Month: August 2010

And now for something completely different–fantasy football geekery!

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

It’s that time of year again. The passing of the summer, the start of the fall. Most importantly, it signals the start of that most magical of times–the start of the fantasy football season.
This year I am in three leagues–one for work, one for “stat-geeks”, and one for family and friends. I decided to tweak the way I approached the draft this year and wanted to share a bit of the strategy with readers.

One of the biggest problems with standard pre-draft rankings, particularly those of the big fantasy hosting sites (e.g. ESPN, CBS, etc) is that the rankings are based solely on aggregate measures of performance such as total projected points for the upcoming season. Now, of course the goal is to assemble a team with players that end up scoring lots of points throughout the season, but total points scored ignores the fact that teams compete head-to-head, week-to-week. In order to make the playoffs a team has to outscore opponents on a consistent basis in order to accumulate wins, not just points. That means drafting players that not only score a lot of points, but score a lot of points week in and week out. When it comes to deciding between which players to draft, managers would be better off selecting consistent scorers versus boom-or-bust players (at least, that is my hypothesis).

Let’s take a look at two hypothetical players:

Over the course of four weeks both players score the same amount of total points. However, Player A is clearly a boom-or-bust player while Player B is more consistent week-to-week. Player A gives you a great chance to win Weeks 1 and 4, but makes it much hard to win in Weeks 2 and 3. On the other hand, Player B is the model of consistency, giving you a great chance to win each week. On most pre-draft rankings, Players A and B will look like equally valuable picks, but this is misleading.

This year, I decided to see whether a player’s penchant for boom-or-bust performances was at all consistent and predictable. The initial answer seems to be yes.

I developed two metrics; one to evaluate high scoring consistency and one that takes predicted points and combines them with scoring consistency. The first, ConBoom, measures, weights, and then combines the number of times a player scored >=20 points, >=15 points, and <10 points per game over the course of a season. This is the foundation of the consistency metric. ConRank combines the ConBoom score for a player with a weighted measure of that player's predicted total points for the upcoming season. (How am I weighting each component of the measures? Well now I can't reveal the entire secret sauce, now can I?) I validated the measures against the past three years of actual player data and found that ConBoom scores from one year were highly correlated with ConBoom scores the next year (.70). I am going to use the new metric to guide my drafts in all three leagues and essentially test how my teams fair against other teams over the course of the season. With data and predictions for every player I’ll be able to test the method over three league scoring systems, 32 teams, and 256 games as well as validate the measures predictive attributes over another year. Draft number one is tonight. Let the games begin!

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Methodology411: the jury of one’s peer reviewers

Ah, the viciously gate-keeping peer review, the contemporary equivalent of burning the heretics at the stake. Receiving such a review seems to be a rite of passage in virtually every academic field and discipline of which I am aware, and though the details change, the general theme of such a review is always something like: “Author didn’t make the argument I would have made or have made, or even worse, Author directly challenged the argument I made or would have made; hence, since I am protected by a veil of anonymity, I will take my vengeance on Author by taking Author to task for being different from me and therefore wrong. I will thus ensure that Author’s manuscript will never see the light of day.” Because, of course, it’s the peer reviewer’s responsibility to enforce the orthodoxy, and to discipline anyone who would dare to question it, even and perhaps especially if this means completely misrepresenting the argument of the manuscript under review.

Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of such a piece of nastiness (I hear the hands shooting up out there) is perhaps immediately sympathetic with Arthur Stinchcombe’s quip (which I first heard from Dan) that “everyone who has had a referee get the argument of his or her paper directly backward has wondered about calling it ‘peer’ review.” And I suspect that a notion like that discussed in this New York Times article — an open peer-reviewing standard where manuscripts are posted on a website for comment — might sound appealing. Public and non-anonymous comments, after all, would cut down on some of this gatekeeping, wouldn’t it?

But in this case I think that the cure might be worse than the disease. Anonymous peer review, for all of its flaws (and it has many, many flaws), does hold the potential for something that crowdsourced wikiality does not: radical challenge. Realizing that potential requires editors to take greater care in their use of reviewers, but it can be done.

The basic problem with an open reviewing standard, I think, it that it presumes that all of the reviewers have the same basic underlying assumptions, and that those are continuous with the assumptions of the author. While this might work reasonably well in some fields and disciplines, it certainly won’t do a very good job in any field where the fundamental assumptions are themselves an object of contestation. A number of people sharing similar goals and backgrounds can probably use a system of open review to come to a consensus, but that consensus is importantly underpinned by their prior agreement on the basics. Even in such a field, a completely radical challenge would likely not meet with a lot of success even in an open review system, because it would diverge from what “everyone” already knows. The mathematicians discussed in the article likely already shared many important assumptions about what constituted a valid proof, so it’s not surprising that they were able to reach consensus pretty quickly about whether a novel proof was valid or not.

In fact, my main worry about a lot of these crowdsourcing solutions to thorny problems is precisely that they presume a background consensus on goals, definitions of the outcome, and the like. If one of the complaints about anonymous peer review is that a small secretive cabal can dominate a field by refusing to acknowledge radical challenges, I fail to see how open critique will do much better — and indeed it might even be worse, because the putative challenger can actually see how marginal her or his views are when compared with the clear majority of everyone else. Similarly, the defenders of the orthodoxy can actually appeal to one another openly, invoking and mobilizing their shared assumptions to very effectively torpedo anything different. To believe otherwise is to believe that a broad consensus reflects not shared assumptions but some measure of Truth: that lots of people agreeing on something is a good sign that it is correct. Are we really all that willing to elevate the conventional wisdom that far?

The great potential of anonymous peer review is precisely that a savvy editor can send an anonymous manuscript not to people who are guaranteed to hate it — this is pretty easy to do, especially if the manuscript directly criticizes Scholar Z’s approach: send it to Scholar Z, who is pretty likely to produce a review containing some variant of “Author doesn’t agree with me and is therefore wrong” — but to people who are in principle open to a challenge to the disciplinary conventional wisdom. There are fewer of these people in the scholarly community than you might think. There’s this silly idealized notion that a scholar presented with an argument refuting claims to which they are sympathetic will say “wonderful, that’s been refuted! Publish this piece at once!” instead of getting defensive about those claims; in my experience this happens pretty much never — which is why we keep getting endless debates in IR about whether realism is generating any new knowledge, debates in which everyone makes the same arguments as they made in the last Forum and nothing gets resolved. (Perhaps this is because the controversy is about value-laden assumptions, and not about empirical matters on which we can come to fact-based agreement precisely to the extent to which we all agree on what constitutes a “fact” in the first place?)

