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Domestic Constraints on Diplomacy

By Taylor Marvin

Why have negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program continued to stall? The simplest potential answer is that Iranian and P5+1 negotiators simply have incompatible minimally acceptable outcomes. Another theory is that fundamental differences between Iranian and Western negotiating styles have led to misunderstandings. Dina Esfandiary highlighted this possibility recently, noting that P5+1 negotiators misread to them-unacceptable Iranian offers “as a sign of their unwillingness to talk rather than an opening to negotiations.”

Another explanation for diplomacy’s slow progress is that one or both countries’ negotiators are too diplomatically constrained to offer, or accept, an otherwise mutually-acceptable bargain. Patrick Clawson recently discussed this possibility in the context of internal IRI divisiveness: what if the Iranian regime is too divided and dysfunctional to actually agree to anything? Even if P5+1 negotiators were to offer a “unilateral US unconditional surrender,” Clawson speculated in Foreign Policy, infighting among factions within the IRI regime might make even this best-case deal unworkable. Even if the P5+1 was willing to offer their counterparts everything they wanted, it’s unclear if Iranian negotiators can actually be counted on to represent the relevant policymakers back home.

But this argument misses the most important ramification of internal Iranian division. The Iranian regime’s disunity may hamper its ability to offer prospective carrots, but it also limits the efficacy of America’s stick — if internal divisions constrain diplomatic options, they arguably also constrain the ability of the American government to coerce Iran. Of course, deterrence will always be an easier face of coercion than compellence, particularly when successful compellence must influence numerous policymakers holding competing preferences. The specifics of Iran’s internal dynamics heighten this difficulty. While the Iranian regime as a body does not appear to derive its legitimacy from opposition to the West, individual politicians certainly can. Infighting gives these politicians a political incentive to avoid a settlement. It’s unlikely the threat of US strikes on nuclear targets will have any practical compellence effect on these domestically-vulnerable leaders, weakening the effect of coercion on the relevant policymaking body as a whole.

Rather than a threatening prospect to be avoided, US airstrikes could a political positive for hardliners alarmed by the prospect of a repeat of 2009’s post-election unrest. “An American strike,” Alireza Nader recently wrote in the New York Times, “would spur the Iranian public to rally around the flag and buck up a wobbling, wheezing theocracy — and an Israeli strike would do so in spades.” This isn’t novel logic. History is full of unpopular regimes that overcame internal legitimacy crises by focusing domestic discontent around an external foe. The same prospect of diversionary conflict drove the unstable Argentine junta to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982, though the threat of domestic unrest and prospect of regime instability is nowhere near as severe in today’s Iran than early-1980s Argentina. But importantly, the US appears to not grasp the implications of this perceived vulnerability: at the exact moment when Iranian conservatives seem more concerned about their domestic position than any time since the 1980s the United States doing everything it can to help the regime credibly present it as an implacable external enemy.

This doesn’t imply the Iranian regime faces any real prospect of collapse. Nader’s characterization of the regime as wobbling and wheezing is overblown, and American hopes the Iranian government will conveniently collapse are chimerical. But unqualified American hostility that empowers its adversaries is simply bad US foreign policy. “What Iran’s leaders would like more than anything,” Matthew Duss recently argued, “is another Dick Cheney or John Bolton, someone willing to play the villainous role that Iran’s anti-American propaganda narrative requires.” For Iranian political figures benefiting from the America-as-aggressor narrative, the positive (for them) implications of a US strike is a powerful incentive to avoid a diplomatic settlement.

This is why the “stick” argument Clawson embraces is so misguided. Clawson closes his piece by warning Iran that it should either “accept a generous offer to resolve the nuclear impasse or be prepared for the consequences.” But the same internal division Clawson highlights makes these “consequences” an entirely uncompelling threat! Given that the status quo favors the Iranians — the decision to escalate the crisis rests on the Americans and Israelis — relying on threats to coerce Iranian compliance over diplomacy isn’t likely to succeed.

