Micah Zenko

Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Why Obama shouldn't send a bunch of ninjas to Benghazi.


Because of the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA are reportedly developing "perhaps a dozen or more" target packages consisting of terrorist encampments and individuals suspected of being involved. A senior U.S. official said that "highly pre-decisional…options are being teed up," should President Obama request them (he reportedly has not), though the official warned, "[I] don’t think that a final list of who was involved is solid." Given that U.S. surveillance drones were flying over Libya well before the Benghazi attack and have been conducting a "stepped-up, more focused search" for perpetrators since then, it is certain that America’s spies and special operators will find targets — perhaps as few as ten individuals — against which Obama can authorize an attack.

As is true with any terrorist attack against American citizens, military bases, or diplomatic sites, Obama faces tremendous pressure to "do something" in response, especially as Republicans cite the president’s supposedly weak foreign policy as a cause of the attacks. While the president vowed that "we will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done," it is highly unlikely that justice will involve capturing suspects, interrogating them, and trying them in U.S. courts. Instead, given Obama’s unprecedented reliance on using lethal force against terrorist suspects, rather than placing U.S. soldiers at risk to capture them, the suspected Benghazi perpetrators will find themselves in the crosshairs of drone-launched Hellfire missiles.

If Obama authorizes an attack, he should be aware that counterterrorist strikes in retaliation for specific terrorist plots or operations have rarely deterred the targeted group from attacking again. The theory that military retaliation leads to either specific deterrence (in which a targeted adversary is warned against undertaking a specific behavior) or general deterrence (in which a standing threat is broadcast to potential adversaries to convince them not to undertake certain behaviors) is one countless policymakers are continually asserting. To quote just one famous example, President Bill Clinton told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, "It would scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters in the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show those guys we’re not afraid."

Despite this widely held belief, there is little evidence that force deters terrorism. This concept is best evaluated by examining the president that spent the most time considering retaliatory force in response to terrorism: Ronald Reagan, during whose presidency the United States suffered the most terrorist attacks on Americans and U.S. diplomatic outposts. Though President Reagan is remembered for articulating a muscular foreign policy that emphasized "peace through strength," in practice he largely refrained from retaliating against acts of terrorism.

Reagan came into office warning terrorists that, "when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution."  But Reagan rarely acted on that vengeful vision, largely because both he and the uniformed military did not think such shows of force achieved anything. As he told reporters in January 1982: "I think terrorism is the hardest thing to curtail. As a matter of fact, I’ve said for many years that probably the only defense you have against terrorist attacks is really infiltration to try and find out in advance what their plans are." Moreover, Reagan and his civilian advisers repeatedly made two demands on military planners of retaliatory options: a minimal chance of civilian deaths, and a response occurring just after the related terrorist attack — which is very difficult given the time it takes to develop sufficient intelligence and maintain forces ready for rapid-deployment.

In October 1983, Shia militants linked to Hezbollah bombed the Beirut International Airport, killing 241 U.S. military personnel, mostly Marines. The U.S. military developed a range of retaliatory options, including ones against the alleged sponsors: Syria and Iran. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage recalled, "We wanted to put a cruise missile into the window of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus." A broader range of targets in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon were also considered. However, Gen. P.X. Kelley, commandant of the Marine Corps, wondered whether attacking terrorists or state sponsors would make deployed U.S. troops any safer. As the Washington Post later reported: "The intelligence community could not assure Kelley that a retaliatory strike would have a deterrent value, making his Marines more secure…. Kelley concluded that the risks to his men outweighed the gains from retaliatory action."

Although on November 14, 1983, Reagan authorized a joint U.S.-French retaliatory strike, for reasons that remain unclear Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger refused to authorize U.S. aircraft to take off. Thus, the largest number of U.S. soldiers killed on one day since World War II was met with no military response.

President Reagan instead permitted the director of central intelligence, William Casey, to undertake aggressive covert actions against suspected terrorists in an attempt to deter future attacks. Casey — without notifying the Congressional intelligence committees — met with Prince Bandar, then the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and worked out an elaborate scenario "off the books," in which the Saudis paid $2 million to hire professionals to assassinate the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, with a car bomb. Instead, as a mosque emptied in Western Beirut on March 8, 1985, a massive car bomb exploded, killing 80 civilians and injuring nearly 200 others, but missing its intended target: Sheikh Fadlallah.

The attack did nothing to deter terrorism, and was itself a clear act of terrorism using Reagan’s own definition: "Why would anyone want to just park a car with a bomb in a street where they don’t even know the people that are going to be killed and blow them up? That’s exactly why they have the word ‘terrorist.’"

In June 1985, TWA Flight 847, carrying over 100 U.S. citizens, was hijacked between Athens and Rome. During a stop in Beirut, the hijackers murdered a 23-year-old American sailor, Robert Dean Stethem, and threw his remains on the tarmac. After the remaining hostages were eventually freed, Reagan promised that the hijackers would be "held to account" and contingency plans against Hezbollah targets were updated. Senior military members opposed limited strikes; instead, as one general put it, "If we do anything, it should be something big." However, the chief of naval operations, Adm. James Watkins, told Naval Academy cadets: "Retribution and punishment are not part of a moral course and will not suffice as reasons to take action against the terrorist. Rather, we should act in accordance with our needs for self-defense and protection."

President Reagan agreed. When asked why he was not responding to the TWA hijacking with his promised "swift and effective retribution," Reagan replied, "Retaliation in some peoples’ minds might just entail striking a blow in a general direction, and the result would be a terrorist act in itself and the killing and victimizing of innocent people." A senior White House official further explained: "Vengeance is not a satisfactory basis for policy." 

However, in April 1986, Reagan did retaliate against Libya for its involvement in the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two American servicemen — as well as an increasing number of minor U.S.-Libyan military skirmishes. As the Washington Post headline noted: "Reagan’s Use of Force Marks Turning Point." A senior administration official admitted, "The difference now is that everyone recognizes we’re going to have to hit back at the terrorists." Several administration officials explicitly said that the political objective of the attack against Libya was to "teach [Muammar] Qaddafi and others the lesson that the practice of terrorism would not be free of cost to themselves," as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger later wrote

In preparing a response, as long-time defense journalist George Wilson reported, "the Joint Chiefs looked at every conceivable military target" and "recommended against bombing targets in Libya that were not linked directly to terrorists." Ultimately, Reagan chose four targets connected to the terrorist attacks, and one target set consisting of Libyan air defenses. U.S. fighter combat aircraft successfully hit most of the targets, including the Aziziyah Barracks compound in Tripoli where it was believed the Libyan leader lived.

The results were meager: Libya’s infrastructure was not significantly damaged and Qaddafi survived, becoming more defiant than ever. Moreover, Libya’s support for international terrorism increased in response: Libyan-controlled terrorist groups assassinated British and American hostages in Lebanon, and most significantly, blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

These examples show that a more prudent response to terrorist attacks is to understand why counterterrorism efforts failed, and how they should be adjusted and enhanced. Force is undoubtedly an essential tool against individuals directly responsible for terrorist plots and operations, and has successfully disrupted safe havens, killed suspected senior leaders and low-level militants, and raised the risks and costs of planning operations. However, the belief that drone strikes and special operations raids against terrorists or state sponsors will deter future acts of terrorism has a poor track record. President Obama faces tremendous pressure to bomb those suspected of attacking the Benghazi consulate. It would allow him to "look strong" one month before the election, provide some sense of justice for those victims’ families, and serve as an act of vengeance against the perpetrators. But force won’t stop another attack.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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