Counter-terrorism and the Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis

by Kenneth Anderson

A couple of years ago I wrote a paper on ways in which the American political class is riven by deep foundational disagreements about the proper way to approach transnational terrorism.  It is partly implicated in the “war” versus “law enforcement” argument, but actually it goes deeper than that — is it possible to have an offensive strategy against terrorism, or is the only long term possibility defensive perimeters represented by such things as airport screenings and the like?  That, and an even more pessimistic possibility that simply says, following the John Mueller-James Fallows analysis, get used to it and anyway the chances of you getting killed by terrorism are smaller than a lightning strike.

The American public does not buy the “get used to it” approach and so, at least as a matter of public speeches and public stances, no American administration will do so, either.  Instead, the argument divides over offensive versus defensive approaches, and over strategies that adopt a strategic view encompassing both a strategic vision that includes going on offense against terrorists as well as defensive strategies, contrasted with strategies that are, by their nature, tactical and defensive.  The American political class is quite divided over this strategic question — viz., can there be a “strategy,” or is the only strategy really a defensive retreat to defensive tactics?

This deep seated “foundational” disagreement over the nature of terrorism and the response to terrorism has a further twist, however.  Given the deep foundational disagreement over the proper kind of response, at the deepest conceptual level, the tendency is to retreat — as a procedural matter for how to make a decision — to the lowest common denominator.  Where there is deep foundational disagreement as to the nature of the threat, how to respond, whether there is any real scope for holistic strategies or whether the “strategy” must necessarily be responsive and tactical and defensive — the tendency as a matter of procedure, of how policy is made, is to retreat to the shared lowest common denominator.

That lowest common denominator is a form of narrow cost benefit analysis that emphasizes things with which no one could really disagree.  We can’t agree how to fight terrorism, or even whether to fight it — but we can agree that metal detectors at airports are a good thing.  (It turns out, enough years out from 9/11, that many people in the political class, think that much of the apparently undisputed matters of agreement are not worth the trouble either, but in general, the tendency of policy is toward obvious things that are driven by cost benefit analysis in some way that gets past the foundational disagreements.)

The problem with this form of cost benefit analysis, however, is that as Philip Bobbitt once observed to me, it is purely reactive, defensive, and “relentlessly tactical.”  But the problem is, what happens if your political classes are deadlocked around what a “strategy” should look like, if anything?  You are driven back by process alone to the “relentlessly tactical.”  Actually, it is worse than that.  Not only are you driven back to reactive, defensive, tactical, and narrow forms of cost benefit analysis — you are driven to forms of it that are nearly inevitably what I’ve sometimes called “event specific-catastrophism.”  Meaning by that, the nature of your cost benefit analysis causes you to proceed serially, from one bad event and its prevention to the next — the nature of the CBA does not really offer a way to give a holistic strategy by which you might get ahead of events and threatened catastrophes.

Why not?  Because the nature of your political processes and the divisions of the political class preclude one from embracing any foundations — deep foundational assumptions — about the nature of the enemy, or even, in any sense meaningful to strategy, to the idea of having one.

I once wrote about the problems of foundational disagreement in the response to terrorism, and the limits of cost benefit analysis.  It was not a great paper, to be honest, and I hoped that the circumstances that impelled that paper would simply go away.  But they have not.  So I’m going to link it here.  “Event-specific catastrophism” is a clumsy term, sure — but it gets at a deep problem with cost benefit analysis of the kind that currently drives policy.  Relentlessly tactical, reactive, defensive … that form of strategic minimalism is fine as a judicial philosophy, as Cass Sunstein has articulated, because to judge is mostly to react, and in a democratic society, the fundamental terms to which one reacts as a judge ought to be made elsewhere.  But the relentlessly serial nature of CBA does not allow it (except by twisting it into something it is not) to embrace such fundamentally strategic ideas as, for example, envelopment and gambit.

Not everything is like judging, and a philosophy of adjudication is not the same as policy and politics simpliciter.  Sometimes you need foundational assumptions, and you need a strategy to get ahead of the other side.  To do that, however, you need a method that accepts that “they” are a “side” and not just a lightning strike.

3 Responses

  1. You might consider, in this context, a review of how Rules of Engagement work in the military, at both the operational and tactical level.  ROE, I believe, represent an attempt to create a command and control mechanism that delegates decision rights to the tactical level in an effort to ensure that those tactical decisions reflect and inplement a strategic vision set at the higher levels of command.  In essence, ROE describe how much risk a unit, or sometimes an individual soldier, or even a large operational unit such as a combatant command, should accept.  Accept too much risk, and your unit is damaged and perhaps destroyed; accept too little, and you may take a tactical action with strategic consequences, such as initiating a war.  It seems to me that cost benefit analysis and a desire to implement strategy at the tactical level underlie the design of ROE, and so you might find some review of this useful in developing your thinking here.

  2. Alan, that’s very useful – do you know of any literature in the military area that goes to this as a matter of risk analysis?  For reasons I mention over at Volokh on cost benefit analysis, it isn’t something that comes up in the business/finance risk areas where I ordinarily work, although the annihilation of a firm through excessive tactical risk by traders might suggest it should be rethought along the lines you suggest above.  Any suggestions of literature in military thought here? The VC post is here. And happy new year!

  3. I do not recall seeing much unclassified discussion of this nature.  I learned the approach from Admiral Bob Willard, now Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, when I served as his SJA when he was Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet.
    But cf

    A good survey.  Not directly on point to your query, but useful background.

    Also have a look at the unclassified portions of the U.S. Standing Rules of Engagement (this is the 2000 version, which may not be current, but is nonetheless useful for our purposes here):

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