But provided that one can find appropriately open-minded reviewers, anonymous peer review gives an editor the opportunity to have a radical challenge looked at without anyone feeling a need to moderate their comments due to the prestige of the author, or conversely, feeling no necessity to even be polite because the author is a nobody in the discipline. So the reviewers are thus freed to actually focus on the argument, and perhaps to help the author make the argument better by giving them constructive feedback — including, perhaps, the feedback that the author has to re-think the putatively radical challenge because a) it’s not all that radical, or b) it’s been said, and said better, by other people, or c) the challenge doesn’t actually point the way towards anything else, i.e., the implications of the challenge are not clear. The editor can then go ahead and advise the author appropriately, and publish the piece (maybe after revisions and more reviews) if in her or his professional judgment it deserves to be published.

We mistake the point of peer review if we simply regard it as an opportunity to see whether some claim meets with the approval of a jury of one’s peer reviewers. If that were the point, then both the anonymous and the open versions of peer review would amount to the same thing: poll some people and see if they approve. And the problems involved in a defense of orthodoxy would run rampant in either system. But peer review is not necessarily that kind of process; used properly, it can be an opportunity for improving arguments and — if used by a savvy editor — can be a way to preserve space for radical challenges to dominant conventions. Professional judgment is called for here, not a mechanical aggregation of the conventional wisdom. My biggest worry with an open system of critique is that it eliminates that space for such professional judgment and discretion, a space which in my view ought only — only! — to be used to publish a piece over the objections of reviewers who are gate-keeping and defending the status quo, and ought never — NEVER — be used to overrule reviewers who think that a piece ought to be published. To eliminate that space is to make a very profound bet: that the conventional wisdom is right, or at any rate, sufficient. I am not willing to make that bet, and so despite its problems, I’d rather have the system of anonymous peer review than a wikified alternative.

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I wonder if he’s got facebook?


A former Israeli soldier posted pictures on facebook of herself with Palestinian prisoners who were tied up and blindfolded. In a photo album called “The Army …The Most Beautiful Time of My Life,” Eden Abergil posted these pictures and responded to friends’ comments.

One is particularly striking: a facebook friend of Abergil’s commented that she looked sexy in the pictures. Abergil responded:

Yeah I know lol honey. What a day it was. Look how he completes my picture. I wonder if he’s got Facebook!

I wonder if he’s got a facebook. I wonder if he’s got a facebook. Really?

Certainly, problems with the mistreatment of prisoners aren’t new. And maybe even the level of detachment from that treatment that is required to consider tying up prisoners sexy, take pictures of yourself doing it, post them on facebook, and wonder if the prisoners you tied up would like to be tagged on facebook can be found in earlier wars and conflicts in different forms. But it feels so cavalier, so base, so debasing reading it in the New York Times that it just seems like something different, something worse, something we should think is an emergency.

I guess, though, in the end, its not about whether this is worse than whatever came before it but instead about what can be done to communicate a message of unacceptability. That seems like a more complicated question, and one that I’ll be doing a lot of thinking about at a couple of conferences on Just War Theory over the next couple of weeks. More on these issues soon.

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What I Learned At Nerd Camp

I spent last week at an ICPSR workshop on network analysis methods in Bloomington, Indiana, and while I wouldn’t say I’m exactly an expert now on network analysis, I did learn to do a few interesting things with my human security data.

For example, below is a visual representation of the “human security issue agenda” as represented by 88 websites of organizations in the “human security network” circa May 2008. I identified the organizations in that network through a hyperlink analysis using the tool Issuecrawler, and then we downloaded their mission-statements and “issue lists” and tagged each document with as many different “issues” as we could find in the text data. When two issues occur in the same document, I consider that a “tie” between two “issues.” So on the map, links between issues represent co-occurences in the text.

As you can see, lots of organizations do lots of issues, so when you first look at the graph the ties are so many it’s just a big mess. But if you drop out half the ties, you end up only with the most densely connected issues, and then it starts to look pretty interesting:

What’s interesting is that the issues cluster based on how often they co-occur a lot: some issues cluster together more than others. You notice that the human security network is really made of a few separate issue clusters – a cluster around peace or conflict-prevention and resolution; one around conflict mitigation or humanitarian affairs; one around repressive or violent practices (what human security specialists like to call the “freedom from fear” agenda) and another dealing more with economic and social rights, which is adjacent to a cluster dealing with development and poverty reduction, and another dealing with environmental security and health, both of which connect to weapons issues which connect to the security sector / arms controls organizations, which connect again to the “peace and security”/conflict prevention folks.

Lots of people have written abstractly about what “human security” means, but as far as I know this mine is the first analysis that actually maps the term empirically. If you add in a few more of the links (using a “cut-point” of .40 instead of .50 for example) you can see these clusters emerge in somewhat sharper relief, but also see them beginning to connect together.

You’ll notice that these clusters are linked to each other to a greater or lesser extent. For example, there are a lot of connections between “human rights” and “humanitarian affairs” and relatively fewer connections between the “arms control” cluster and the “economic and social rights” cluster. There’s also a distinction between issues associated with “arms control” and those associated with “disarmament” – because everyone knows the arms control folks are manly realists and the disarmament folks are peace-loving hippie feminists.

Finally, there are some interesting cases where an issue doesn’t show up where you might imagine it would in the network. “Depleted uranium weapons,” for example, is mentioned in connection with health and the environment (and is most closely associated with “disease” issues like cancer) but is not on the agenda of organizations concerned with limiting the use of weapons in warfare (like landmines and chemical weapons). “Sovereignty,” interestingly, is most often mentioned not as a counterpoint to military intervention in humanitarian crises (as the literature would suggest) but in regards to natural resource disputes (or, shown here, “minerals”).

What does it all mean? For my project, I’m interested in what gets on the agenda and what doesn’t, and so how agenda space is carved up within a network is a really interesting piece of that question.

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A Rock in the River

Here at the opening of the new academic year, I sometimes find myself called on to make speeches welcoming students to campus and that sort of thing. I can’t resist the opportunity to actually inject a little practical-moral content into what can otherwise be fairly fluffy events, and this year I’ve been playing with a particular metaphor for college education that I am somewhat fond of. I’ve given versions of or excerpts from this talk a couple of times in the past week, but here below the fold is the fuller version.

