The Duck of Minerva

Terrorism: A Problem for Realists

25 April 2011

Whatever version of political realism you are dealing with, the sovereign state is still central to its universe. Which is one reason realists are uncomfortable with any world view that accords ‘non-state actors’ a pivotal or even significant role.

I’m a huge fan of the work of political realists such as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape or Christopher Layne, especially of their warnings against our own self-defeating behaviour. But there is a contradiction, or at least a tension in some of their arguments that deserves further thinking.

They argue that we have inflated the threat of AQ-style terrorism, which in reality is not fundamental and may be little more than a nuisance. On the other hand, they argue that this nuisance is significant enough that we should not maintain a forward-leaning military and strategic presence in places like the Gulf, partly because it radicalises opinion and fuels terrorism.

Consider Measheimer’s views:

In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism was described as an existential threat. President Bush emphasized that virtually every terrorist group on the planet—including those that had no beef with Washington—was our enemy and had to be eliminated if we hoped to win what became known as the global war on terror (GWOT). The administration also maintained that states like Iran, Iraq and Syria were not only actively supporting terrorist organizations but were also likely to provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thus, it was imperative for the United States to target these rogue states if it hoped to win the GWOT—or what some neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz called World War IV. Indeed, Bush said that any country which “continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Finally, the administration claimed that it was relatively easy for groups like al-Qaeda to infiltrate and strike the homeland, and that we should expect more disasters like 9/11 in the near future. The greatest danger for sure would be a WMD attack against a major American city.

This assessment of America’s terrorism problem was flawed on every count. It was threat inflation of the highest order. It made no sense to declare war against groups that were not trying to harm the United States. They were not our enemies; and going after all terrorist organizations would greatly complicate the daunting task of eliminating those groups that did have us in their crosshairs. In addition, there was no alliance between the so-called rogue states and al-Qaeda. In fact, Iran and Syria cooperated with Washington after 9/11 to help quash Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Although the Bush administration and the neoconservatives repeatedly asserted that there was a genuine connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, they never produced evidence to back up their claim for the simple reason that it did not exist.

The fact is that states have strong incentives to distrust terrorist groups, in part because they might turn on them someday, but also because countries cannot control what terrorist organizations do, and they may do something that gets their patrons into serious trouble. This is why there is hardly any chance that a rogue state will give a nuclear weapon to terrorists. That regime’s leaders could never be sure that they would not be blamed and punished for a terrorist group’s actions. Nor could they be certain that the United States or Israel would not incinerate them if either country merely suspected that they had provided terrorists with the ability to carry out a WMD attack. A nuclear handoff, therefore, is not a serious threat. 

When you get down to it, there is only a remote possibility that terrorists will get hold of an atomic bomb. The most likely way it would happen is if there were political chaos in a nuclear-armed state, and terrorists or their friends were able to take advantage of the ensuing confusion to snatch a loose nuclear weapon. But even then, there are additional obstacles to overcome: some countries keep their weapons disassembled, detonating one is not easy and it would be difficult to transport the device without being detected. Moreover, other countries would have powerful incentives to work with Washington to find the weapon before it could be used. The obvious implication is that we should work with other states to improve nuclear security, so as to make this slim possibility even more unlikely.

So far so good. We needn’t conflate them all, their capabilities are overstated, states have good reasons not to arm them with WMD, and we should make sure that the very unlikely calamity of nuclear terrorism is made more unlikely.

But later he goes on:

Specifically, offshore balancing is the best grand strategy for ameliorating our terrorism problem. Placing American troops in the Arab and Muslim world is a major cause of terrorist attacks against the United States, as University of Chicago professor Robert Pape’s research shows. Remember what happened after President Ronald Reagan sent marines into Beirut in 1982? A suicide bomber blew up their barracks the following year, killing 241 service members. Reagan had the good sense to quickly pull the remaining marines out of Lebanon and keep them offshore. And it is worth noting that the perpetrators of this act did not pursue us after we withdrew.

Reagan’s decision was neither surprising nor controversial, because the United States had an offshore-balancing strategy in the Middle East during this period. Washington relied on Iraq to contain Iran during the 1980s, and kept the rapid-deployment force—which was built to intervene in the Gulf if the local balance of power collapsed—at the ready should it be needed. This was smart policy.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the United States, once again acting as an offshore balancer, moved large numbers of troops into Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait. After the war was won and victory was consolidated, those troops should have been pulled out of the region. But that did not happen. Rather, Bill Clinton adopted a policy of dual containment—checking both Iran and Iraq instead of letting them check one another. And lest we forget, the resulting presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons that Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. The Bush administration simply made a bad situation even worse.

Sending the U.S. military into countries in the Arab and Muslim world is helping to cause our terrorism problem, not solve it. The best way to fix this situation is to follow Ronald Reagan’s example and pull all American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, then deploy them over the horizon as part of an offshore-balancing strategy. To be sure, the terrorist challenge would not completely disappear if the United States went back to offshore balancing, but it would be an important step forward.

Next is to address the other causes, like Washington’s unyielding support for Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Indeed, Bill Clinton recently speculated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for about half of the terrorism we face. Of course, this is why the Obama administration says it wants to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But given the lack of progress in solving that problem, and the fact that it is going to take at least a few years to get all of the American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we will be dealing with al-Qaeda for the foreseeable future.

Now to be clear, I’m in sympathy with offshore balancing (hence my own blog’s rather kitsch title), as a more prudent, alternative grand strategy. But if terrorism, as Measheimer and others suggest, is at best a minor nuisance that can be pretty straightforwardly managed and contained, then it becomes less decisive as a reason to not do things that Mearsheimer opposes, such as supporting Israel, keeping troops and bases in the Gulf, or waging wars around the world. There are lots of other reasons to favour an alternative strategy, but on Mearsheimer’s analysis it becomes more marginal.

Putting it another way, if Osama Bin Laden and his affiliates and imitators can hardly hurt us now that we’re on the case, any more than “lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts”, then their burning objections to our foreign policies should matter less in the overall calculus about our grand strategy.

Assuming Mearsheimer’s causal hypothesis is right, that our policies abroad ’cause’ it and/or intensify it, breeding more terrorism still remains a ‘minus’ on the balance sheet. Its not a good idea to create a nuisance unless there are very good reasons that make it worthwhile. On his analysis, it takes terrorism closer to being an ‘acceptable’ cost of the very policies Mearsheimer opposes.

Ultimately, I agree that we have inflated the threat and allowed the declared intentions of AQ and their ilk to overshadow a clear-eyed assessment of their capabilities. But they remain dangerous in a more interactive/action-reaction sense, that a successful strike against us tempts us into self-defeating, self-harming behaviour. But whether or not I’m right, at some point realists have to reconcile their belief that terrorism is not terribly important with their claim that it is very important as a reason not to do things.

However, I’ve drunk way too many coffees today and its lovely and hot outside, so I could have found two ideas that are complimentary, not contradictory. Over to you!