David R. Henderson  

Does Foreign Intervention Cause Blowback

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In a blog post today, Arnold Kling cites Robert Nozick's term "normative sociology." The idea is that many people point to what they want the causes of something to be rather than trying their best to find what the causes are. It's a clever term and the idea it refers to is important.

Then Arnold writes:

We can also find this normative analysis among libertarians. Blaming terrorism on blowback for foreign intervention.

It certainly is true that many of us libertarians think that when the U.S. government interferes in other countries, some people in those countries get upset. I am one of those libertarians who think that. Because they can't compete with the U.S. government with aircraft carriers and missiles, these people in other countries figure out other ways to cause damage. Arnold doubts that, although he doesn't say why.

But it's not just libertarians who think that much of terrorism is an unintended consequence of foreign intervention. Unless, that is, neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz is also a libertarian. In an interview that Sam Tannenhaus of Vanity Fair did with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in May 2003, Wolfowitz stated:

There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed--but it's huge--is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It's been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.

Moreover, this "blowback" view was expressed in an early report by the Department of Defense in 1996. Foreign policy analyst Ivan Eland, in "Protecting the Homeland: The Best Defense Is to Give No Offense," Cato Policy Analysis No. 306, May 5, 1998, quotes a 1996 study from the Defense Science Board:
As part of its global superpower position, the United States is called upon frequently to respond to international causes and deploy forces around the world. America's position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors.

Indeed, there is a fair amount of evidence for the view that terrorism is a means used to achieve the goal of getting foreign governments to pull their noses out of other people's affairs. Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, states:
The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign--over 95 percent of all the incidents--has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.

Pape, by the way, has "collected the first complete database of every suicide-terrorist attack around the world from 1980 to early 2004."

I made a similar point to that of Eland and Pape in a talk to a group of Department of Defense officials in 1996. Here's a quote from my talk:

What leads the Irish Republican Army to put bombs in Britain? Why don't they, for example, put bombs in Canada or Bangladesh? To ask the question is to answer it. They place the bomb where they think it will help influence the government that makes decisions most directly in the way of their goals, and the governments in the way of their goals are usually governments that intervene in their affairs.

So it's fair to say, contrary to Arnold Kling's brief unsubstantiated claim, that there is far more to the idea that terrorism is blowback than he thinks.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Lupis42 writes:

I read Arnold as saying that that libertarians attribute terrorism to blowback when there is no evidence or the evidence is inconclusive.
That is not inconsistent with the claim that terrorism is often (at least partially) caused by blowback, even if some of his alternative examples give that impression.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think one could just as easily make a case that the US doesn't intervene enough to decrease terrorism. In the bad old days, the US more commonly supported strong authoritarian states which kept terrorism low through very strong police states and ruthless internal intelligence agencies. The US supported these states with training and monetary contributions. I don't think this happened as often as claims heard from paranoid anti-interventionists, but we could certainly go back to such policies, which would then decrease terrorism.

I am certainly not in favor of destroying the lives of many foreigners to decrease terrorism, as these policies would entail. That's because terrorism is way down on my list of important foreign policy matters. Also, personal freedom for foreigners is not only a good thing in itself, but is good for the US in the long run. But my point is that it is far from clear whether US intervention increases terrorism or decreases it.

The one thing I find curious about Arnold Kling's comment is that he lays the particular piece of normative analysis on libertarians. I think it is much more prevalent amongst the leftists who seem to believe that any foreign action of the US constitutes genocide. There are certainly lots of libertarians who also believe that, but I think the number of leftists in that camp dwarf them.

David R. Henderson writes:

That is not inconsistent with the claim that terrorism is often (at least partially) caused by blowback, even if some of his alternative examples give that impression.
Arnold gives no alternative examples. Or do you have another post in mind?

Andrew_FL writes:

It's important to distinguish the nuanced view that "blowback" is a non trivial cause of terrorism, and the wishful thinking that the US withdrawing from the middle east completely would erase all desire of extremists to engage in terrorism.

I'd say the phenomenon he's talking about applies much more to the latter kind of thinking than the former.

Alex writes:

Its not that simple, there are examples of successful US intervention:

Stopping Nazi Germany,
stopping Imperial Japan
stopping the Soviet Union,
Stopping Communism expansion in Latin America,

Andrew_FL writes:

@Alex-Have you been to Latin America recently? Not sure I'd put that in the success column.

Moreover as I recall the Soviet Union collapsed without US intervention. With a lot of military spending, yes, but no actual war with the Soviet Union.

Carl writes:


When I think of "intervention" I imagine cases in which the USGOV has unilaterally decided to bomb/invade countries with whom they are not directly at war. Granted, your examples surely count as "intervention", too.

Carl writes:

Arnold's post is uncharacteristically unclear.

Blaming terrorism on blowback for foreign intervention.
Who doubts that blowback is responsible? The question is surely to what degree!