I intend to once again take up the mantle of the methodology411 over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

A Rock in the River

The opening of a new academic year is an extremely busy time, with lots of things invariably being done at the last minute. This is especially true for newly-matriculating first-year college students, who have to deal with everything from how to fit all of their stuff into a room that usually seems smaller on move-in day than it did when they measured it during summer orientation, to locating basic services like the ATM machine and the local pizza place, to navigating the opaque labyrinth of technical and security requirements in order to get the laptop and the iPad connected to the campus network. In fact, first-year students (and their parents) have probably been working so hard over the past year or two just to get themselves to college in the first place that they haven’t had much of a chance to pause and reflect on the sheer oddness of college as a way to spend four or more years of a young adult’s life: on a campus surrounded by other students, attending classes that are often only tangentially related to current and pressing issues, spending time somewhat walled off from the rest of the world when they might otherwise be simply jumping into it.

I also know that you didn’t notice the mystical energy barrier separating the campus from the surrounding countryside, because we generally turn that off during welcome week and move-in time. But it’s there nonetheless, distinguishing this place from the everyday world lying just outside of its boundaries. The barrier isn’t completely impermeable, of course, but it does serve to impart a different context to the work that we do here. Given that there’s a lot of misinformation about this Ivory Tower out there in the popular press, I want to spend a couple of minutes here at the opening of the academic year re-minding all of us just what is distinctive about this place.

See, in all of the frantic bustle of moving in, you probably missed the distinctly different time, space, and habits of college. You were probably so focused on the immediate that you didn’t notice the underlying slowness and stillness of the campus, and the opportunities that it affords for speculating about things that only bear fruit in the extremely long term. You probably made so many trips on and off campus that you didn’t notice that our buildings and grounds — a lot of which occupy some pretty prime real-estate! — are not organized for maximum efficiency, but instead feature large swaths of territory set aside for chance encounters, serendipitous meetings, and just sitting and thinking. And I know that in the rush to get your first semester of classes scheduled, you were thinking more about major requirements and prerequisites than about contemplating perennial human quandaries, closely reading important texts both classical and contemporary, and engaging in that kind of hands-on experimentation from which experience — the heart of all worldly knowledge — arises. Space, time, habit: in these three aspects, especially, college is a distinct kind of place. An otherworldly place, if you will: a place outside of the everyday, removed from the ever-flowing river of activity so characteristic of the world outside of its boundaries.

If we think of the world as a river of activity, then college is a rock in the middle of that river. If you’ve watched a river closely, then you know that when the current hits a rock, two things happen: the main flow of water goes on around the rock, and the spot just downstream from the rock — an eddy, if we want to get all fluid-mechanical about it — appears rather smooth and still, as a result of the counterflow produced by the water swirling around the sides of the rock. Experienced riverboaters know to watch for those smooth areas as evidence of rocks just below the surface of the water, but if the rock is big and prominent enough then there’s no missing it. But you can miss the eddy behind it if you are going too quickly downstream, in which case you’d miss the opportunity to slow down and even stop for a while while the river keeps on going all around you.

The distinctiveness of college lies in its capacity to afford just those kinds of opportunities for reflection and contemplation. College is separated out to enable a measure of clarity, of insight, of comprehensiveness that is hard to achieve in the bustle of everyday living; achieving that clarity, insight, and comprehensiveness is part of the vocational task of the faculty, and the other part of our vocation is to create and sustain spaces in which you students can develop your capacity for the same qualities. We hear a lot about the research productivity of the faculty, in part because that’s pretty easy to quantify, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the primary reason why you’ve chosen to come here for a college education (and chosen to pay a considerable amount of money for the privilege) is not so that you can read our research — something you could do a lot more cheaply by using Google Scholar, after all — but so that you can benefit from the smooth still space that we produce and sustain by taking ourselves out of the river of everyday activity in order to focus on producing knowledge. Our engagement in scholarly research creates opportunities for you to develop your own capacities for knowledge-production, and that experience — an experience afforded by the eddy we inhabit — is, in the end, why you are here.

To put this another way: your task, while you are here at college, is to develop a perspective on the world, a perspective that will inform your life in a myriad of ways. You should, as Friedrich Nietzsche once advised, take this opportunity to become who you are, to figure out what moves and concerns and delights you, and where and how you want to direct your energy in the future. The streams of activity flowing by in the wider world are important and worthy streams: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, promoting democracy and human rights, advocating for justice. But before you jump into those currents, I urge you to take advantage of the deliberately speculative opportunities that we’ve created here in the otherworld of the Ivory Tower: small, interactive classes where issues are dissected from every possible analytical angle; structured site visits and volunteer experiences that feature adequate time for reflection; independent and small-group projects through which you can wrestle with the very same perennial issues that human beings have been wrestling with for millennia. Spend some time outside of the ordinary flow of time and sense of space, engage in some serious rumination.

Here in the University College we like to say that you’ve been assigned to your seminar by the Sorting Hat, which is part of why I always bring it out of my office on occasions like this. (Normally it lives there, of course; where else but the Headmaster’s Office is the Storing Hat supposed to live?) There are lots of reasons why we say this, but one of them is that it highlights a certain deliberately archaic and medieval quality of the whole college experience. Universities in Europe descended from monasteries, and one upon a time the only higher education was theological education. Traces of that heritage remain with us in the ceremonial garb we sometimes put on, especially at Commencement, and I think it’s useful to remind ourselves of that heritage at other times as a way of shoring up that mystical barrier that keeps the Ivory Tower separated out. In the end, the barrier is only a barrier of practice; it’s as fragile as our commitment to the distinctive character of the college experience. Hence, my re-minding, which hopefully encourages us to re-dedicate ourselves to this distinctly odd endeavor.

For the students, I have one parting piece of advice: slow down. Don’t be in a hurry to rush through these college years, and don’t squander the opportunities provided by this place and time in your lives in order to achieve a little short-term benefit. If you’re running downstream as fast as you can, you’re likely to miss the eddies, and to arrive at your destination both exhausted and without a clear sense of why you were going there in the first place. Don’t try to see how many internships you can pack into your first semester; spend a little time thinking before you decide to commit yourself to anything like that. Give yourself permission to explore and experiment — and just to stop and think. Linger in the stillness of the college environment for a while, and don’t be in such a hurry to derive a short-term practical benefit from the things that you experience here. You have the rest of your life to swim in the current; for now, take the time to contemplate. The world will wait until you are ready to take it on.

