In May 2005, I paid a visit to Iran, where I talked about the "War on Terror" as well as the U.S.-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in several settings — including a seminar with a group of clerical scholars in Qom (which is usually referred to as a "holy city" but struck me as being more like an American college town). In talking about the foreign policy of the then-incumbent George W. Bush administration, one of the clerics made an extraordinary observation that went something like this: "President Bush is not a conservative. He is a revolutionary. And because he is a revolutionary, he is destined to fail."
Circumstances did not allow me to ask for a more elaborate explanation of this observation. But, although they weren't there with me, Pape and Feldman have provided one in their new book, Cutting the Fuse. The Bush administration — along with much of the American public — believed that suicide terrorism was caused by Islamic fundamentalism, which was implacably hostile to America, democracy and freedom in general. This "narrative of Islamic fundamentalism" (as Pape and Feldman call it), though, was not just seen by the Bush administration as the root cause of the suicide-terror problem, but as driving the solution to it: "to transform Arab societies — with Western political institutions and social norms as the ultimate antidote to the virus of Islamic extremism" (p. 326).
To believe that societies in the Greater Middle East could be quickly and successfully transformed by the use of force was indeed an ambitious revolutionary project — similar in scope to Jacobin, Marxist and Khomeinist beliefs that the basic nature of mankind could be rapidly transformed (or improved, as they saw it). But just as these previous impatient efforts at revolutionary transformation failed to achieve their ambitious goals, the Bush administration was also unable to bring about the rapid democratization of the Greater Middle East that it had thought was possible.
Nor have the United States and its allies been able to end suicide terrorism. Indeed, this phenomenon has increased greatly since 9/11. This is because, Pape and Feldman explain, suicide terrorism is not caused by Islamic fundamentalism, but by foreign military occupation. In recent years, the authors observe, "What every campaign of suicide terrorism has in common is that they are occurring as a central feature in violent resistance to foreign military occupation of territory that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly....Further, the target society of every suicide terrorist campaign from 2004 to 2009 has been a democracy where there has been a religious difference between the occupier and occupied communities" (p. 28). Suicide terrorist campaigns, in other words, are aimed at undermining public support within democratic societies for continuing their occupation.
The meticulous, painstaking research that Pape, Feldman and their research team have undertaken is especially persuasive in explaining how large-scale occupations — such as those undertaken by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza — have resulted in suicide terrorist campaigns, and that these campaigns diminish as the occupations recede. It is less clear, though, why the much smaller-scale stationing of troops leads to suicide terrorist campaigns in some instances (as the authors argue that the deployment of 5,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s and early 2000s did), but not in others (as with the U.S. military presence in Bahrain and Qatar). As Pape and Feldman note, "For the purposes of understanding suicide terrorism, it is imperative to view occupation from the perspective of the resistance movement (e.g., terrorists). Whether the foreign power regards itself as a 'stabilizing' ally rather than an 'occupier' is not relevant" (p. 20). Investigating the distinction between when maintaining foreign bases is viewed as unwelcome occupation and when it is viewed as welcome protection has important implications for American military policy and clearly deserves further research.
Great research, of course, does not just answer important questions, but raises still others. In Cutting the Fuse, Pape and Feldman have given us a truly excellent model for how to conduct calm, objective social-science research on a subject that is difficult to look at calmly and objectively. Accurately understanding the nature of suicide terrorism, though, is crucial, so that policies can be devised that resolve it rather than make it even worse, as the Bush administration's unfortunately did.