Six Lines

Perfect Security Doesn't Exist

Posted by Aaron Massey on 07 Dec 2016.

President Obama has begun defending his legacy on national security issues. Last night, as mentioned in this New York Times article, he said the following:

“No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland,” Mr. Obama said to loud applause in a large military hangar here. “And it’s not because they didn’t try. Plots have been disrupted. Terrorists have been taken off the battlefield. And we’ve done this even as we’ve drawn down nearly 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I am, of course, thrilled that we have not had a successful foreign terrorist attack on our homeland. This is something I hope we never experience again.

But President Obama’s embeds a dangerous assumption. He’s claiming credit for something that ultimately may not have been a result of his efforts. Yes, we have disrupted foreign terrorist plots during his tenure as President, but this does not mean that his approach to national security was the best approach to take. Nor does it mean that another approach would have been less successful. Presuming that no successful terrorist attacks is a validation of his policy choices is a logical fallacy.

Presidents often get more credit and take more blame than they deserve for events completely out of their control. The economy is a regularly cited example of this. So why should I care more about President Obama’s statements regarding national security? Because they lead to dangerous reasoning.

Security is a risk-based proposition. We do not have perfect knowledge of the world around us, which means we must make tradeoffs in our decision making. How much money should we spend on national security at the cost of other potential goods, like healthcare or education? We must be willing to draw the line somewhere. At some point, we have to settle for “enough” security because we simply cannot achieve perfect security. There is an essential element of chance involved.

Claims that our policies directly or inevitably led to success in this arena are misleading. We may have just gotten lucky. True, there have been attempts, but how many of them were well-planned, well-funded, or well-executed? We could be ignoring the externalities of our policies. Incidents of domestic terrorism have happened during President Obama’s terms. How many of these were inspired in part or in full by his policies? Police violence has become a major national issue. Have our police become too militarized through the support of anti-terrorism programs?

Drawing direct, perfectly causal connections from policies to results, or vice versa, is dangerous. You can have the “best” policy and still end up with a security incident. You can have a perfect security record and still have a horrible policy with undesirable side effects. Much as I am pleased that we have not had a successful foreign terrorist attack, I am worried that we seem to think we fully understand why we haven’t had such an attack.