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Coalition of the Unwilling: Final Edition?

For many years on my personal blog, I monitored the disintegration of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. My last post on this topic was apparently in December 2008, when the United Kingdom announced that it was soon withdrawing its final troops from Iraq.

Prior posts had documented the exits of Australia (2007), Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia (2007), Japan (2006), Italy (2006), Poland, the Netherlands, Thailand, Hungary, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Norway (2005), Ukraine (2005), the Philippines, Spain, and Honduras (2004).

Now, the U.S. has withdrawn its last combat troops from Iraq. Officially, combat operations end on August 31.

And, according to the latest public opinion poll, the American public is aligned with President Obama. Neither the public nor President is willing to support the combat mission in Iraq. In this latest survey, nearly 70% of Americans opposed the war in Iraq, an all-time high.

The “good” war in Afghanistan is not faring much better in the public’s view.

Unpopularity with the war in Afghanistan also reached an all-time high in CNN polling with 62 percent saying they oppose it.

According to the survey, the public does not think much of the Afghani government.

Despite this view, U.S. commander David Petraeus is not planning a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan:

“I didn’t come out here to carry out a graceful exit or something like that,” Petraeus said

Obama has consistently claimed that U.S. combat troops will exit that war next summer.

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Indian Pro-Americanism

Since the Nineties, Indian elites have been increasingly described as “pro-American.” While attending a mini-conference of a segment of India’s foreign policy and security elite in New Delhi last week, I kept noting how widespread the “pro-American” sentiment seemed to be. In fact, I heard one of the intellectuals argue that India’s rise would naturally be assisted by other secular, pluralistic, constitutional democracies and resisted by states which adhered to the principle of harmony. Such a statement would have been unthinkable in the recent past (although it may still be terribly naive). And yet this general warmth toward the US and the West does not seem to have translated into a significant shift in the commitment of India’s military resources.

(Now of course I need to state at the outset that there is still a segment of the political and intellectual spectrum in India which remains reflexively anti-American, but they are a distinct minority among decision makers and policy pundits today.)

So the real issue is what does it mean when Indian elites say that they are pro-American? I would argue that being pro-American in the Indian context means primarily a lack of hostility toward the foreign policies and economic influence of the United States in the developing world and South Asia in particular. What it does not necessarily mean is open or overt support for the American agenda in the region or in international fora except where American and Indian interests directly converge. In other words, Indians have no plans to displace the British lapdog (or the ever-purring Israeli lap-kitten).

Indian elites increasingly take what they describe as a “business-like” attitude toward the US. It is well understood that America will look out for its own interests and India does not expect the US to protect Indian interests. Indians know that they must engage actors and issues on their own to safeguard their national interests, but there is no longer an assumption that the US is hostile to the rise of India (although some strong suspicions remain that the US is trying to use India in a soft containment policy targeted at China). Similarly, India does not necessarily view the presence of great powers in its backyard with fear or anger as it once did. There is no longer a strong desire to proclaim a “Monroe Doctrine” for South Asia, from what I have seen. Naturally, there is concern that resources contributed to America’s partners in the war on terror or militants mobilized against the US may be directed against India once the US withdraws,but it is also acknowledged that in a globalized world terrorism will not be so easily confined to one region through a “forward policy.” So the US is not seen as a stabilizing force in the region, but few question the need for the US to fight the war on terror — although many question the way it is fighting that war and the partners the US chooses to work with.

Pro-Americanism does not imply significant responsibility for India, at least in the mind of Indian elites. In other words, Indians do not feel much pressure to help support US foreign policies through troop deployments. In most cases, overt Indian military involvement (e.g. in Afghanistan) would not be welcome by third party actors anyway. Moreover, any external troop deployment would have to confront a strong domestic bias against deploying troops abroad outside of the UN umbrella, not to mention a complex legacy from the disastrous Indian mission in Sri Lanka which culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Retired military officials with whom I spoke stated that India has the capability to project power into countries like Afghanistan, but other policy experts were skeptical of that claim. India is willing to give financially (for example it is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan and one of the top five internationally), but this is realtively painless compared to sending troops.

Pro-Americanism also does not imply any serious constraints on Indian policies. For example, Indians will continue to work with Iran on most issues regardless of US pressure. While India can be convinced that a nuclear armed Iran might be against its interests, a general policy of isolating and demonizing Iran will be quietly rejected.

Thus, when an Indian says they are “pro-American” what this really means is that they are not reflexively hostile to American policies and influence. There is a sense of affinity based on the similarities between the regime types and common threats, but India is not likely to simply bandwagon with the hegemon.

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The Danger of Data without Theory

I came across this Chris Anderson piece from a 2008 issue of Wired via Ana Andjelic. Anderson argues that in the era of Big Data we no longer need to rely on theory and the scientific method to achieve advances in knowledge:

Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That’s why Google can translate languages without actually “knowing” them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.

Speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an update to George Box’s maxim: “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.”

…faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

There is certainly value in sophisticated data mining and an inductive approach to research, but to dismiss the deductive approach (construct theory>deduce testable hypotheses>empirically verify or falsify hypotheses) would be shortsighted.

Modern data mining may be enough to authoritatively establish a non-random relationship, and in some cases (translations and advertising) more than suffices for useful application. However, even the largest data sets still represent only a sample–and, therefore, an approximation–of reality. Moreover, establishing correlation still doesn’t get you to the underlying causal mechanisms that drive causation. Even if Google, with enough data and advanced statistical techniques, can claim that a causal relationship exists it can’t tell you why it exists.

For some subjects, “why” may not matter–do we care why Google’s program is able to accurately translate between languages, or is the practical effect enough for us? But for others it is crucial when thinking about how to construct an intervention to alter some state of being (e.g. a medical condition, poverty, civil war, etc). Understanding causal mechanisms can also help us think through the consequences of an intervention–what are some potential side effects? Are there other, seemingly unrelated, areas that might be affected by the intervention in a negative way? When we are dealing with more interconnected, complex systems (like human physiology or society) it behooves us to go beyond relationships and understand what levers are being pulled.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

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Smart Bombing War Criminals While Avoiding Civilians

Despite what is sometimes argued, fighting wars is not a crime. But it is against the law for weapons-bearers to target large areas indiscriminately without regard for potential collateral damage. Instead, they are required to carefully choose only legitimate military targets.

