Kling and Henderson on intervention and blowback

David Henderson, an economist at the Naval Postgraduate School’s GSBPP and also the Hoover Institution, alerted me to a remark made by another economist, Arnold Kling, about libertarian foreign policy. Both posts are worth reading, of course, but in the ‘comments’ thread of Henderson’s post, Dr Kling elicited a terse response from Dr Henderson for arguing the following:

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.”

You can read Dr Henderson’s response here, but I thought I’d go in a different direction with this. First, though, I’d like to thank Dr Kling for broaching this subject. Few libertarians do so (our own Drs Delacroix and van de Haar being two stubborn exceptions).

What I’d like to do is take Dr Kling’s second paragraph to heart and try to pin down some relevant facts I think are missing from his first paragraph, which I’ll break down, for the sake of dialogue, piece-by-piece.

the U.S. has intervened in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Kling left off Africa from his list of places the US government has intervened in. This is a huge omission because there has been plenty of terrorist attacks (successful or otherwise) aimed at US targets on the African continent, from Nigeria in the west to Kenya all the way in the east (a span, via each state’s respective most populous city, of 5,328 km; Los Angeles to New York City is about 4,500 km).

We have not experienced terrorism except from the Middle East, and there the role of blowback is not clear

Again, the US has been the target of terrorism in places other than the Middle East. Aside from Africa (the 1998 embassy bombings being perhaps the prominent examples, though there are more), the US has been the target of terrorism in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. I think much of Dr Kling’s confusion regarding blowback in due to his poor geographic knowledge. The Middle East (or Near East), for example, is also a part of Asia. Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many terrorist attacks against US targets have been undertaken, are not considered to be a part of the Middle East by specialists. Below is a partial list of terrorist attacks against US targets in the past:

  • In 1927, the US embassy (along with other foreign embassies) in Nanking, China came under sustained gunfire from both state and non-state actors, and at least one American died (“the Nanking Incident”);
  • In the 1920s and 1930s, many American institutions – public and private (or ostensibly private) – were bombed by left-anarchists upset over the unjust executions of two prominent Italian anarchists in Boston (“Sacco and Vanzetti”);
  • In 1964 the US embassy in Gabon was bombed twice in the same month;
  • In 1965 a car bomb exploded outside of the US embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, and Leftist factions claimed responsibility;
  • In 1984 a car bomb exploded outside of the US embassy in Bogota, Colombia, but no faction came forward to claim responsibility (it is largely attributed to one of the drug cartels in operation there);
  • In 1985 a Left-wing terrorist organization attacked the Soviet, Chinese, and American embassies in Peru;
  • In the mid-1980s a Leftist terrorist organization attacked US embassies in Indonesia and Italy.

Again, this is just a partial list. In the spirit of Kling’s argument, what I suggest we do here is divide up terrorist bombings into two segments: 1) the period of 1945-1991 (the Cold War), and 2) everything else. I think this is a fair move because during the Cold War the line between state and non-state actors became especially blurred.

Even if we decide to ignore my suggestion of dividing terrorist attacks into two segments, one picture that becomes much clearer is that all of the attacks are political, and terrorism against US targets does not come solely from the Middle East (or even states with large Muslim populations). I hope these two issues are conclusions that we can all agree upon. If this does not nudge the evidence in favor of the intervention-causes-blowback thesis, I don’t know what does. I think Kling’s next line of reasoning will help us elaborate on this a bit more:

there are plenty of other causes [of terrorism], and Middle Eastern terrorists seem perfectly happy to operate in countries that have not invaded Iraq.

I think this statement actually breaks the back of the hawks’ argument. First, though, when did we move from a discussion about intervention causing terrorism to a discussion about invading and occupying Iraq causing terrorism? Is Kling guilty of the bait-and-switch fallacy here? I am forced to conclude that he is, although in fairness his point was raised in a ‘comments’ thread rather than in a post of its own.

His bait-and-switch aside, Kling’s point about “plenty of other causes” of terrorism is one worth thinking through a bit more. There are four lines of thought that I’d like to explore here: 1) Now would be a good time to draw up a distinction between intervention and occupation. Up until now, we have been discussing foreign policy colloquially and ostensibly in terms of intervention, but the difference between the two concepts I just highlighted is huge and needs a bit of clarification. Some of the fuzziness surrounding the two concepts has to do with Kling’s charge of normative libertarian foreign policy. Dr Henderson, for example, cites the scholarly work of Robert Pape and Ivan Eland (as well as the observations of Paul Wolfowitz) to bolster his claim that intervention leads to blowback, but those guys are referring to the explicit occupation of territory, not intervention. This does not mean Dr Henderson or libertarians more broadly are wrong, of course, but only that dialogue on this topic suffers from a lack of detail. The Cold War-era bombings I listed above can be attributed to intervention. The terrorist attacks pre- and post-Cold War can be attributed to intervention as well, but also to occupation. Does this make sense?

