Availability Heuristics and Cascades in Political Communication

I first started dealing with “terrorist sanctuaries”,  an eccentric turn of phrase that was in vogue among policymakers and practitioners when I was working in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 2003 and 2006. It has become an enduring interest, and the subject of several publications. The first of these, which has subsequently been described by researchers as “an important work”, appeared in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, one of the leading journals in the field. Another, a volume entitled Denial of Sanctuary: Understanding Terrorist Safe Havens (Praeger, 2007), was positively reviewed in Foreign Affairs and described as “essential reading” in  Parameters (the journal of the US Army War College).

Initially, I limited my focus to the dynamics of geography, territory and terrain that would help understand what insurgents and counterinsurgents mean when they invoke “sanctuary” and when they seek it out (either to benefit from it or to prevent others from benefitting from it). Eventually, I came to see terrorist sanctuaries as a problem in two parts. First, it is an empirically observable dynamic of complex spatial dimensions. Past research no the subjet – the established academic literature  – focused entirely on this. Second, it is an empirically observable feature of political speech and decision-making – a subject that has been  framed and prioritised in specific ways, for specific purposes.

These are not mutually exclusive problems, but making a clear distinction between the two helps to separate out assumptions about why we care about terrorist sanctuaries in the first place, and what measures can or should be taken to deal with them in the real world. It is a distinction that is central to my doctoral work at the School of Oriental and African Studies. None of the literature on terrorist or guerrilla sanctuaries focuses on it as a feature of political communications. Similarly, there is a robust area of research that deals with issues at the interface of US foreign policy, decision making, armed conflict, and political communication, and in particular the role that cognitive heuristics like historical analogies and spatial metaphors play in those processes. But none of that field has ever looked closely at the use of sanctuary terminology in foreign policy making and political speech.

Here’s the original problem statement, which is slightly out of date now that my research is nearly complete:

My doctoral research focuses on US foreign policy framing between 2001 and 2011 and its impact on armed intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. The working title for the project, “Analogies at Risk: Afghanistan, Iraq and US Foreign Policy, 2001-2011”, is a not-so-subtle play on Yuen  Foong Khong’s landmark  Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton University Press, 1992).

The research problem that I contend with looks to policy problems that were prominently portrayed in metaphorical terms refractory to a commonly held definition or response. It deals specifically with a discursive context in which the management of insecurity was portrayed in terms of two master frames, military force and civilian policing. Within this setting, the dominant policy assertion was that opposition militants benefit from and must therefore be denied opportunities for refuge, politically and on the battlefield.

In attempting to shed light on the myths and realities of Al Qaeda basing operations and their influence on US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, I explore the special role of analogical explanation, and in particular the work done by specific types of framing devices (in this case, historical analogies and spatial metaphors). I operationalise this in two principal sections, using a constructivist approach, mixed qualitative methods, and a wide range of primary sources.

The first section consists of content analysis, in three mutually reinforcing parts: coding and analysis of a large (6000+ items) New York Times dataset using qualitative data analysis software (MAXQDA); a review of key US policy documents, including the Report of the 9/11 Commission and subsequent State Department “7120 Reports”; and a survey of contemporary sources on guerrilla “havens” and “sanctuaries”, including public responses to US policy and the intellectual output of key Al Qaeda figures.

The second section consists of case study analysis of periods of invasion and occupation that took place in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I use historical process tracing to identify within-case instances and cross-case transfer of analogical explanations and their effects. The approach achieves three things. It provides evidence of a narrative, cumulative ‘analogical cascade’; it clarifies the role of historical and spatial proxies as causal mechanisms; and it highlights their influence on dominant discursive frames.

Previous lines of scholarly inquiry have explored analogical distortion and threat inflation in US foreign policy. This project contributes to the literature by establishing a rigorously periodised and empirically rich account, and by investigating the conditions and causes of misalignment between stated policy intentions and ultimate policy outcomes.