MichaelT writes:

@Alex, it seems like you are implying that the Soviet Union would exist today without US intervention. In that case, aren't you also implying that communism is a functional economic system that can only be defeated by increase military spending of its opponents?

Andrew_FL writes:

@MichaelT-I wouldn't go that far, but it's also true that the Soviet Union never really had "pure" socialism, and even when they came their closest, being able to rely on world market prices to provide a rough guide for economic calculation allowed them at least to hobble along without completely collapsing.

Besides that as dysfunctional an economic system as they had, their political system was in fact quite "functional" in that it was very good at suppressing any kind of opposition to its maintaining power. It wasn't the Soviet economy we need to collapse, it was the Soviet government.

Lupis42 writes:

@David R. Henderson

I meant his other examples of "normative sociology".
In general, it seems perfectly plausible to say that *some* terrorism (most of what the US faces) is blowback, but attributing terrorism to blowback is a default position among libertarians, and so we tend to 1) seek out evidence that supports that view, and 2) assume that cause whenever there isn't strong evidence of an alternative cause.
Both of these behaviors are pretty natural for people with a strong political opinion, and very noticeable whenever left-leaning folks talk about markets (find evidence of market failures, when in doubt, assume markets don't work), and I would expect to find them in Libertarians talking about terrorism.
In short, it's not about what the evidence says, it's about what rhetoric we use when the evidence is inconclusive or absent.

SGCleveland writes:

Pape may not self identify as a libertarian (I don't know, he may), but he has long been tied to his thesis of blowback causing suicide attacks. Much of his life's work has been in support of this position, so any "normative sociology" criticism of libertarians would also apply to him, his bias simply being his want to preserve his academic accomplishments.

That said, his work is excellent and I think his position has a lot of merit.

Arnold Kling writes:

David, the U.S. has intervened in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. We have not experienced terrorism except from the Middle East, and there the role of blowback is not clear--there are plenty of other causes, and Middle Eastern terrorists seem perfectly happy to operate in countries that have not invaded Iraq.

I think you have proved my point. Your preferred policy is non-intervention, and so blowback is your desired cause for terrorism. But you only look for evidence that confirms this. Go through the thought experiment of believing that terrorism is not caused by blowback, and then look for evidence from that perspective. That is what I ask for when someone has a "desired cause."

Thomas Stearns writes:

@ David,

It's hard for me to not see the thousands of annual civilian casualties in Muslim majority countries at the hands of terrorist elements as convincing evidence against the Pape thesis.

In my view, the most convincing evidence this against seems to lie in Pakistan and India, by which both have (roughly) the same colonial grievances and terrorist problems there could be attributable to those. However, after the partition, one of those countries became a terrorist impresario which has a sordid history of attacks against civilian populations and the other does not.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Arnold Kling,
We have not experienced terrorism except from the Middle East,
Pretty much true.
Your preferred policy is non-intervention, and so blowback is your desired cause for terrorism.
You’re right that my preferred policy is non-intervention. But the next part--“so blowback is your desired cause for terrorism”--does not follow. You are awfully presumptuous, Arnold.
the U.S. has intervened in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Yes. But to say that blowback is caused by intervention is not to say that intervention always causes blowback.
But you only look for evidence that confirms this.
Again, that’s awfully presumptuous on your part. We’ve met each other twice and talked twice and somehow you know me well enough to know that I look only for some kind of evidence? Give me a break.

Ben Kennedy writes:

To find out what causes terrorism, wouldn't it be prudent to ask the terrorists themselves? To quote David Cross:

"I don't think Osama bin Laden sent those planes to attack us because he hated our freedom. I think he did it because of our support for Israel and our ties with the Saudi family and our military bases in Saudi Arabia. You know why I think that? Because that's what he said."

When there actually is hard evidence that A causes B, then we are not practicing normative sociology

[comment edited per commenter--Econlib Ed.]

Roger Sweeny writes:

Ben Kennedy,

It is rather a large assumption that a political figure will tell you honestly why he did something. History is full of examples where that is not true.

(Though in this case, I think one of OBL's motivations was US troops in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, I don't think removing US troops would have done much to change his mind.)

Mr. Econotarian writes:
David, the U.S. has intervened in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. We have not experienced terrorism except from the Middle East,

Rare, but not unheard of...

1976 September 21: Orlando Letelier, a former member of the Chilean government, was killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C. along with his assistant Ronni Moffitt. The killing was carried out by members of the Chilean Intelligence Agency, DINA.

Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (English: Armed Forces of National Liberation, FALN) was a Puerto Rican clandestine paramilitary organization that, through direct action, advocated complete independence for Puerto Rico. At the time of its dissolution, the FALN was responsible for more than 120 bomb attacks on United States targets between 1974 and 1983.

