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Correspondent Inference Theory and the US

Bruce Schneier writes about Correspondent Inference Theory which deals with situations when the motives of an individual or group are inferred by the results of their actions. Both his article and the MIT article on which it is based only consider the results of terrorist actions against the US and allied countries.

I believe that this is a serious mistake by Bruce, the MIT people, and most people who write about terrorism. The most sensible writing about Terrorism is by Noam Chomsky. Noam considers the definition of Terrorism in both propaganda and literally. By the literal definition of terrorism the US government is responsible for more than it’s fair share of terrorist acts performed around the world.

There is no reason to believe that people in the Middle-East are any less intelligent than people in the US and Europe. It seems obvious that some of the people who’s countries are destroyed by violence sponsored by the US government will believe that the US is entirely inhabited by blood-thirsty monsters. The number of US citizens who realise what their government does and approve is very low as is the number of Muslims who know what Al Quaeda does and approve of it.

The US government claims that it wants democracy in the Middle-East, and Osama bin Laden claims to want the US military out of the Middle-East. If the US forces were withdrawn from Saudi Arabia then it would probably lead to a significant increase in democracy in the region (it couldn’t get any less democratic) – both sides could get what they claim to want.

The discussion of the MIT paper seems to be largely based on the fact that Correspondent Inference causes the US government (and other governments) to decrease the probability of doing anything that might meet the terrorist goals. But no-one has mentioned the possibility that the same may apply to the probability of non-state organisations doing anything that might meet the goals of the US government. The wars in Iraq and Iran have significantly decreased the capabilities of the US military, they can’t recruit enough new soldiers and the current soldiers have reduced effectiveness due to long tours of duty with short breaks. The US economy is stagnating partly due to the direct effects of financing the wars, partly due to the way the airline security theatre has hurt trade and tourism, and partly because everyone has been concentrating on other things instead of fixing the economy.

When two states have a war there is always the possibility of it being ended by a peace treaty or one side surrendering. With modern communications fighting can end in a matter of hours after a cease-fire has been arranged between states. But when non-state forces are involved things become much more difficult to manage. A state can make a deal with one non-state group only to discover that another non-state group (or a dissident faction within the original group) doesn’t like the treaty and continues fighting. With non-state terrorist acts connected to Al Quaeda in the US, the UK, Spain, and Indonesia (and more acts apparently planned in other countries) it’s obvious that we aren’t going to get a clean or quick solution to this problem.

It seems to me that the only way the US and allied countries can escape from Correspondent Inference is to withdraw from the Middle-East entirely. If the people of Iran or Palestine want to elect a government that you don’t like then let it go (that’s what democracy is about anyway). If a dictator seizes control of Iraq then either leave him in control or provide air-support to any province that wants to rebel and establish a democratic government. Either make a stand on the principle of support for freedom and democracy or do nothing on the principle of letting people in other countries sort out their own problems. An invasion for the wrong reasons might fool people on the other side of the world but is unlikely to fool many people who live in the target country.

1 comment to Correspondent Inference Theory and the US

  • The Abrahms paper at MIT is deeply flawed in its definitions of terrorism in other ways: by selecting on terrorist groups on the Dept. of State list it defines as terrorist groups _those_groups_still_at_war_ (by their own definition), and asks if they have achieved the aims they started fighting for. Unsurprisingly, few have.

    I would argue that many groups have succeeded in terrorism. Having done so, they disband, and their ‘political wings’ take power, e.g. the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland. The IRA would claim that they have been successful in their aims.