bin Laden, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the value of disproportionate response

I’d like to do something very unusual in this post: argue that a policy of George W. Bush, and not just any policy, but his policy of starting land wars in Asia, may have had a good effect.

I’ve been thinking this week about the death of Osama bin Laden, and in particular how it profoundly changes the narrative of the American military presence in central Asia over the past decade. Prior to this, there were plenty of stories about “the US is only there for their own interests” (which is undoubtedly true, and continues to be so) as well as a story about bin Laden as a sort of terrorist Robin Hood: he smacks the Americans in the nose and gets away with it, escapes to fight another day. Now, his political capital has greatly eroded over the past decade; after the disassembly of his logistical infrastructure in Afghanistan, and perhaps even more so after his faction’s behavior in Iraq (both their bloody-mindedness towards Iraqis and their inability to function against direct, prepared American resistance), he has long-since ceased to be a figure of much veneration, even among the bulk of the radical lunatic community. So his “Robin Hood” points are mostly evaporated.

But in the context of last week’s raid, there’s a new story: if you pick a fight with the United States, they will hunt you down. Even if it requires an absolutely absurd expenditure of human lives and resources, even if it means starting not just one but two wars which frankly make no logical sense. And this story has tremendous value to the US, quite independently of bin Laden’s actual significance; it’s the threat of disproportionate response, the visible reminder that the US has a truly tremendous range of assets which can be brought to bear on any potential enemy. And in an era when people may have believed themselves to be immune to such response because of their small size or non-state nature, while still capable of causing asymmetric harm by means of modern “force multipliers,” the vivid embodiment of that warning may have a powerful effect on the next few decades of our history.

Am I recanting my earlier opposition to these wars? Only in small part. There has been tremendous mismanagement of these wars at the policy level, and I shudder to think how many more people were killed than needed to be. There are going to be many other long-term consequences of these wars, such as increased regional power for Iran, which may be considerably greater in scope than we can guess today. But as time progresses and more consequences fall out, our analyses of these events will have to change, and of their rightness or wrongness in retrospect.

Perhaps more to the point, what we’re seeing here is the notion of the “enforcer” in repeated games. (See Boyd et al., “Coordinated Punishment of Defectors Sustains Cooperation and Can Proliferate When Rare,” and Posner, “Social Norms and the Law: An Economic Approach,” two classic papers on the subject) Humans seem to have evolved such that a certain fraction of our species is prone to disproportionate reaction in response to “cheaters” (i.e., violators of norms); even though these enforcers tend to win less on the whole than the average person, because of this tendency to spend more energy than they rationally (individually) ought to, the society as a whole turns out to win considerably from the presence of a certain number of such people. It’s the deterrence scheme of the madman; you never know when they might flip out and kill everyone in sight.

Our system of government seems to have found a unique method of amplifying this in political or military situations; when something sufficiently severe happens, the enforcers in society raise an outcry, and everyone else’s attempt to mute this is tepid or restrained at best. As a result, even if the sitting president isn’t an enforcer by nature, he will find himself under pressure to become one – or rapidly be replaced by someone who is. It’s a way of pulling enforcers to the fore on an as-needed basis, which acts as a tremendous boost to the credibility of the threat.

But there’s a problem, of course. To have the deterrent that the leader of the United States just might be a violent madman and capable of anything, you need to have (at least occasionally) as leader of the United States a violent madman who is capable of anything. Enforcers are fairly specifically chosen for their irrationality, not for their ability to make wise or reasoned decisions; and they tend to wrack up a tremendous body count (of their own people) in the process. The fact that we had an extreme enforcer already in office at the time of 9/11 actually strikes me as somewhat alarming; he went off for the right reason, but even so did it in far from the wisest way, and we as a society will be paying the consequences for a long time to come.

A side benefit of the fact that Obama was the president who ended this is that he isn’t known as an enforcer; he was hailed from the moment of his election as a wiser, more understanding (and more rational!) president. The signal that even if a “calmer” person is in office, the rules of an appropriately timed disproportionate response are still in play, is an extra and valuable booster to this policy of deterrence. Waiting for someone else to come into office is not a good strategy. This is a nuance which is particularly commonly seen in Israel; every time a new PM comes to the fore, Hamas &co. start trying some terror attacks, to see if this one will be easily pushed around. It never works, but it gets tried every time nonetheless.

