Month: September 2011 (Page 1 of 3)

Anwar al-Awlaki and Targeted Killing: A quick, first, and uneasy reaction

*post written with comments from fellow duck Ben O’Loughlin

The world media is reporting that Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen – although details are very sketchy at this point.

It is very clear to me that Awlaki was not a particularly nice person – he advocated some rather terrible things (even before 9/11 supposedly radicalised him). His followers have been certainly linked to terrorism, including the Fort Hood shooting.

However, I must admit that I am somewhat troubled by this turn of events. Earlier this year I suggested that the targeted killing of bin Laden was acceptable under international law. He’s been linked to the financing and organising of terrorist attacks around the world and this was well established before his death.

But I have yet to see any reports that suggest that Awlaki has been tied to any material support for terrorist attacks. I think this changes the legal game substantially. It essentially is suggesting that *we* (whoever that is) are now targeting people for their ideas rather than they are actually doing. Pushed to its logical extreme, a person might unintentionally inspire others to commit violent acts. Should they be eliminated?

I’m no fan of Awlaki and I will certainly not mourn his passing, (really – he seems like a total jerk) but this raises serious questions about the targeted killing program, who is being targeted and why. Presumably, in the case of targeted killing, its important there is evidence BEFORE the killing, rather than a scrabble now to piece together a case, after the fact.

I hope there is evidence that he actually materially supported terrorism.

Edit: Will McCants has linked to an article at Foreign Policy from November 2010 which argues the case for taking out Awlaki. I still have mixed feelings about this. I will feel better if there is a case/dossier of evidence that can be brought forward – and I still maintain that this case should have been made before striking out at him. 

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Our new Fall line-up

We’re welcoming a couple of new guest bloggers to Duck. Jay Ulfelder, who blogs at Dart Throwing Chimps, is a political scientist who does excellent work forecasting regime survival and change, democratization, and violent conflict. And Erica Chenoweth from Wesleyan University will be posting as Rational Insurgent — also the name of her blog. She’s done some amazing work on terrorism and most recently on civil resistance and non-violent conflict. A very warm welcome to both!

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“Magic Democracy Words” Don’t Tie Their Speaker’s Hands

 In an August 30 piece for BBC News, Shashank Joshi, a graduate student at Harvard University and associate fellow at a major U.K. think tank, argued that strong statements from American officials about Syrian president Assad’s loss of legitimacy would help advance the Syrian revolution by committing the U.S. to stronger courses of action. Joshi writes (emphasis added):

The Syrian revolution of 2011 could also have been one more of those many abortive uprisings whose blood flecks the history of the modern Middle East, yet could not change its course. Things are no longer so clear. The outside world is slowly getting its act together. The US finally issued its “magic democracy words” (a term coined by US Middle East scholar Marc Lynch) and called for President Assad to go. No-one expects that the words will wound themselves, but they tie American hands and thereby force the machinery of US foreign policy to churn out fresh ways of hounding Damascus.

This isn’t the only place I’ve seen it said that sharp pronouncements from American officials about a foreign leader’s right to rule or the need for regime change “tie American hands.” This might sound nit-picky, but that phrasing’s not quite right, and it makes a difference for how effective we might expect those “magic words” to be.

The language about hand-tying comes from game theory. In multiplayer games, each player’s course of action often depends, in part, on its expectations about what other players will choose to do. This interactive aspect of the game means that one player can influence the others’ choices by committing him or herself to following or eschewing a specific course of action. For that commitment to be credible, it has to be visible (or audible) to the other players. More important here, it also has to be something its maker can’t undo, or, if he or she can undo it, something that would obviously be costlier to undo than to follow.

A classic example of hand-tying comes from the game of chicken. Imagine a contest with two cars hurtling toward each other. If the cars smash into each other, both drivers lose badly. If both cars swerve, neither driver wins, and they both look a little cowardly. The only way to win the game is to hold the course longer than the other guy. To scare your rival into swerving first, you might commit yourself to holding course by, say, visibly locking the steering wheel into a fixed position. (To see these ideas in action, watch Kevin Bacon on a tractor. Technically, that’s foot-tying, but you get the point.)

