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Posted by on Mar 31, 2007 in Places, War | 1 comment

Blast From The Past

I don’t want to continue to pick on Marc for supporting Krauthammer’s “Iraq-is-more-important-than-Afghanistan” column, but I couldn’t help but notice we had a verysimilar debate over two years ago in both of our pre-TMV days. Indeed, it was one of the first true blog debates I ever had, and sparked one of the best (or at least, one of my favorite) early posts I ever wrote, on why viewing the war on terror through a traditional “state-centric” lens will lead us down the wrong path. Krauthammer bites into this critique rather hard, and doesn’t seem to grasp the post-9/11 paradigm that states no longer can be seen as the sole primary actor in international affairs.

Statecentrism and the War on Terror, originally posted January 19th, 2005, has the full argument.

Ah, nostalgia.

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Robert Bell

    Indeed. My pithy summary before the war was “why is the axis of Evil a bunch of states, and not a bunch of terrorists groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, AQ, and JI?”.

    It seems to me that the notion that “there is no difference between terrorists and the states who harbor them” is a *morally* compelling narrative to a traditional conservative mindset, and because it is compelling, it is less likely to be viewed less critically than perhaps it should be, by either conservatives supporting it, or liberals opposing it.

    In particular, personal responsibility and respect for authority are key components of a conservative world view. Therefore conservatives using a family metaphor (as in George Lakoff) would tend to oversubscribe to the Bush Doctrine because they would view terrorists as wayward children of an indulgent parent (the terror sponsoring state) who refuses to rein them in, and therefore the parent should be punished.

    In other words, it “should” work. Like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Pithy, morally compelling, and (possibly) wrong. The problem is that any time a strategy is morally compelling, one tends to ignore the data.

    The real problem is going from narrative to theory. If we think of a narrative as a compelling description of a mechanism to explain something, then to make it a theory we need to:

    1. Consider other explanations and apply Occam’s razor
    2. Apply the same principles in other situations and test predictions
    3. Somehow *measure* the effect we are formulating

    Marc starts to do that by breaking down states into categories, but I would say his analysis is limited because he is unable to obtain measurements. In particular, if one considers authoritarian states actively supporting terrorism versus failed states, it’s hard to decide how to make policy unless you have some numerical estimates such as:
    1. What is the *relative* danger of attacks by terrorists based in failed states versus terrorists based in authoritarian terror supporting states?
    2. What is the relative effectiveness of strategies that go after one or the other. Iraq is looking like a particularly bad bet – something like $250B, four years, over 3,000 fatalities, and jihadist attacks have meanwhile increased seven fold.

    The approach you are advocating, which both targets terrorists themselves, and considers states to be other than single actors would probably fall into what Drezner calls “hyper realism” – i.e. viewing states as having a set of a competing agents. It seems compelling – after all consumer products marketers don’t even look at families as a single decision making unit – they target the kids even though the parent will actually make the purchasing decision. However, it is much more complicated to analyze. You now have to “look through” to see how the individual agents comprising the government or terrorist groups will respond to the incentives. Moreover, if the state centric approach can be made to work, it has much better leverage – you can apply pressure on one state actor, as opposed to dozens of individuals and organizations within the state.

    I remark parenthetically that it is interesting that both the state of Israel and PLO seemed to have taken a non-state-centric approach to the U.S., using lobbying organizations to attempt to influence individual actors and groups within the U.S.

    Anyway, you both make good points, and it makes for a good read on a sunday a.m.

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