David R. Henderson  

Unintended, but Predictable, Consequence #262

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Significantly, when the last American troops left Iraq, in December 2011, isis did not follow them home. "In its various incarnations," notes Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert who is a professor at Georgetown, the Islamic State "focused first and foremost on its immediate theater of operations." Although isis was happy if people inspired by its message struck Western targets, it made little effort to orchestrate such attacks. Research fellows at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment detected only four isis-related plots in the West from January 2011 to May 2014.

But beginning in the fall of 2014, the number of isis-related plots in the West spiked. The Norwegian researchers counted 26 from July 2014 to June 2015 alone. What explains the rise? The most plausible explanation is that the Islamic State started targeting Western countries because they had started targeting it. In August 2014, the United States began bombing isis targets to protect the Yazidi religious sect in northern Iraq, which isis was threatening with extermination. France joined the air campaign the following month. Since then, isis seems to have moved from merely inspiring attacks against the West to actively planning them. November's attacks in Paris, writes Byman, were the "first time that isis has devoted significant resources to a mass-casualty attack in Europe." Afterward, isis released a video warning the people of France: "As long as you keep bombing you will not find peace."


This is from Peter Beinart, "Why Attacking ISIS Won't Make Americans Safer," in The Atlantic, March 2016. The title is understated. Beinart makes the case that attacking ISIS puts Americans at greater risk.

What about Marco Rubio's George W. Bush-like idea that ISIS attacks countries because they are tolerant?

The counterexample is Russia. Beinart writes:

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio declared that the reason isis targets the West is "because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs ... because we're a tolerant society." Yet only weeks earlier, isis had downed a Russian airliner over the Sinai, thus targeting the distinctly intolerant regime of Vladimir Putin. The Islamic State's justification for that attack was identical to the one it gave for its attack on France: It was bombing Russia because Russia had bombed it.

All of which suggests that the more America intensifies its war against isis, the more isis will try to strike Americans. And the more terrorism isis manages to carry out, the more fiercely America will escalate its air attacks, thus creating the civilian casualties that, according to the International Crisis Group's Noah Bonsey, "tremendously help the narrative of a jihadi group like the Islamic State." If the public reaction to Paris and the December attack in San Bernardino is any guide, continued jihadist terrorism will also lead to a rising demand for American ground troops. That, argues the French isis expert Jean-Pierre Filiu, would be the worst trap America could fall into, because isis wants to cast itself as the Islamic world's defender against a new crusader invasion.


HT to Jeff Hummel.


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (19 to date)
Paul Bogle writes:

For all the bluster on the Republican side, what evidence is there of US escalation?

I suppose ignoring ISIS might have made the US less of a target in the short run. That strategy worked great in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. Things were very quiet for several years before the embassy bombings, 9/11, etc.

Arilando writes:

I think a few hundred victims of terrorism is a small price to pay in exchange for preventing the extermination of an entire ethnic group.

KevinDC writes:

Arilando,

One also has to account for the number of innocent people who will inevitably killed when carrying out such operations. Certainly some innocent people, Yazidi and otherwise, were killed during the attempt to keep them safe from ISIS. I'm not saying this proves your statement wrong, of course, but it does deserve to be weighed in. Still, saying "I think a few hundred victims of terrorism, plus a few thousand civilians killed in bombings, is a price worth paying to prevent the genocide of an entire ethnic group" seems a basically defensible statement.

Of course, I have not followed these events with any real scrutiny so I have no idea if the statement above is an approximately correct representation of the reality, or an absurdly Pollyanna-esque oversimplification. Until I look at this topic more closely, I'm in the "no opinion" camp.

Maybe 'attacking' ISIS won't make us safer, but how about destroying ISIS?

KevinDC writes:

Arilando,

One also has to account for the number of innocent people who will inevitably killed when carrying out such operations. Certainly some innocent people, Yazidi and otherwise, were killed during the attempt to keep them safe from ISIS. I'm not saying this proves your statement wrong, of course, but it does deserve to be weighed in. Still, saying "I think a few hundred victims of terrorism, plus a few thousand civilians killed in bombings, is a price worth paying to prevent the genocide of an entire ethnic group" seems a basically defensible statement.

Of course, I have not followed these events with any real scrutiny so I have no idea if the statement above is an approximately correct representation of the reality, or an absurdly Pollyanna-esque oversimplification. Until I look at this topic more closely, I'm in the "no opinion" camp.

