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Terrorism & Political Violence. Deterrence/Rationality/War “The Terrorist Mindset”. Lecture Outline. Deterrence Theory Game Theory Nature of Conflict Rational Choice versus Conditioning Agents V. The Calculus of Terrorism VI. Strategic Objectives VII. Tactical Objectives

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terrorism political violence

Terrorism & Political Violence


“The Terrorist Mindset”

lecture outline

Lecture Outline

Deterrence Theory

Game Theory

Nature of Conflict

Rational Choice versus Conditioning Agents

V. The Calculus of Terrorism

VI. Strategic Objectives

VII. Tactical Objectives

VIII. Misdirection, Deception Strategies, & Tactics

IX. Target Selection Strategies

X. “General” Target Categories

XI. “Specific” Target Categories

XII. Summary of Target Selection:

XIII. Why Talk About Strategy & Targeting?

XIV. Discussion Questions


counter insurgency

In the context of an occupation or a civil war, counter-insurgency is a military term meaning combat or other efforts against a rebellion (“insurgency“) by forces aligned with the controlling government of the territory in which the combat takes place.

It refers to suppression of a rebellion and is not exclusively used against terrorists.

civil war revolution
Civil War & Revolution

A civil war is a war in which combatants within the same culture, society or nationality fight against each other for the control of political power.

Some civil wars are categorized as a revolution when major societal restructuring and emphasizing of alternative dominant values is a possible outcome of the conflict.


Appeasement means give the enemy whatever they demand in the belief that it will keep the peace.

It is based on the view that peace is worth more than anything else. So, it leads to a policy of “peace at all costs.”


Deterrence is about how to get an opponent to NOT do something due to some threatened consequence for doing it, or vice versa. That is, influencing choices of another by affecting expectations of how his or her adversary will behave.

As such, in the world of international affairs, deterrence is NOT about the effective application of force, but instead about the exploitation of “potential force.”

Deterrence strategies are often meant to create common ground for disputants—the avoidance of worse outcomes for both. That is, to get to a mutually advantageous outcome.


principles of effective deterrence
Principles of Effective Deterrence
  • Clear Communication of threat.
  • Threat must be credible.
  • Adversary must be rational.
  • A face-saving “way out” of suffering the threat must be made available to adversary.
  • Threat must not include possibility of all-out retaliation or devastation.
  • Credible assurances given to adversary of no surprise first strike.
  • Convince adversaries that it is in their own best interest to comply with demand.


an example of successful deterrence
An Example of Successful Deterrence

Iraq admitted to UN officials that it was prepared to use deadly toxins and bacteria against US and allied forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In December 1990 Saddam Hussein loaded 3 types of biological agents into 200 missile warheads and bombs that were then distributed to air bases and missile sites.

They decided not to use them when the US made it clear, in an unambiguous & strongly worded assertion on Jan. 9, 1991, that any use of unconventional warfare would provoke a “devastating response.”

The Iraqis interpreted this as a nuclear threat and it forced them to stand down from their planned biological attack.

the court of international justice has undermined nuclear deterrence
The Court of International Justice has Undermined Nuclear Deterrence

The Court of International Justice has issued rulings asserting that a nation cannot retaliate by targeting civilian areas with a nuclear response, even if the retaliation is a response to a nuclear attack or a deliberate attack on civilians.

In fact, US threats of nuclear retaliation against Iraq helped uphold the UN Charter and various Human Rights Accords -- by deterring CBRN attacks. To be effective, a threat has to be credible.

why deterrence fails
Why Deterrence Fails
  • Communication breakdown (mistranslation?).
  • Threat is not credible
  • Adversary is not rational.
  • A face-saving “way out” of suffering the threat is not made available to adversary.
  • Threat was all-out retaliation or devastation.
  • No credible assurances given to adversary of no surprise first strike.
  • It is not made in the adversary’s interest to comply with demands or for them to rely on diplomacy.


what does it mean to be rational
What does it Mean to be Rational?

The first version of rationality meant that a person seeks to maximize utility.

In other words, it is cost-benefit (or risk-benefit) analysis, where a rational act is one where the benefit of the action outweighs its costs.