2) While Kling is lazy in his assertion about “Middle Eastern terrorists” being “perfectly happy” with attacking states that did not invade Iraq, he has a really good point, albeit one made unintentionally: terrorism is an international phenomenon, and not something that can be attributed to a specific region (or religion). If we take a step back and look at terrorism more broadly (i.e. not just in a US context, which I think highlights well the consequences of intervention and occupation), what do we see? I don’t know about you, but I see terrorism in Russia, China, India, Pakistan, the US, Europe, all of Africa, Latin America, and, just for good measure, the rest of Asia, too. This leads me to train of thought Number 3: terrorism is political, as even death cults like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan or lone wolves like the Unabomber or the white nationalist shooter in Charleston are overtly political. I know I’ve harped on this already, but Dr Kling’s point helps make this much easier to understand.

Much of the terrorism, if not all of it (I hope readers will provide counter-examples), not directed at the US and its allies (which do intervene and do occupy) is done in the name of separatist movements within a state. While states claim sovereignty over their territories, and use IGOs such as the United Nations to bolster these claims, the separatist movements believe themselves to be occupied by a foreign power. Pape makes this crystal clear in his work on the (nominally Buddhist but militantly Left-wing) Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.

If terrorism is political, but it is not aimed at foreign intervention or occupation/separatism, what would terrorists hope to accomplish by murdering people? Given the calculated political nature of terrorism highlighted above, I fail to see how terrorism could be carried out randomly, except in works of fiction like Batman comics or old James Bond movies. The fictional nature of random acts of terrorism leads me in to my fourth and last train of thought, namely that I think Kling is introducing a red herring when he states that “there are plenty of other causes” of terrorism. This is simply not true. Since Dr Kling didn’t provide any examples, and since I don’t want to attempt to read his mind, I can only hope he reads this post and provides me with some examples that I can proceed to debunk.

While I think Dr Kling raises an excellent topic that needs to be discussed way more often, he, like Dr Delacroix, simply does not have his facts straight when it comes to foreign affairs. Ideology and dialogue are important components of the free and open society, but without a good grasp of the relevant facts of a matter those tools for improving our livelihoods become worthless, at best.

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4 thoughts on “Kling and Henderson on intervention and blowback

  1. I find the debate they’re having somewhat confused. Your response to Kling is on the right track, but I would question the terms of the debate from the outset.

    The relevant question is whether US intervention produces armed resistance, and whether that resistance counts as blowback. It does, on both counts. Whether that resistance/blowback counts as “terrorism” by some narrow definition is really beside the point. And whether the resistance is morally justified is yet another issue altogether.

    Kling mentions US intervention in Latin America and claims that there’s been no “terrorism” in response. How would he characterize the Cuban-Soviet precipitation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a response to the Bay of Pigs invasion? Soviet positioning of nuclear weapons system was meant to strike fear in us (and did). “Fear” is a synonym for “terror.” The Cuban-Soviet policy was a response to our intervention. That’s blowback.

    Re Asia, you’re right to adduce the Saigon counterexample you come up with, but that understates the relevant point. The relevant point is that the whole Tet Offensive was blowback for our intervention! The NVA and Vietcong may not have attacked the mainland of the US, but they killed more Americans than Al Qaida did, so again, I don’t see the point of a narrow fixation on a particular tactic, terrorism.

    While we’re at it, why not try US intervention in…the US? Think Wounded Knee 1973 and generally, the armed confrontations between the American Indian Movement and the FBI in the mid 1970s (which most Americans regarded as terrorism on the part of the Indians). AIM regarded Indian reservations as occupied land and acted in kind. That was blowback for our Indian policy.

    This is not to deny that terrorism can arise from causes unrelated to blowback or perceived blowback. Nor is it to deny that Islamist terrorism may have distinctive features. But it’s very misleading to suggest that Middle Eastern terrorism is sui generis, and confusing to distinguish “Middle East” and “Asia,” as you correctly point out in your post.

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