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Jason Ligon

"Sanctions don't work, and have never worked, from the Continental System to the Ethiopian Crisis to the many post-WWII sanction regimes. The credible threat of overwhelming force works. To remain credible, when the action the threat of force is intended to deter actually occurs, the force must be applied. You simply can't say, well, this time we'll only slap your wrist, but next time, we'll really go after you."

I couldn't agree more.


"Dsquared" writes:

'I think that the most fundamental objection here is that if the "deterrence" model isn't working on us (ie; despite the threat of terror attacks, we aren't capitulating to the terrorists, withdrawing support for Israel, etc), then why do we think it's going to work on them?'

Why not? It worked on Spain, and on Libya. And if the abettors of terrorist activity were not so deterred, a preventative war removes from them the capability to abet terrorist activity in the first place.


I would argue that the United States is able to use force against "terrorists" and "rogue states" precisely because the weapons available to such groups are so limited. If Saddam Hussein the had had the capability to kill half the people in the United States then a "pre-emptive" war with Iraq would have been about as attractive as a "pre-emptive" war with the former Soviet Union.

With respect to the Middle East, there is a situation where people in the Middle East are afraid of having American values forced on them and people in the United States are afraid of having Middle Eastern values forced on them.

Because the United States is so dominent militarily Bush is able to impose a "solution" to this situation of forcing Western values on the Middle East: "democracy" (leadership that goes along with U.S. policies), "capitalism" (Middle Eastern oil controlled by U.S. corporations), "Israel" (resurrecting an ancient ethnic homeland that is a fundamental part of U.S. religious mythology), etc. If, however, anyone representing the Middle East had a weapon to match the United States then the solution would have to be a lot less one sided.

Glen Whitman

My reactions posted here:

Short version: I think Becker is mistaken about the elements for attempted murder (and other attempted crimes); intent alone is not sufficient. And I also think his argument for lower having a lower standard of proof for attempted violent crimes, as compared to less violent ones, fails unless he's also willing to reduce the standard of proof for *successful* violent crimes.

Jason Ligon

"Short version: I think Becker is mistaken about the elements for attempted murder (and other attempted crimes); intent alone is not sufficient."

Looking at this as a prosecution is a bit awkward, but it does bear remembering that we are dealing with a known criminal that we have heretofore decided was too expensive to prosecute. When environmental changes occur that raise the possibility that this known criminal could be a more substantial threat than was previously supposed, we reasonably recalculate the costs of inaction.

All dictators are known criminals in this context. They are known to employ aggressive force to suppress the liberties of their subjects. The question is not whether Saddam was guilty of a crime, it is whether or not we were to be the targets of his next one.

Glen Raphael

Becker explicitly referred to changes that increase the power and accessibility of weapons -- the much-hyped ability of non-state actors to build "WMDs" in a basement lab somewhere using money found under the couch cushions. You're correct that there are other changes in weapons technology that make the intervener's job easier, but I don't think those were the sort of changes Becker meant.

Stijn van Dongen

The only really effective approach is to stop them before they engage in their attacks. This is accomplished by tracking them down and imprisoning or killing them based on evidence that they intend to engage in suicidal attacks.

This is hard to believe. Kill people based on evidence that something is going to happen? This sounds simplistic and entirely barbaric. Mistakes will be made, and they'll raise the "cost", whatever it is, by untold factors. Even if no mistakes were made, this is simply wrong, morally. Bringing people to justice: yes. Killing: no.

Deb Frisch

dottering dingbats! on the next oprah!

Kenneth Anderson

Take a look at Professor David J. Luban's very interesting article, "Preventive War," in the new issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs. It can be downloaded free at www.ssrn.com in pdf format.

S.W. Anderson

You write, "These suicide bombers clearly cannot be punished after they commit their acts (although their families could be) because they forfeit their lives while attempting to kill and injury others."

Indeed, what if it were to become known over a reasonably short period of time throughout the Middle East that the loved ones, maybe closest friends, too, of suicide bombers were being picked off with great regularity. Sometimes just one, sometimes two or three, sometimes a houseful at a time? Maybe after especially egregious terrorist attacks, an entire block or section of town from whence the terrorist came might be eliminated.