Some options provide more benefit (a greater positive value) than others.


utility theory

John von Neumann’s contribution to economics and game theory (along with his “Minimax Theorem”).

Utility theory asserts that people, when faced with a decision, rank the options in the order from most favored to least favored…and presumably choose the most favored (the one that provides them with the greatest utility).


maximizing utility versus minimizing loss
Maximizing “Utility” versus Minimizing “Loss”

Which is more rational – maximizing utility or minimizing loss?

That is, is it better to reach for the maximum payoff or to minimize potential loss? Which one is more realistic of what people do?

If it is minimizing loss, then people conform to the “Minimax Theorem” (i.e., minimize maximum regret). It became the new definition of rationality.

expected utility versus raw utility
“Expected Utility” versus “Raw” Utility

Expected utility takes into account the likelihood (probability) of success when determining the rationality of an act or decision.

Expected utility is obtained by multiplying the raw utility by the probability of success in getting that (raw) utility. The result is the “expected utility” to be derived from the act.

an example of how expected utility can effect the outcome or one s behavior
An Example of how Expected Utility can effect the outcome (or one’s behavior)


Ralph Nader 10 units of utility

John Kerry: 7 units of utility

George W. Bush: 2 units of utility.


Ralph Nader: has a .05 probability of winning (so 10 x .05 = 0.5).

John Kerry: has a .45 chance of winning (so 7 * .45 = 3.15).

George W. Bush has a .45 chance of winning (so 2 * .45 = 0.9).

“Expected” utility changed the vote from Nader to Kerry for this voter.

rational choice utility theory game theory
Rational Choice + Utility Theory = Game Theory

Rationality (Rational Choice) and Utility Theory provides the foundation for an approach to doing analysis called “Game Theory.”

Much of American foreign policy, especially the war on terror, is based on assumptions of rationality.

game theory

Game Theory is a branch of mathematics (applied mathematics). It is a way of using math to study social situations.

Many psychologists call game theory, “The Theory of Social Situations.”

game theory1

1. Participants are treated as “Players” who act simultaneously or take turns.

2. There is a benefit (payoff or prize) measured in utility, which may be different for each player.

3. There may be costs (and usually are) for playing “game”.

4. There may be risks (and usually are).

5. Assumes players are rational; that is, seek to maximize “expected” benefit (or minimize loss).


the prisoner s dilemma
The “Prisoner’s Dilemma”


Silent Confess










an example of a prisoner s dilemma
An Example of a Prisoner’s Dilemma


Diplomacy Attack (Retaliate)












us foreign policy 1787 present
US Foreign Policy: 1787 - Present

US policymakers have mostly been rational for our entire history and our foreign policy has generally been based on the rational choice approach.

That is, we try to deter our enemies by increasing the risk and cost to them for terrorism or waging war with us, assuming that our enemies are rational.

For 200 years they generally were, but in the last 3 decades or so we have made enemies that are not rational (or, alternatively, what we think is the benefit they derive from violence is not the benefit that they actually derive).

What kind of utility are our enemies seeking?

what if war is what the enemy wants
What if war is what the enemy wants?

Traditional deterrence will not work if conflict is what the enemy wants.

If dealing with an apocalyptic group seeking a showdown between good and evil, whose members not only do not fear death but seek it as martyrdom, then traditional deterrence theory will not work.

To get deterrence back on track, the threatened penalty must be in units of something they care about.

Can Al-Qaeda even be deterred?


whose rules shall prevail
Whose Rules Shall Prevail?

We cannot make irrational enemies rational.

That is like sitting down with them and inviting them to play a game, but according to our rules.

Our rules benefit us, and our terrorist enemies know it, so they do not want to play by our rules (i.e., Geneva Convention, etc.). They would lose in a straight-up military confrontation limited by international rules of warfare.

Our enemies play by rules that favor them: irregular warfare and terrorism, plus they are motivated not by political gain, but by destroying their evil enemies, even if it costs them everything.


so how do we deter them
So, How do we deter them?

Having irrational enemies does not rule out the military means of counter-terrorism.

It does mean, though, that we will have to track the terrorists down and kill them.

