The foiled terrorist attack on Christmas Day served as a timely reminder that the U.S. remains vulnerable to plots from Al-Qaeda. As more details emerge about the security lapses that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board his flight to Amsterdam and later to Detroit, President Barack Obama has come under intense criticism from opportunist Republicans over his handling of the so-called War on Terror. Yet instead of dodging the role as a partisan punching bag, Obama appears willing to engage in domestic squabbling, at great cost to his foreign agenda.

Obama’s announcement on January 4 that the U.S. was to introduce tougher airport screening for “security risk” countries underlined the air of desperation and ineptitude that has gripped the White House since December 25. The countries included on the list were Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. While some of the countries are merely the usual suspects, the inclusion of Cuba seems anomalous. Its appearance is explained by its unfortunate presence on another U.S.-produced list: state sponsors of terrorism. Nevertheless, many experts believe its inclusion is anachronistic, given that there is no current evidence to support the theory that Cuba sponsors terrorists, especially not those linked to Al-Qaeda. Many Cubans hoped that Obama’s election would help restore diplomatic relations between the two nations, and indeed the Obama administration has made tentative steps to this effect. The guileless inclusion of Cuba on a “security risk” list needlessly hinders potential rapprochement.

Cuba aside, the White House’s naming and shaming of “dangerous” countries ominously echoes the Bush administration’s infamous Axis of Evil concoction. The U.S. government’s obsession with “naughty and nice” lists means that the olive branch held out to Arab nations by Obama in his Cairo speech is quickly withering. Worse still, it is unlikely that the new security measures will help to prevent future attacks. The body pat-down searches and carry-on baggage checks which are now mandatory for those traveling from and through countries on the “security risk” list are already standard at many international airports and would not have stopped Farouk from boarding his flight, given that he concealed his bombing device in his underwear – an area not typically searched by airport security. In addition, creating a list of “dangerous” countries is not a panacea for future terrorist aircraft plots. The attacks of 9/11 were launched from domestic flights traveling within the U.S., and Umar Farouk began his journey in Ghana, a country praised by Obama when he visited it in July. 

President Obama’s knee-jerk reaction to the botched terrorist attack may assuage citizens’ concerns over security in the short term, but the long-term repercussions for Obama’s international agenda could prove to be dire. Instead of speaking honestly to his country about the threat Americans face, Obama has opted for a shallow, populist response. By arbitrarily discriminating against certain (mostly Muslim) countries in exchange for a superficial security improvement, the president may inadvertently push ostracized citizens into the arms of extremists—precisely the opposite of what he intends to do.    

Michael Collins, January 2010