Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Deterrence, Terrorism, and American Values

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Deterrence, Terrorism, and American Values

Article excerpt


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, academics and policymakers were quick to dismiss the strategic role that deterrence could play in U.S. counterterrorism policy. President George Bush's often quoted conclusion that traditional concepts of deterrence are meaningless against "shadowy terrorist networks" with no nation to defend and who are willing to engage in "wanton destruction" resonated throughout discussions on U.S. national security strategy. A 2002 RAND report asserted, "Deterrence is both too limiting and too naïve to be applicable to the war on terrorism." 1 Since September 11, deterrent strategies have repeatedly been characterized as relics of the Cold War era of superpower confrontation. As a result, the White House has focused on defensive and preemptive counterterrorism strategies. The current administration argues that the U.S. can no longer wait for the worst security threats, such as terrorists acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CBRN), to materialize before acting.

Alternatively, many commentators and researchers, especially in the field of political science, maintain that deterrence remains a viable and utilizable tool in U.S. policymakers' arsenal to combat terrorism. Regardless of which side of the fence analysis falls on this issue, however, an important aspect of the deterring terrorism argument receives very little attention - the role that ideals and values play in America's ability to establish a deterrent mechanism against terrorists. I argue that deterrence, as a strategic concept, is not inapplicable to defending against terrorism; however, the U.S. would face considerable legal and moral quandaries if it were to carry out the necessary policies to deter terrorists and their supporters. To be sure, some elements of a terrorist organization can be deterred, but it is unlikely that U.S. policymakers are willing to sacrifice core American values in order to credibly signal to these actors that something "they hold dear" is in jeopardy if they commit or support terrorist aggression. To establish a deterrent mechanism against terrorist networks the U.S. would be required to explore a number of extremely heavy-handed policy options, such as regime change, nuclear retaliations, and expanding targeted killing operations to included terrorists' family members and loved ones.

Implementing policies such as these are the only ways to effectively deter elements of a terrorist organization and its support structure. Nevertheless, doing so would force the U.S. to take certain positions that would come into conflict with American ideals and beliefs about justice, fairness, and human rights. Moreover, policy pronouncements that could deter terrorists would be inflammatory and would most likely be met with considerable domestic and international criticism. Even when the U.S. has "skirted" some of these policies in recent years to combat terrorism, controversy and disagreement have emerged over the morality and legality of such actions.

The simplistic argument that terrorists cannot be deterred is reductionist. Additionally, those who argue that deterrence maintains significant utility in the U.S. war on terror fail to acknowledge the level of harshness and brutality required of U.S. policy to establish a deterrent mechanism against members of terrorist networks. What really prevents the U.S. from deterring terrorists is not the simple unsuitability of the strategic concept of deterrence, but America's humanity, civility, and idealism.

Deterrence and Terrorism

By now, the arguments are familiar for why deterring a group such as al-Qaeda is a complex endeavor. First, terrorists are highly motivated and therefore they are willing to risk anything - their lives in the case of suicide-bombers - to accomplish a goal. Second, the political goals of terrorist groups are often very broad, idealistic, ambiguous, or unclear. …

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