This is perhaps the only policy that will work against the new modern type of (religious motivated) terrorists.

They are not afraid of being treated as criminals (or even as POWs) because of our procedural safeguards and rights. They are not afraid of death. But, killing them does mean that they will not do terrorism any more.


the calculus of terrorism
“The Calculus of Terrorism”

R = P B – C + D

“R” is the terrorist’s reward for committing an act of terror.

“P” is the probability of a successful mission.

“B” is the set of tangible benefits to the terrorist.

“C” is the cost paid by the terrorist.

“D” is the terrorist’s psychic benefit derived from an act of terror. [This is the most critical factor for modern {religious motivated} terrorists].


the dollar auction
The Dollar Auction

A dollar being auctioned will go to the highest bidder.

The second highest bidder does not get anything, but still has to pay his or her bid.

No other bidders will pay.

Are there such games in reality? How about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?


how game theory explains the middle east

Game Theory offers a logical explanation for why each party to the Middle East conflict is acting the way it is, and how their "payoff grids" relate.

In essence, according to Game Theory assumptions, Israel, The USA, and the Arabs are each acting in their own self-interest (and for rational objectives).

Given these assumptions, the present situation in the Middle East is a Prisoner’s Dilemma and the resulting continuation of violence is practically inevitable.


the middle east as a prisoner s dilemma
The Middle East as a Prisoner’s Dilemma

Unfortunately, one of the most common results from prisoner's dilemma games is to produce a worse (or possibly the worst) possible joint result for everyone, even though each participant to the conflict may be acting rationally on their own.

That is what is happening in the Middle East: Each “player” to this game is ending up with a sub-optimal outcome. This is the result of them being rational, not irrational.

The overall dynamic encourages anti-Israeli terror groups (and the Palestinians as a whole), and badly undermines Israel’s (and the USA’s) ability to apply deterrence and prevent further escalation.

the middle east game
The Middle East “Game”












Whether the players maximize utility or minimize loss, the outcome is the same (outcome A: both fight).

stuck in a rut
Stuck in a Rut

Israel prefers negotiation to fighting, and the Palestinians know this, so the Palestinians are more likely to choose to fight because if the Israelis choose diplomacy, the Palestinians gain +4; if the Israelis choose to fight, the Palestinians only lose -2 (rather than -4).

Now the Israelis know the preference of Palestinians to fight, so their most rational choice is to fight too (and lose -2, but they would lose -4 if they choose negotiation, given the Palestinians are likely to fight). But every now and then, Israel offers a truce (negotiates) to break out of the rut.

individual rationality often leads to a collective irrational or a sub optimal outcome
Individual Rationality Often Leads to a Collective Irrational (or a sub-optimal) Outcome

In a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma situation, individual rationality by all players often leads to a collectively irrational (or at least a sub-optimal) outcome.

Both Israel and the Palestinians are each acting rationally, but it leads to a collectively irrational (or at least a less-than-optimal outcome.

This is why the Middle East conflict is so intractable, and why Palestinian groups want to fight and use terrorism. [They derive psychological utility.


tit for tat

Tit-for-Tat is a strategy for dealing with rivalry in an iterative (or repeat play) situation.

It is when a player cooperates on the first move (i.e., negotiates), but then for each successive round does what the opponent did in the previous round.

Israel is playing “Tit-for-Tat” while the Palestinians are almost always playing the strategy of “always defecting” from cooperation (i.e., they are always fighting).

Sometimes the Palestinians negotiate for long periods and then attack as a way to gain advantage (i.e., maximize utility).


robert axelrod s famous contest
Robert Axelrod’s Famous Contest

Axelrod invited various social scientists to submit computer programs for a contest in which each entry would be matched against every other entry in the indefinitely repeated Prisoners' Dilemma. Points would be totaled after every round and the winner proclaimed after the final round.

Contestants submitted 63 computer programs that implemented possible strategies of the game. For example, TIT-FOR-TAT was submitted by the psychologist, Anatole Rapoport. It cooperated on the 1st round and then for every following round did what the opponent did in the previous round.

The GRIM strategy, which punishes any deviation from co-operation by switching permanently to defection, was submitted by the economist, James Friedman. And so on.

