Voice

Don't Just 'Do Something'

Why Obama shouldn't send a bunch of ninjas to Benghazi.

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."

Although on November 14, 1983, Reagan authorized a joint U.S.-French retaliatory strike, for reasons that remain unclear Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger refused to authorize U.S. aircraft to take off. Thus, the largest number of U.S. soldiers killed on one day since World War II was met with no military response.

President Reagan instead permitted the director of central intelligence, William Casey, to undertake aggressive covert actions against suspected terrorists in an attempt to deter future attacks. Casey -- without notifying the Congressional intelligence committees -- met with Prince Bandar, then the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and worked out an elaborate scenario "off the books," in which the Saudis paid $2 million to hire professionals to assassinate the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, with a car bomb. Instead, as a mosque emptied in Western Beirut on March 8, 1985, a massive car bomb exploded, killing 80 civilians and injuring nearly 200 others, but missing its intended target: Sheikh Fadlallah.

The attack did nothing to deter terrorism, and was itself a clear act of terrorism using Reagan's own definition: "Why would anyone want to just park a car with a bomb in a street where they don't even know the people that are going to be killed and blow them up? That's exactly why they have the word ‘terrorist.'"

In June 1985, TWA Flight 847, carrying over 100 U.S. citizens, was hijacked between Athens and Rome. During a stop in Beirut, the hijackers murdered a 23-year-old American sailor, Robert Dean Stethem, and threw his remains on the tarmac. After the remaining hostages were eventually freed, Reagan promised that the hijackers would be "held to account" and contingency plans against Hezbollah targets were updated. Senior military members opposed limited strikes; instead, as one general put it, "If we do anything, it should be something big." However, the chief of naval operations, Adm. James Watkins, told Naval Academy cadets: "Retribution and punishment are not part of a moral course and will not suffice as reasons to take action against the terrorist. Rather, we should act in accordance with our needs for self-defense and protection."

President Reagan agreed. When asked why he was not responding to the TWA hijacking with his promised "swift and effective retribution," Reagan replied, "Retaliation in some peoples' minds might just entail striking a blow in a general direction, and the result would be a terrorist act in itself and the killing and victimizing of innocent people." A senior White House official further explained: "Vengeance is not a satisfactory basis for policy." 

However, in April 1986, Reagan did retaliate against Libya for its involvement in the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two American servicemen -- as well as an increasing number of minor U.S.-Libyan military skirmishes. As the Washington Post headline noted: "Reagan's Use of Force Marks Turning Point." A senior administration official admitted, "The difference now is that everyone recognizes we're going to have to hit back at the terrorists." Several administration officials explicitly said that the political objective of the attack against Libya was to "teach [Muammar] Qaddafi and others the lesson that the practice of terrorism would not be free of cost to themselves," as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger later wrote

In preparing a response, as long-time defense journalist George Wilson reported, "the Joint Chiefs looked at every conceivable military target" and "recommended against bombing targets in Libya that were not linked directly to terrorists." Ultimately, Reagan chose four targets connected to the terrorist attacks, and one target set consisting of Libyan air defenses. U.S. fighter combat aircraft successfully hit most of the targets, including the Aziziyah Barracks compound in Tripoli where it was believed the Libyan leader lived.

The results were meager: Libya's infrastructure was not significantly damaged and Qaddafi survived, becoming more defiant than ever. Moreover, Libya's support for international terrorism increased in response: Libyan-controlled terrorist groups assassinated British and American hostages in Lebanon, and most significantly, blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

These examples show that a more prudent response to terrorist attacks is to understand why counterterrorism efforts failed, and how they should be adjusted and enhanced. Force is undoubtedly an essential tool against individuals directly responsible for terrorist plots and operations, and has successfully disrupted safe havens, killed suspected senior leaders and low-level militants, and raised the risks and costs of planning operations. However, the belief that drone strikes and special operations raids against terrorists or state sponsors will deter future acts of terrorism has a poor track record. President Obama faces tremendous pressure to bomb those suspected of attacking the Benghazi consulate. It would allow him to "look strong" one month before the election, provide some sense of justice for those victims' families, and serve as an act of vengeance against the perpetrators. But force won't stop another attack.

