As Matt indicates, the threats are real and potentially catastrophic should AQ or its affiliates get a hold of weapons of mass destruction. The issue for me is less the high priority being placed on countering the threat than the manner in which we are countering it:
I do not think we are concentrating too much on terrorism, it legitimately belongs at the very top of the list of national security threats we face today. True, the nature of the transnational threats facing the world today is far different than the ones the U.S. and its allies faced on 9/11. But al-Qaeda itself remains a formidable opponent, with a resurgent core in Northwest Pakistan and affiliates and homegrown cells pose a growing threat as well.
Is there a chance that we are concentrating too much on terrorism? If so, how have some of the policy trade-offs manifested themselves? Should the next president de-emphasize terrorism relative to other national security priorities?
Thanks, Matt, for following this thread. On the definition issue, at risk of stating the obvious, the distinction between "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" is given weight it doesn't deserve because of the inherently political nature of any discussion of who is and who isn't a terrorist. The fact that the US only recently took Nelson Mandela off of its terrorist list is a reminder of this.
Eric raises excellent points. I'll just add that on top of the question of whether the existing treaties do in fact cover the full waterfront on possible terrorist offenses, the lack of a common definition of terrorism has several other implications. Among them: First, much of the debate over terrorism still focuses on the groups themselves and their underlying grievances or political objectives, not the actual acts of terrorism - the criminal terrorist offenses - they carry out. As such, the "terrorism v resistance" argument is given weight it does not deserve since the legal issue at hand is not why one carries out a criminal act of terrorism like a suicide bombing but the fact that such an act was carried out at all.
Since one of the questions in the prompt asked whether "our laws - or international law" [emphasis added] are capable of addressing the threat, I thought I would weigh in the international law side of the question.
Apologies to all for the late dive in, but I'd like to pick it up from this deceptively simple and much underestimated fact pointed out by Alistair Millar: "No matter how much the US spends militarily or otherwise, America cannot be everywhere at once". Thus, one priority for the new president, as far as I can see from the other side, will be to acknowledge the major mistakes of the Bush admin's approach to the "war on terror", starting perhaps with this very title. Two major issues will have to be examined without delay: First, how to retrieve some of the moral high-ground that America has lost miserably and UNNECESSARILY, and second, how to devise a smarter strategy through which we can (seriously this time) isolate terrorists from the rest of a given society and contain wannabees.
Has the responsibility for counter-terrorism fallen mainly under the purview of the military? It has been argued that this perception has been created in part because key positions are held by current and former military officials fill many counterterrorism-related positions in the US Government, for example, Gen. Michael V. Hayden (CIA); retired Navy Vice Adm. J. Michael McConnell (director of national intelligence) and Dell L. Dailey, an Army lieutenant general (State Department CT Coordinator). The official use of the term "Global War on Terrorism" also tends to overemphasize the military's role.