Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Statecentrism and the War on Terror

In a recent post I referred to statecentrism as one of the primary blindspots the Bush administration has when conducting the war on terror. There are others, listed here, which have nothing to do with statecentrism. However, since many people seized on this particular aspect of my attack for challenge, I will explain and defend why I think statecentrism is a poor model for fighting the war on terror, and why an alternative (call it "terrorcentric") method would work better.

First, let's define what statecentrism is. A statecentric worldview is one that looks at problems (at least foreign policy problems) through the prism of sovereign states. As it relates to terror, it means we take out a map, look at the nations of the world, ask ourselves "which ones support terrorists," and the blow them (the terror harboring states) to hell. Mark Schulman explains it in this manner:
Terrorists do not exist in a stateless vacuum. In each state in which they have refuse, there are two other actors: the people, some of whom are sympathetic to the terrorists and some who are not; and the government, which may (1) actively support, (2) condone, (3) actively oppose, or (4) be unable to oppose the terrorists. While the terrorists may welcome death and have little or no physical assets, at least some of the general population prefers life to death and the government does have an infrastructure that it is responsible for protecting.

The objective of a deterrence policy -- more precisely, a warning that the U.S. will respond with a nuclear attack on targets of our choosing, including Islam's holy sites -- should be to cause ordinary people and governments to fear the consequences if terrorists explode one or more nuclear weapons on our soil. By making the nuclear second strike doctrine public, it would hopefully have enough credibility to alter the behavior of people and governments. The specter of devastation should be an incentive for both people and governments to stop supporting terrorists and for governments to root them out. The less fanatical of the terrorists, recognizing these changes, may decide to pursue other, less deadly, activities.

When I say I "critique" statecentrism, it does not mean that I think we should ignore states entirely. What it means is that we should recast the lens. In my worldview, we look at where the terrorists are. After that, we examine what, if any, relation the terrorists have to the states they inhabit. Is the state supporting them, or fighting them, or indifferent to them, or some variation thereof? In some cases, a terrorcentric and statecentric mindset will yield the same result. If I examine Iran as a state, I will quickly note that it supports terrorism. If I'm looking for terrorists, I will quickly note that they gain support and aid from Iran. So even though the methodology is different, the result is the same. To use Mark's taxonomy, Iran is a "1" state (actively supports terror), but if we can credibly threaten to annihilate them, that will go a long way to ending their support for terror. That option makes sense from either the terrorcentric or statecentric worldview.

But let's take another example, Somalia. Contrary to Mark's suggestion, Somalia is a perfect example of terrorists existing in a "stateless vacuum," because there isn't really a "state" in Somalia. Ideologically, the statecentric viewpoint discounts the terror threat of Somalia since there isn't state support. This, once again, misstates the threat, because al-Qaeda can operate just fine in Somalia, and they can still base attacks on American interests from Somalia, regardless of whether the state is assisting or not. Pragmatically, the statecentric approach also cannot deal with Somalia. We can't threaten the central government to stop harboring terrorists, because one doesn't exactly exist. Mark's "deterrence" policy utterly collapses in this situation, because there is not an entity that is even capable of responding to a US threat, let alone act on it. If followed to its logical conclusion, the statecentric threat, as applied to Somalia, would go over something like this:
Bush: Alright, Somalia. You got to stop harboring the evildoers, or else we're going to have to send a message.
Somalia: [silence]
Bush: Nuke 'em.

Is anyone really being deterred here? Deterrence rests on motivating good behavior over bad behavior. It presumes a choice on the part of the regional actors as to whether they are acting "good" or "bad." In regions with failed states, the people, at least as represented by the "state," aren't capable of making that choice.

Another problem with statecentrism is it misplaces priorities. The quote by Professor Drezner in my last post elucidates. The US was faced with a comparative choice: either neutralize a state, which supports terrorists (Iran); or neutralize a non-state actor who supports terrorists (A.Q. Khan). They chose the former. However, ironically, Schulman's own analysis demonstrates why it is the latter that is far more threatening. The reason is simple: we can deter Iran rather easily. If they touch us, or if there fingerprints are on someone who does touch us, we can bomb them off the face of the earth. They know it, and we know it, and it doesn't take a big shift in US policy to drive that point home (nor does it require Pakistan's support in any way). Shadowy nuclear proliferation networks, outside the guidance of states, by contrast, cannot be deterred by conventional means. We can't bomb them out of existence. They aren't geographically fixed, they emphasize small players, they are, well, shadowy. Opportunities to shut them down are far, far, rarer than opportunities to deter nation-states. Terrorcentrism would look at what's more likely to enable terror, and act that way, which sometimes means attacking (or threatening to attack states) and sometimes doesn't. It's in the latter case where the Bush administration is offbase.