To make Arilando's point obvious, we killed a lot of innocent Japanese civilians by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We undoubtedly saved a lot more innocent Japanese lives by sparing them the invasion that otherwise would have been necessary to end WWII in the Pacific.

We also put an end to Japanese militarism that had killed millions of innocent Chinese, Filipinos, and other Asians.

Nathan writes:

These pacifist rationalizations always leave ignored the question: what are the long term consequences for the citizens of a country whose government refuses to act even when civilians are brutally decapitated on camera?

I'm willing to say it's not to make those civilians safer.

Harold Cockerill writes:

So all we have to do is make a deal with ISIS that when they're done with the Yazidi that's it, no more ethnic cleansing. Oh well, yeah, we may have to throw in the Israelis, but after that finito, done, that's it. Obama should be able to get this done really quick, after all, he's aced it with the Iranians and that's turned out swell. Better yet we should promise to not bother ISIS at all no matter who they kill. Maybe the deal could include supplying them with weapons. What could go wrong?

C.S. writes:

The ultra pacifist/antiwar sect of libertarianism has always struck me as grossly nationalistic (even if it's unintentional).

We only care about the rape/enslavement/murder of an ethnic group if they live inside US borders? We're willing to accept groups such as ISIS destroying entire populations of people -- as long as they leave us alone?

Should we start signing treaties with them?

JK Brown writes:

In becoming concerned that the feckless governments of Europe are putting themselves in the same situation that Mises describes regarding terrorism that was being undertake for another resurgent ideology near 100 years ago.


The frank espousal of a policy of annihilating opponents and the murders committed in the pursuance of it have given rise to an opposition movement. All at once the scales fell from the eyes of the non-Communist enemies of liberalism. Until then they had believed that even in a struggle against a hateful opponent one still had to respect certain liberal principles. They had had, even though reluctantly, to exclude murder and assassination from the list of measures to be resorted to in political struggles. They had had to resign themselves to many limitations in persecuting the opposition press and in suppressing the spoken word. Now, all at once, they saw that opponents had risen up who gave no heed to such considerations and for whom any means was good enough to defeat an adversary. The militaristic and nationalistic enemies of the Third International felt themselves cheated by liberalism. Liberalism, they thought, stayed their hand when they desired to strike a blow against the revolutionary parties while it was still possible to do so. If liberalism had not hindered them, they would, so they believe, have bloodily nipped the revolutionary movements in the bud. Revolutionary ideas had been able to take root and flourish only because of the tolerance they had been accorded by their opponents, whose will power had been enfeebled by a regard for liberal principles that, as events subsequently proved, was overscrupulous. If the idea had occurred to them years ago that it is permissible to crush ruthlessly every revolutionary movement, the victories that the Third International has won since 1917 would never have been possible. For the militarists and nationalists believe that when it comes to shooting and fighting, they themselves are the most accurate marksmen and the most adroit fighters.

Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-10). Liberalism (p. 48). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.


No, even if responding violence were to arise, it wouldn't necessarily mean the same as the fascists in Germany mutated to in the 1930s. The incremental nationalist socialists had a progress through interventionism, but today, even their interventionism has already been show to lead to economic failures in Western Europe even as revolutionary socialisms|, i.e., communists, full blown state socialism has been show to lead to economic collapse.

But if government won't protect society, someone will rise to do it.

LD Bottorff writes:

Sometimes we must fight. But when we fight, we must be aware of the likely consequences, both intended and unintended. Professor Henderson reminds us of the consequences of war because it is foolish to undertake anything without considering the consequences. War is a very dangerous and expensive undertaking. We should listen to people who advocate caution.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan-Isn't there a far more obvious analog to Arilando's comment than non Japanese Asians at the hands of the Japanese?

Don't be afraid of the "Godwin's law, you lose!" fallacy.

P A writes:

"ISIS attacks the West because we are tolerant" (the obvious example being Charlie Hebdo) and "ISIS attacks Russia, which is intolerant" aren't mutually exclusive. ISIS can be enemies with different countries for different reasons.

David Henderson Author Profile Page writes:

Nathan, I’m not sure whom you’re addressing. I think it’s I. If so, you should know that I’m not a pacifist.

Mark Bahner writes:
We only care about the rape/enslavement/murder of an ethnic group if they live inside US borders? We're willing to accept groups such as ISIS destroying entire populations of people -- as long as they leave us alone?

The President and Members of Congress all take an oath to follow the Constitution. The Constitution does not authorize the federal government to use the military to deal with the rape/enslavement/murder of an ethnic group outside of the U.S. borders...UNLESS the military actions are legitimately be related to "the common defence".