In my view, the same standard could be applied to whistle-blowing advocacy groups: organizations like Wikileaks should engage in precision targeting of legitimate military foul-ups, rather than indiscriminate bombshells aimed at the entire military-industrial complex; and most importantly, they should aim to minimize collateral damage.

At Foreign Policy, I argue if Wikileaks were to follow such standards in disseminating future information, it could go far to regain its credibility as a champion of rather than threat to human security:

Criticisms aside, WikiLeaks adds real value to the international regime governing the behavior of soldiers in wartime by promoting precisely the sort of accountability that the Geneva Conventions require but military culture tends to discourage.

Imagine if WikiLeaks specialized only in receiving and publicizing reports of specific war crimes submitted by troops in the field. Instead of dumping 90,000 documents into the public domain and letting the chips fall where they may, the organization would serve as a conduit through which to reveal specific events that militaries might otherwise be tempted to cover up. Such a mechanism would ensure that specific war crimes allegations were made public and properly investigated without undue risk to whistle-blowers. That access point of information would encourage governments to take a stronger lead in investigating and punishing transgressions in the first place — a requirement under treaty law — potentially deterring future atrocities.

In short, the value of whistle-blowing should not be discounted – as Marc Thiessen has done – simply because it can do harm when done irresponsibly. Indeed a more targeted whistle-blowing architecture of the type Wikileaks has pioneered could be an indispensable element of 21st century security sector reform.

Read the entire thing here.

[cross-posted at Current Intelligence]

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How About Some Collateral Damage Control?

In an earlier post on the lessons of the Afghan War Diaries, I pointed out an unfortunate legal fact: that civilian harms aren’t necessarily evidence of war crimes.

But I also argued, as I long have, that such “unintentional” civilian casualties are unacceptably high.

Today, I have an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune that goes a bit further, suggesting a number of ways that the rules of war themselves could and should be updated to hold governments more accountable for civilian harms even when they’re unintended.

… Such rules would need to be worked out by states, but nongovernmental organizations and legal experts have plenty of ideas about what they could look like. For example, governments and human rights organization should re-evaluate what exactly constitutes “excessive” civilian casualties or “all feasible precautions” and determine whether some limits might shrink the gray area between “unfortunate” and “unlawful.” Landmine Action, for example, has called on states to curtail the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.

States might also consider new rules regarding compensation for collateral damage, just as victims of war crimes are sometimes entitled to reparations. The Campaign for Innocent Civilians in Conflict suggests an expectation to this effect could go far toward providing solace to victims but also to reducing casualties in the first place. And certainly, as suggested by the Oxford Research Group, a mechanism should be established to tally the war dead, in order to track who is dying how in military operations worldwide.

Such re-evaluations of existing humanitarian law may seem unrealistic, but they have often occurred in times of crisis. In the 1970s, for example, when the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions were hashed out, a key concern of governments was to protect civilians from the kinds of intentional attacks they had suffered in World War II. Similarly, the 1998 Statute for the International Criminal Court was an effort to add teeth to the earlier Geneva regime.

Today, war crimes by governments are declining in part because the original rules were improved upon and are working to influence military doctrine — even among those governments who never formally signed onto them. But as the Afghan war logs suggest, collateral damage by governments may be increasing in international wars in part because of the absence of such clear-cut rules. It’s time for this to change.

I should add – though these sections of the original piece were excised in the process of shopping it around – that solving this problem is not only a task for governments. I’ll write more about what UN agencies and NGOs concerned with the protection of civilians could be doing differently in a future essay.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Current Intelligence]

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Could Simple Automated Tools Help Wikileaks Protect Its Afghan Sources?

Julian Assange has a problem. When pressed by human rights organizations to redact any current or future published documents because they too feared the effects on Afghan civilians, he reportedly replied that he had no time to do so and “issued a tart challenge for the human rights organizations themselves to help with ‘the massive task of removing names from thousands of documents.'”

Leaving aside his alleged claims about the moral responsibility of human rights groups for his own errors, the charitable way to think about his reaction is that Assange wants to do the right thing but simply doesn’t have the capacity. Indeed, in a recent tweet he implored his followers to suggest ideas:

Need $700k for our next harm-minimization review… What to do?

Fair enough. Here’s an idea: how about using information technology?

As my husband Household Chief Technology Officer pointed out over coffee this morning, what Assange is essentially in possession of is a large quantity of text data. There are many qualitative data analysis applications that allow users to easily sift through such data in search of specific discursive properties – I use one myself when I analyze interviews, focus groups or web content. Named entity recognition software easily allows users to identify all names or places in large quantities of text. Open-source variants like AFNER are available.

Corporations and governments already controversially use such tools for data-mining, to search for connections between names and places in large quantities of text. Could they not be equally leveraged in the service of privacy and confidentiality? How hard or costly would it really be to use such tools to identify and then redact all names in a set of text automatically by computer or to have a human being (or team of beings with a clear-cut coding scheme) go through the entire dataset with keystrokes and choose what should be removed or blacked out?

For me, it would be hard, unless someone handed me a software package that already blended these elements. But that’s primarily because I’m not a computer programmer. Julian Assange is.

Questions for readers: if you understand software design and available OTS or open-source applications better than I do, how far-fetched is it to solve Wikileaks’ redaction problem in this way? Am I being daftly optimistic here? Or, do you have other ideas in response to Mr. Assange’s query? Comment away.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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Web 2.0 and the IR Profession

Dan Drezner and I have a new essay in International Studies Perspectives on the ways in which user-generated technologies are impacting the discipline of IR. Here’s the abstract:

The International Relations (IR) profession has not fully taken stock of the way in which user-driven information technologies—including Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia—are reshaping our professional activities, our subject matter, and even the constitutive rules of the discipline itself. In this study, we reflect on the ways in which our own roles and identities as IR scholars have evolved since the advent of “Web 2.0”: the second revolution in communications technology that redefined the relationship between producers and consumers of online information. We focus on two types of new media particularly relevant to the practice and the profession of IR: blogs and social networking sites.

Of course if scholarly journal lag-time weren’t what it is we had written this more recently than thirteen months ago, we’d probably have also talked about the data generation possibilities of tools like Wikileaks… more on that here.

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That’s President Timberlake to You!: Which Rock Stars Should Rule the World?


After hearing that former Fugee and musical star Wyclef Jean is running to be the President of Haiti (despite not having lived there for decades and apparently not actually speaking French very well), I got to thinking – what other musical super stars could run as leaders to help fix the nations of the world? In what way could Lady Gaga help with nation-building projects? Could Paul McCartney advise the World Bank in any way (other than being able to possibly fund a small third world nation by himself for a year)?

