Because of the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA are reportedly developing "perhaps a dozen or more" target packages consisting of terrorist encampments and individuals suspected of being involved. A senior U.S. official said that "highly pre-decisional...options are being teed up," should President Obama request them (he reportedly has not), though the official warned, "[I] don't think that a final list of who was involved is solid." Given that U.S. surveillance drones were flying over Libya well before the Benghazi attack and have been conducting a "stepped-up, more focused search" for perpetrators since then, it is certain that America's spies and special operators will find targets -- perhaps as few as ten individuals -- against which Obama can authorize an attack.
As is true with any terrorist attack against American citizens, military bases, or diplomatic sites, Obama faces tremendous pressure to "do something" in response, especially as Republicans cite the president's supposedly weak foreign policy as a cause of the attacks. While the president vowed that "we will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done," it is highly unlikely that justice will involve capturing suspects, interrogating them, and trying them in U.S. courts. Instead, given Obama's unprecedented reliance on using lethal force against terrorist suspects, rather than placing U.S. soldiers at risk to capture them, the suspected Benghazi perpetrators will find themselves in the crosshairs of drone-launched Hellfire missiles.
If Obama authorizes an attack, he should be aware that counterterrorist strikes in retaliation for specific terrorist plots or operations have rarely deterred the targeted group from attacking again. The theory that military retaliation leads to either specific deterrence (in which a targeted adversary is warned against undertaking a specific behavior) or general deterrence (in which a standing threat is broadcast to potential adversaries to convince them not to undertake certain behaviors) is one countless policymakers are continually asserting. To quote just one famous example, President Bill Clinton told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, "It would scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters in the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show those guys we're not afraid."
Despite this widely held belief, there is little evidence that force deters terrorism. This concept is best evaluated by examining the president that spent the most time considering retaliatory force in response to terrorism: Ronald Reagan, during whose presidency the United States suffered the most terrorist attacks on Americans and U.S. diplomatic outposts. Though President Reagan is remembered for articulating a muscular foreign policy that emphasized "peace through strength," in practice he largely refrained from retaliating against acts of terrorism.
Reagan came into office warning terrorists that, "when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution." But Reagan rarely acted on that vengeful vision, largely because both he and the uniformed military did not think such shows of force achieved anything. As he told reporters in January 1982: "I think terrorism is the hardest thing to curtail. As a matter of fact, I've said for many years that probably the only defense you have against terrorist attacks is really infiltration to try and find out in advance what their plans are." Moreover, Reagan and his civilian advisers repeatedly made two demands on military planners of retaliatory options: a minimal chance of civilian deaths, and a response occurring just after the related terrorist attack -- which is very difficult given the time it takes to develop sufficient intelligence and maintain forces ready for rapid-deployment.
In October 1983, Shia militants linked to Hezbollah bombed the Beirut International Airport, killing 241 U.S. military personnel, mostly Marines. The U.S. military developed a range of retaliatory options, including ones against the alleged sponsors: Syria and Iran. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage recalled, "We wanted to put a cruise missile into the window of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus." A broader range of targets in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon were also considered. However, Gen. P.X. Kelley, commandant of the Marine Corps, wondered whether attacking terrorists or state sponsors would make deployed U.S. troops any safer. As the Washington Post later reported: "The intelligence community could not assure Kelley that a retaliatory strike would have a deterrent value, making his Marines more secure.... Kelley concluded that the risks to his men outweighed the gains from retaliatory action."