TIT-FOR-TAT was the most successful strategy (i.e., earned the most points).


a few examples of possible strategies
A Few Examples of Possible Strategies

Tit For Tat – Start with cooperation and then repeat opponent's last choice.

Random – Flip a coin to determine choice.

Always Cooperate.

Always Defect.

Suspicious Tit For Tat - As for Tit For Tat except begins by defecting.

Naive Prober - Repeat opponent's last choice, but sometimes probe by defecting in lieu of co-operating.

Remorseful Prober - Repeat opponent's last choice, but sometimes probe by defecting in lieu of co-operating. If the opponent defects in response to probing, show remorse by co-operating once.

Naive Peace Maker - Repeat opponent's last choice, but sometimes make peace by co-operating in lieu of defecting.

True Peace Maker - Co-operate unless opponent defects twice in a row, then defect once, but sometimes make peace by co-operating in lieu of defecting.

Grudger (Co-operate, but only be a sucker once) - Co-operate until the opponent defects. Then always defect unforgivingly.


the evolution of strategies
The “Evolution” of Strategies

Axelrod then simulated the effect of “evolution” operating on the 63 strategies using an updating rule which ensured that strategies that achieve a high payoff in one generation (i.e., round) are more numerous in the next (via replication).

The fact that TIT-FOR-TAT was the most numerous of all the surviving programs at the end of the evolutionary simulation clinched the question for Axelrod, who then proceeded to propose TIT-FOR-TAT as a suitable paradigm for human co-operation in a very wide range of contexts.


the virtues of tit for tat
The Virtues of Tit-for-Tat

In describing its virtues, Axelrod (The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984, p. 54) said:

“What accounts for TIT-FOR-TAT's robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual co-operation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long-term co-operation.”


characteristics of an effective strategy or foreign policy
Characteristics of an Effective Strategy (or Foreign Policy)

By analysing the top-scoring strategies, Axelrod stated several conditions necessary for a strategy to be successful.

1. Nice: The most important condition is that the strategy must be "nice", that is, it will not defect before its opponent does. Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice; therefore a purely selfish strategy will not "cheat" on its opponent, for purely utilitarian reasons first. Nice guys finish first.

2. Retaliating: However, Axelrod contended, the successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must sometimes retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as "nasty" strategies will ruthlessly exploit such softies.

3. Forgiving: Another quality of successful strategies is that they must be forgiving. Though they will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to play defects. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximizing points.

5. Clarity: Opponents must be able figure out from your decisions what you are seeking to accomplish so that they can devise a strategy of their own that will maximize their own utility.

4. Non-envious: The quality of being non-envious means not striving to score more than the opponent (impossible for a ‘nice’ strategy, i.e., a 'nice' strategy can never score more than the opponent).


tit for tat ruled for 20 years
Tit-for-Tat Ruled for 20 Years

Tit-for-Tat strategy held the throne as the most successful strategy in iterated prisoner’s dilemma games until 2004 when an alternative strategy was devised. It had some contestants engaging in “team” play.

team play beats tit for tat
“Team-Play” beats Tit-for-Tat

Although Tit-for-Tat is considered to be the most robust basic strategy, a team from Southampton University in England introduced a new strategy at the 20th-anniversary Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma competition, which proved to be more successful than Tit-for-Tat.

The contest was designed to have individual contestants each playing for him or her self. The players from Southampton University, however, were playing as a team.

This strategy relied on cooperation between programs to achieve the highest number of points for a single program. The University submitted 60 contestants (each submitting a program) to the competition, which were designed to recognize each other through a series of five to ten moves at the start.

Once this recognition was made, one program would then always cooperate and the other would always defect, assuring the maximum number of points for the defector.