After a lot of sugar and housecleaning I have come up with the following list of suggestions. United Nations, you can thank me later.
Surely the military inspired dancing and outfits in this video would help to ensure a smooth transition to democracy. Think of the hundreds of thousands of people that could go from dancing for Kim Jung Il to dancing for… fighting injustice? To be honest, I never really got the point of the video. But it looks good – and that’s important in politics.
(Alternate – Korean singing star Rain who will no doubt win over the ultra-Stalinist country with his keen dress sense and smooth dance moves – as he did with Stephen Colbert. And as this video suggests – he’s totally ready to make a nuclear holocaust/World War III pretty dang sexy.)
Madagacar – the cast of Madagascar!

Who better to fix the chronic political instability, devastating poverty and colonial legacy than David Schwimmer? (We’ll prime them with a couple seasons of Friends first, obviously. I’m not so sure he can sing but that’s just details. At least the Lemur King-guy can.)

China – Beastie Boys

Perhaps after decades of fighting for their right to party, they could put their experience to use fighting for other rights. Like freedom of speech, assembly, protest, etc. Admittedly, songs about the freedom to form a union might not be as catchy.
Alternative: Wang Chung.

Somalia – Ted Nugent

Libertarian wonderland! With no government to get in your way, or make you pay your taxes, surely this charming gentleman would fit right in!? Definitely no trouble carrying firearms there!

Sudan – Mel Gibson

Mostly because I’d just like to think of Mel Gibson in Sudan. The dangerous bit.

Canada – Michael Bublé.

Because he’s cool and super cute (Mikey! Call me!) and your Mom probably likes him too. More importantly, I’d pretty much prefer almost anything to Stephen Harper. (Even if he does do a pretty good song now and then. )
Alternate: If you thought Bryan Adams, Celine Dion or Justin Beiber were going to be on this list, you were very much mistaken.

These are just a few ideas. But I welcome any suggestions or alternates. There are thousands of singers and celebrities who could ever so usefully be deployed to harsh and inhospitable countries. Let’s not let Haiti have all of the fun!

Readers are invited to contribute their ideas – please, comment below or @StephanieCarvin on twitter. After all, it’s for the kids. .
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Lessons in Globalism from Patong

Current Intelligence has published some ruminations of mine from my trip to Phuket last month. Lead paragraph follows:

Though I definitely passed through customs and back, it’s hard to know whether I traveled to a country called Thailand these past two weeks or whether I was actually just in one of those many outposts of globalization where a multi-national cacophony of Western tourists connect superficially with caricatures of a place’s pre-globalized culture.

At the invitation of an old friend who largely controlled the itinerary, I found myself on beaches and in bars, on dive boats and in spas, but never far from the American muzak and English-language-dominant service industry of Patong, never forced to navigate or speak in a local tongue, dis-incentivized to take seriously local governance, culture and politics except where it could be commodified, and mostly encouraged to have fun instead of thinking or talking too much about the place in which I found myself.

Full essay here. I am on the road again this next two weeks, so beyond reviews of travel books I may post in the next few days, blogging will be light.

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Another Iran data point

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden (who served George W. Bush) said something fairly provocative on CNN in late July — but Fox News trumpeted the story:

Michael Hayden, a CIA chief under President George W. Bush, said that during his tenure “a strike was way down the list of options.” But he tells CNN’s State of the Union that such action now “seems inexorable.”

During the cold war competition with the Soviet Union, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, was famously quoted as saying, “when we build they build; when we stop, they build.” (It was apparently a paraphrase.)

Conclusion? Nothing worked to stop inexorable Soviet advances in the arms race.

Hayden said much the same about Iran:

“We vote for sanctions. They continue to move forward. We try to deter, to dissuade. They continue to move forward,” he added.

By the way, August 26th will mark the 8th anniversary of Dick Cheney’s speech about Iraq to the VFW. In that address, he kicked off the campaign for war, declaring

The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago….Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.

Let’s see if September signals louder war drums.

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Good Norms, Bad Norms

I am reading a fascinating new addition to the literature on the influence of transnational advocacy networks in world politics: Mark Lawrence Schrad’s The Political Power of Bad Ideas. Essentially a history of the prohibition movement, his broader theoretical point is that transnational advocacy networks not only influence governments into doing what they should (like banning landmines and the recruitment of child soldiers) but also, sometimes, into making bad policies. His book is interesting because most case studies of advocacy networks focus on worthwhile campaigns that succeeded – abolitionism, women’s sufferage and the like – rather than either good ideas that failed or bad ideas that succeeded.

To Schrad, prohibition is a uniquely illustrative case. He details the nineteenth century’s temperance movement as an early example of transnational activism, and traces its influence on the epidemic of prohibition policies across the globe. I haven’t finished the whole book, which includes in-depth comparisons of U.S., Swedish and Russian policies on alcohol, but I’ve read enough to recommend it to those interested in global civil society.

Of course the book doesn’t preach about current issues, but it does invite certain questions about other, comparable bad ideas that have taken root globally in recent years.

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Perspective

I am in New Delhi doing research on elite perceptions of India’s strategy in Afghanistan. I just thought I would share a few quick observations from conversations with Indian security experts…

One of the greatest benefits of coming all the way out here is to help situate research questions within a broader political discourse. Here is what I have noted so far:

First, one quickly realizes that the voices which are most accessible to us in the US are often the ones which are the flashiest and most aggressive in the local context. However, these personalities are not necessarily the most influential or thoughtful. Like the barking of stray dogs which is clearly discernible in the night, the incessant voices of security policy hawks becomes less audible once the city wakes from its light slumber. Foreign policy issues are one of only a myriad of pressing concerns and they are hardly the most prominent concern for much of the population. Thus, inverting the gaze, one has to wonder about the representativity of the American voices which are most readily accessible to Indian analysts sitting in Delhi.

Second, we make a great mistake when we assume that the security policy community in a foreign country is as influential or central as the security policy community in the United States. The body of the Indian state has multiple heads (political, security, economic, etc), and while the voice of the remarkably small security community is occasionally given a hearing it is not necessarily prioritized by the politicians who adhere to a very different logic (as evidenced by the politician’s (non-) response to a series of major terrorist attacks in recent years). The voices of the security community is also not in dialog with the economic community. One might say that one head looks with anxiety to India’s unstable western neighbors while the other head looks east to lucrative trade opportunities and emerging markets. Using economics to achieve security objectives (and vice versa) is not highly developed.