BRENNAN LINSLEY/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko

The Projectionist

Why Bibi can't scare the U.S. into bombing Iran.

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last week -- accompanied by his puzzling cartoon bomb -- Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a dire threat not only to Israel, but to the entire world, and he declared that preventing this outcome was the "duty of every responsible leader who wants to preserve world peace." In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "The free world must not accept [a nuclear Iran]. We must all do whatever we can to prevent it." And, in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged the creation of "a coalition of democracies who believe in the danger, led by United States, in order to put pressure upon Iran."

In each of these examples, Israeli political leaders engaged in a time-honored diplomatic strategy: telling other states what they should be threatened by, and what policies they should implement to counter that threat. The objective of this gambit is to harness the capabilities of other states to counter a threat, which is more severe and imminent than previously understood, in order to share the burden. However, this strategy of projecting threat perceptions onto other states is both underexplored by academics and poorly executed by policymakers. In an era when it is increasingly difficult for any state to unilaterally deal with its foreign policy challenges, projecting threat perceptions has never been more important.

The modern understanding of threat perceptions emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when the economist Thomas Schelling developed and popularized a statistical model to describe how adversarial states interact when "communication is incomplete or impossible." He and others drew heavily on game theory to predict how states perceive threats from one another. As the political scientist -- and founder of the Correlates of War datasets -- J. David Singer wrote in 1958, "To state the relationship in quasi-mathematical form: Threat-Perception = Estimated Capability x Estimated Intent." However, Schelling, Singer, and other game theorists never attempted to quantify "intent."

In 1985, many years before he was a prominent Foreign Policy blogger, international relations scholar Stephen Walt offered four factors for how states perceive the threat level of other states: aggregate power, proximity, offensive capability, and offensive intentions. While the first three are determined by relatively objective indicators, the last is highly subjective. Yet, according to Walt, "The more aggressive or expansionist a state appears, the more likely it is to trigger an opposing coalition." More recently, political scientist Randall Schweller argued that states require a consensus among elites about the extent and nature of a threat in order to mobilize the resources to effectively combat it.

But recent history suggests that projecting threat perceptions rarely works. In early 2003, President George W. Bush rejected bilateral negotiations with North Korea in favor of the six-party talks. Since then, U.S. policy for containing and rolling back the North Korean nuclear program has been to convince China of the threat posed by its nuclear neighbor so that Beijing will pressure Pyongyang to verifiably disarm. As Bush told Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2003: "This isn't a problem for us. This is a problem for you, because it's your region that's going to have to react to a North Korean nuclear weapon." As National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later told David Sanger, "That got Jiang Zemin's attention." It is unlikely that is true, though, since neither Jiang nor his successors have acted upon persistent U.S. fear-mongering about North Korea to use their leverage, presumably because Beijing prefers the status quo on the Korean Peninsula to the unknown risks of change.

At the same time, since 2003 a constant stream of American military and intelligence officials have visited Islamabad to inform their Pakistani counterparts of the increasing threat of violent extremism, which places both U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani people in grave danger. Several times each year for the past decade, a senior U.S. official has asked the Pakistani army to initiate a ground offensive against the Taliban and Haqqani networks' safe havens. In August, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that he understood that such an offensive would finally commence in the "near future." Whether the Pakistani military is unwilling or unable to undertake such an operation -- with the intensity and long-term impact hoped for by U.S. officials -- remains a matter of debate. Nevertheless, no one could say with a straight face that the U.S. policy of reiterating the threats posed by extremism in Pakistan has succeeded.

