Does Foreign Intervention Cause Blowback
By David Henderson
In a blog post today, Arnold Kling cites Robert Nozick’s term “normative sociology.” The idea is that many people point to what they want the causes of something to be rather than trying their best to find what the causes are. It’s a clever term and the idea it refers to is important.
Then Arnold writes:
We can also find this normative analysis among libertarians. Blaming terrorism on blowback for foreign intervention.
It certainly is true that many of us libertarians think that when the U.S. government interferes in other countries, some people in those countries get upset. I am one of those libertarians who think that. Because they can’t compete with the U.S. government with aircraft carriers and missiles, these people in other countries figure out other ways to cause damage. Arnold doubts that, although he doesn’t say why.
But it’s not just libertarians who think that much of terrorism is an unintended consequence of foreign intervention. Unless, that is, neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz is also a libertarian. In an interview that Sam Tannenhaus of Vanity Fair did with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in May 2003, Wolfowitz stated:
There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed–but it’s huge–is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.
Moreover, this “blowback” view was expressed in an early report by the Department of Defense in 1996. Foreign policy analyst Ivan Eland, in “Protecting the Homeland: The Best Defense Is to Give No Offense,” Cato Policy Analysis No. 306, May 5, 1998, quotes a 1996 study from the Defense Science Board:
As part of its global superpower position, the United States is called upon frequently to respond to international causes and deploy forces around the world. America’s position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors.
Indeed, there is a fair amount of evidence for the view that terrorism is a means used to achieve the goal of getting foreign governments to pull their noses out of other people’s affairs. Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, states:
The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign–over 95 percent of all the incidents–has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.
Pape, by the way, has “collected the first complete database of every suicide-terrorist attack around the world from 1980 to early 2004.”
I made a similar point to that of Eland and Pape in a talk to a group of Department of Defense officials in 1996. Here’s a quote from my talk:
What leads the Irish Republican Army to put bombs in Britain? Why don’t they, for example, put bombs in Canada or Bangladesh? To ask the question is to answer it. They place the bomb where they think it will help influence the government that makes decisions most directly in the way of their goals, and the governments in the way of their goals are usually governments that intervene in their affairs.
So it’s fair to say, contrary to Arnold Kling’s brief unsubstantiated claim, that there is far more to the idea that terrorism is blowback than he thinks.