But part of why these arguments persist is that, barring a unexpected breakthrough, diplomacy doesn’t appear to be workable. This impasse can be partially attributed to Iranian disfunction, but internal politics arguably constrains American diplomacy as much as it does Iran’s. The Obama administration’s Iran policy is limited by a domestic political arena that is at once too united and too divisive. The American foreign policy establishment’s reflexive hostility towards Iran makes it difficult to imagine the US proposing a feasible diplomatic solution, and partisan politics works to prevent the administration from moderating its demands.

Foreign policymakers inhabit a broader establishment that constrains their actions. These constraints are significant, and the specifics of American agenda-setting within divided government allow US hawks to constrain politically acceptable diplomatic options to their own preferences to a greater extent than their dovish peers. Most voters don’t care about foreign policy and embrace exceptionalist rhetoric that legitimize interventionist policies and makes threat inflation politically valuable. Just as IRI internal divisions allows hardliners’ preferences to limit both diplomacy and the compellence value of American sticks, in America the spectrum of credible diplomatic offers is benchmarked around the most hawkish members of the US foreign policy establishment. While this is no reason to discount the very valid reasons for opposing the Iranian regime — its barbaric human rights record is the most obvious — it is important to recognize that institutionalized hostility towards Iran within the American governing establishment significantly constrains P5+1 diplomacy.

The constraints these attitudes place on policymakers is obvious. After all, much of the Republican hostility to Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is based on his view that a destructive war would represent a fundamental failure of foreign policy; a complete truism to dispassionate observers. Worse, when Jennifer Rubin claims Iran — home to a population a quarter of America’s, bereft of international allies, and armed by a decrepit military — is “our greatest national security threat” she is voicing a mainstream Republican talking point, not a fringe position. Commentators may persuasively argue that the dangers of nuclear proliferation are hugely overblown, but their arguments makes little practical difference because the political constraints built into the modern American foreign policy establishment marginalize challenges to nuclear alarmism.

Clawson contrasts Iranian divisiveness by noting that American bills targeting Iran “typically enjoy stunning levels of support,” but discounts the possibility that this too is a barrier to successful diplomacy. If American threats do not appear sufficient to compel Iran — and they do not — successful diplomacy must involve some degree of mutual compromise. But again, it’s unclear if American policymakers possess the domestic political capital to accept a potentially mutually satisfactory deal. While “sanctions relief” is reportedly on the table in the next round of talks, Republicans are sure to view dialing back sanctions in exchange for anything less than complete Iranian capitulation as another example of Obama’s “unserious” attitude towards national security.

These domestic political constraints aren’t limited to setting the boundaries of plausible diplomatic options. It’s worth remembering that American attitudes have already blocked potentially workable solutions. As related by Trita Parsi in his history of the Obama administration’s first term diplomacy with Iran, the potentially mutually-agreeable Iran-Brazil-Turkey-led Tehran Declaration was derailed in part by US domestic political pressures. “The impression, right or wrong,” Parsi quotes an Obama administration official as saying, “that was created was that we could not take yes for an answer”; an example of constrained diplomacy if there every was one.

Compromise is an integral part of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s possible diplomatic constraints on both sides of the negotiating table make that necessary mutual trade a nonstarter.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Boris Kustodiev, 'The Merchant's Wife', 1918. Via Wikimedia.

Boris Kustodiev, ‘The Merchant’s Wife’, 1918. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Roger Cohen reviews Vali Nasr’s upcoming book: “Diplomacy is tough and carries a price, but the price is higher when it is abandoned.”

A new report shows Mexican security forces responsible for numerous disappearances.

Pope Benedict will remain in the Vatican after resigning, reportedly to retain legal immunity.

More on the flawed, too-big-to-fail F-35.

A new CNAS report by Colin Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine asks whether an Iranian nuclear weapon would spur Saudi Arabia to seek the bomb.