If the program realized that it was playing a non-Southampton player, it would continuously defect in an attempt to minimize the score of the competing program. As a result, this strategy ended up taking the top three positions in the competition, as well as a number of positions towards the bottom.

israel is a na ve peace maker
Israel is a “Naïve Peace Maker”

Israel uses the strategy of the “Naive Peace Maker” – which means to repeat opponent's last choice, but sometimes cooperate to see if the opponent is willing to cooperate.

the palestians are remorseful probers
The Palestians are “Remorseful Probers”

Remorseful Prober - Repeat opponent's last choice, but sometimes probe by defecting (i.e., fight) in lieu of co-operating (i.e., negotiating). If the opponent defects (i.e., fights) in response to probing, then cooperate once.

the us payoff matrix for the israel palestinian conflict
The US Payoff Matrixfor the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

This is why the USA puts pressure on Israel to Negotiate, even when the Palestinians Fight: It is the best outcome for the USA. We prefer the bottom two cells when compared to the upper cells, respectively.

u s pressure on israel
U.S. Pressure on Israel

US pressure on Israel to negotiate is not good for Israel because the Palestinians are given an incentive to fight because when they do so, and Israel does not, Palestinian payoff is greatest.

President G. W. Bush, however, has backed off in pressuring Israel to end hostilities whenever Israel is attacked (at least in the Summer 2006 war)…which was a change in direction for US policy.

the payoff matrix for arabs for the israel palestinian conflict
The Payoff Matrix for Arabsfor the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

This is why Iran and Syria encourage fighting, fund the Palestinian militias, and sanction the use of terrorism. The Arab states always do better when Palestinians fight, regardless of what Israel does.

the heart of the middle east problem
The Heart of the Middle East Problem

The region’s Arab states are doing everything in their power to exacerbate the conflict and to keep the Palestinians fighting—and to keep the suicide bombings going.

Meanwhile, their pressure (and UN and Europe’s pressure) on the US, in turn, makes the US pressure Israel to take the destructive path of negotiation, something that will never work as long as the Palestinians continue to fight. The Palestinians will fight so long as Israel does not.


a possible way out of the entanglement
A Possible Way Out of the Entanglement

It can be argued that the US should stop pressuring Israel to negotiate. This will make the Palestinians negotiate IN GOOD FAITH (a very important distinction from negotiating as a stalling tactic or as a strategic move).

US pressure on Israel to negotiate encourages the Palestinians to keep fighting, so as to maximize their utility.

In sum, the US should stop acting rationally in its interests, and instead move away from negotiation (as a strategic move on our part). It only encourages Palestinians to fight and Arabs to support fighting.

George W. Bush, in the Summer 2006 Lebanon war, showed signs of doing this: he did NOT pressure Israel much, at least not until severe damage was done to the Hezbollah militia.

Europe and the UN did the same, at first, but then reverted to their old ways of pressuring Israel by accusing it of war crimes, etc.


the singapore airlines example
The Singapore Airlines Example

Singapore Airlines SQ 117, with 123 people on board, was hijacked on March 26 March 1991 (10 years before 9/11).

There were 4 hijackers who were members of a Pakistani leftist group. They were armed with grenades and knives, and demanded the release of prisoners in Pakistan.

After 8 hours of negotiations, the hijackers turned aggressive, issuing a five-minute deadline, and threatening to kill a hostage every 10 minutes if their demands were not met.


the outcome of the singapore airlines example
The Outcome of the Singapore Airlines Example

While the terrorists still had the impression that the government was still open to negotiation, the Singapore government gave the order to conduct a surprise raid.Within 30 seconds, all hijackers were shot dead and no passengers or crew got injured.

The whole ordeal ended in less than 9 hours.


the game matrix
The Game Matrix

Singapore Government

Meet Demands

Execute a Raid






















Note that the Singapore government prefers a raid regardless of what the terrorists do. That makes a “raid” its dominant strategy.


analysis of singapore incident
Analysis of Singapore Incident

By conducting a raid, does this mean that the Singapore government would be punished in the long run by the terror group for the government’s decision to raid?

Apparently, the answer is NO.

The Singapore government, by adopting an extremely hard stance towards such acts of terrorism in 1991, actually changed this infinitely repeated game model into a single round model!

The Singapore government believes that by dealing firmly with the first of such incidents, terrorists would be put off from attempting any such acts of terrorisms in Singapore knowing that the Singapore government will never give in to any of their demands.

