room with an Internet connection, so there’s definitely some truth to this. Basically, invading Afghanistan to kill or capture terrorists who were actually linked to September 11th was a good idea that had all sorts of salutary side-effects, including its disruptive impact on Al Qaeda’s operational planning. That said, I don’t think this experience should be generalized as part of a broader doctrine of invading Muslim countries to “draw out” potential terrorists.
To take this back to my original point, I’d add that despite a difficult campaign in Afghanistan, an Iraqi occupation that is widely credited with radicalizing large segments of the Middle East, a marginally competent Homeland Security establishment, and Al Qaeda’s impressive collection of Afghanistan’s freakiest home videos, we still haven’t suffered an attack on American soil since September 11th. If you think this is because of the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, or the penumbra of policies emanating from the Bush Administration that I find frankly awful, I think you need to establish some sort of causal link between said approach and terror attacks that were actually averted (which is why a serious public discussion of these issues would be very welcome). Otherwise, I tend to follow Occam’s Razor and assume that Al Qaeda is simply less dangerous than we gave them credit for.
UPDATE II: Incidentally, Julian Sanchez has a very good post on how a successful counter-terrorism operation was mis-attributed to to Bush-era policies.