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Terrorists Now Rational, According to VP

October 4, 2005

Yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Marines who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. In that speech he, of course, reminded the audience that the Bush administration will vigorously pursue terrorism “in Iraq and every other front”. While this is nothing new, nor too surprising, it was what else he said that is most interesting.

The Vice President claimed that the terrorist attacks of September 11th were in essence caused by the repeatedly week response to previous terrorist attacks directed against the United States over the past twenty years. Specifically, the veep rattled off a litany of less-than-satisfactory responses to prior terrorist attacks starting with the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon (not coincidently, many of the victims from that attack came from, you guessed it, Camp Lejeune) and ending with the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. As for the causal logic, Cheney’s words suffice: “The terrorists came to believe that they could strike America without paying any price. And so they continued to wage those attacks, making the world less safe and eventually striking the United States on 9/11.” This is a classic statement of deterrence logic and, more specifically, why deterrence fails. If an attacker seeks to revise the status quo and does not believe that the defender either has the will, the capability, or a sufficient combination of both to punish (not deny) a transgression, then that attacker will most likely strike. The implication of Cheney’s statement is that America essentially cultivated and projected an image of being irresolute, of having a reputation as a passive giant in the face of terrorist attacks.

Let us bracket for the moment whether the US or any state actually has the capability to punish terrorists (in the classic sense of punishment used by deterrence theorists). Is Cheney right? Do terrorists continue to target the United States because of an image of being irresolute—of lacking the will to carry out retaliatory strikes? This is primarily a question of reputation and whether adversaries actually take the past actions of an actor into account when deciding whether or not to launch an attack. While early deterrence theorists placed great emphasis on the “interdependence of commitments” and cultivating a “reputation for resolve” in order to deter the Soviets, these notions lacked serious empirical scrutiny. The studies that have been conducted, starting in the 1970’s and continuing today, do not bode well for the reputational argument (see studies by George and Smoke, Snyder and Diesing, John Mercer, and Daryl Press for starters). While the theoretical critiques vary, the majority of these studies indicate that states do not weigh the past actions of an adversary all that heavily when determining whether to carry out an attack (or to issue a threat). These findings should at least give us pause before buying into the Vice President’s argument. Many of you are already thinking to yourselves, but wait, these previous studies were focused on the attempted deterrence of states—what about terrorists?

Glad you asked. The notion that Cheney’s statement may in fact be correct because we are dealing with terrorists and not with states raises one objection and one interesting point, one that the current administration would (or should) be loathe to accept.

First, terrorists, or any adversary that faces a significant problem of asymmetric capabilities, are likely to favor indirect methods of conflict, such as guerrilla tactics, suicide and non-suicide terrorism, etc. Weak actors cannot take on strong actors in a direct manner and hope to prevail. Knowing full well that direct engagement with a more powerful foe will lead to defeat, these actors automatically favor strategies and tactics that play to their advantage and hide their weaknesses. Whether the weaker actors are states or non-state actors the logic is the same. Mao’s “Peoples’ War” and terrorist suicide bombings are all cut from the same cloth—punish the adversary through indirect means until they capitulate—and do so without direct confrontation. In fact, a recent study (How the Weak Win Wars) concluded that weak actors who choose and implement such indirect strategies against more powerful foes utilizing more conventional/direct methods of force are highly successful. This means that, barring a resolution to whatever political gripe terrorists may have, we should not be surprised if terrorists continue these types of attacks regardless of whether the target strikes back hard. Given the alternatives—i.e. capitulation or direct confrontation—indirect strategies of force are the most rational and likely to be employed regardless of the target’s reaction.

Second, if we accept Cheney’s logic that failure to respond to terrorist aggression invited more attacks by projecting an image of an irresolute America then we can only conclude one thing—terrorists are rational. The logic of Cheney’s statement is derived directly from deterrence theory, which posits that actors are rational. The assumption is that terrorists are only attacking the US because we appear irresolute—not because we lack capabilities or because their options are limited by their own resource restraints. This leads us to conclude that if the US would have projected an image of resolve terrorists would not have continued to launch attacks against our interests. Evidence for this, however, is limited. The only study I am aware of that attempts to uncover the learning process of terrorists is Robert Pape’s APSR article from 2003, but this article only dealt with the rising frequency of suicide bombings, not terrorist attacks in general. His argument is that groups learned that suicide attacks seemed to correlate more strongly with changes in government policy, therefore terrorists ‘learned’ that suicide bombings were an effective strategy. But this tells us nothing about the relationship between unresponsiveness to prior attacks and the continued threat of terrorist assaults in general—something that Cheney’s statement desperately requires.

For Cheney then, terrorists must be rational, otherwise his statement, and the policy prescriptions implied by that statement, makes no sense. But this contradicts most of the rhetoric of the administration which characterizes these actors as “evil” and “irrational” hate mongers. While this may describe the nature of their goals it seemingly doesn’t characterize the manner in which they determine how to achieve their goals. Just ask the VP…

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.