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Deterrence and U.S. Counterterrorism Policy 1980-2000: A Failed ...


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Deterrence and U.S. Counterterrorism Policy 1980-2000: A Failed ...



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        Deterrence and U.S. Counterterrorism Policy 1980-2000: A Failed Case         Uri J. Fisher                          University of Colorado-Boulder Dept. of Political Science 12-8-03
Introduction  Can components of deterrent logic be useful in developing an effective counterterrorism strategy? Why did the United States fail to deter the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks? Did U.S. counterterrorism policy throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s fail to signal that the U.S. was capable and willing to respond resolutely to terrorist violence? While the debate on how the U.S. should effectively respond to international terrorist threats continues to wage, much discussion is politicized and falls short of answering the poignant questions about the best counterterrorism policy the U.S. should adopt.  In a December 2001 interview, President George Bush, discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks, stated, “it was clear that bin Laden felt emboldened, and didn't feel threatened by the United States.”1 With this comment, President Bush, perhaps unknowingly, addressed an issue that has yet to be sufficiently examined in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States. The fact that al-Qaeda and bin Laden were not threatened by overwhelming U.S. military capabilities provided further evidence for some that deterrent mechanisms are not effective against post-Cold War asymmetric threats such as terrorist organizations. Numerous comments from the Bush administration support this turn in strategic thinking. In September 2002, for instance, the White House presented to Congress, “The National Security Strategy of the United States,” that asserted, “Traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents.”2  To be sure, the terrorism-deterrence relationship deserves further analysis. That is, while the concept of nuclear deterrence that guided U.S. strategic thinking throughout the Cold War may not be directly applicable to preventing terrorist aggression, significant aspects of deterrence theory’s core logic are relevant to dealing with the emerging threat of international terrorism. This paper asserts that a strategy based on “deterrence by punishment,” or threat of punishment, could form a strategic pillar of a state’s broader counterterrorism policy.
                                               1Interview of President George Bush, “There is no doubt in my mind,”The Washington Post(February 3, 2001): p. A14. 2 TheStrategy of the United States of America,” (September 17, 2002), White House, “The National Security online, avail: http://www.whitehouse.gov.
 Deterrence involves preventing an enemy from acting in a particular way by convincing an enemy that the status quo is preferable to the costs of upsetting the current state of affairs. The essence of deterrent logic rests upon rational economic decision theory. Deterrence seeks to create a situation where the enemy believes that a defender has the ability and willingness to pose an “unacceptable cost” if a threshold of violence is crossed. This cost is usually associated with the potential use of force. As Thomas Schelling articulated, the “power to hurt” is potentially a powerful persuasive instrument: The power to hurt can be counted among the most impressive attributes of military force…It is measured in the suffering it can cause and the victims motivation to avoid it. Forcible action will work against weeds or floods as well as against armies, but suffering requires a victim that can feel pain or has something to lose. To inflict suffering gains nothing and saves nothing directly; it can only make people behave to avoid it. The only purpose, unless sport or revenge, must be to influence somebody’s behavior, to coerce his decision or choice.3  I argue that terrorist organizations are rational in that they “can feel pain,” have “something to lose,” and engage in ends-means calculations. While behavior of a particular individual within a terrorist organization may seem irrational,” the organization itself maintains a priority of preferences and makes assessments regarding alternative courses of action that have different outcomes. In short, whereas individual actors may be undeterrable, terrorist organizations do exhibit risk-averse behavior and aspects of deterrence theory can be used to deter various levels of a terrorist network.  The U.S. failure to deter the September 11 terrorist attacks had much to do with the failure of previous counterterrorism efforts to establish and effectively communicate to terrorist organizations that the U.S. was prepared to inflict significant suffering (costs) on terrorist transgressors. To be sure, bin Laden often questioned U.S. resolve. As bin Laden declared in 1996:                                                     3Thomas Schelling,Arms and Influence(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 2-3 .