Also not anti-US, but in the US, the Jewish Defense League was linked to several anti-Soviet bombings in the US (against Aeroflot offices, Soviet cultural offices and missions to UN, etc.)

Nov. 7, 1983: Sen. Robert Byrd’s Capitol Hill office and cloakrooms in the U.S. Capitol were bombed by members of the group Armed Resistance Unit. There were no injuries in the attack, which the group said was carried out on behalf of the citizens of Grenada, Lebanon, Palestine, El Salvador and Nicaragua in retaliation for “imperialist aggression.”

March 1, 1971: Protesting U.S. military involvement in Laos, The Weather Underground set off a bomb on the ground floor of the Capitol building. President Nixon calls the attack a "shocking act of violence that will outrage all Americans." The bomb caused an estimated $300,000 in damage, but there were no injuries.

March 1, 1954: Four Puerto Rican nationalists — Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero, and Irving Flores Rodríguez — opened fire with semi-automatic pistols from a balcony in the House of Representatives as members of Congress debated an immigration bill. Five representatives were wounded, and the attackers were jailed.

July 2, 1915: Harvard University German professor Eric Muenter detonated a bomb comprised of three sticks of dynamite in a Senate reception room as a protest to the U.S. support of the allies in the lead up to the first World War. There were no casualties.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Roger Sweeny,
Though in this case, I think one of OBL's motivations was US troops in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, I don't think removing US troops would have done much to change his mind.
I don’t either. His mind was made up. But remember that we’re trying to explain actions, not desires. Without those troops in Saudi Arabia, then, as Paul Wolfowitz said, he would have had less of a recruiting tool.

msreekan writes:

Foreign policy deals with an even more complex phenomenon than economics. There is little certainty of rule of law or due process within geo-politics, it's more or less the rule of force.

We do indeed know the consequences of the present interventionist policies but it's impossible to nail the exact trade-off involved with regards to all the cases.

Intervention or non-intervention both involve consequences. So rational methodology would be to decided the best course of action based on the detailed information available on specific cases.

Adopting non-intervention as a dogma seems unreasonable. To make some progress we need to integrate more institutional checks with regards to foreign policy actions. Refine the process.

For example, the intelligence failure with regards to Iraq WMD was institutional and the unintended consequences were huge. Additional checks should be introduced within the executive branch to weed out misinformation. Solution is to improve the reliability of intelligence gathering and analysis.

There are several epistemological problems here, but politics invokes our tribal instincts. We automatically align with ideologies and then proceed to the final stage of name calling and talking past each other.

Ron writes:

Even without actual intervention, I think there would be a prevalent perception of intervention. And a perception of intervention could produce as much unjust blowback as actual intervention could cause understandable blowback. You'll be hard pressed to convince them that the CIA is not behind every injustice taking place in their countries. Many of these terrorists are people who believe "the Jews" run the world; they do not require a lot of evidence for their perceptions, just a convenient and plausible scapegoat.

There is also the problem of transition, if we decide to do less intervention. It will be perceived as a withdrawal due to weakness which could invite even more attacks. So it is something that would have to be well calibrated.

@ David
I think I am with you in seeing US intervention as a cause of terrorism. This fits my out-of-the-closet bias: libertarian; mistrustful of state.

But Arnold gets my empathy with his request that you undertake a thought experiment to try to see it from his position. I empathize with this request because I routinely wish that I could get statists to consider my alternate view.

Suppose that John Doe with whom I argue has made an effort to see the situation from my view. Then I suppose that John, in addressing me, will show evidence of what he has observed while trying to see from my view. I look for this. But the statists with whom I argue fail virtually always to show they have made any effort to understand where a libertarian comes from.

Assuming you have tried to understand Arnold's view, I wonder if you have shown evidence of that effort to Arnold. (Assuming it might be worth your time and effort.)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard O. Hammer,
Points well taken.
Assuming you have tried to understand Arnold's view, I wonder if you have shown evidence of that effort to Arnold. (Assuming it might be worth your time and effort.)
Arnold, as you can see from the post I cited, is too brief on the issue for me to know what his view is, other than that it’s not mine. But I think it is worth thinking about. What are the alternate explanations of terrorism that you think I should think about?

Hazel Meade writes:

I think it's fair to say that religion is at least a major motivating factor in the case of US forces (formerly) near Mecca and Medina.

After all, these were not occupying forces. The objection was merely that Christians were located in the vicinity of an Islamic holy site. If religion wasn't involved, then the situation would be no different from US forces stationed in Japan or Germany, and you don't see Japanese or Germans blowing themselves up to kill them.

One could also say that terrorist attacks are blowback for our funding of girls schools in Afghanistan or for our distribution of degenerate Western media in Islamic countries. In both cases, terrorists are seeking to remove what they consider to be some immoral influence from their culture. But all of that is still based on their religious perspective.

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