Uncertainties in the Fight Against Terrorism

The attacks on Paris have caused a wave of slacktivism and ill-considered opinions on social media. The former I will address briefly with this quote from comedian Anthony Jeselnik:

This is who I’m making fun of when I make a joke on Twitter the day of a tragedy. The people who see something horrible happen in the world, and they run to the Internet. And they run to their social media, their Facebook, their Twitter, whatever they got. And they all write down the exact same thing: “My thoughts and prayers…”

Do you know what that’s worth? F*cking nothing. F*cking less than nothing. You are not giving any of your time, your money, or even your compassion. All you are doing…is saying, “Don’t forget about me today.”

Jeselnik’s words echo though my brain every time I see a Facebook profile picture with the French flag filter draped over it, or a tweet mentioning how terrible the attacks were. (You think terrorism and death are bad??! Whoa!) But the latter will be my focus in this post.

I do not purport to be an expert, or even a high-quality amateur foreign policy analyst. However, I majored in political science and took a heavily FP-focused track while at Richmond. Since graduating I’ve done a good bit of reading on both current conflicts and their historical comparisons and underpinnings. Most of my friends are smarter than me, but on this topic I’m probably better informed than them. And yet I find myself having far weaker opinions than the social media masses. Why? Because the more I learn, the less clear the answers become.

Foreign policy is an inherently tricky endeavor. It’s a lot of art, part science, and a lot of guesswork. That doesn’t make it not worth studying, but it does require one to constantly keep in mind the limitations of its analysis.

Such analysis typically focuses on three levels of actors: policymaking individuals, national governments, and supranational institutions (e.g. the United Nations, NATO, etc.). In any given conflict, your ultimate goal is to determine how the interplay of these three levels will affect events on the ground.

Even if the motivations, thoughts, and information available to each of the three levels were known, this would be a daunting task. But much of this information-or even reasonable assumptions about it-is often unclear. The number of both “known unknowns” (stuff you know is a variable) and “unknown unknowns” (stuff you feel safe in assuming, but probably shouldn’t) is huge. And from there, you’re supposed to predict plausible scenarios for future events and military and diplomatic solutions? Good luck.

Even the best, most measured foreign policy minds sometimes struggle to keep proper perspective in place. For the social media/political dialogue participant, it is tougher yet. Facebook posts espousing caution and open-mindedness won’t get a lot of “likes”. So I hardly blame folks who have come out swinging on either side of this debate. But I would ask anyone who has a strong opinion for how to fight, or not fight, ISIS the following questions.

(Note: there are inherent contradictions in these questions, which is part of my point.)


Questions for “hawks”

-Do you really think ISIS or al Qaeda represent a grave threat to America? By this I mean a threat capable of any of the following: significantly degrading our military, seriously weakening our actual (rather than perceived) geopolitical standing in the world, seriously weakening our economy (keeping in mind that our aggregate GDP is over 17 trillion dollars), seriously harming a significant portion of our population (over 322 million people), etc.

-You often claim that we should bomb ISIS into oblivion. Can you point to a single historical example of a US air war with no large ground presence that achieved its objectives against a formiddable foe? If not, why is ISIS more vulnerable to an air-only approach?

-Every major American engagement after World War II was initially sold to the public as a limited engagement: Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf wars, and Afghanistan. What has changed, structurally, to make you think that politicians will stick to their word this time and not escalate the war with a major ground presence?

-If you are OK with a major ground presence in this war, are you personally willing to fight? If not, are you willing to go on record as saying that other Americans-the overtaxed volunteer military-should fight and die in your stead and at your behest?

-Once/if ISIS and al Qaeda are completely obliterated, who will take their place? Are you reasonably confident that these new groups would pose less of a threat to American interests?

-Currently the US spends 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, a higher percentage than almost any European nation (France spends 2.2, the UK 2.1, Germany 1.2). In absolute terms (since US GDP is far larger) the numbers are even less even. Why should the US spend more money on a relative and absolute basis than our allies who are far closer, geographically, to terror threats?

-Many hawks also believe that the US government can’t be trusted to efficiently run the country’s domestic healthcare and welfare programs. Why can the same government simultaneously be trusted to run the affairs of foreign states and territories?

Questions for “doves”

-What is the first priority of a national government? I.e., what is the first duty of a national government to its citizens, presumably one that cannot be similarly performed by state or local governments? If it is not defense against foreign threats, then what is it? And could this activity occur in the absence of both physical and perceived safety?

-Would you vote to re-elect a president-or elect a member of their same party-who presided over two or more major (9/11 level) terrorist attacks on US soil? If not, what leads you to believe that politicians would or should act in ways that harm their reelection chances?

-“American imperialism” is a phrase du jour among your group. Since World War I the United States has never established permanent political control over a conquered territory despite having plenty of opportunities to do so. Why would it do so in its Middle East wars? If it wouldn’t, why do you claim America is imperialistic?

-ISIS has repeatedly stated its intention to establish a Caliphate and cleanse the world of nonbelievers. What reason do you have to believe, either historical or scriptural, that radical Muslim terrorists just want to “live and let live”? Note: we are not debating the “correct” interpretation of the Quran, we’re debating what these violent individuals actually believe and are ready to act on.

-Economists speak about “long tail risk”: the chance of events that, while unlikely, could have catastrophic consequences for the economy, and thus should be accounted for more than a normal cost-benefit analysis would suggest. Does a terrorist attack in an interconnected global economy not present a “long tail risk”? If not, do you have reason to believe that the consequences of multiple major terrorist attacks would be sufficiently contained?


For what it’s worth, I tend to come out closer to the “dove” view. Ideologically I’m a Jeffersonian: someone who wants to only fight wars in which there is a direct, existential threat to American interests. And I side with the doves here, in that I don’t think terrorists today present such a threat.

But I find a lot of the doves’ arguments to be disingenuous. I’m also damn glad that I don’t have to make that call, because as Walter Russell Mead spells out in his incredible “Special Providence”, each major FP school of thought has significant blind spots, Jeffersonianism included. If you think you know the answer, you should probably reconsider.

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