Terrorism is the wrong focus

BUCHAREST, Romania, June 6 (UPI) -- Last month, the Moscow International Security Conference expressly concentrated on fighting global terrorism. And Bucharest's Middle East Political and Economic Institute and the EURISC Foundation held a conference last week examining terrorism and critical infrastructure. Many conferences have and will aim at exploring "terror and terrorism and the consequences for fill in the blank."

Aside from a common theme, this conference had two other quite unique aspects noted below and not necessarily raised in other fora. But about terrorism, a strong caution is vital. The issue is not terror or terrorism per se. Terror and terrorism are not existential threats to the West or to most countries.

Existential are the conflicts raging in much of the world from Afghanistan to Libya with Iraq, Syria and Yemen in between. Hundreds of thousands are dying and many millions displaced. A bit of history makes this point about placing excessive focus on terror and terrorism that are tools and symptoms not causes of the real dangers.

In 1905, an attempted revolution failed to overthrow Czar Nicholas II. The Communist Party was outlawed and its members branded terrorists to be mercilessly hunted by the czar's secret police, precursors to the feared Cheka, MVD and later KGB. After Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia aboard the sealed train in 1917, the revolution succeeded and the Bolsheviks finally seized power.

But it was not terror that was existential: It was the Communist Party and its leadership that became the threats to Russians under the Soviet Union. In a similar parallel, this conference underscored the ideological differences between al-Qaida that sought to spread its roots globally and the Islamic State that instead declared that a localized caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Recall Lenin's demand for revolution in one country while Trotsky pleaded for a "permanent revolution" elsewhere.

A corollary trap is exaggerating the vulnerability of society to terrorist action. The usual suspects for this vulnerability include nuclear reactors; electrical power grids; airplanes and transportation networks; and the banking systems. Terrorists would clearly hack into infrastructure as the United States did with Stuxnet to cripple Iran's centrifuges, creating widespread disruption and havoc.

But it was a tsunami that crippled Japans Dai-ichi reactors and Hurricane Sandy that disabled much of New York's infrastructure, not terrorists. And the financial weapons of mass destruction that created the crises of 2008 were credit default swaps and excessive debt, not a terrorist or criminal hacker slashing away on a keyboard. Perspective is needed.

Two other insights from the Bucharest conference concerned Iran. The conference was sponsored in part by the Iranian Embassy in Romania. And many of the participants included senior Iranians from a deputy foreign minister to the ambassador in Bucharest. The opportunity for civil and useful dialogue was real and important. One certain conclusion was to expand this dialogue to official government channels either discreetly or even publicly.

One of the briefings on safeguarding infrastructure from terrorists included reference to the Tehran Disaster Management, Control and Planning Center. Initiated a decade ago with support from Japan, Iran has created a world-class capacity for dealing with disaster both manmade and natural. Moreover this capacity has expanded throughout the country. Space precludes greater discussion and a glance at the website is quite instructive.

Several overarching conclusions were evident. In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, protecting the inherent vulnerability and fragility of infrastructure is increasingly a commonly shared interest. Humanitarian needs are apparent. And disruption in one area, such as to financial or energy distribution networks, clearly has far-reaching consequences elsewhere.

Second, a sounder intellectual framework for addressing the causes and not the symptoms of the challenges and potential dangers facing mankind is essential and must be created. In that context, as Lenin bluntly explained, "the purpose of terror is to terrorize." It is the political motives and plans of those who wield terror that must be the object of policy analysis and not more focus on the tools. George W. Bush fell into this morass by declaring "a global war on terror." And too many other governments and institutions have likewise blundered into this swamp.

Finally, Winston Churchill argued for "Jaw, jaw not war, war." No matter how politically incorrect or difficult, dialogue between and among competing and even adversarial states is vital if conflict is to be minimized or avoided. But will we ever learn? That, not terror, may be our major vulnerability.