nourishment and exacerbation
has the iraq war reduced or exacerbated the threat of terrorism? the times reports on a classified national intelligence estimate report, which apparently concludes that the war has made things worse by fomenting anti-american sentiment in the islamic world.*
i cannot comment intelligently on the empirical claim or the hypothesized mechanism. i can, however, point out that the exacerbation phenomenon is a familiar and general problem in sociological criminology. such questions pop up all the time: has mass incarceration been a net gain to public safety? what about the war on drugs? well, a starting point for such questions involves naming, cataloguing, and estimating the positive (e.g., putatively less substance use) and negative (e.g., putatively greater violence around more-lucrative drug markets) paths between the policy and the outcome. the evidence can then be weighed in cost-benefit analyses of varying complexity. or, of course, siezed upon for partisan gain.
while democrats would like to squeeze u.s. policy in iraq through such an analytical wringer, i should point out that right fielders can play too. for example, george will asks whether affirmative action has been a net gain for people of color, just as charles murray argues that, on balance, public assistance has been a bane rather than a boon to those in poverty. their hypotheses, just as those of left-field critics, should be evaluated on the basis of theory and evidence regarding the hypothesized mechanisms connecting the policy intervention to the negative outcomes.
i still teach kai erikson's (1962) notes on the sociology of deviance on the general problem of social control interventions exacerbating deviance. in my opinion, professor erikson offers an exceptionally clear and cogent presentation on this subject:
[D]eviant forms of conduct seem to derive nourishment from the very agencies devised to inhibit them. Indeed the agencies built by society for preventing deviance are often so poorly equipped for the task that we might well ask why this is regarded as their "real" function in the first place. It is by now a thoroughly familiar argument that many of the institutions designed to discourage deviant behavior actually operate in such a way as to perpetuate it.
dr. erikson was writing about prisons and other institutions of social control. does the logic extend to international relations? if so, it leaves us with two questions: (1) have "islamic radicalism and terroristic threats" derived nourishment from u.s. efforts to curb "islamic radicalism and terroristic threats?" and, (2) are u.s. policies so poorly equipped for this task that we might ask whether curbing terrorism should be regarded as their "real" function in the first place?
of course, many left-fielders will quickly point out that the iraq war was not actually intended to reduce terrorism, so the analogy with social control efforts such as imprisonment is, at best, strained. prisoners and those who study prisons, in contrast, are likely to have little difficulty making this leap. the "real" functions of mass incarceration are a mysterious topic, one that should perhaps be left for another day.
*i say apparently because i haven't seen the report or even a declassified report of the report. i suspect that the dems and the reps discussing it are as much concerned about its partisan implications as its content in this election season.