Where Do We Go From Here?

There was a great panel at Brookings this week on counter-terrorism and the future of global jihadism, hosted by Will McCants and featuring Ambassador Kaidanow, Dan Byman, and Bruce Riedel. (If you missed it, the audio is here.)

Now that I have a minute, I thought I’d offer up a few quick thoughts in response:

  1. We’re still in need of new ways to evaluate foreign policy success. At one point there was a conversation about whether our foreign policy has made us safer since September 2001. Intuitively this feels like a straightforward question, akin to asking, say, whether NYC’s crime policy under Bloomberg made the city safer. The catch is that the two questions can’t be answered the same way. When we ask if a policy has made us safer, what we’re really asking is whether the policy has reduced the probability that a given type of violent event will occur. For crime, we can tell fairly quickly if the probability has changed, because crime otherwise occurs frequently. Alas, that is not true for mass-casualty terrorist events, which occur rarely and follow a power-law distribution. Even if our policies worked perfectly and dropped the probability of a mass terror attack to zero, we wouldn’t be able to show that the policies were working within any of our lifetimes.

    I bring all this up not to say that the more/less safe question isn’t worth asking. Instead it’s to say that answers like “we haven’t been attacked since 2001”, or, “but the shoebomber almost got us!” aren’t really the kinds of evidence you can use to answer it. Instead it’s a lot more productive to talk about what we believe the processes underlying terrorism are, how our policies are designed to disrupt those processes, and what the corrollary data say about those specific policy interventions.

  2. Does anyone still think “terrorism” is a useful analytic term? Or put differently: does anyone think terrorism refers to a singular phenomenon? It’s too much to say that Ambassador Kaidanow, who coordinates counter-terrorism policy, seemed to feel hamstrung by the term. But it seemed like she was clearly pushing against it. If both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are terrorist groups, then the word doesn’t really tell us much, since each group produces distinct forms of violence that require distinct policy responses. It was encouraging to hear her implicitly acknowledge this.

  3. Saudi Arabia. This is the one thing I wish the panel had discussed in more detail. As Bruce Riedel touched on briefly, the Saudis are facing a kind of perfect storm: the US is re-balancing away from them, their position in the global energy market is declining, and they now face an intensifying domestic Salafi-jihadist insurgency. The country appears set for a long power struggle between forward-looking members of the Saudi royal family and hardline factions of the military and regime. The tail risks of that infighting are something we should be discussing more openly.

  4. There is a truly massive gap between the political science and policy worlds. Coming from an academic context it’s hard to understate how striking this is. I have a lot more thoughts on this, but for now just want to flag it briefly.

  5. Sadly, unlike to his twitter avatar, @will_mccants doesn’t actually pop a Victorian collar. Bummer!