Sushi, Without the Extras

How do you think he got the ideas for the Prince? From his cat, of course.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A shilling for Schelling

I recently found myself stumped by a book, not because I didn't seek to read the thing but rather because I couldn't wrap my mind around the premise. As it turns out, I was working far too hard at it.

Schelling's Arms and Influence is a wonderful 1966 argument for the proper uses of violence as part of the diplomatic process. While I do agree that violence has its place--at some points, being able to back up one's threats with actual violence is key. Furthermore, as Schelling points out, your adversary must know that you're willing to go to the wall. In fact, he contends that the threat of an automatic response is, at times, that which keeps other countries from doing some things that you, as a state, don't want them to do.

There are a few problems with that argument. Right off the bat, it's very statist. That sort of balance can only exist where both actors are states that can be addressed directly. The USSR didn't overtly attack the U.S. because it knew the U.S. would return the volley, exacting costs the USSR wasn't ready to pay. The reverse is also true--the threat of Soviet nuclear retaliation kept the Americans on their best overt behavior. However, what happens with a non-state actor, as in the case of Al-Quaeda? This is not an easily located organization. Yes, we can track each cell as we learn about it and respond, but it isn't going to coerce the separate members to cease their crusade against the U.S. In essence, we can't strike a definitive enough blow or even use violence to "make the war unendurable" for them because all that violence would accomplish would be creating new members for the organization.

The United States can and did strike at Afghanistan, soundly defeating the Taliban, because that government supported the terrorist organization. However, Al Quaeda didn't cease its attacks--later claiming responsibility for at least the London subway bombing...I don't know about Madrid...Essentially, we're fighting on two different levels. The terrorists can reach into the very hearts of both the U.S. and its allies to use violence. The suicide bombers are trying to use that force coercively, though to what end is a bit hard to pin down. In that aspect, this war would be recognizable to Schelling, because it's violence as a kind of diplomacy.

However, this is asymmetric warfare. An automatic response from the U.S. is not dreaded. It's invited because such a response creates more rage among the peoples in the Middle East which in turn creates more recruits. Furthermore, directing that automatic response is even more difficult because the target is a series of independent cells.

Finally, the U.S. cannot make this war unendurable for Al Quaeda members because their cultural values do not center on this life. For the common terrorist foot soldier, his or her reward is in the next life, so there is no question of being able to sacrifice not only those around him or her but also his or her own life in order to achieve that goal. Schelling assumes a level cultural playing field where symbolic violence carries the same meaning for both parties and the cost/benefit analysis of violence remains the same across the board. That's just not the case here.


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