The Antlers – Kettering

Armageddon Averted

By Taylor Marvin

I’m currently reading Stephen Kotkin’s Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, which is short, highly-readable, and recommended. Kotkin has a flair for drily understating the farcical:

“Glasnost remained mostly a slogan right through 1986. Even geographical locations that could be indicated on Soviet maps were still being shown inaccurately, to foil foreign spies, as if satellite imaging had not been invented, while many cities were entirely missing… Widespread fictitious economic accounting was foiling planners to the point where the KGB employed its own satellites to ascertain the size of Uzbek cotton harvest.”

Kotkin also relays this gem from the Gorbachev-Yeltsin transition:

“On 27 December, four days prior to the date Gorbachev was supposed to vacate his Kremlin office, the receptionist called him at home to report that Yeltsin and two associates were already squatting in the coveted space, where they had downed a celebratory bottle of whisky. It was 8:30 am.”

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Simone Martini, 1328. Via Wikimedia.

Simone Martini, 1328. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Not one US servicemember has been killed in Afghanistan in the last 25 days.

Barbara Walter on why Assad will fight to the end.

Inside the Navy’s aircraft carrier deployment budget gamble.

When democratization produces drug violence.

The hidden story of airpower in Libya (via Shashank Joshi).

What patterns of trade might tell us about the democratic peace.

This was published back in December, but The Economist’s story on the 1860s War of the Triple Alliance is excellent.

Did Israel assassinate an IRGC general in Syria?

Reader answers to my question at Political Violence @ a Glance on Iran’s amateurish fakes.

Five ways to make progress in evolutionary psychology: Smash, not match, stereotypes (via Ed Young).

The Album Leaf – Descent

Plan for What You’ll Get, Not What You Prefer

By Taylor Marvin

USAF photo by Capt. Edward Schmitt.

USAF photo by Capt. Edward Schmitt.

One of the main criticism of the Pentagon’s massive F-35 fighter acquisition effort is the aircraft’s limited agility. Detractors of the program claim this limitation is a fatal flaw, while supporters dismiss maneuverability as an antiquated consideration with little relevance to modern air warfare.

Limited maneuverability is a fundamental product of the F-35’s joint nature. The F-35 is a product of compromise; most obviously, the decision to benchmark the aircraft’s three variants around the F-35B’s STOVL airframe. The demands of STOVL design mandated that the F-35 feature a single engine, reducing its inherent survivability and contributing to the F-35’s alleged arial combat deficiencies against competing, twin-engined aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon. But supporters of the program argue that this isn’t a problem. In modern arial warfare — or at least the warfare they deem most likely, as no one really knows what “modern” air-to-air combat looks like in practice — maneuverability doesn’t matter. Instead, in future conflicts fighters will function primarily as networked sensor platforms and missile trucks, engaging each other at beyond visual range (BVR). If maneuverability contributes little to survivability, F-35 advocates argue, it isn’t worth pursuing at the cost of more practical traits like low observability or airframe jointness.

But there’s a key fault in this assumption: just because BVR combat is technically possibile doesn’t mean politically-mandated Rules of Engagement (ROEs) will allow it. At The Diplomat Robert Farley highlights this possibility:

“Perhaps more importantly, rules of engagement are inherently political.  Civilian leaders, and their politically attuned senior military counterparts, will draw up guidelines for combat in context of political, not military, necessity. If the F-35 can only operate successfully in BVR context (and to be sure the networking capability of the F-35 make ‘BVR’ a different proposition than with past aircraft), and if the civilians restrict the ability of the aircraft to operate under such conditions, then the utility of the fighter comes into grave question.  This question is hardly academic, as potential peer competitors of the U.S. (including Russia and China) will undoubtedly take political steps to limit the ability of the F-35 to fight at full capability.”

I’d take this farther. The most famous instance of restrictive rules of engagement limiting BVR air-to-air combat is the Vietnam War. These restrictions, combined with the early-sixties belief that BVR missiles would dominate future air-to-air combat (early versions of the legendary American F-4 featured no gun, only missiles), frustrated US airmen and empowered North Vietnamese pilots flying maneuverable, gun-armed fighters that excelled in visual range combat. But officials had good reason for requiring American pilots to visually identify their targets before firing. The overwhelming majority of aircraft over Vietnam were American. Restrictive ROEs aided the North Vietnamese, but letting American airmen fire visually confirming targets were actually hostile likely would have resulted in far more friendly fire incidents. Given the primitive identification friend of foe (IFF) technology of the era, it’s difficult to argue that these restrictions were unjustified.