This is grisly business, certainly, but it imposes the essence of deterrence:

You kill our innocent civilians by means of stealth and subterfuge, and we will kill yours. You strap on a bomb or drive an explosives-laden vehicle at our people, there is a very high likelihood your beloved parent(s), sibling(s), spouse, friend(s) will pay with their lives.

So, jihadist, factor into your calculations of the cost of securing your place in paradise the lives of those you most care about, because you will be sacrificing not just your life, but theirs as well.


"In light of this, I find it extremely curious that the largest terrorist attack ever commited on American soil was by a group of men with box-cutters. "

Actually, they were armed with four jumbo jets (with the attendant jet fuel), which they used the box-cutters to acquire. If I were to toss a brick through the window of a gun store, thereby obtaining a shotgun which I then used to blow large holes in people who had incurred my ire, I wouldn't be prosecuted for 'brick crime.'

Dillon Kuehn

I have wondered for some time how tweaking international rewards for information leading to terrorists (or their plans) might factor into cost/benefit analysis/production function analysis of war in our modern age. Throwing 5 million at Osama's right hand will undoubtedly lead to no information. However, were he to take it, it would lead to some incredible information for capturing the terrorist. Nevertheless, the right hand man receives greater utility from being Osama's right hand man, or at least, from vehemently adhering to a certain ideology. As we get farther away from the terrorists, information from third parties becomes less comprehensive and likely less accurate. At the same time, these individuals are more likely to accept 5 million dollars (or any amount holding the amount for a right hand man to be equal) in return for that information. If we accept these premises, then there must be a value maximizing allocation of resources aimed at retreiving information. At one end, we might theoretically be able to pay an immense sum to a closely related individual to get highly valuable information. At the other end, we might get less reliable information from a more distant source but not have to pay as much.

What we do with this information might be used in various ways. It might be used for assasinations (if we chose to pursue them), or for macrostrategies. That is, information is an imput in the production of safety. This input costs. We might compare the marginal productivity of information to the marginal productivity of other inputs, such as tanks, AEGIS systems, Missile Defense Systems and determine the cost minimizing/value maximizing input mixture.

The premises are just that, premises. It may be unrealistic that an individual 3 persons removed from Osama is any more likely to accept a set amount of money. However, it seems likely that there is a correlation. These are just a few initial thoughts. Any thoughts?

Ann Arbor


Becker and Posner provide a compelling argument that preventive war may at times be optimal. Why then would the international community have restricted the use of preventive war in the past? The reason may be that it is hard for countries to commit to wage a preventive war only when it is actually a preventive war rather than an aggressive war. To avoid such an abuse of power, it can be worthwhile to place restrictions on the use of preventive force even if it comes at the cost of some preventive wars, which would otherwise be optimal, not being fought.

Carl Pham

Combating crime mainly relies on deterrence through punishment of criminals who recognize that there is a chance of being apprehended and convicted.

Surely this is grossly oversimplified. For example, I think people very often don't commit crimes mostly because their friends and family will be disappointed in them and become contemptuous of them. That is, quite a lot of people don't commit crimes mostly because they don't want to become known as criminals to their social peers.

That would help explain why it's hard to deter crime that doesn't carry much of a social stigma, e.g. speeding. That would also help explain why, when standards of acceptable behaviour change, the newly proscribed behaviours tend to have started diminishing well before they were criminalized. (For example, drunk driving declined for more than a decade before the passage of laws reducing the maximum BAC to 0.08, increasing the drinking age, et cetera.)

Now, we can accept that individuals are driven by biological necessity to put intrinsic value on approval by their peer group (this being almost the definition of a social species). But it's pretty hard to see why any such reasoning should apply to nations. That is, there are major psychological influences on individuals that have no counterpart when it comes to nations.

This is an illustration of why I have grave doubts about the utility of Professor Becker's appeal to our understanding of criminal individuals in his attempt to explain the influence of US policy on criminal nations.

Simply put, Professor Becker asks us to extrapolate from the "micropsychology" of one man to the "macropsychology" of millions, and I think this is far too great a change of scale to be uncritically accepted.

I'm not saying Professor Becker's conclusions are wrong, but only that his arguments for them are unconvincing.


Indeed, what if it were to become known over a reasonably short period of time throughout the Middle East that the loved ones, maybe closest friends, too, of suicide bombers were being picked off with great regularity. Sometimes just one, sometimes two or three, sometimes a houseful at a time? Maybe after especially egregious terrorist attacks, an entire block or section of town from whence the terrorist came might be eliminated.

You may be surprised to discover that this tactic has been tried in Ireland, Africa and the Middle East, and the reason that it isn't used much today is that it didn't work.


becker's not very intelligent for a nobel prize winner...

in Newsweek, he assured us that the Iraq war would cost "at most $ 150 billion" and that was if terrorists blew up most of the oil fields in the middle east... In the same article, according to becker, liberals were against the war b/c we thought it was all about oil... ??? Actually, we were against it b/c none of the administration's rationale's were borne out by fact, and once you wiped them away, there wasn't much left. Saddam Hussein was a weak dictator afraid of the US. The only danger he posed to us was if we attacked him, in which case it was possible that thousands of Americans would die, and millions of Middle Eastern males would be more pissed off at the US, and thus more likely to become terrorists. Becker claimed in his Newsweek article that the reason the President was going after Hussein was b/c of Hussein's weapons. But Gary, honey, where is this evidence?

Becker claims liberals like me "ignore these changes in weaponry" that make preventative war more necessary now than, say, it was during the cold war. The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons. What's more lethal than that?

THe nobel laureate sayeth: "It is already difficult to know which groups are responsible for terrorist acts except when they brag about them." Right, like 9/11, when Richard Clarke knew it was Osama the day of... Why didn't the Soviet Union terrorize us if it is so easy to get away with? Or Cuba? Or Hussein? Maybe it's because they were scared of retaliation. It seems like one can make a clear distinction between "rogue states" like Iraq, and terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda, yet the nobel laureate clumps them all together as though he were Donald Rumsfeld.

does anyone know if there are any conservatives who aren't so easy to debunk?


Thank you both for creating such a wonderful blog. And thank you both for allowing plebeans such as myself to add comments -- very often "celebrity" blogs are onesided and I appreciate your willingness to create the open-ended dialogue that the Web in general, and weblogs specifically, encompass. (Now I anxiously await one of these mental giants actually to respond to the crazy ramblings left in the comments)

I am confused about the deterrence/safety dichotomy created in this post. Becker begins by talking about general deterrence in criminal law -- that rational actors do not commit criminal acts because the costs of getting caught outweigh the benefits of the criminal action. But then Becker notes that "In addition, individuals who cannot be deterred are sometimes punished simply because it is considered likely that will commit crimes in the future. This is a major justification for forced hospitalization and psychological treatment of potentially violent and mentally unstable persons."
It seems that Becker's argument is that the terrorists, in addition to being spread out and hard to find to retaliate against, are more like mental patients -- those who cannot be deterred. I agree that most terrorists today are not rational actors -- destroying their own lives in support of a cause is not rational in the economic sense.
We do not "punish" those who are committed -- we commit them because, due to a mental disease or defect, the present a danger to themselves or others. It is, indeed a protectory measure, which could be analogized to the protection of our country from terrorists through preemptive attack. And courts recognize that such actions are not punishment, because there is a lower standard of proof for civil commitment, different evidentiary standards, no jury trial right, etc.

But, those who are committed are not merely locked away forever, or "disposed of." They receive regular hearings for competency, due process, treatment (if possible), medication, and counseling. One determination cannot lock a person up forever. However, there are no such safeguards in preemptive war. An executive makes a decision about safety, and moves in. There is little (ex ante) oversight of this decision. Once there, the country bombs, shoots, and destroys. There is no way to reevaluate later. The "treatment" or "medication" might be the establishment of a democracy where some sort of dictatorship previously stood. But putting a new suit on an insane individual just allows the insane individual to get a table at Charlie Trotter's.
The point is that neither Becker's or Judge Posner's analysis can accurately measure all the consequences of preemtive war, and "committing" a country is not appropriate either.

Deb Frisch

Posner presents a quantitative (yang) analysis that makes the case that sometimes, preventive war is the rational chooice. Becker presents a qualitative (yin) analysis that makes the same point.

Most members of the reality-based community already understand that sometimes killing is rational. Most of us understand that sometimes, chopping off your arm is rational (e.g., Aron Ralston -the hiker who sawed his arm off when a rock fell on it and trapped him in a remote canyon).

The 200 billion dollar question is whether THIS preemptive war - the one that we are spending money and lives on TODAY is justified. Posner was mute with respect to this question. Becker tells us we gotta kill the terrorists before they kill us.

Neither Posner nor Becker nor Becker&Posner comes anywhere close to preventing a rational and compelling justification for Bush War II.

If their intention was to stimulate debate, great. If they think they've contributed anything to this debate, yikes.

Carl Pham

An executive makes a decision about safety, and moves in. There is little (ex ante) oversight of this decision....There is no way to reevaluate later.

I don't think so. Recall that the executive in question is subject to oversight by the voters, e.g. as just happened this November 2. Furthermore, those voters are without doubt affected by the perceived efficacy and humanity of the operation.

Furthermore, as should be very obvious from the twists and turns of the Iraq or Vietnam story, war is not a one-time decision. It is a posture maintained for years, and there are many opportunities to change its nature, or re-evaluate the war decision altogether.


Mr. Becker, there doesn't seem to be any point to your essay, so allow me to highlight some of your fallacious propositions.

No, combating crime surely does not rely "on deterrence through punishment." It relies on moral training. Only in the rare instances where that fails must we resort to punishment. Have you heard about religion?

No, nobody is punished for committing crimes "in the future." Hospitalization and psychological treatment are not punishments in this country. Where are you from?

No, the conventional approach to war in democratic states does not favor "retaliation after attacks." The conventional approach in the US is to avoid attack by strong defense, negotiation, cultural and trade ties. Where are you from?

No, retaliation was not the rational for MAD. Deterrence was the rational. Are you able to detect the difference?

No, stopping terrorists before they attack by tracking them down and imprisoning them or killing them" in definitely not the "only really effective approach." Please pay attention to President Bush when he talks about the spreading Democracy as the best way to stop terrorism.

No, Saddam Hussein did not "greatly underestimate the likelihood of massive responses" after the whooping he got in Desert Storm. He is simply nuts. Do you ever pause to consider the simple explanation?

In summary, I think you need to find another topic to blog on. You have no idea of what you are talking about.

Apparent Authority

My problem with the argument and generally the problem I had with criminal law class in law school was that detterrence is ineffective. Our jails are fuller then ever before, and this now includes a record number of women. If we cannot deter violent and criminal behavior in the United States, where we have an entire justice system centralized around that goal how can we deter similar types of activities in foreign and rouge nations with the use of rotating military forces. However, I am for the preemptive strike against Iraq and our war against terror.

Michael Lewyn

Posner sees the issues far more clearly than Becker.

One reason I found the debate over Iraq so frustrating is that my friends on both sides of the issue overlooked the concept of cost/benefit analysis.

My prowar friends thought like Becker does: there are benefits to deposing Sadaam, therefore we should - overlooking the possible costs, most notably the likelihood that by creating increased anti-U.S. hostility in the Arab world, the war increased the pool of potential terrorists. (Of course, had Sadaam had WMDs, the costs would have been far higher: he might have given the WMDs to terrorists, causing them to be used in American cities).

My antiwar friends saw the costs of war, but did not see the benefits. It is not yet clear whether the ultimate rulers of Iraq will be better or worse (from a U.S. point of view) than Sadaam; a Taliban-type regime, at least in part of Iraq, is by no means impossible. But if Iraq evolves into a relatively decent state, or if Iraqis are too busy killing each other to attract the world's attention, post-Sadaam Iraq may be less harmful to America than the pre-2002 status quo.

However, it is clear that the sanctions regime was a major irritant in U.S.-Arab relations, and it may well be that after the U.S. withdraws, the memory of the Iraq war may be less harmful than the present reality of sanctions which (according to Arab propaganda) caused starvation, etc. in Iraq. (I express no opinion as to the truth of such propaganda, mainly because I have no idea).

On a wholly unrelated note, I reject the idea that terrorists are undeterrable just because they do not treasure their lives. Terrorists are fighting for a specific cause: threaten the extermination of that specific cause, and you deter them.

For example, suppose Israel was willing to plausibly threaten to commit genocide against the Palestinians- that is, to use its WMDs to make the West Bank and the Gaza Strip uninhabitable by human beings for the next few years. (And assume further, of course, that it was technically able to do so without killing most Israelis as well). If these conditions applied, and Ariel Sharon said "The next suicide bombing will lead to the elimination of the Palestinian people", terrorism would disappear because Palestinian terrorists want Palestinians to take over Israel rather than being eliminated.