With all this said, there was a deep and significant victory achieved this past week. It wasn’t a victory over a particular terrorist; it was a victory over hostile state and non-state actors as a whole. It wasn’t just the victory of the team that did it, and it wasn’t even the victory of one administration or the other; it was a victory for our society as a whole.

And with that I can say, to all those who sacrificed for this moment – in their lives, in their families, in their economies – this sacrifice has bought our country, and our world, something of great value which could not have been bought in any lesser way.

(Addendum: It occurred to me after posting that I should have mentioned that the fact that Iraq was completely irrelevant to 9/11, bin Laden, etc., doesn’t affect this reasoning. It’s the fact that the President might go off and lay waste to two countries which just happened to be in the wrong area, and to have pissed off the wrong people, just in order to make the point which is the deterrent. We live in a strange world.)

Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 21:28  Comments (3)  
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  1. Er, are you primarily interested in the historical decision about Afghanistan and/or the decision about Iraq, or are you interested in the uses and limits of deterrence in today’s world?

    Other people may feel comfortable talking about all three at once, but not me. Each is too easily used as an excuse to crush nuance about the other two.

    So if you’re willing to pick one for now and tell me which you’re most interested in, the historical decision about Afghanistan, the historical decision about Iraq, or how deterrence should generally be expected to work in today’s world with special regard to the current role of the United States, I would be happy to talk about one.

    • I’m interested in the interplay between them. For all that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have been lunatic operations, their combination with rubbing out bin Laden creates a powerful deterrent narrative. I’m not sure to what extent this was consciously intended, but the effect (I believe) is real nonetheless.

      I most certainly wouldn’t want to crush nuances about any of the three. These are all subtle matters. But if I had to pick one to talk about right now, it would be deterrence of non-state actors, something which has been an increasing problem in the past few decades. My hypothesis is that this grossly disproportionate use of force, combined with years of work at creating a public narrative that this was all part of a single grand plan in a “war on terror,” combined with a very violent ending for bin Laden, and also (although I didn’t go into this before) combined with a number of things which seem to have delegitimized the “extremist-of-the-extremist” groups like al Qaeda, may form a working deterrent against major attacks on the US or its interests over the next few decades, irrespective of whether any of the individual parts were actually intended for that purpose.

  2. Okay, this will cover a lot of ground. Don’t read if you can’t stand digressions.

    1) book recommendation: Calculating Credibility, by Daryl Press. On how state actors, or rather the actual people in the actual leadership, make their decisions – and what does and doesn’t register with them about foreign powers’ behavior.

    2) Truism of international violence: “You think you’re a policeman, but they think you’re a mad dog.”

    Nonstate actors – we do actually have good data on how nonstate actors think, if we expand from “people who act to support networks of international terrorists” to the more general “people who act to support rebels/guerrillas/insurgents”.

    Now, a typical counterinsurgent/counterterrorist might be thinking to himself about the enemy:

    “All right, rebel, we both agree I’m a policeman, but we disagree on whether I carry a gun. I will show you that I carry a gun, and then you will respect my authority.”

    Alas, he foolishly fails to seriously consider the grim alternate narrative:

    “To these strangers I am not a policeman, but a mad dog, and violence on my part tends to strengthen, not weaken, the argument for fighting me. I must make my violence serve my ends cleverly. I cannot win unless I can convince them of the *legitimacy*, rather than the *extent*, of my violence.”

    And we ourselves think the exact same way — “they’re mad dogs, not policemen” — about terrorists.

    When Al-Qaeda blew up the Twin Towers, did that ever make you think “wow, that sure proves it’d be safer for us to concede their authority”? Surely it was more like: “this proves it’s imperative we undermine their power over us.”

    Alas — the terrorist sympathizers think exactly that way about American violence. Invading Iraq = blowing up the Twin Towers: a mad dog you can’t trust and must undermine the potency of.

