The Politics of State Terror

At a time when the American-led West’s ‘War on Terror’, having consisted largely of the international pursuit of non-state actors across borders and continents, seems to be taking a backseat in geopolitical significance to a rising threat of aggressive state actors—whether of the same Islamist ilk, such as Iran and Muslim-Brotherhood-led Egypt, or purely totalitarian, such as North Korea—the question turns to how and why state actors that show similarly aggressive tendencies are or are not designated as ‘terrorist states’. What benefit is yielded to those who wage the ‘War on Terror’ from the designation of a state as ‘terrorist’? The reality is more complicated than intuition might suggest. The designation of ‘terrorist’ does not have the same effect on all parties to which it is applied, nor to the policies of the United States and its allies with respect to those parties once they have been given the infamous label.

A ‘terrorist’ designation can certainly cause severe diplomatic complications for a state—particularly a smaller state— with respect to its diplomatic affairs, trade relations, the foreign travel of its citizens, and its subjection to the scrutiny, defensive and offensive actions of American and Western intelligence services. In the post-9/11 world, the application of the ‘terrorist’ label places a state in the same category as some of the world’s most infamous actors: al-Qaeda, Jama’at al-Islamiyya, Tablighi Jama’at, and, depending upon which Western government is cited, Hamas or Hezbollah (the EU, despite all reason to the contrary, remains reluctant to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization). Despite the differences between a given state and groups such as these, its categorization under the same heading can, in very real terms, affect its treatment in the security and defense policies of the West and increase its vulnerability to direct conflict with major powers, along with the probability of intervention by Western powers on behalf of its enemies in the event of local, intranational, or regional conflict.

However, it is a common but rash presumption that the designation of a party as ‘terrorist’ necessarily elevates their prospects for conflict or escalation with America or the West in general. In the context of the ‘War on Terror’, the designation has become increasingly politicized—a mark of shame selectively laid upon uncooperative states or removed from them with a discretion that sometimes reminds one that those now waging the ‘War on Terror’ were politically born and bred in the diplomatic culture of the Cold War. It has been selectively used as a bureaucratic means of officially choosing sides in intranational conflict abroad without heads of state having to venture anything personally by declaring support for one side over the other. Often, it seems that a public designation as a ‘terrorist state’ or the designation of political violence by a state (against the West or otherwise) as ‘terrorism’ belies a diplomatic effort carried out along quieter channels to change the targeted state’s behavior in exchange for that label’s official removal. Thus, the US government’s and the West’s inclusion of certain acts of political violence within the province of ‘terrorism’ can have power as a tool within their diplomatic arsenal that does not necessarily say much about the motives and behavior of the targeted state or the intentions of Western powers with respect to future relations with it. Toward this end, it must always be remembered that in the United States it is not the Department of Defense that designates states as terrorist, but the Department of State—that is, not its military and security decision-makers, but its diplomatic machinery.

A third and largely unexplored effect of characterizing state violence as ‘terrorist’ has emerged as the ‘War on Terror’ has carried on now for over a decade and assumed less the character of a “war to end war”, as H. G. Wells called World War I, than a sort of new Cold War—a conflict conducted without the aim to decisively win, but rather simply to be fought, to be inherited, and to motivate the aggrandizement of state security apparatuses, intelligence gathering, and, on occasion, the subjugation of civil liberties in the process. This sort of conflict-in-perpetuity can have a contrary effect for larger states designated as ‘terrorist’. The ‘War on Terror’ has served as a broad catchall for violence against the US and the West since 9/11. In the period immediately following the attacks, from late 2001 to 2005, the designation made any state appear vulnerable to becoming the next US target after Afghanistan and Iraq. However, as those conflicts dragged on and their costs in lives, foreign relations, and finances grew, it became clear that engagement in conflict with another country or the toppling of another state was not in the United States’ foreseeable future.

In that context, the question is raised whether placement on a list of ‘terrorist states’ for larger powers such as Iran and North Korea might, in fact, be downplaying their significance and the threat that they pose. Clearly, for such totalitarian regimes, the only conceivable alternative to being designated ‘terrorist states’ is not to be deemed peaceable or harmless, but rather to be given a designation of a still higher order, along the lines of George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. Thus, in the Obama Administration’s post-Iraq reluctance to engage in real and meaningful conflict with a state power, continued designation of such regimes as ‘terrorist’ places them within the broader, tangled context of the ‘War on Terror’, allows an American leadership weary of war to show that it is taking the threats they pose seriously, but provides it leeway to forego the sort of retaliatory military action that would be demanded of it in the absence of a ‘War on Terror’ on such occasions as Iran’s attempted bombing in October 2011 of a Washington D.C. restaurant, designed to kill a Saudi diplomat and, no doubt, dozens of American civilians. Thus, in the modern politics of state terror, it must be acknowledged that a ‘terrorist’ designation given to a large and powerful enemy may actually mitigate pressures to address it individually and allow Western leadership the freedom to avoid or delay conflicts that it does not wish to engage in, while also avoiding the resultant domestic criticism that it might otherwise face for inaction.

The designation of politically motivated state violence as ‘terrorism’ is, thus, a diplomatic tool, the effect of which is entirely dependent upon context. It has been frequently observed that the application of the ‘terrorist’ label is often determined by the designating country’s (or even bureaucracy’s) internal bias, but an under-explored aspect of this practice lies in the differential effects that the label can have upon its target, subject largely to their power, the severity of the threat they pose, and the geopolitical environment. The elevation of a once-peaceable state to the status of ‘terrorist’ will likely make it a target of counter-terrorism campaigns from which it would once have been immune. However, to study the histories of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union and designate them as ‘terrorist’ would be accurate, but perhaps perceived as a bit of an understatement in a modern popular imagination that equates the term with loosely organized, armed factions such as al-Qaeda. Likewise, modern totalitarian states such as Iran and North Korea, highly regimented dictatorships making headlines with their cultivation of nuclear weapons, would seem to lose a measure of urgency by the label, getting swept up as merely subsidiary parts of a broader ‘War on Terror’ without receiving the distinction of their own classification. The perspective asserted in this writing allows for the possibility that, in addition to its potential to increase tensions between Western powers and a ‘terrorist state’ or to alter their diplomatic bargaining positions, it may also be employed in a post-Iraq-War American foreign policy to navigate the rising threat of totalitarian states and their policies of aggression by allowing American leaders, lacking an appetite for further wars, to show a measure of toughness toward the regimes while attempting to avoid direct conflict at any cost.


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