By doing the raid, there would never be a second round or second game! The terrorists quit the game (so far). It is irrational to continue the game on their part.


all this discussion of rationality and deterrence is based on traditional notions of war
All this discussion of Rationality and Deterrence is based on traditional notions of war

Traditional notions of war assume that an enemy has “political” objectives (land, money, natural resources, etc).

Rationality also assumes that those objectives can be removed from the enemy’s agenda by threats and other means of deterrence—or perhaps by war (by imposing costs greater than the benefit).

This notion of rationality and war may be ineffective for many enemies.


how do you deter such enemies
How do you deter such enemies?

If they do not mind dying, and don’t mind sacrificing thousands of their own people, and they want an all out war, how can you threaten a greater cost that will deter them?

That is, how do you get them to conclude that the cost of their action is greater than the benefit derived?

is the united nations and other western nations undermining the war on terror
Is the United Nations (and other Western Nations) undermining the war on Terror?

Is the United Nations using an outdated notion of warfare and deterrence.

Is the UN undermining the credibility of threats by requiring proportionality, outlawing nuclear retaliation, blurring communication, assuming enemy is rational, and not providing an incentive for terrorists to deviate from terrorism.

Is the UN Naïve?


strategic decisions
Strategic Decisions

1. Terrorists almost always take the initiative.

2. Terrorists prefer simple strategies.

3. Terrorists want actions perceived as random.

4. Terrorists are rational in target selection and tactical choices, but irrational in decision to use terrorism (unless the psychic benefit is included in the analysis).


strategic objectives




Extortion or Demands







tactical objectives








Attacks show that the terrorists are capable of carrying out the operation as planned. They want to carry out the attack, propagate the news of their success, and possibly make demands for concessions, influence, or some other “strategic” goal).



The objective is to attract the attention of the victim and society through the news media or word of mouth and demonstrate their “power.”



Although rare for recent religious terrorists, the terror group will sometimes make demands; regardless of whether the attack is successful or not.



The objective here is to confuse the enemy as a prelude to another attack elsewhere (and possible as a means to escape). It can divide the forces of the counter-terrorist organization.



Getting away alive is becoming less of an option for many terrorists as suicide/”martyrdom” attacks become more frequent. Escape is a tactical objective, not a strategic one, because the terrorist may want to escape but the group leader may be more interested in success of the attack (and not the life of the terrorist).


the bush doctrine of preemption
The Bush Doctrine of Preemption

The Bush “Preemption” Doctrine has mainly to do with [threatened] regime change for any nation that meets 3 criteria:

  • It is a non-Democratic Regime
  • It has or seeking weapons of mass destruction (Chemical, biological, nuclear).
  • It has ties to terrorism or terror groups.

In 2003, it only applied to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria (and possibly Sudan). Regime change has already occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq.


from deterrence toward prevention
From Deterrence Toward Prevention

The democratic world is experiencing a fundamental shift in its approach to controlling terrorism and political violence.

We are moving away from our traditional reliance on deterrence and “reactive” approaches and toward more preventive and proactive approaches.

9 11 led to legitimizing of preemption and possibly prevention policy
9/11 led to Legitimizing of Preemption (and possibly prevention) Policy

Although the origins of this change away from deterrence and toward prevention (preemption) came long ago and grew slowly over the years, it was the attack on 9/11 in the US that accelerated and legitimated this important development in the minds of many policymakers and lay public.

Even though Europe does not like the Iraq war, they do not challenge the right of the US to take preemptive action. They just disagree that Iraq qualified for it.


tactics of prevention preemption
Tactics of Prevention & Preemption

The tactics that have been employed include:

  • Tighter Border Controls
  • Profiling
  • Preventive Detention
  • “Rough” Interrogation
  • Expansive Surveillance
  • Targeting of terrorists for Assassination
  • Preemptive attacks on terror bases
  • Full-Scale Preventive war
the precautionary principle
The “Precautionary Principle”

Over the past several decades, especially in Europe, it has become a staple of policy. It asserts that a person or nation should avoid actions that may cause greater harm later.

That is, do not require unambiguous evidence. “Better safe than sorry.”