It is not only illegal (a violation of the Constitution), it is immoral to use the U.S. military in a way that members of the military may be killed in a matter that is not related to "the common defence."

Now, it may be reasonable to say that the "government" of ISIS is a threat to "the common defence." If so, the Constitution authorizes Congress to declare war (on ISIS, and ISIS alone), and the President to wage war (on ISIS, and ISIS alone). The Constitution does *not* authorize the President to use the military to conduct extra-judicial executions of people with whom the U.S. government is not at war (e.g. ISIS at present).

So...to summarize:

1) If ISIS is a threat to "the common defence" then Congress should declare war, and the President should wage war (on ISIS, and ISIS alone) how he or she sees fit.

2) Absent a Congressional declaration of war on ISIS, the Constitution does not authorize the President to kill anyone without trial, no matter how many people in other countries they kill.

Larry L Terry writes:

Scott Adams blog post yesterday posited a thought experiment on this same topic. Don't let the title dissuade you from reading it. It is worth considering. http://blog.dilbert.com/post/141810560316/the-elbonian-zombie-virus

Mark Bahner writes:
Scott Adams blog post yesterday posited a thought experiment on this same topic.

Scott Adams writes that:

Now here’s the interesting part. What is the functional difference between the Elbonian Zombie Virus and radical islamic terrorism? In both cases they are spread by prolonged personal contact.

However, the "prolonged personal contact" that transmits Islamic terrorism can be by computer, whereas Elbonian Zombie Virus is only transmitted by direct fluidic contact (at least according to prevailing zombie medical science).

A key aspect that I think most people miss is that individuals are not nearly as dangerous as governments. For example, Osama bin Laden would have been arrested and sentenced to prison long before 2001 had he not been protected from extradition and prosecution by a succession of governments. For example, he was indicted in the U.S. in 1998 for the U.S. embassy bombings, but he was protected from extradition by the Taliban government.

The proper thing to do after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings would have been to deal with the Taliban government...even to the point of declaring war on the Taliban government. Instead, the U.S. blew up a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. Needless to say, that wasn't effective in getting Osama bin Laden extradited to the U.S.

Weir writes:

On the other hand, the pre-emptive strike against Paddy's Pub in Bali, in 2002, did successfully deter Paddy's Pub.

Paddy's Pub was contained and prevented from invading the holy lands. The imperialist warmongering of Paddy's Pub was a direct threat to the material interests of Jemaah Islamiyah, so JI was pursuing a rational strategy of containment in attacking the bar. We can all agree on that.

But, and this is where I disagree with Peter Beinart and David Henderson, the defeat of Paddy's Pub was exactly that, a defeat. Paddy's Pub was conquered and destroyed and taken out of the "Great Game" of empire. Paddy's Pub didn't perceive its defeat as some kind of victory or stepping-stone or some mark of progress in the war it had been waging against JI and the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

This week ISIS lost control of the city of Palmyra, which is a defeat for ISIS. Within ISIS the belief, accurate or not, is that losing Palmyra is a defeat. The belief within ISIS is that a loss is not always a win.

It's too early to tell, so Beinart and Henderson may one day point to defeat in Palmyra and say that, actually, ISIS was mistaken in trying not to be defeated in Palmyra. But if Beinart and Henderson look at the example of Paddy's Pub from fourteen years ago, Paddy's Pub did not intensify its attacks in response. Paddy's Pub was deterred.

The same way the young women going to school in Nigeria were successfully deterred from recklessly attacking Boko Haram. Just as the Jewish Museum in Brussels was successfully deterred from attacking Islamic State. Jewish supermarkets. American rock concerts. Chocolate shops. Cartoons. Jewish graveyards. No Jewish graveyard has attacked ISIS, which is surely proof that Jewish graveyards can be deterred?

Richard Fulmer writes:

I find myself agreeing with posts on all sides of this discussion.

On the one hand, national defense is essential in the world we live in. Historically, people who are unable to defend themselves often become victims. Slavers kidnapped nationless people - both in Slavic regions and in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Jews, with no country of their own, often became prey despite the wealth they created for the people who attacked them.

Lebanon was probably the most libertarian country in history until it was overrun by Syria and the PLO because it lacked adequate defensive capabilities.

On the other hand, the U.S. has made far too many enemies with its often aggressive dealings with other countries.

Perhaps it's a question of where defense ends and offense begins.

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