Why the “war on poverty” and the “war on terror” shouldn’t mix

I have written on many, many occasions that bad data and/or bad analysis usually leads to bad decision making.  Think about it.  If the basic facts are wrong or are misconstrued how can any policy based on those facts be of any value?  Garbage in, garbage out as they say.

This axiom was shown to be correct once again when it comes to the ill-fated “war on terror”. Not only is this a stupid way to see the problem of terrorism, and one that has led to disastrous results on some occasions (Iraq 2003 anyone?), but it also commits the cardinal sin of fighting a war against a common noun.  As Grenville Byford famously put it in his 2002 essay in Foreign Affairs:

  • Wars have typically been fought against proper nouns (Germany, say) for the good reason that proper nouns can surrender and promise not to do it again. Wars against common nouns (poverty, crime, drugs) have been less successful. Such opponents never give up. The war on terrorism, unfortunately, falls into the second category.

Note that Mr. Byford cites the “war on poverty” as another bad juxtaposition of tactic and enemy.  And, as it turns out, it gets worse.  The  wars on terror and poverty have been conflated as the same problem.   Not surprisingly, combining two wars against two common nouns does not turn out well: two times bad analysis still equals bad results.

According to William Easterly in an essay in the November 24 issue of the New York Review of Books, there became an “alliance” between the war on poverty and the war on terror after 9/11 that led to two negative consequences.  First, it “deepened negative stereotypes about the poor that contribute to the wave of xenophobia against refugees and immigrants in the US and Europe”.  Secondly, by thinking the two phenomena were related, it created a “justification for redirecting foreign aid to some of the world’s worst nations/governments (i.e. in the poorest countries)”.

Mr. Easterly cites several sources who stated that poverty was a principal cause for terrorism: former US President Bush, former UK Prime Minister Blair and current Secretary of State Kerry (as recently as 2014!).  Not only is there next to zero link between poverty and terrorism – trust me, this has been shown on a gazillion occasions – but by making us see terrorism through the prism of poverty it forces us to see refugees (assumed to be poor) as potential terrorists. This has added to the general fear of waves of migrants that have inundated Europe over the past 18 months.

Let me explain this again: the overwhelmingly vast majority of poor people are not terrorists and the majority of terrorists are not poor people.  If neither of the previous assumptions about the link between poverty and terrorism are true, then how can treating them as symptoms of the same thing be a good idea?

Mr. Easterly also points out that foreign aid was tied to counter terrorism efforts and that the notion of “failed states” was somehow thrown into the mix.  If limited aid dollars are distributed only to those areas where terrorism is a problem, states which may be in greater need of assistance but do not suffer from terrorism get left out.  Some of the states which did get funds because they had the magic combo of terrorism and poverty included such human rights pariahs as Uganda, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Ethiopia and Somalia.   Further violations of basic rights were tolerated all under the umbrella of the “war on terror”.

Where we choose to help the world’s poorest should be completely independent of where terrorism is most present.  Where we choose to fight terrorism should be completely independent of other factors.  These two go together as well as oil and water.  You would have thought we had learned that by now.

All this also underscores the pointlessness of hypothesising “causes” of terrorism.  No serious scholar is asking that question anymore since they have realised it is unanswerable.  And it serves to remind us that we have to stop fighting common nouns that refuse to acknowledge that they are at war with us, let along be in a position to wave the white flag.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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