Generally applied to protecting the environment or natural disasters, but can apply to foreign policy too.

the precautionary principle in the united states
The “Precautionary Principle” in the United States

The principle has now grown beyond natural disasters like global warming, and has moved to issues of national security and terrorism, especially in the United States.

How much evidence is necessary to use tactics of Prevention / Preemption of terror attacks?

The US and Europe have opposite priorities when it comes to applying the Precautionary Principle. [US requires strong proof of danger of global warming, but not Europe; while Europe requires strong proof of “imminent” attack before engaging in a preemptive attack on a country. [This gets Europe accused of being “appeasers” and it often emboldens our enemies.]

politics infects the debate over preemption
Politics Infects the Debate over Preemption

All people in all eras have favored some preventive or preemptive actions while opposing others.

The differences over which ones are favored, and which are opposed, depend on many social, political, religious and cultural factors.

precaution is relative
Precaution is Relative

It is meaningless to declare support for, or opposition to, prevention or precaution as a general principle because so much depends on the values at stake, and on the “content” of the costs and benefits, and on the substance of what is being regulated.

the enemy may not be rational and wmds are a severe threat
The Enemy May not Be Rational and WMDs are a Severe Threat

The shift from responding to “past” events to preventing future attacks challenges our traditional reliance on a model of human behavior that presupposes a rational enemy capable of being deterred by threat of punishment.

The classic deterrence model postulates an evil doer who can evaluate the costs-benefits of proposed actions and will act (or not act) on the basis of such calculations.

assumptions of deterrence
Assumptions of Deterrence

Deterrence falls within the rational choice approach.

Classic Deterrence theory presumes that we are willing, or are even capable, of absorbing the damage from an attack. Adding WMDs [CBRN] to the equation changes that.

It also assumes we are willing to use the type of punishment that would deter future similar attacks. But are we willing to do what would be effective? Would it cause greater harm later (i.e., undermine the larger strategic objectives).

These assumptions are now being widely questioned as the threat of WMDs (and in the hands of suicide terrorists) grows larger.

we cannot provide the benefits modern terrorists want
We Cannot Provide the benefits modern terrorists want

It is not that modern terrorist cannot do (or do not do) rational cost-benefit analysis.

The problem is that we cannot provide the benefits they seek (eternity in heaven) and the cost to them (death) is not outweighed by the expected benefits.

But because this new brand of terrorist cannot be deterred, moving to preemption and prevention becomes more compelling.

deterring nations who are on a godly mission
Deterring Nations Who Are on a “Godly” Mission

Nations whose leaders genuinely believe that their mission has been ordained by God (like many leaders in Iran today) are more difficult to deter than those who base their decisions on earthly costs and benefits (such as North Korea and Cuba).

us policy is in transition
US Policy is in Transition

The suddenness and ferocity of the 9/11 attacks tore the US free from the foreign policy foundations that had served the nation well for over 5 decades, including the central notion that American military power could by its very existence and capabilities restrain the aggressive impulses of our enemies.

Deterrence boils down to a brutally simple idea: if the US or its allies are attacked, we will retaliate massively. The advantage to this approach is that it induces responsible behavior by enemies as a matter of their own self-interest (or face devastation and possibly removal from power). It, however, presumes rationality.

acting under uncertainty
Acting Under Uncertainty

One great difficulty in evaluating the relative advantages & disadvantages of deterrence versus preemption is that -- once we have taken preemptive action, it is almost never possible to know whether deterrence would have worked as well or better than preemption.

we can never know if preemption made a situation worse
We Can Never Know if Preemption Made a Situation Worse

The information at the time of preemption is probabilistic and uncertain, and it is difficult to know the nature and degree of the harm that may have been prevented.

For example, if Britain had preempted Hitler’s Germany, history would never have known the evil that Britain had truly prevented.

All that history would have recorded was an unprovoked aggression by Britain against Germany.

factors that effect preemption decision
Factors that Effect Preemption Decision

Nature of the feared Problem

Likelihood harm will occur without preemption

Whether harm can be absorbed or reversed

Whether potential harm is deliberate

Probability that preemption will fail

Costs of a successful preemption

Costs of a failed preemption

Nature & quality of information about threat

Ratio of successful preemptions to failed ones

Legality, morality, & potential political consequences of preemption

Providing incentive of others to preempt (especially against US)

Whether harm from preemption (successful or not) can be reversed

Danger from unintended consequences (Miscalculation of the above factors)

prediction is difficult
Prediction is Difficult

We can never forecast with certainty. All estimates are a guess, but the reliability of a guess decreases with the length of the future which it seeks to predict.

