May 7, 2012 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

First the Flash, Then the Bang

America was under siege. We had become the most frequently targeted country in the world.

Islamist terrorists struck New York City. Iranian-backed terrorists zeroed in on U.S. service members. At home and abroad, terror attacks against American targets stood at an all-time high.

The year was 1989. According to database compiled by the RAND Corp., there were almost 150 attacks against U.S. targets. "Peak" terrorism occurred between the years 1987 and 1991, with a total of almost 650 attacks. The terror campaign against America expanded even as the Soviet Union, previously the principal sponsor of transnational terrorism against the United States, collapsed.

There is nothing wrong with RAND's numbers. What they illustrate is how the consequences of changes in foreign policy unfold. There is often a delayed reaction -- a flash-to-bang time -- between decisive turns in world events and the resultant consequences "on the ground."

The Soviets spent years stoking the fires of insurgent groups and encouraging them to aim their wrath at America. After the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Moscow believed America was on the path of inevitable decline. It believed a global insurgency would help escort the U.S. over the cliff. As a result, even as Ronald Reagan was working in the Oval Office and rebuilding American power with his commitment to "peace through strength," the U.S. was buffeted by the rising headwind of terrorist attacks.

Then, when the Soviet Empire collapsed, the Kremlin's support for worldwide terrorism evaporated. By 1992, the global insurgency engine ran out of gas, and the number of attacks against U.S. targets plummeted. In short, Reagan made the world safe for George Bush and Bill Clinton.

In the 1990s, the U.S. stopped worrying about global terrorism for the most part. The number of attacks against the U.S. hit an all-time low in 2000 (the fewest attacks since 1969 -- the first year in the RAND database). But this comforting trend masked a serious threat. In 1996, Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan, where he began to organize the next global insurgency aimed at the United States.

Bin Laden's terror campaign peaked in 2004 and then dropped precipitously, as post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts by America and our allies began to produce results. Al Qaeda then turned to another battlefield -- Iraq -- where al Qaeda violence spiraled until 2007. It then subsided after the surge in U.S. troops.

By 2009, the number of terror attacks was even lower than in 2000. President Obama was clearly the beneficiary of the post-9/11 campaign to crush bin Laden's dream of a global Islamist campaign against the U.S.

The world we see in the next decade -- the challenges we face after 2012 -- will largely be a consequence of what President Obama has done over the last few years. This will not be true just for terrorism trends, but also from what threats we receive from belligerents and competitors such as Iran, North Korea, China and Russia. Also shaping the future will be the consequences arising from the Arab Spring, the fallout from the global recession, the threat of transnational crime, the rise of cyberthreats and the tide of anti-Americanism in South America.

The administration says the trend lines are good. Terrorist attacks are down. Troop commitments are down. Defense spending is going down. The size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is going down. Iran still doesn't have the bomb. North Korea still can't launch a long-range missile. There has been no crisis with Russia or China or Venezuela.

Things can only get better. And a few years ago, they told us housing prices can only go up.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

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First Appeared in The Washington Examiner