Return of the Flypaper Theory

To an amazing extent, the current mini-debate over what we are doing in Iraq and Syria has revived one of the more disreputable ideas behind the Iraq War: the “flypaper theory,” whereby the United States is “pinning down” terrorists overseas so they do not have the leisure to come into the United States (or Europe) to blow up things. It is very explicitly what Lindsey Graham has been talking about in his hysterical way:

“If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you guys want to call it, they are coming here,” Mr. Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. And if we do get attacked, then he will have committed a blunder for the ages.”

The “flypaper theory” is also the underlying illusion behind all the weird alarums about ISIS terrorists infliltrating the border and otherwise plotting to blow up things here.

What strikes me most about this kind of talk is how it betrays the belief that the massive homeland security edifice erected in this country after 9/11 is completely useless. If the only way to expunge terror threats is to kill terrorists in their own homelands, then why are some of the same people freaking out about IS also so determined to authorize torture and unconstitutional surveillance to detect terror plots? Why does it matter? Shouldn’t we just be creating more and more flypapers overseas (as, indeed, people like Graham and John McCain and Dick Cheney seem to support in any event)?

I’m reasonably sure the FBI and DHS detect and thwart all sorts of terror threats–most feckless but some dangerous–every other day. It’s why we spend tens of billions of dollars on these efforts. You can argue that’s not enough or far too much, and differ over what we are doing to our Constitution and liberties in the name of homeland security. But unless it’s all just a waste of time, the idea that we have to have a war every time terrorists make videos threatening to attack us is just bizarre.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.