Tuesday, September 16, 2003

On Deterrence
Adam Wolfson of the National Review Online raises the sensible question of whether suicide terrorism can be deterred. Unfortunately, he does so in a thoroughly confused manner, in which the obvious answer is yes, but only if you deny them their political objectives. Wolfson, who cites a political science study which purports to examine every suicide bombing from 1980 to 2001, writes:

Pape [the political scientist ] uncovers another startling and vitally important pattern: Every suicide attack in the period under study was launched against a democracy. Hezbollah used this weapon to force the United States and France from Lebanon in 1983; Hezbollah and Hamas have used it repeatedly to force concessions from Israel; Tamil terrorists have used it against the Sri Lankan government; the Kurds against Turkey; the Chechen rebels against Russia; the Kashmir rebels against India; and perhaps most infamously, on September 11, al Qaeda launched its suicide -terrorist attacks against America.

This is an extraordinarily important finding. Clearly, the terrorists have reached certain conclusions about our own "regime." They think we are "soft," and they surmise that democracies in particular are vulnerable to nihilistic coercion.


Where to begin with this? First of all, Pape neglects the most fundamental aspect of terrorism, and the best explanation for its utility, which is assymetries of power. Israel, the U.S., France, Russia, and India all have one thing in common vis-a-vis their antagonists -- they wield incomparably more military power than the terrorists. Suicide bombing is chosen precisely because other methods of reaching political goals are unavailable. He also refuses to acknowledge that the Chechens, Lebanese, Palestinians, Kurds, and Tamils all had legitimate political grievances against their respective governing authorities. Democracy has something to do with it, but certainly not as the primary explanatory variable. This is not to condone terrorism, but rather to understand the context. Anyone familiar with the history of Turkey knows how brazenly the Kurds have been mistreated, and how their basic political and cultural rights have been denied.

But more to the point, compromising on politics often ends terrorism, while obstinance (Wolfon's idea of deterrence) often exacerbates it. Cases in point -- Turkey's Kurdish problem "went away" only when the Turks finally began to open some political and cultural space for the Kurds in the late 1990s, rather than referring to them as "mountain Turks." Israel's problem with Hezbollah all but disappeared after the Israeli army withdrew from Southern Lebanon in May 2000. The only continuing dispute between Hezbollah and Israel is a small patch of Syrian territory (claimed by Lebanon) which was occupied by Israel in 1967, known as Shebaa Farms. One also suspects that if the Chechens were granted cultural and political autonomy rather than systematically and indiscriminately obliterated by the Red Army, young men and women might be more reluctant to blow themselves up. Remove the cause, and most of the time, you remove or significantly curtail the terror.

Of course, some causes are not so legitimate, and not so amenable to political compromise; they pose special dilemmas. Hamas is committed to the liberation of "Palestine" and the obliteration of Israel. Al-Qaeda's political goals, if you can call them that, are just as dangerous, and have the further distinction of being global. But even in those cases, support for the terrorists could be significantly curtailed if certain conditions were met -- a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation, for example. Hamas would still exist -- and might even intensify its efforts for a while -- but absent the structural conditions that lead to widespread support for such tactics, they would soon find themselves marginalized.

But for Wolfson, the solution is to pretend that all terrorists are alike and that their goals are uniformly "nihilist." Maybe he should ask the French what counter-terrorism looks like when you battle effect to the total exclusion of cause. Better yet, he can watch the Battle of Algiers with the idealogues at the Pentagon!

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