Time to Put “Dying to Win” out to Pasture?

31 July 2013, 1000 EDT

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter received his PhD from Georgetown University in May 2013, and was a Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia during 2012-2013; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. His research focuses on religion and foreign policy; he has also written on terrorism and religious conflict.

In his latest blog post on Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt calls for a re-evaluation of the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. One statement–really a quick aside–caught my attention.

Walt claims that “opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activities.” Well he actually says: “Given that opposition to foreign occupation” causes terrorism, and then uses this assertion to justify calling for a reduction in US forces in Muslim countries. And then he specifically mentions “suicide bombing,” and links to Dying to Win, by Robert Pape.

Dying to Win is the book version of an article by Pape in the American Political Science Review, in which he argues that suicide bombing is a rational response to occupation. As I detailed in a blog post a few years ago, there are numerous problems with this argument:

  • Pape defines “occupation” so broadly as to almost be useless. This includes not just military invasions, but separatist conflicts, the voluntary presence of foreign troops, and transnational identification with occupied peoples. Lumping so many different things together under “occupation” ends up not really telling us much about the outcome we’re trying to explain.
  • Pape only looks at cases of suicide bombing, basically selecting on the dependent variable. No-variance research designs can tell us a lot about a phenomenon, but they cannot tell us what caused it.
  • While most would agree with Pape that Islam does not cause suicide bombing, it’s hard to ignore the religious elements in attacks of groups like al-Qaeda. Religious ideology frames a struggle in cosmic terms, justifies extreme actions–like suicide bombing–and may even necessitate suicide bombings by constructing them as holy acts of martyrdom. Looking just at whether or not a country is “occupied” ignores these dynamics.

So there are issues with Pape’s thesis, and I think a lot of scholarship on terrorism and political violence has moved on. But why is this book still getting attention?

  • The first reason has to do with the lack of satisfying answers to the question of what causes terrorism. The more research that is done into terrorism – and a lot has been done since 9/11 – the farther scholars get from a clear, simple answer to its causes. This is partly because terrorism is a tactic a diverse array of movements use in different contexts, partly because numerous causes combine in different ways to produce terrorism, and partly because some causes matter in certain contexts and others in different ones. Compare the preceding sentence to the one in Walt’s post I quoted above, and you’ll see why Pape’s thesis is tempting. But bloggers should avoid simplifying complex phenomena to score points in the blogosphere.
  • The second reason is a bit more meta-: maybe the pleasing nature of Pape’s policy suggestions–that the United States should not invade any more countries–makes some more tolerant of the issues with his argument. It’s hard to prove a non-event, but I imagine bloggers–at least on Foreign Policy–would have been more swayed by critiques of his thesis if its implications were that the United States should nuke all possible adversaries.

So should scholars and pundits still cite Dying to Win, given the issues with this book? Does its value as a competing explanation for articles we write justify its continued use?

And if the answer is yes, what should we do in response to its deployment in the blogosphere? I guess I could keep writing blog posts like this one periodically, which I am happy to do. Or, when it comes to something as important as what the causes of terrorism prescribe for US foreign policy, we should all be a little modest in our claims.