Third, the security community is not static. There is clearly a rapid evolution underway here. In part the growth of the policy community is being fueled externally by the US (and to a lesser extent the European) defense industry which is keen to expand its business in India. The security community circuit visited by American defense contractors tends to inflate the voice of those who concur with an American vision of what a great power’s military looks like. In the long run this may lead to great influence for this community in the national dialog.

Fourth, it is well known that Americans are not skilled in the art of diplomacy — this is one of the greatest shortcomings of the way IR is taught in the US. Representatives of the US, both official and semi-official, tend not to be very self aware about how their words are received in the local context. Americans do not seem to realize how sensitive issues of sovereignty can be in a post-colonial country. Thus, telling Indian elites that “the world is watching” how they will vote at the UN on Iranian sanctions is treated as deeply offensive and intrusive. It would be refreshing if Americans did not openly attempt to twist the arms of friendly nations without an appreciation of the priorities and interests of these countries. It would be ideal if Americans on the security community circuit came to listen instead of lecture.

Well, I’ve got more listening to do….

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Duch-ing the issue: International Justice in Cambodia?


Lots happening on the international law front – A Spanish judge (not Garzon!) has indicted three American soldiers who fired upon a hotel in Iraq which resulted in the death of a Spanish journalist. (Those Spanish judges sure love their universal jurisdiction…) Also, the Cluster Munitions Treaty came into effect.

But perhaps the biggest international law story of the week was that of the conviction of Kaing Guek Eav or “Duch” by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (aka Cambodia Tribunal).
However legal scholar Peter Maguire isn’t so sure. In a rather scathing critique of the Court he highlights several major problems, including:

  • It has lost the support of the (what seems to be increasingly corrupt) Cambodian government
  • That the Cambodian members of the Court are more anxious to please the wishes of the government than carry out objective investigations
  • That there have been allegations of corruptions and the fact that the Court is running at ‘a conspicuously slow pace’.
  • That although the Court was predicted to cost $20 million (US) per year, “the court has already spent at least $70 million and convicted only one suspect.”

But he leaves, perhaps , the most scathing critique for the ‘cheerleaders’ of international justice:

The biggest problem facing the ECCC is living up to it’s own hype. Claims that such trials lead to healing, closure, truth and reconciliation are speculative at best. How does one measure “healing, closure and reconciliation”?
While most Cambodians would like to see the Khmer Rouge leaders punished, they’ve grown used to seeing common thieves and their government’s political opponents suffer far worse punishment than that meted out to Duch. Bou Meng, a survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison, described Duch’s sentence to reporters as “a slap in the face.”
The U.N. legal experts and their cheerleaders in the human rights industry have lost sight of a basic fact: No matter how procedurally perfect the ECCC is, if it outlives the people it was supposed to try, it cannot be judged a success.

This is quite simply the most interesting article on international criminal justice that I have read in a long time.

The other fascinating aspect of it is his condemnation of the fact that the prosecution has decided to add the charges of genocide to the list facing the accused. He does not pretend that what happened under the Khmer Rouge was in any way not brutal, but points to the fact that this has really only made the case for the prosecution harder. “Proving” genocide is one of the hardest possible things as it requires evidence of intent. It was something that caused great difficulty in prosecuting Milosevic (until he did everyone a favour and managed to die in jail). Again, as Maguire notes:

None of the four defendants were hands-on killers like Duch — they simply issued orders from on high. Thus their cases will require the tribunal to take a much broader view of their legal mandate. Unlike Duch, these defendants were careful to distance themselves from the atrocities.

I must admit that I was more optimistic about the Court until I read the article. Then again, to be honest, I hadn’t been paying much attention to it. I was aware that it’s a “hybrid” Court – both a national and international court, with staff from both, like the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The benefit of such Courts for some NGOs and advocates is that while they are still under the ‘universally accepted principles of international justice’ (ie: due process and the like) they also serve as a teaching tool for the rule of law in countries where it has effectively been broken down. (For the US the advantage is to show that ad hoc courts work just as well, or better, than the ICC – something that it has a clear policy interest in, for better or worse.)


However, given what Maguire is saying above, this clearly appears to not be the case. In fact, it sounds as if it may be playing a role in helping an increasingly undemocratic government in Cambodia.

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It’s hot out there…

Actually, it’s a beautiful day up here in Massachusetts. A nice, cool morning which, according to a meteorologist on a local AM radio station, could only mean one thing — that global warming is a hoax. Just before I changed stations, however, I caught this little claim — something to the effect “there’s no consensus on global warming. There are a huge number of leading climate scientists who dispute it….”

Hmmm? Of course, such a claim would require something called EVIDENCE. So, what does the evidence show about the current state of thinking/consensus within the climate science community? This paper in PNAS in June is a start on this research question and the early findings are that “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” In other words, only 2% to 3% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field are skeptics? Wow, that is a lot….

And, by the way, here is some of the latest data reported in NOAA’s most recent “State of the Climate Global Analysis” in June 2010:
The text of the Executive Summary seems to state the obvious:

June 2010 was the fourth consecutive month with reported warmest averaged global land and ocean temperature on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). When averaging the last three months, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature during April–June 2010 (three-month period) ranked as the warmest April–June on record, with an anomaly of 0.70°C (1.26°F) above the 20th century average. The previous April–June record was set in 1998, which had an anomaly of 0.66°C (1.19°F) above the 20th century average.

During this three-month period, warmer-than-average temperatures enveloped much of world’s land surface, with the most notable warm anomalies in Canada, the eastern half of the contiguous U.S., northern Africa, and western Asia. The worldwide land surface temperature during April–June 2010 was 1.12°C (2.02°F) above the 20th century average—the warmest on record.

Oh, and for the record, the local meteorologist predicted afternoon thunderstorms. There weren’t any.

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Wikileaks and “War Crimes”


Last Monday, Julian Assange told reporters in London that the Afghan War Diaries reveal war crimes in Afghanistan, and reiterated this statement on Democracy Now! midweek. The claim has been widely reported and is being reported as fact by some sources. This installment in my series on the Wikileaks story will evaluate this claim and correct a few conceptual inaccuracies circulating in the press coverage.