The third advantage of terrorcentrism is that it prevents us from getting bogged down in protracted, distracting military campaigns. If we invade, oh, Iraq, we're stuck there for awhile until we rebuild what we've broken. The hundreds of thousands of troops necessary to do that are now occupied, and can't be used to trackdown actual terrorists. Sure, we'll bag some in the host country that we're in the middle of rebuilding. But gunning terrorists in the Philippines, or Sudan? Forget about it. In his comment on my original post, Randomscrub argues that this is the best case scenario considering the logistical problems of going after terrorists in a more ad hoc manner. I disagree. The use of light and special forces operations, targeted bombing campaigns, and other more focused endeavors all can accomplish tasks with far lower resource allocations than full-fledged military invasions. Sure, it raises sovereignty implications, but can we all agree that at this point sovereignty has been shot to hell regardless of what policy we choose? Randomscrub's objection is legitimate, but the alternative isn't any better: we simply don't have enough troops to invade every single country that harbors terrorists. So since we're going to have to implement my lightweight options at least partially (or alternatively, ignore terrorists outside of Iraq and Afghanistan entirely), we might as well use it whenever it's most effective. Furthermore, even when we do hit the "jackpot" ("hey, this state is linked to terror and we have the troops to take it out!"), statecentrism skews our tactical and strategic perception on the ground. In Afghanistan, for example, we took out the "state" (the Taliban) quite effectively. We were much less effective in taking out the "terrorists" themselves, many of whom escaped to Pakistan and elsewhere. This doesn't mean that Afghanistan wasn't a "success," but it does require us to look more critically at what "success" means. From a statecentric view, we "won" in Afghanistan because we replaced a terror-supporting state with a terror-fighting state (sort of). From a terrorcentric view, it's more complicated than that, because many of the terrorists are still at large and can still plan attacks on the US and the world.

The point, again, isn't to ignore states, it's to focus on terror. Terror sometimes operates within the context of state support, and sometimes not. The organizations of terror have gotten very good at using non-state entities, markets, and practices to aid their cause. Beyond residing in failed states, they also use international finance, smuggling networks, informal trade, and the internet to facilitate their cause. None of these problems can be deterred simply by looking to states, and any practice that tries to address them solely by way of states is doomed to failure from the start. Looking at the problem holistically, at what is most likely to destroy terrorism, requires us to think outside the statecentric box. Sometimes, focusing on states will work just fine. Often it won't, and the Bush administration's failure to realize that is hopelessly crippling our efforts against terror.

2 comments:

Marc Schulman said...

The exception -- Somalia -- proves the rule. Admitedly, a government that doesn't exist can't be deterred. But even Afghanistan had a government -- The Taliban. Every Arab country that harbors terrorists has a government.

Using a single exception to counter a policy prescription just doesn't wash. There may be other objections to the policy I proposed, but this isn't one of them.

David Schraub said...

To quote the immortal Ambrose Bierce: "'The exception proves the rule' is an expression constantly upon the lips of the ignorant, who parrot it from one another with never a thought of its absurdity. In the Latin, "Exceptio probat regulam" means that the exception tests the rule, puts it to the proof, not confirms it. The malefactor who drew the meaning from this excellent dictum and substituted a contrary one of his own exerted an evil power which appears to be immortal."

Mind you, he wrote that in 1906 :-).

As to the merits, I would Somalia is merely the extreme example of a real problem. The Taliban proves as a more moderate example. Though the Taliban were a "government", they did not have even nominal control of the whole country, and their real sphere of control was probably even smaller. As some intelligence analysts have said, the Taliban was at least as dependent on al-Qaeda as the reverse. When we took out the Taliban, the terrorists simply faded back into the stateless woodwork they were accustomed to operating in. I don't really think this is speculation--it pretty accurately sums up our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq--crushing victories over the state, significant trouble with the non-state actors in the aftermath.