Targeted Killing & Backlash by Stephen Babb


One of the most popular negative arguments on the March/April topic will be that the use of targeted killing is ultimately counter-productive. These arguments may take any number of related but distinct forms: Targeted killings create a pretense for enemy recruiting; they motivate would-be attackers to actually carry out attacks; they threaten the legitimacy of Western policy in the eyes of actual or potential allies; and so on.

These arguments may be strategically appealing, but that is where their novelty ends. And, even the apparent strategic value will yield starkly diminishing returns against opponents with minimally complete front-lines.

Your first clue should be reality: The use of targeted killing has transcended a deeply polarized political spectrum. Regularly featured throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, targeted killing (via drone strikes in particular) has in fact escalated markedly under the Obama administration. The same administration that billed itself the pragmatic and cautious alternative to the Republicans’ neo-conservative agenda has unabashedly continued to attack terrorist safe-havens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and several other hotspots.

If there were any serious merit to the notion that these kind of attacks actually increase threats to U.S. national security, you would think that there would be some second thoughts over the course of the Bush and Obama administrations. The advisors recommending targeted killing have no doubt given thorough review of the literature highlighting the risks and consequences associated with the policy. Why have we stayed the course? A few reasons come to mind.

First, even if there were significant risk that targeted killings may yield counterproductive results, that damage has almost certainly already been done. The fodder for propaganda has long existed. A 1NC making backlash arguments would need to demonstrate that discontinuing the policy now would somehow win the “hearts and minds” that would otherwise be lost.

Second, even if there were some way to magically undo past targeted killings, there’s little reason to believe this single policy adjustment would have a significant impact on potential terrorists’ perceptions of the West. To the extent these perceptions are indeed politically motivated, the politics at issue have more to do with support for Israel and oil-based relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Western allies in the region. As far as propaganda goes, the recent Koran burnings appear to have had a more profound effect on public relations (or the lack thereof) than any targeted killing ever has.

Third, it’s naive to give terrorist organizations and their eventual recruits as much credit as these arguments suggest. If you can be convinced that strapping on a suicide vest will translate into a bevy of eager virgins, you could probably be sold on the merits of jihad regardless of U.S. policy. Backlash arguments presume a comical degree of rationality on behalf of our adversaries. Even at the top, those adversaries are motivated by a range of mystical and ideological beliefs that have little to do with our policy choices. If the United States is viewed as a “Great Satan” by these terrorists, how will it be viewed once it forfeits a strategy like targeted killing? A “Slightly Less Great Satan”?

Fourth, our priority should be the disruption of these organizations’ capacity to operate and inflict major attacks. If the tactics needed to do so lead to a marginal increase in the number of malcontent foot soldiers lurking around Pakistan, that’s an acceptable trade-off. So long as those foot soldiers will at best join up with an organization whose leadership is either dead or perpetually in hiding, the actual threats to the United States and its allies will remain less substantial than they would in a world where that leadership were more immune to decapitation.

Fifth, and finally, backlash arguments are rarely if ever comparative. What alternative does the 1NC recommend, and how is it superior? Doing nothing is probably not an option, at least according to any serious metric. Non-lethal measures like capture and arrest are probably less effective than targeted killing. But, even if they were every bit as effective, they’re also likely to have every bit the unsavory PR fallout.

While debaters love to make arguments about global perception and how the United States’ hawkish foreign policy will embolden our enemies and unsettle our friends, they should take a second thought before going there on this topic. President Obama has gone to great lengths to improve the United States’ international image, and yet, he hasn’t once shied away from the use of targeted killing. Academic speculation is valuable, and of course, we should always reevaluate our policy choices. But, in a world where those choices are almost never perfect, sometimes we must accept a few risks in order to eliminate far greater risks.