Quickly achieving air superiority is a lynchpin of all American war planning. In any future conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary, the US Air Force and Navy will seek deny the sky to opposing forces — resulting in an airspace that, while contested, is saturated with friendly aircraft. This means that the exact same conditions that justified restricting BVR combat over Vietnam are an inherent product of the total air dominance US forces take for granted. Yes, IFF technology has massively improved since Vietnam. But in a situation where the vast majority of aircraft in theater are friendly, it’s unreasonable to imagine that BVR engagement won’t be limited by self, as well as adversary, imposed political restrictions.

These two preferences — for air dominance and BVR air-to-air combat — are inherently conflicting. This makes benchmarking the F-35 around BVR combat problematic. Sure, US war planners would prefer to fight under BVR conditions, which favor highly networked American forces. But these same strategists should recognize that total air dominance — a fixture of US military planning since World War II — practically insures restrictive ROEs.

A Framework for Military Xenophobic Cultures

By Taylor Marvin

Last week a video showing Chilean sailors chanting “I will kill Argentines, I will shoot Bolivians, I will behead Peruvians” surfaced and immediately drew international condemnation. Chilean leaders denounced the chant and promised that the sailors involved would be punished, but the nature of the video — which shows a public training run — and reports that the particular chant has been around for decades suggests that it, and the military culture of violent xenophobia it embodies, enjoys some level of semi-official approval in the Chilean Navy. Chilean Congressman Gonzalo Arenas Hödar criticized the Navy’s reaction, remarking the chants “have always existed in all the armed forces,” and defensibly noted that anti-Chilean marching chants are common in the Argentine military as well.

Colin M. Snider has an excellent post (hat tip to Robert Farley) that places the violent chant within the context of Chile’s past wars and current rivalries with its neighbors  concluding that “such declarations are unsurprising, as they tap into nationalist sentiment and regional antagonisms that go back well over a century.” This is certainly true, as Chile’s historical wars with its neighbors is a source of frequent contemporary conflict. As Snider notes, Chile’s annexation of southern Peru and costal Bolivia during the 1890s War of the Pacific is still resented in both countries; notably, the Bolivian coat of arms retains a star for its lost Litoral province conquered over a century ago. More recently, Chile’s privileged position among its neighbors draws some degree of resentment: Chileans enjoy much higher standards of living than their northern counterparts, and, as David R. Mares nots in Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin AmericaChile has been the dominant military force in the region for a century. While the likelihood of interstate armed conflict has dramatically decreased since the demise of the region’s military governments, Chile still enjoys a substantial qualitative military edge over its neighbors. Conversely, bigotry towards Peruvians and Bolivians is common in Chilean society, as is nationalistic hostility towards Chile’s poorer neighbors. Perhaps relatedly, the threat of renewed conflict is judged high enough to justify comparably high military spending (at 3.2 percent of 2012 GDP, higher than Argentine, Bolivian, and Peruvian percentage-of-GDP defense spending).

So, given the history of conflict between Chile and its neighbors and the nationalistic prejudice present in Chilean society, the chant is arguably — though perhaps depressingly — unsurprising. However, what is notable is its context. The public nature of the sailors’ chant suggests that this is not, strictly speaking, a discipline issue. If these xenophobic chants have persisted over decades of personnel turnover within the Chilean armed forces it strains credibility to argue that they are not tolerated by the military establishment. Instead, xenophobic chants are likely encouraged within the officer corp, a possibility supported by a Twitter user’s claim, directed at Chilean Admiral Edmundo Gonzalez, that the marching chants are “not improvisations”. This is striking. Of course, xenophobia and cultures of violence targeted at outsiders classified as enemies are not uncommon within militaries. However, their public expression is rarely tolerated in modern, democratic armed forces like Chile’s. That’s not saying these expressions never occur, but are rarely seen in the quasi-official context of the Chilean video.