Efforts to alter threat perceptions tend to take three forms. First, states can offer the targeted government positive inducements in the form of diplomatic support, financial aid, foreign trade, weapons, and direct military and intelligence assistance. Since September 11, 2001, for example, the United States has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in overt and covert assistance to Yemen to counter the threat of transnational terrorism. As the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, noted in a Senate hearing in 2010: "I think that the deeper our engagement gets, the greater our opportunity to influence their threat perception will be." Conversely, states can impose negative inducements by way of diplomatic pressure, suspension of aid, economic sanctions, arms embargoes, or coercive threats.

The final option -- providing additional, clarifying information in an attempt to alter how other target states perceive the threat -- was crudely attempted by Netanyahu at the U.N. As this information is often based upon highly-classified intelligence, states must balance how much to reveal without compromising sensitive sources and methods. This information is often disclosed publicly at international forums in order to achieve maximum impact. For example, Adlai Stevenson's October 1962 presentation to the U.N. Security Council, which included aerial photographs of Soviet troops and intermediate-range missile installations in Cuba, and Colin Powell's February 2003 Security Council speech, complete with audio recordings of two senior officers from Iraqi's elite military unit, cartoon imagery of purported "mobile production facilities for biological agents," and a replica vial of anthrax. Or, officials can simply make direct appeals to the public. Recall in September 1997, when Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned about Iraq's purported WMD program by dumping out a five pound bag of sugar during an ABC News talk show. Cohen claimed that were the sugar anthrax it could "destroy at least half the population of [Washington, D.C.]," or, as VX , could kill "millions, millions, if it were properly dispersed."

This information exchange also regularly occurs bilaterally. For example, during the height of the Kargil crisis between Pakistan and India in 1999, the Clinton administration sent intelligence officials to both countries to brief them on how the CIA envisioned a limited military skirmish could escalate to a nuclear exchange that killed tens of millions of people. Throughout the Bush administration, the CIA and Department of Energy officials briefed foreign leaders about specific vulnerabilities to their country's nuclear weapons or fissile material stockpiles. The United States also conducts joint threat assessment discussions with Russian technical experts through the U.S.-Russian Arms Control and International Security Working Group, in order to raise concerns about supposed advances in Iran's missile program.

In order to make this information more credible, states can also provide such intelligence to neutral third parties. In November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that "the Agency has received information from more than ten Member States" about Iran's suspected warhead development work. Clearly, Iran is a high-priority collection target for many intelligence agencies, and states provide some of that intelligence to the IAEA because it is an "autonomous international organization" trusted more than any state individually. Similarly, several governments provide information to U.N. Security Council sanctions committees about allegations of violations to U.N.-mandated diplomatic or economic sanctions.

While convincing other states that they face graver threats than they thought has rarely achieved the intended effect, the reaction of Asia-Pacific states to China in the past two years shows how threat perceptions can actually be altered. From 2003 to 2009, the United States focused its diplomatic and military attention on Afghanistan and Iraq, at the expense of partners and allies in East Asia. Jeffrey A. Bader, the senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, described the "widespread judgment that the U.S. was a declining power and that China was a rising power." This notion was crystalized at a July 2010 annual forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations, where China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, reportedly announced to his counterparts, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact." The reactions to such ominous warnings, combined with China's defense modernization, compelled U.S. allies and non-allies to seek stronger defense relationships with the United States. In other words, these Asia-Pacific states adjusted their threat perception largely on their own.

No doubt Israeli officials will continue to sound the alarm about a nuclear-armed Tehran, with the ultimate objective of changing America's threat perception of Iran -- they want the vastly superior U.S. military to participate in any attack against Iran's integrated air defense system, known nuclear sites, and ballistic missile production facilities. However, the advances in Iran's uranium enrichment program do not threaten the United States as severely as they do Israel. Telling the United States that it should be more scared of Iran -- and therefore should give Tehran an explicit deadline to comply with Western demands -- has failed so far. Yet, the poor track record of projecting threat perceptions has never stopped policymakers from trying, over and over. So expect to hear more -- a lot more -- from Tel Aviv.

STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages