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Review by David W. Thornton

Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. By Paul R. Pillar. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 272. $26.95 cloth.)

“In one fundamental respect, it can be argued that 9-11 did not contradict, but instead confirmed the book’s main arguments: the root causes of terrorism will not disappear, the U.S. because of its actual and perceived hegemonic status will face a perennial and serious threat from terrorism, and terrorism is a threat to be managed but never solved.”

In a timely and important work, Paul R. Pillar provides exactly what its refreshingly straightforward title promises—a comprehensive, scholarly, well-organized and cogently written study of global terrorism as it relates to the practice of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. The author’s combination of long professional experience (Army officer, high level positions in the CIA and National Intelligence Council) and rigorous academic training (Dartmouth, Oxford, Princeton) qualify him perhaps uniquely to make such a contribution. While its topical structure and congenial style of presentation make Pillar’s book accessible to those only just delving into the subject (and thus quite suitable for use in advanced undergraduate or graduate courses), the level of detail along with the breadth and depth of the sources insure its value to academics and seasoned practitioners alike.The main theme of the work is clearly stated, regularly emphasized, and effectively developed: “counterterrorist policy must be formulated as an integral part of broader U.S foreign policy.” That the U.S. response to terrorism cannot and should not be separated from its wider political and diplomatic context is deceptively a simple point, but—as amply illustrated through Pillar’s arguments and evidence—one much more easily acknowledged in principle than observed in practice. Pillar argues that dealing effectively with a phenomenon as complex as terrorism requires active and simultaneous attention to four major fronts: the root conditions that give rise to the individuals and groups likely to engage in terrorism as a political tactic, the intention of these people to practice terrorism, their ability to conduct actual attacks, and measures that can be taken to prevent them.

Responding to such a multi-dimensional threat entails traditional instruments of U.S. foreign policy formulation and implementation—diplomacy, military force, and intelligence—along with law enforcement and criminal justice approaches and assets more often associated with domestic policy. For Pillar, the practical challenge confronting counter-terrorism policy-makers is to select and effectively coordinate the policy tools most appropriate to specific, real, and potential threats presented by the wide variety of groups and their particular priorities, capabilities, and tactics. “The instruments are complementary, and the value of using them should be-and generally is—more than just the sum of the parts.” Problems can and do arise, however, as a result of one instrument being overemphasized at the expense of others, or when the instruments might work at cross purposes. As examples, an overreaching effort to build a criminal case that would lead to conviction in a U.S. court might compromise intelligence assets or tread on the sovereignty sensibilities of foreign governments, while the destruction and chaos associated with the use of military force might complicate the disruption of terrorist cells and capture of fugitive terrorists.

In every instance of effective counter-terrorism, however, steady and patient diplomacy is sure to play a crucial role in creating the political conditions, institutional linkages, and personal contacts so vital to the transnational cooperation required to fight this truly global threat. Yet, the U.S. approach to dealing with both the groups that practice terrorism and the states that either actively sponsor or enable them to function relies too heavily on a moralistic and punitive approach that creates frictions where cooperation is most needed. One of Pillar’s most telling criticisms of U.S. policy is the tendency of the U. S. government to create official lists of these offenders so as to identify them as deserving of formal sanction. With regard to terrorist groups, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 specifies that the Secretary of State can designate groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), allowing a variety of legal and financial measures to be taken against them in the U.S., such as criminal prosecution, deportation, and seizure of assets. According to Pillar, difficulties with such an approach outweigh any advantages for several reasons: such lists cannot hope to identify all actual active and potentially dangerous terrorist groups, and the groups on the list have more differences amongst themselves than similarities. An additional flaw (and one that applies as well to the list officially designating states as sponsors of terrorism) is that political considerations rather than actual behavior can and do determine which state will be included (e.g. Cuba) or which group will be left off the lists (e.g. IRA), thereby undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the policy.

Given its subject matter and its so recent publication, it is irresistible (and not entirely unfair) to ask how Pillar’s analysis stands up in light of the horrific attacks of 9-11. In one fundamental respect, it can be argued that 9-11 did not contradict, but instead confirmed the book’s main arguments: the root causes of terrorism will not disappear, the U.S. because of its actual and perceived hegemonic status will face a perennial and serious threat from terrorism, and terrorism is a threat to be managed but never solved. Yet on other points directly related to the 9-11 attacks, the analysis is so far off the mark that in retrospect it sounds almost irresponsibly complacent. Specifically, Pillar points to aviation security and the reduction in airline hijackings as a prominent example of success in counter-terrorism policy: “Although some other factors affecting terrorists’ choice of methods have been involved, the chief reason for this welcome development has been a comprehensive security system that has made it much harder to bring on board an aircraft the wherewithal to hijack it.” Similarly, Pillar’s glowing assessment of the effectiveness of counter-terrorism policy formulation and implementation within the American national government rings especially hollow, given the still unfolding revelations concerning the tragic failings within and among the various agencies—especially the INS, FBI, and CIA—to gather and analyze information relevant to 9-11. Pillar is particularly laudatory of the work of the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) in coordinating the intelligence, military, and law enforcement elements in addressing the terrorist threat, and concludes: “Interagency coordination on counterterrorism is not perfect, but it is generally effective and probably about as good as can be expected on any subject that cuts across so many functions.”

To be fair, nobody can be blamed for failing to recognize the precise character of the terrorist threat facing the United States in the months prior to 9-11. Indeed, the wholly unprecedented and completely shocking nature of the attacks shows that even the best informed among us cannot be expected to anticipate such a diabolical manifestation of evil.End.

David W. Thornton
David W. Thornton

David W. Thornton, a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy, is Associate Professor of Government and Director of Government Studies at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. He is the author of Airbus Industrie: The Politics of an International Industrial Collaboration (1995).


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