Acknowledging the chant as semi-official implies some level of cost-benefit analysis within the military establishment. As noted above, this is not a discipline issue — violent xenophobia expressed as obviously as public chants would not be present if officers consciously decided not to tolerate it. Given that violent xenophobia appears tolerated, if not encouraged, within the Chilean military, the military establishment must judge that this culture’s benefits exceed its costs; this suggests that a cost-benefit framework determines when militaries foster cultures of violent xenophobia and when they do not. Of course, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the specific Chilean case — it is not clear if Chile’s apparent xenophobic military culture is due solely to endogenous determinants, or a broad framework that can be extended to other cultural contexts. But it does suggest interesting speculation.

Indoctrinating, or at least tolerating, violent xenophobia within armed forces brings both benefits and costs. In the eyes of officers that allow it, peacetime xenophobia helps build martial vigor and an esprit de corps by self-defining a military group in opposition to its perceived enemies. Indoctrinating soldiers with the idea that war is possible also presumably raises morale and commitment in countries where servicemembers are unlikely to actually fight. However, xenophobic military cultures also impose external reputation costs — risking that soldiers will be perceived as bloodthirsty and the society they represent bigoted. These interacting benefits and costs suggest that militaries will foster xenophobia when they face conditions that maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of these cultures. Chile appears a clear case of maximizing these benefits, for three reasons.

First, Chile has standing rivalries with neighboring countries the Chilean population perceives as enemies. In addition to Chile’s history of conflict with its neighbors, this public perception is partially due to the Pinochet dictatorship’s practice of stressing external, as well as internal, threats in a bid to legitimize military rule. A society-identified external enemy is a requirement for military xenophobia, for obvious reasons: to motivate, xenophobia needs an obvious target. While military establishments are certainly capable of indoctrinating their members with violent hatreds, this xenophobia must be based on an existing social bias — modern French officers attempting to motivate their soldiers by indoctrinating them with a hatred of Germans would be met by laughter, despite the two countries’ history of conflict. Importantly, the channel between social perceptions of external enemies and deliberately indoctrinated military xenophobia works both ways: soldiers indoctrinated with xenophobic hatreds will take bigotry with them into society, and as the historical Chilean military dictatorship demonstrates governments will often build public perceptions of external threats in the service of regime legitimacy. Together, these popularly-perceived external enemies likely maximize the beneficial motivating effects of fostering military xenophobia.

Secondly, Chile has little prospect of going to war. Chile has not engaged in an interstate war for over a century, and despite outstanding disputes with Bolivia and Peru there has been little prospect of armed conflict since the end of the Pinochet regime. It is reasonable to suspect that servicemembers will be less committed to training and discipline in peacetime forces, as low commitment is less likely to result in fatal consequences. Constant repetition of the idea that combat is coming — “I will kill Argentines,” and so on — presumably is a device to increase individual servicemembers’ personal commitment. Even if servicemembers can rationally judge war to be unlikely, immersion in an environment where the opposite is stressed presumably has an effect; again, adding to the benefit side of the calculus.

Finally, Chile’s peacetime status reduces the potential costs of xenophobic military culture. For militaries in combat, unconstrained xenophobia has potentially greater costs. Soldiers socially indoctrinated with ethnic hatred are much more likely to commit highly-visible atrocities, if they have the opportunity. Chilean servicemembers may chant about “beheading Peruvians”, but thankfully have no opportunity to actually do so. For forces in combat, this is not the case. In the US military, endemic hatred of Muslims would create an environment where servicemembers judged war crimes to be tolerated. Consequently, in the last decade the US military establishment has vigorously worked to prevent a culture of broad hatred from arising within its ranks. While xenophobic hatreds have persisted at the lower-level of the US military — and have arguably directly resulted in atrocities — these hatreds are clearly not approved by military’s leadership and exist in spite of, rather than due to, desired institutional culture.

These two Chile-specific cultural factors — popularly-defined external enemies, and a low likelihood of facing combat — support the idea that military xenophobia grows from a deliberate cost/benefits framework. But in modern times the costs of fostering xenophobic military cultures have grown, as the furious international reaction to the video — and Chilean naval commanders’ promise that those involved will be punished — demonstrates. In past decades barracks hatreds were mostly just that: confined to barracks. But when a sailors’ chant can be quickly disseminated around the world and instantly embarrass the government, the reputation costs of xenophobic military cultures have grown, even for peacetime forces. Chile’s military establishment appears to be learning this the hard way.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ernesto de la Cárcova , "No Bread, No Work", 1893. Via Wikimedia.

Ernesto de la Cárcova , “No Bread, No Work”, 1893. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Syrian rebel raids expose secrets of once-feared military.

How US counterterrorism efforts in Africa are defined by a decade of missteps.

The state of online global jihad.

Drone strikes’ risks get rare moment in the public eye.

Scott Lemieux on the Obama administration’s justification for extrajudicial killings.

China’s foreign policy dilemma (via M. Taylor Fravel).

Marc Lynch makes interesting points about the downsides of social media’s role in the Arab revolutions.

Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition the authoritative report from the Open Society Foundation.

Ahmadinejad refuses to sit out his lame duck term quietly. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar has more.

Thao & Mirah – Hallelujah

No, Iran’s Leaders Aren’t Irrational, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

The LA Times reports that the Iranian government, alarmed by a falling birthrate that threatens future welfare programs and productivity, is offering incentives to couples that have children.

“The government’s new family plan, which seeks to increase marriage and birth rates among those who are between 20 and 30 years old, offers a number of incentives to couples who choose to have larger families. Not only are they promised low interest rates on loans when they buy apartments, but working mothers are offered generous maternity leave, supposedly topped off with a gold coin after the birth.”

Hmmm. This strikes me as good news, for reasons I can’t clearly recall. Oh right. Last year Lee Smith wrote an idiotic Tablet piece claiming that Iran’s low birthrate was evidence the entire country was populated by suicidal maniacs impervious to the logic of deterrence:

“Perhaps most tellingly, the plummeting Iranian birthrate—from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today—suggests that it is not just the regime, but an entire nation, that no longer wishes to live.”

So if the government’s trying to raise the birthrate above replacement rate, the regime must “wish to live.” Great news! I, of course, expect Smith to calmingly explain that the danger of the nuclear crisis’ now over, any moment now.

Why’s Iran So Terrible at Lying?

By Taylor Marvin

Ever Friday Political Violence @ a Glancean academic blog by political scientists I edit, solicits readers’ answers about some open question in political violence or international relations. I wrote the question this week: why are Iran’s attempt to fake technical achievements so consistently amateurish?

It’s not the fact that Iran attempts to fake high-profile technical achievements that is surprising: the entire space race between the US and USSR was founded — and, more pertinently, funded — on the national prestige value of technical advancements. Instead, what’s surprising to me is how obviously amateurish these attempts are. For example, what’s the point in showcasing a mockup “stealth fighter” obviously built at, say, 6/8ths scale? There’s little additional cost and technical requirements associated with building a more convincing mockup. Given that these hoaxes are widely mocked in the outside world, either the IRI policymakers responsible for these attempted public relations campaigns consistently overestimate the gullibility of outside observers, or they’re intended purely for internal audiences.

It’s important to note that these exaggerated or fabricated accomplishments aren’t mid-level operations. President Ahmadinejad was present for the recent space monkey showcase — which, at best, involved a botched photo release — indicating that the stunt had the approval of at least some high-level leadership. Even allowing for the possibility that senior IRI decisionmakers are consistently mistaken about how convincing their trumpeted fabrications actually are, it’s still puzzling that leadership in a reasonably-sophisticated state capable of reasonably-complex operations in other spheres would be this incompetent.