Likewise, Putin could deter Chechen terrorism by threatening to eliminate Chechyna, and if Spain had nuclear weapons it could deter the ETA by threatening the elimination of the Basque part of Spain.


Likewise, Islamist terrorists have a cause: the takeover of the Muslim nations (and perhaps the world) by Islamists, and the elimination of the foreign forces that prevent such domination (e.g. U.S. military bases and the allegedly alien presence of Israel). If President Bush announced that any attack on American soil would be met by instant extermination of every Muslim-majority country, al-Qaeda would be deterred just as effectively as the Soviet Union was deterred during the Cold War.

A Scott Crawford

Regarding "preventive" war.

If there is just cause to declare war on another Country, than these causes should be presented to Congress for a constitutionally legal and formal declaration of war. In the case of Afghanistan, there was no excuse for Congress to pass the buck to the Executive. Let us not misuse or confuse the term "war".

....It surprises me that no one seems to bother to note that the idea of "preemptive war" is an oxymoron. What we are really talking about is the extent of Executive Authority to justify using War Powers on the grounds of possible external threats, and without first securing the Constitional authority to do so from Congress.

....Sadly, we have allowed Congress to surrender it's appropriate authority to declare "war" to a greater extent than many people think wise. We have gotten into the habit of allowing the Executive, under the guise of Treaty, War Powers, the UN, NATO, and etc. to assume a degree of legitimacy to wantonly use the military to engage in acts that most reasonable people would consider acts of war (i.e. bombing other Countries). This is not a vice particular to the Bush administration, as it's worth noting that the previous administration engaged in acts of war in many more instances and often with less merit. Regardless, let's not confuse "Executive War Powers", with Consititional "Declarations of War".

....Let's not be coy with each other. Is it appropriate to allow the Executive to hide behind the UN SC in order to engage in War while bypassing Congress? Is there any clear reason why the US has committed itself to a NATO Treaty that retains Article V, obliging us to war on behalf of European Nations that have not themselves demonstrated they will honor the NATO Treaty in full? Why shouldn't Congress, rather than the Executive, been the appropriate Body to defer to regarding the establishment of boundries within which Executive can evoke its War Powers without a formal declaration?

Jason Ligon

Can we stop with the USSR had lots of nukes, so the same policy would work now meme?

Deterrence is achieved by convincing an opponent that you have the capacity and willingness to destroy them. The USSR was a geopolitical entity confined to a land mass. Add up the number of nuclear weapons we have, and dump them all into that known land mass, and you have a convincing case for the capability to destroy the USSR completely. The willingness to destroy them in a retaliatory strike was a matter of why not, which is also pretty convincing. Hence deterrence.

I don't think there is much question in anyone's mind that the US has the capability to destroy every middle eastern tyrant and nearly every terrorist. What is (or was) completely lacking is any evidence that the US was willing to do so, or anything even close. The nature of both the terrorist and the despot is to hide behind people you aren't willing to harm - note Saddam's tactics. Terrorists need environments in which they can operate without fear of retribution, because they are very weak out in the open. They need armor and a shield. The armor is some silly notion of sovereignity, the idea that you can't come and get me because I am currently sitting on the wrong side of some border or other. Who can provide that sort of cover? Where does the money come from? Why aren't they ever prosecuted in middle eastern countries? If a tyrant even allows terrorists to go unpersued within their borders, they are part of the problem. They are, in effect, putting terrorists behind their armies and daring you to come after them.

The shield is the ability to put enough hostages between you and them that you aren't willing to chase them down. They prey on your unwillingness to do that which is the essence of what they do.

Just a casual reading of any newspaper or a random sampling of the blogosphere would not give anyone the impression that we are willing to employ any portion of our destructive capability to eliminate the problem of terrorism. Of course terrorists, and tyrants, are undeterred.

Look at the standards for a commitment to force being waved around: 1) you have to be certain that a given tyrant was supporting not terrorists in general, but the specific ones that attacked you; 2) there can be no collateral damage; 3) there can be no loss of American soldiers; 4) The UN has to agree with you.

Why would any reasonable person believe, given these discussions, and given the impotence of the USS Cole investigation, not to mention the Mogadishu situation, that America was willing to employ any of its force against anyone ever? Saddam's fall was a keystone in rebuilding our ability to deter.


Economics assumes (semi) rational actors. Fundamentalist extremists do not fit such models.

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