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After Brussels, time for West to change tack on terror

The tragic terrorist bombings in Brussels on Tuesday serve as a reminder that while many in the West would prefer to focus on domestic affairs, their enemies will not grant them that luxury and are determined to bring the fight to them.

     The metastasizing terrorist threat in Europe and the continuing crisis in the Middle East suggest that the trans-Atlantic allies have got the balance wrong. America's hands-off approach to the war in Syria has helped enable Islamic State terrorism to strike the heart of Europe. It has also unwittingly added momentum to a human wave of refugees that threatens to overwhelm America's most important ally in world affairs.

     It is time for a new, forward approach that leverages the considerable strengths of the West while shrinking the space for terrorists to operate and for populists to whip up public hysteria.

     First, counterterrorism must start at the source. What some see as former U.S. President George W. Bush's overreach in the Middle East has led to President Barack Obama's underreach -- including the total withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and a fatalistic, do-nothing policy on Syria, against the advice not only of Republican leaders but of Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

     This approach has allowed jihadists to build a vast sanctuary in Iraq and Syria from which to launch attacks on the West. In turn, the battlefield momentum and propaganda of IS has helped radicalize a generation of Arab immigrants in Europe, seeding home-grown terror. The first step in efforts to reverse it should be to demonstrably defeat IS on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields through military force. Western leaders could learn something from President Vladimir Putin's decisive military intervention in support of Russian interests in Syria.

     In response to the Syrian conflict, which has produced a world with more refugees than at any time since 1945, Europeans have been focused on absorbing migrant flows from the Middle East. The generosity of Germans and Swedes in particular in welcoming huge numbers of refugees has been inspiring. But in dealing with the demand side of the equation through refugee resettlement, Europe has neglected the supply side: the bloodshed in the Middle East generated by Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad's war against his own people, which helped spawn and empower IS.

Ending Assad's regime

Both European and American governments have been relatively passive in tackling the problem at its source. Doing so would require creating diplomatic leverage through the credible threat and use of military force to end Syria's civil war and bring about a transition away from the Assad regime. Until then, desperate refugees will keep coming, even if the recent deal between the European Union and Turkey means that not all of them will make it to Europe.

     Second, although Eurocrats cooperate systematically to integrate European markets and regulatory regimes, the Brussels bombings highlight limits to such cooperation among European security services, leaving big gaps in intelligence that allow bad actors to operate with impunity. French officials have lamented weak cooperation with Belgian counterparts since the November 2015 attacks in Paris, including the capture on March 18 in Brussels of one of the alleged perpetrators. European unity often seems to stop at national borders when it comes to intelligence-sharing and counterterror operations. The U.S. cooperates more closely with European capitals on the terror threat than do many European governments with each other. This must change.

     Third, both European and U.S. government and corporate leaders must pursue a more balanced approach to privacy -- a point that Asia and other parts of the world should note closely.  EU officials oversee very strict online privacy standards that penalize U.S. companies like Google, while at the same time they evidently do not pursue terrorists employing digital technologies with the same gusto. Until very recently, European airlines were not allowed to fully share passenger information with American officials on privacy grounds, creating an obvious loophole for terrorists to exploit. European nations have built comprehensive and generous social safety nets. But they cannot keep their people safe as long as they do not give equal weight to deploying security safeguards against enemies at home and abroad.

     This is not simply a European problem. In the U.S., Apple refuses to share with the government the codes that would unlock the iPhones of the terrorists who attacked San Bernardino, California, last December. Voters on both sides of the Atlantic are unlikely to support such strict approaches to privacy when there is blood in the streets. Moreover, modern consumers appear unbothered about sharing vast amounts of personal information with the corporations that run their Internet search engines, social media accounts and mobile phone platforms. Why should we assume they will not trust their own governments when public safety is on the line?

Stronger together

Fourth, failure to tackle the internal security threat to Europe risks undermining regional unity and could even lead to a fracturing of the EU. Already, border controls to stem migrant flows threaten the free movement of people -- a principle that is enshrined in European law. Alarmingly, British voters look at the EU's fumbling of security, migration and integration issues and increasingly support "Brexit," or the U.K.'s departure from the EU -- the subject of a national referendum in Britain in June.

     Yet leaving the EU would make it harder, not easier, for London to cooperate with continental allies on security. Britain already controls its own borders and is not part of the Schengen zone in which citizens and visitors can move freely across most EU countries. The idea that the U.K. will enjoy greater security by decoupling from the continent has been proven wrong by everyone from Louis XIV to Hitler.

     Fifth, hapless governments on both sides of the Atlantic only embolden rising political forces on the fringes that call for radical solutions. When establishment politicians in the West give the impression of business as usual, they empower populists like Donald Trump in America and Marine Le Pen in France, who lambaste them for not protecting their publics. "This is just the beginning," Trump told Fox News after the Brussels bombings, warning that the terrorists would target America next.

     Populists on the right vow to do a better job, including through counterproductive measures like banning Muslim immigration or torturing terrorist suspects, which would only further radicalize domestic constituencies that are their country's first defense against extremism. Meanwhile, populists on the left like Bernard Sanders in America and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain are calling for protectionist trade barriers. This would undermine the dynamic prosperity that has proven a powerful spur to integration and antidote to home-grown radicalization.

     The U.S and Europe together need to reorient around these dangers. More is at stake than just the future of the West: Asian nations with substantial Muslim populations, including India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, are themselves grappling with terrorist violence. Sunni Arab allies that want to defeat Assad and the jihadists are desperate for American leadership and willing to support it. A forward policy in the Middle East could change the equation that is producing both refugee flows and domestic radicalization in Europe.

     Internationalists on both sides of the Atlantic must remind voting publics that it is their open societies that terrorists seek to damage. It is imperative to defend and protect them all the more vigorously rather than pursuing policies of intolerance, autarky or fecklessness that could fatally weaken them.

Daniel Twining is a director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which has a large office in Brussels.

 

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