That leaves the alternative explanation that these stunts are purely intended for internal audiences, and that policymakers judge their damage to Iran’s external prestige worthwhile. But again, I’m not sure that this strictly makes sense. In the USSR authorities were able to suppress news of space program disasters or setbacks like the 1960 Nedelin catastrophe or failure of the N-1 moon rocket program, and anyway had plenty of genuine high-profile successes to deservedly celebrate. In the modern era information is far more difficult to suppress. It is unreasonable to think that educated Iranians are significantly less likely to spot obvious fabrications like the recently showcased stealth fighter; the Qaher 313’s fakery would be immediately apparent to any enthusiast familiar with images of F-22 or other modern fighters.While these stunts may play well to uneducated or poor audiences, it is likely the regime could devise alternative PR stunts capable of convincing the uneducated while avoiding international mockery.

So does anyone have a better explanation?

How America Strengthens al Qaeda’s Brand

By Taylor Marvin

Stephen Walt raises an interesting, if uncontroversial, point about international terrorism:

Uncontroversial, because this is a widely-appreciated and mourned fact of US foreign policy decisionmaking. The American public rightly associates the name “al Qaeda” with the specter of 9/11, and an inherent threat of devastating violence. This is, of course, understandable. There are at any moment dozens of violent organizations that oppose the United States, and it’s unreasonable to expect the non-professional electorate to keep the goals and relative capabilities of these various groups straight. Al Qaeda, a instantly recognizable name, will always stand out among alien-named jihadi organizations — while a only small percentage of American know how to pronounce “the base” in Arabic, I’d wager more do than any other Arabic phrase.

But just because this association is understandable doesn’t mean mean it isn’t an overreaction. As is frequently noted, modern al Qaeda represents a loose ideological association of regional affiliates rather than an single operationally-unified organization. “If you’re focusing just on North Africa, al Qaeda is a brand name as much as an organization,” then-Secretary Clinton said in testimony last month regarding the September 2012 Benghazi attack. This is certainly true — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the rebranded Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, does not share the al Qaeda of 2001’s global reach, demonstrated operational capabilities, and ideological determination to strike US targets. While it is unclear if AQIM possesses the operational requirements to mount attacks inside the US, it is certainly less motivated to do so than bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which was ideologically driven by bin Laden’s opposition to US military basing in Saudi Arabia. In a late January press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated he was “unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an AQIM threat against the homeland,” but made certain to reemphasize that the US considers this admittedly unlikely threat significant, noting “we take al Qaeda wherever they are very seriously.” This is an implicit admission that AQIM is viewed as a serious terrorist threat because of its al Qaeda moniker, rather than any operational aspect of the organization itself.

Jihadi groups that share a broad ideological link with bin Laden’s organization adopt the al Qaeda moniker because it is respected and legitimizing. Around the world the al Qaeda name is associated with both demonstrated lethality and ideological devotion, and, despite the last decade’s damage to the al Qaeda brand among Muslims, Islamist groups that co-opt the name gain a veneer of dangerous efficacy. To recruitment-minded jihadi groups this legitimizing veneer is operationally valuable.

But the legitimizing power of the al Qaeda brand is partially due to the US’ determination to eliminate it. Among groups that oppose the US — even tangentially, like AQIM — strong opposition from the US is an important signaling device. “See,” it says, “we’re so real the US really wants us dead.” Among Islamist or Islamist-aligned violent groups, the legitimizing effect of determined, public US opposition is an important marker of ideological and operational seriousness.

But it’s important to understand these two effects — jihadis adopt the al Qaeda name because the US fears it, Americans see al Qaeda everywhere and thus fear it more — feed off each other. The name al Qaeda will be a legitimizing force co-opted by violent Islamist groups as long as Americans perceive the term in any context as a grave threat. As long as Americans perceive the spread of the al Qaeda name as evidence the organization is growing more lethal, rather than simply geographically and ideologically disseminated, they will continue to fear it.

Copycat jihadi organizations won’t drop the name al Qaeda precisely because “our perception of the terrorist threat” is tied to its prevalence. As long as US policymakers are unable to publicly distinguish between different brands of al Qaeda in a way digestible by the American electorate the cycle will continue.