Jennifer Kavanagh, a 2010 Ph.D. in Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Michigan received the 2011 Harold D. Lasswell prize, which is awarded annually by American Political Science Association to the best dissertation in the field of public policy. Her dissertation is titled "The Dynamics of Protracted Terror Campaigns: Domestic Politics, Terrorist Violence, and Counterterror Responses." Her dissertation committee was co-chaired by James Morrow in the Department of Political Science and Melvyn Levitsky in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy along with Allan Stam and Robert Franzese as committee members.

Dr. Kavanagh was intrigued by variations of retaliatory violence in terror-counterterror conflicts. Prior to her scholarly contribution, the literature had not explained completely why violence in protracted terror-counterterror conflicts is sometimes characterized by escalating, tit-for-tat retaliation , but exhibits little responsive violence at other points. The dissertation was designed to explore the factors that drive state and non-state actors to choose between retaliation and restraint over the course of an extended campaign.

Dr. Kavanagh’s dissertation suggests that the expectations of local constituents and local political dynamics are primary determinants of conflict escalation and de-escalation. State and non-state constituents compare the expected benefits of a military (militant)-based strategy with the expected outcomes of existing political alternatives.  These expectations about the efficacy of violent and political approaches to a protracted conflict are formed through what she calls Retrospective Projection, which combines evaluations of the past, present, and future. When constituents have low confidence in non-violent alternatives, they are more likely to support and even demand violence. Demands for violence among constituents drive retaliatory violence by state and non-state actors who use violence as a political tool to consolidate their support base.

According to Dr. Kavanagh, “A good example of constituent expectations and support for violence driving conflict escalation is the resumption of violence at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. At this time, strong support for a return to violence among Israelis and Palestinians reflected pessimism about the likelihood of a political solution and the belief that an armed strategy was likely to be the more effective alternative. Pessimism about political solutions was based on the failure of the Oslo Accords to achieve a lasting peace or meet the political demands of constituents on either side. It was also directly informed by the collapse of peace talks in 2000, which suggested that no political agreement could be achieved in the near term. As a result, Israelis and Palestinians supported a return to violence and these constituent demands contributed to the renewed hostilities because both Israeli and Palestinian militant leaders felt some pressure to use violence to meet the demands of constituents.”

Her dissertation findings have direct implications for policy makers since they suggest that providing political alternatives to non-state populations can reduce support for violence. A recent example is the effect that direct engagement of Sunni tribal leaders had in reducing support for violence in Iraq in 2007.

“The US decision to empower and work closely with these local leaders known as the ‘Sons of Iraq’ gave Sunni tribal leaders real political power at the local level and a stake in regional stability. It also partially addressed resentment and disenfranchisement felt by average Sunnis by giving them a voice through their leaders. As a result, the ‘Sons of Iraq’ program undercut Sunni support for violence and their willingness to hide and fund Sunni insurgents. Although this on its own may not explain the sharp drop in violence in Iraq starting in 2007, it certainly contributed to increased stability,” remarked Dr. Kavanagh.

Dr. Kavanagh is currently an Associate Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. She was a Department of Homeland Security Fellow from 2007-2010 and completed a research internship at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in 2008. She was a research assistant in RANDs Santa Monica Office from 2003-2006 where she worked on projects related to terrorism and military and defense planning. Prior to her doctoral training, Dr. Kavanagh graduated from Harvard University in 2003 with a BA in Government and a minor in Russian language.

A list of past recipients of the Harold D. Lasswell Award is available on the APSA website.