Strategic Visions in Responding to Terror, and ‘Meta-Methodology’

by Kenneth Anderson

I want to join the rest of Opinio Juris in welcoming Tom; I have read Confronting Global Terrorsm and American Neo-Conservatism with great interest and am looking forward to commenting on it.  As befits someone who, on some definitions anyway, probably counts as a neo-con, I have some disagreements with the book – starting, unsurprisingly, with the definition of neoconservative and what it means (or meant).  Before getting there, however, I want to start by praising what I think is a great strength of Tom’s book – and that is its willingness to take on a strategic vision, a vision that is both holistic about responding to terror as well as one that reaches back across a longer range of contemporary history in proposing a response.  Although I have sharp disagreements with the nature of the strategic vision that the book offers, as well as disagreements as to the interpretation of the contemporary history (all of which I’ll hold until later posts), I am quite on board with Tom’s ‘meta-methodological’ view (my jargon, sorry!), a view that says, look, it is important to have some kind of strategic vision about what you’re doing in responding to terror.

Let me frame why this is so by putting Confronting Global Terrorism in the context of ‘meta-methodological’ alternatives.  What are they?  Well, the available positions on the issue of whether one can have, or even needs, a ‘grand’ strategy are three:

  • You need a grand strategy if you plan to succeed, however you define that, over the long term, but of course we will have sharp disagreements over the content and orientation of that strategy;
  • You don’t need, and shouldn’t seek to have, a grand strategy, but should instead proceed strictly at a ‘tactical’ level – aiming to prevent terrorist events; the fundamental reason for this is that we are unable to agree on grand strategy, the assumptions that would underlie any particular grand strategy – but we can at least agree on immediate, tactical level counterterrorist measures aimed at preventing particular events – the best we can hope for is a kind of ‘policy minimalism’; and
  • You need a grand strategy, yes, but the nature of that grand strategy is one which focuses almost entirely on ‘tactical’ level considerations, because the nature of terrorism is that it is retail, dispersed, loosely networked, and so, while there is a place for large strategic thinking, in these strategic circumstances, strategy is actually set and controlled at the tactical level.
Tom and I both take the first position – we agree on the need for a grand strategy – in the strict sense of that term, a combined political and military defining of means and ends.  We disagree as to what the content of that strategy should be.  Another leading contender in this genre, of course, at the truly grand level of strategy, is Philip Bobbitt’s remarkable Terror and Consent, which I reviewed a few weeks ago in the TLS.  Confronting Global Terrorism and Terror and Consent are both in the “really serious” category of writing on grand strategy in responding to terror.  A big problem for this category, as a category of analysis, however, is that there is a vast, vast quantity of junk out there, and I think it has made many thoughtful people skeptical that the category of ‘deep thought about grand strategy’ can even be meaningful – beyond disagreement, simply that there is a lot of thoughtless polemical writing out there that has the tendency to discredit the whole category of thinking. I therefore welcome this book as an entry to the strategic field that makes clear that it is, indeed, possible and crucial to analyze strategically, even if it broaches disagreement.
The second position is one that I identify particularly with Cass Sunstein – it is laid out, though it is not the main point, of his quite exceptional book, Worst Case Scenarios.  Sunstein adapts his famous notion of ‘minimalism’ from judicial reasoning to policy in counterterrorism, and offers a cost benefit analysis approach to policy.  I have criticized this in various places for essentially reducing the response to terrorism not just from a strategic view to a tactical one, andnot just from a pro-active approach to the essentially reactive model of cost benefit analysis – I have also criticized this approach for an excessive emphasis on preventing particular terrorist events – what I have called “event specific catastrophism’.  These approaches preclude a larger strategic analysis or response.  But it is important also to understand what underlies this analytic approach – after all, it takes its cue, not so much from a view on the nature of terrorism, but instead from a view of the nature of the polity that seeks to protect itself from it.  That polity – this, I believe, underlies Sunstein’s view – has no consensus and no way to reach consensus on a strategic account of terrorism and its threats, or even the levels of its threats; and so, as a political matter of the nature of that political community, it should pursue policies that can command virtual consensus.  But those policies will always be narrow, minimal, event driven, less than a strategic vision – but they are the best that can be adopted given a deeply riven political community.  We cannot agree on the nature of terrorism as such, but we can agree that concrete barriers in front of big glass windows at airports are probably a good idea.  Neither Tom nor I would agree, I take it, that this is sufficient.  (I would add that I think the idea of ‘consensus’ in a majoritarian democracy is overrated and itself a mistaken semi-fetish, as I once argued in Policy Review.)
The third position is a genuinely strategic position – but as a position, it says that responding to terrorism is one of those strategic situations in which tactical level considerations determine strategic response.  The tactical level deployment of the machine gun in WWI is an example of this kind of tactics-driving-strategy; and, so the argument goes, terrorism is so retail, the tactical details of recruitment, command, training, planning, execution, etc., drive a certain strategy and preclude others.  But it is a strategic view.  This is approximately Marc Sageman’s view in his latest book, Leaderless Jihad.  Other terrorism experts for whom I have a great deal of respect, such as my Hoover task force colleague Jessica Stern, also hold something like this view, and I would guess that this view of jihadist terrorism as a phenomenon is pretty widely held by my colleagues on the board of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence.  I myself largely buy into this phenomenology of Islamist terrorism but not necessarily the presumed strategic implications.  
My point in this post, then, is to locate Confronting Global Terrorism within the argument over strategic paradigms, starting with the question of whether we can have or need any.  On that issue, Tom and I are in agreement, a sort of meta-methodological agreement.  I emphasize this now, because there are many things with which I disagree.  
I also want to note one other important feature of Tom’s analysis – one that I very much admire and for which Tom’s own intellectual history suits him well.  It is the ability and willingness to put this strategic analysis within a historical frame of foreign policy idealism and realism, human rights, democracy, neoconservatism, etc., that goes further back than 1990.  Opinio Juris has already had a fine discussion of the 1990s and the Clinton years in all this, in our summer discussion of America Between the Wars.  But Tom points out, correctly, that we need to go back still further, back to the Cold War – not just Truman, but the last decade of the Cold War, the 1980s, in order to understand the intellectual formation of (neo)conservatives, and also liberals, shaping the US response after 9/11.  Tom’s ability to reach back to the arguments of the 1970s and 80s, the arguments of the later years of the Cold War, give a very important depth to his arguments over neoconservatism; my disagreements with some of the interpretations should be understood as being set against a backdrop of methodological agreement that, yes, one needs to go there in order to have a genuinely strategic policy: minimalism is pleasant, because it reduces political road rage, as it were, but it is finally dangerous because it is simply not enough.  The history of US policy in Latin America in the 70s and 80s is not irrelevant to how (neo)conservatives framed the response to 9/11 – I agree with that, despite my disagreements as to what it all means and how to interpret it, and congratulate Tom for being the first, so far as I know, plainly to say exactly that and draw both the 80s and Latin America back into the discussion.

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