    For insurgency, the data show that for a given level of constabulary forces deployed, the level of killing and destruction among the insurgent-sympathizing populations does not alter insurgent support — unless the area was not yet insurgent-supporting, in which case more bloodshed tends to *increase* support for insurgency. For the same amount of manpower deployed, bloodthirsty counterinsurgency does no better than calm counterinsurgency.

    Your paramilitaries need to be good at violence in order to defend themselves from counterattack as they perform police work, not in order to scare the population. Scaring the population does not help. (It often doesn’t drastically hurt, either, during the struggle – but it does make the peace afterward much uglier and harder to maintain. You end up having to act like occupiers forever. A net loss.)

    So how do you dissuade insurgent and terrorist supporters? If bloodthirsty does no better than calm, what does make the difference?

    Historically what works is enrolling policemen, more of them, so you no longer have to act so imprecisely and look like a mad dog. Even the states the occasional naive pundit wishfully cites as examples of success through slaughter did this – deployed or locally recruited a ton of police or paramilitaries.

    If you’re fighting an insurgency, where you almost always need more local policing manpower, this usually means enrolling local elites to keep order for you. (If the elites are few enough relative to your troops, then you can watch *them* precisely. Think of it as divide-and-rule, applied vertically as well as horizontally. If life gives you too few soldiers to pacify the land yourself, you must negotiate with and temporarily accept local warlords/militias.)

    Fighting international terrorism, it may be fair to say there’s an analogous “enroll the local elites” process: negotiating with other governments for a higher level of crackdown on terrorist sympathizers in their territory. After 9/11, for example, the United States massively increased its presence in the counterterrorism efforts of Yemen, Pakistan, etc., and we may assume negotiated (demanded?) that Saudia Arabia and others better police their own sympathizers as well. (I have not seen data on before/after arrest levels of alleged terrorists in these countries. It would be interesting to know how much of a crackdown there actually was.)

    So what all this comes down to is:

    a) before you try to be a more intimidating policeman, check whether your opponent thinks you’re a policeman or a mad dog.

    b) state actors should, but weirdly historically don’t, discover our state’s ‘personality’ from what we do to other states; they discover our personality from what we do to *them*, and otherwise assume we’re just like them. If you want to force Syria, force Syria. Invading Iraq is not an efficient tool for the job.

    This is stupid and counterintuitive — approaching World War 2, Gemany, Britain, United States, Japan would all have made better choices if they’d looked at their enemies as having different priorities and patterns from themselves — but it’s what the data show.

    d) therefore, “demonstrating” our willingness to go to war is, given how expensive war is, probably not cost-efficient. The dollars would be better spent on bribes in diplomatic negotiations and spying; the lives better spent on pinpoint acts of violence against direct enemies, not bystanders.

    e) if you have to go to war anyway, of course you may as well put out propaganda, but I don’t know of any evidence that suggests it has lasting effect. The end result of the war is how you end that particular war! If you want a good result from the war, end the war with a smart set of treaties. (Congress of Vienna good, Versailles bad.)

    f) If you want to bind states to a new norm, try negotiating a treaty, or better yet, an alliance. NATO has worked out really well, and so, two hundred years ago, did the Congress of Vienna system, and before that so did the Swiss and Dutch confederations (they were rough alliances well before they were single states!), and heck, as I recall even the Athenian and Roman buffer/client-state systems seem to have been significant improvements, for all their defects, on what preceded them.

    3) Of course, war is just about always suboptimal for the loser, and almost always suboptimal even for the winner compared to some set of concessions (after all, you could always pocket the concessions and go fight someone else). So we already know that war grows out of an environment of poor communications, or they’d happen much less. It’s not surprising, then, that communicating *via* warlike actions is prone to backfire.

    It *is* surprising *how* completely useless war is as a method of communicating your interests to third parties, but the data are clear. Again, if you want to force Syria — force Syria!

    4) Stories are a good way to come up with hypotheses. But I would never *believe* a hypothesis I came up with about foreign affairs without either a quantitative measure or other hypotheses to compare it to. It’s too easy to selectively cite cases, come up with clever excuses to disavow the contradictory cases, and then say “hey, it seems like it works this way.”

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