Credible commitments differ from weaker forms of signaling. Signals don’t foreclose any courses of action; instead, they affect other players’ beliefs about what course of action the signal’s issuer will choose. Game theory tells us that signals should have a weaker effect on other players’ actions than credible commitments do. They don’t lop any branches off the game tree; they just modify receivers’ beliefs about which branch of the tree they are probably heading down.

“Magic democracy words” are not credible commitments; they are weak signals. They are audible, but they neither lock in nor foreclose any specific policy options. After saying that a ruler like Assad must go, the U.S. government might do more to make that happen, but it can also do nothing, and it can even work to support that ruler’s continuation in office. Whichever path it chooses, it can also change course at any time. Doing so might somehow diminish America’s reputation, but the costs of a diminished reputation must be balanced against all kinds of other interests, many of which will probably weigh more heavily than ephemeral concerns about consistency and likeability. International relations is replete with flip-flops, hypocrisy, and duplicity, so it’s hard to imagine many situations in which reputational concerns would compel a government to pursue a course of action that was otherwise judged to be counter to its national interest.

To my mind, magic democracy words are more like trash-talking than hand-tying. They might get players and fans a little hot under the collar, but they don’t really tell us much about the action to come. Smart players and coaches will ignore the jawboning and will look for their signals in the play that follows instead.

* * *

This post appeared earlier this week on my own blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp. Joshi left a comment there that deserves to be carried over here. He wrote:

I’ve had a good discussion with Jay on Twitter about this. But to the commenter above, just wanted to add that this (allies) was my intended focus. The next passage in the article (after the one excerpted here) was: “They also send a powerful signal – not to Mr Assad, but to US allies and partners who now know that there may be a cost to hedging their bets. For example, their firms may be caught up in sanctions, as has occurred in the course of US policy towards Iran.” I grant that I shouldn’t have said “powerful”. But, technically, this is a case of commitment or tying hands, and not signaling. Even creating weak costs for inaction still qualifies as tying hands, e.g. https://jcr.sagepub.com/content/41/1/68.abstract.

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Terrorism in Democracies

Yesterday the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man, who has been subsequently charged with a number of crimes related to terrorism. [1] This is the latest in a string of plots that the U.S. has successfully thwarted, yet it raises alarms for many Americans who have felt immune from Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism on U.S. soil. Erik Dahl, of the Naval Postgraduate School, has identified dozens of credible plots (as many as 45 by jihadist-inspired groups or individuals, according to John Avlon) since 9/11, all of which have been either botched by offenders or thwarted by the authorities.

Americans should not be too surprised by this latest wave of domestic plots. After all, domestic attacks make up the vast majority of terrorist activity–jihadist or not. Neither should they be too surprised about homegrown AQ-inspired activity, which is simply part of the current wave of terrorist activity around the world, as Karen Rasler and William Thompson tell us. Some scholars have even argued that Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism is simply a “fad” that will eventually go the way of all other other fads.

Nonetheless, this brings up three important questions:  (1) Will the current wave of jihadist terrorism be replaced? (2) If so, by what kind of terrorism? (3) Where?

My answers: (1) Probably. (2) Who knows? (3) Largely in democratic countries, most likely.

One of the most important continuities during the past forty years is the fact that terrorism tends to occur much more in democratic countries than in nondemocratic ones–the subject of the book I am currently completing for Columbia University Press. Take a look at this chart, which shows the the number of terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 according to the Global Terrorism Database, distributed by regime type:

This chart shows that democracies remain the most frequent targets of terrorist attacks around the world. Additional research confirms that despite all of the concern about terrorism in weak states, democracies also remain the most frequent sources of terrorist activity.

There are lots of reasons why, about which much has been written.