Humans are better at reconstructing the past than in predicting the future. Predictive decisions are inherently probabilistic. Retrospective decisions, on the other hand, are either right or wrong.

Can the factors be reduced to a formula?

must the danger be imminent
Must the Danger be “Imminent”

Must the U.S. (or any nation) wait until after being attacked? Must it wait until there are citizens dead, dying and bleeding on its streets before it can take action?

Can preemption be extended from war to humanitarian intervention, forced inoculation (when some will die from it), preventive detentions, and censorship.

When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?

approaches to counter terrorism
Approaches to Counter-terrorism
  • The Injury (or Harm) Approach – Military action can be taken only after some harm has been inflicted as a result of a violation of clear international law. Reaction is intended to “punish” as the means to deterrence. [No harm, no foul].
  • The Dangerous Act Approach – Even if the original act was not a crime against international law, it was such a dangerous act that preventive (or preemptive) measures were warranted to protect safety.
  • The Dangerous Person Approach – No commission of a terror act is necessary to justify preventive or preemptive action, but preventive or preemptive action is taken because it is predicted that the target is likely to commit a violent act in the future.
how about this as a principle of preemption
How About this as a Principle of Preemption?

We need to find a way to limit potential abuse of preemption power. So, how about this idea:

The greater the stakes (i.e., the threatened injury or harm) the more justified a nation is to intervene at an earlier stage of conflict. As the stakes for failure of diplomacy increase, diplomacy moves lower down the list of approaches to use to resolve a conflict.

So, if the stakes are high enough, the sooner a nation can act (i.e., not wait until an injury occurs or when there is no clear violation of international law).

risk false positives and false negatives
RISK False Positives and False Negatives

How much risk of false positives (i.e., no danger existed) and false negatives (i.e., danger did exist, yet we did nothing) are we willing to assume?

Think about the death penalty. “It is better to let a thousand guilty persons go free than for one innocent to go to prison or lose his life.”

Should we require the crime to occur first before we lock someone up, when there is a belief that the person is a current or future danger to society. [for murder, rape, etc.]

Where do we draw the line? What “level of danger” makes it more moral to preemptively detain someone? [i.e., preventive detention]

limiting the abuse of power
Limiting the Abuse of Power

Requiring a past harm as a precondition to the exercise of force serves as an important check on the abuse of such power.

But this check, like most checks, comes with a price tag. The failure to act preemptively may cost a society dearly, sometimes catastrophically.

how much risk can we afford in the age of wmds
How much Risk can we Afford in the Age of WMDs?

Should the “smoking gun” be a mushroom cloud?

You should be able to see the role that intelligence is going to play in the war on terror.

reinterpretation of the un charter
Reinterpretation of the UN Charter

When the UN Charter was drafted in the wake of WWII, it demanded that an actual “armed attack occur” before a nation could respond militarily.

Now, in the face of threats of WMDs in the hands of terrorists or rogue nations, the charter is being more widely interpreted to permit preemptive self-defense – beyond an actual attack to an “imminently threatened” one.

This, too, comes with a price tag: lost liberties, false positives (i.e., unnecessary war), and other more subtle costs.

collective or individual decision
Collective or Individual Decision?

What should a nation do when preemption will mean the loss of life, injuries, civilian casualties, and damage to property and economies, when the failure to act means the same or similar losses?

Should we set up an system where each nation gets to decide when it is in imminent danger and, accordingly, justified in preemptive war?

If not, then how can we have a body (like the UN) refuse to grant permission when a nation has a good-faith belief in its own imminent danger?

In the US criminal code, we allow an individual to kill a person when there is a reasonable basis to believe their life was threatened. So, we (perhaps a jury) will decide after the fact, whether the belief was reasonable. Is this enough to limit abuse of preemption?