Ian Lustick Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Trapped in the War on Terrorism: Conversation Ian Lustick, Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, May 1, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Entering the Debate on Terrorism

Ian, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you. It's my pleasure.

I know that your background is in Middle East studies and comparative politics. What drew you into this problem of the war on terrorism?

Well, I am known mainly in many circles for the work I've done on the Middle East, but I was broadly trained here at Berkeley in international and comparative politics, and American foreign policy has always been a big interest of mine. So when I had an opportunity in the late seventies to work for a year inside the State Department, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, I had an opportunity to learn and participate in how things happen inside the government.

It's funny, when you're outside the government you feel, "If I can get inside I can have an impact." When you're inside the government you feel, "Wow, if I can get outside the government I could actually say what I think." But the long-run payoff of being inside for a while was that I understood how academics can speak in an effective way to people who are striving as hard as they can to do a good job for the country and are afflicted all the time with bureaucratic and financial, and other constraints. So, I have been involved as a consultant with the government, as you pointed out, throughout many administrations, and that gave me some access.

After 9/11, I was asked -- right after 9/11, very soon -- to come down and plan a conference for analysts throughout the government, in the FBI, in the DoD (Defense Department), and the intelligence community, on how to think about the threat, how not to be overwhelmed by the threat, [and] how the talents [of even] low level people in law enforcement could be used -- how they could be taught about the kind of struggle we were involved in.

I responded to 9/11 as an expert on the Middle East with the analysis that it was al Qaeda and that we would have to strike al Qaeda in Afghanistan; but I was concerned about what a war on terror that was not focused only on terrorists with global reach might mean.

In the planning of this conference and in its operation, when it did take place (and it was an effective conference), I learned a great deal. I'm not sure in these consultantships who has learned more, me or the government. It opened my eyes to an extent about this war on terror, because I asked the question: "Since you're worried about the country becoming too anxious, too aroused for too long, why not advise the media not to keep showing the pictures of the planes knocking down the towers every day, several times a day? Psychology teaches us that the more people see things like that, especially if they're catastrophic, the more they think they're more likely than they are, which keeps the whole country on tenterhooks." And the answer I was given was, "Yes, we thought of that. In fact, we recommended it. And that recommendation was rejected by the highest political echelon." That gave me the notion that there were ulterior motives that were driving the operation of this so-called War on Terror that were not simply to stop another attack against the United States.

How has your training as a political scientist and as a student of comparative politics helped you understand what's going on in the government and then to understand this response?

Most people who think about politics outside of the profession of political science (and I would include most of the pundits, though not all of them) think about the effects of political life as you would think about billiards if you didn't think about rebound shots, if you thought that the only thing that counted was the first ball that was going to be hit. So, most people think about hitting al Qaeda, thereby weakening al Qaeda. Political scientists understand how pervasive and important unintended effects are, and the unintended effects of the unintended effects. Although you can never predict those chains of events exactly, social scientists, including political scientists, understand that that's how social reality is structured and therefore necessarily look at the immediate relationship as the most determinate of [a series of] relationships.

Therefore when you have to ask, "Why the war on terror?," there are simplistic answers to that question that caught the imagination of most Americans and still hold that imagination in thrall. As a social scientist, I wasn't satisfied with them, and that's why I wrote the book.

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