On US Retaliatory Response to International Terrorism

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In her article, “Explaining the United States’ Decision to Strike Back at Terrorists,” appearing in a recent issue of the London-based quarterly journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, Michele L. Malvesti, former US intelligence officer, identifies a host of factors that lead US policymakers to adopt a strategy against international terrorism supplemented or supplanted with military interventions abroad. Among such factors there are two which may attract particular attention: (1) The aggressors must exhibit a PUBLICLY defiant attitude toward the United States, and (2) The perpetrators must be militarily and politically VULNERABLE to a retaliatory strike.

Although Malvesti’s analysis, as pointed out by Fernando Reinares, professor of political science and director of the terrorism studies program at the University of Burgos in Spain, is far from perfect for that it overlooks several other important factors, the above nevertheless tell us an interesting story.

First, factor (1) gives us a clue about a psychological phenomenon known as losing face. A person may decide to act if he or she feels that they lost face in public. Super powers, like those kind of humans, are not supposed to be challenged in any way for that they would otherwise lose face. A retaliatory response on the scale of the Afghanistan war is then supposed to restore that feeling good factor that arises from military supremacy.

Second, factor (2), which is probably more important, allows for a dangerous prediction. While such countries as Russia, which are militarily strong, will never qualify as a target for America’s military adventures, weak countries like Sudan would better keep quiet. In fact, this tells us that the future of the Muslim World at large may rather be gloomy: politically fragile and economically impoverished the Islamic countries should worry a lot about what to do and what to say publicly.

But there is at least one important factor that Malvesti’s study overlooks: that retaliatory invasions abroad often correlate with economic recessions at home. In this case, there is a positive side to America’s military interventions: if countries open up to US businesses then they may not find themselves on the list of the next target. The Islamic World in particular should better speed up economic reforms and open up to US firms. As economic interdependence strengthens US soldiers may eventually chose to stay home. This is likely to be the case especially in light of the fact that international terrorism itself has fundamental economic causes.

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