But first, here’s what this post is not arguing. I am not arguing that no evidence of war crimes exists in the war logs. Actually, it would surprise me if there are not some genuine international humanitarian law violations evidenced in those documents, as some occur in every war, and many are already well known to have occurred in this war. Any new allegations should be investigated immediately by the responsible governments (if indeed they have not done so already).

That said, several of the examples Assange has given in his interviews so far or that have been reported in the press are not actually war crimes, and those that may be have long been known to those following the war.

This brings me to three important points about whether Assange’s “revelations” of “war crimes” can justify the potential risks to which he exposed others in “blowing the whistle.”

1) The Term “War Crimes” Refers to The Means By Which War is Waged, Not the Question of Whether War Itself Is Legal or Ethical. The laws of war are divided into two categories. The first is the law on the use of force governing whether specific wars are justified (grounded in the UN Charter regime). The second, which includes the law of armed conflict (Hague Conventions) /international humanitarian law (Geneva Conventions), governing how war may be conducted whether or not it’s justified, as well as the treatment of non-combatants. The concept of “war crimes” refers to grave violations only of the second set of treaties; a widely accepted list of war crimes appears in the Article 8 of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.

Assange’s main point seems to be that war itself is hell, rather than that soldiers have sometimes behaved in hellish ways:

This material shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war. The archive will change public opinion and it will change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence.

Well, war is hell. (Though, sometimes, so too is peace.) But the fact that interstate war brings with it “squalor and carnage” doesn’t necessarily imply war crimes. For that we need to look at how soldiers are conducting themselves in a given war, and we need a basic familiarity with relevant treaty law.

2) Not Everything Bad That Happens in War Is A War Crime. Here are some things Assange is talking about that are definitely not war crimes.

Accidentally Killing Civilians. The US does an awful lot of this, and I’ve argued before that that policy is ethically bankrupt. But it’s not a war crime, as the Geneva Conventions drafters accepted that unintentional deaths may occur in wars. Killing civilians on purpose is a crime, but the US does not have a policy of intentionally murdering civilians. Quite the contrary. Although there have been cases where US individual soldiers committed war crimes, official US policy has in fact been, in recent decades, to incur ever greater risks in order to avoid hitting civilians. The best of intentions don’t mean civilian casualties will ever be zero in a conflict zone. But Assange’s claim that civilian casualties have been tragically high doesn’t equate to evidence of war crimes – at least not necessarily.

Starting a War in Which Your Enemy Then Purposely Kills Civilians. The Taliban does appear to have a policy of intentionally murdering civilians. In fact, many of the “war crimes” described in the Afghan War Diaries – such as IED attacks on civilians – are actually Taliban crimes. It’s disingenuous for Assange to claim that the US war itself is responsible for these actions just because we started the war, since the Taliban were also intentionally slaughtering well before the 2001 air war.

Failing to Keep Accurate Track of the Number of Accidental Civilian Dead. The reports definitely demonstrate this pattern to an enlightening degree: when US troops hit civilians accidentally, the field reports often gloss over evidence of the body counts. I think this is terrible practice, but to my knowledge this isn’t a violation of war law, because (to my knowledge) governments are not actually required to record and disclose civilian casualties. If I’m wrong on this one someone point me to the relevant provision in treaty law; I haven’t researched it closely, though Stephanie Carvin has, drawing the same conclusion.

3) Revelations of Things We Already Knew Aren’t Revelations.A number of practices in Afghanistan evidenced in this report are in fact argued by some including myself to be war law violations. But these practices had already been long documented and condemned prior to the Afghan War Diaries.

Assassination of Alleged “High-Value Targets”. The documents “reveal” that ground troops are engaged in missions to kill specific terror suspects, which in some cases (though not all) are arguably war law violations. (I say arguably because while I would have argued that suspected militants should not be considered legitimate targets unless engaged in hostilities, the Obama Administration and some legal experts whom I respect disagree with me.) At any rate, this debate over “targeted killings” is an old one. How are the actions of Task Force 373 any different from those of drone pilots assasinating suspected militants (and their families) from the air? In both cases, US troops hunt suspected insurgents by stealth instead of engaging them in the open, and take them out often along with a multitude of innocents. In either case, the central war law issue is the same: is it right for our armed forces to kill people, even bad people, who are not at that time engaged in hostilities (that is, is any civilian area where a suspected militant might be at the moment a legitimate military target?) (I say no; the Obama Administration has argued yes.) If the public wasn’t already incensed enough about this to force policy changes, I’m not sure how this new evidence of the same practice engaged in by ground troops is going to tip the balance.

Unacceptably High Levels of Collateral Damage. Well yeah. Many of us have been saying this for years. The Administration hasn’t listened, and aside from the fact that researchers like me can now calculate exactly how unacceptably high they are (more on that soon) and maybe capture variation in the unacceptability barometer for various rules of engagement to conduct a precision human security analysis, there’s no there there.

A Polish My Lai? One story Assange describes on Democracy Now! is an alleged massacre of civilians by Polish ISAF troops, and this is the sort of thing that indeed qualifies as a war crime. But this too was already reported at the time. And unlike My Lai, there was no need to “blow the whistle” on this one, because it was never denied or covered up: the Polish government has already exhibited due diligence by investigating and trying those responsible. According to the Warsaw Business Journal:

A Polish investigation linked seven members of the Polish military with the attacks. A trial to determine their guilt began in February 2009 and is ongoing. The defendants face prison sentences of between 12 years and life for the killing of civilians and/or firing on an unarmed target. It is unclear whether the Wikileaks documents will have any affect on the court proceedings.

If so, Assange may have undermined due process in a criminal proceeding – one of many potential knock-on effects of his disclosures whose true extent may never be known. He has also apparently broken Polish law. The same article asserts:

Another revelation contained in the incident reports is the name and rank of the Polish counter-intelligence officer involved in the investigation of Nangar Khel. The publication of this information is a crime in Poland, carrying a sentence of five to eight years in prison. It is also a crime in the United States, as evidenced by the Valerie Plame investigation of 2003.

One Final Thought. Though I remain highly critical of Assange for dumping sensitive data online indiscriminately, I feel compelled to emphasize that I am not an opponent of whistle-blowing per se. In fact, I strongly support whistle-blowing specific cases of actual war crimes – like an actual “My Lai” where the responsible government is covering up the incident rather than prosecuting the offending troops – in a way that calls attention to perpetrators and their bystander governments while protecting the identities of vulnerable populations. (Which is not, however, what Assange has actually done here.) More on all that in a future essay.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Current Intelligence]

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