The Real Blowback Fallacy
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Christopher Swift attempts to show that cause-and-effect is not a concept applicable to foreign policy in “The Drone Blowback Fallacy.” What he ends up doing only reinforces the idea that a government can’t continue butchering children and not expect the parents to one day retaliate.
It should be noted that blowback specifically refers to the consequences of covert foreign policy, not to overt operations that the general public has information on, as in the case of Yemen. This is because the public will be unable to connect cause and effect when a terrorist attack occurs if the public doesn’t understand that it’s actually a counterattack, not an unprovoked act. Nevertheless, I’ll operate under the assumption that Swift means simply the unintended consequences of waging a war from the air.
Swift explains that he recently traveled to Yemen in order to gather firsthand knowledge of the people and the situation, and while there he conducted 40 “in-depth interviews using structured questions and a skilled interpreter.” What he reportedly found was that most drew no connection between U.S. drone strikes and recruitment for al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), though he acknowledges that “of the 40 men in this cohort, only five believed that U.S. drone strikes were helping al-Qaeda more than they were hurting it.”
The reader is somehow expected to believe that three dozen cherry-picked Yemenis are somehow representative of all 25,000,000 people in that country. On its face, that’s simply ludicrous. The American equivalent would be polling 500 people handpicked from various neighborhoods and concluding that their answers are indicative of the opinions of the remaining 99.99984% of the population. But let’s assume his sample is representative. What does this mean?
It means that if five members of his group agreed that drone strikes aid in recruiting AQAP members, then roughly 3,000,000 other Yemenis must also support that conclusion. Again, comparing these figures to the U.S. population, we would expect more than 37,000,000 to agree with the statement. Having a handful of families angry over the wrongful death of a loved one is bad enough, but drawing the ire of tens of millions would be profound indeed. Read more
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