But here’s the good news: terrorism is incredibly rare, even in democracies. As John Mueller insists, a person is more likely to drown in one’s toilet than to be killed (or hurt) by a terrorist. Although there is a fascination with terrorism among the public and in the media, and although it is certainly destructive, violent, and terrifying to those who experience it, terrorist attacks almost never occur.

Moreover, in a recent working paper with Joe Young, he and I find that terrorism does not actually threaten “our way of life,” as some argue. Democracies are incredibly resilient to terrorist threats, and although democracies occasionally do circumvent limits on civil liberties, such measures are usually temporary and are typically repealed over time. Martha Crenshaw has found that democracies almost never retaliate against foreign terrorist attacks using military force, although when they do, it can be quite consequential as we’ve seen in Afghanistan.

My point is that terrorist plots and terrorist attacks are rare but normal in democracies–and that’s likely to continue. Although terrorism is a nuisance, it is not an existential threat to the United States, nor is it ever likely to be.

On the whole, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The Department of Homeland Security should put that on a billboard.
—–
[1] I shan’t dabble in definitions of terrorism because the caveats and qualifications could go on ad nauseam. For those interested in debates on how terrorism should be defined, Chapter 1 of Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism is great on the subject. I use a fairly noncontroversial definition: terrorism is politically-motivated violence by non-state actors directed at civilians to produce fear in a broader population.

[cross-posted to Rational Insurgent]

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Stuff Political Scientists Like #10 — a Degree from an Elite School

Political scientists like other political scientists with a Ph.D. degree from a good school. Those who go to Harvard or Yale or Berkeley are ‘well-trained.’ This means that they have successfully completed coursework in rigorous quantitative methods, not that they don’t pee on the floor. Schools with a good pedigree degree offer no guarantees on the latter. In fact, continence is unlikely.

Different kennels elite departments are known for their skill in preparing graduates of particular breeds kinds. Midwestern schools tend to produce terriers students excellent at getting close to the ground to inductively derive theories based through extensive quantitative data mining. European schools are fine producers of hounds post-structuralists capable of sniffing out even the deepest reifications. Chicago has a reputation for training both Rottweilers offensive realists and German sheperds defensive realists. The University of California, San Diego excels at producing herding dogs rationalist scholars who round up the appropriate cases so as to avoid selection effects, while Rochester is an excellent school for sporting dogs game theorists.

Every year students of various pedigree and breed compete for best in show a tenure-track academic job. They are judged on the basis of their gait job talk, teeth collegiality, and, to please the diversity office, color. Pure-bred elite students with papers a diploma from a top school are almost guaranteed a good job. Those mutts who adopt a more analytically eclectic approach find that they please no one, and often spend several months if not years in a humane society visiting adjunct position before they find a nice home with colleagues who love them. They are generally no longer puppies much older than the average student with a good degree when they begin their first job. For unknown reasons, however, they do have fewer health problems and generally live a longer life. Nevertheless, often they are never adopted, in which case they generally are euthanized forced to go to law school. Faculty members generally prefer a student with a good degree, but they often feel better in the end giving someone else a shot.

Of course, having a good degree has a major downside too, however. Generations of inbreeding at elite schools of political science can lead to congenital problems such as an exceedingly narrow dissertation topic involving something called a “selectorate” and, somewhat inexplicably, hip problems. They are snooty and have bad dispositions. In rare cases, this can be blamed on rabies, but this has mostly been eradicated.

If the particular candidate selected for a permanent position turns out to not in fact be well trained and bites people does not perform adequately, it is possible but not to easy to get rid of him (or her). He likely has children friends and allies who do not want to part with him. The department might, nevertheless, find a nice place for him in the country deny him tenure.

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The Aussie Military Accepts GI Janes into the Ranks


While the US and UK continue to debate the ways that women impact cohesion and combat effectiveness, effective immediately, the Australian military will allow women to participate in combat roles. Australia joins a small group of countries that have removed combat restrictions for women, which includes Canada, New Zealand, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Norway, Denmark, France, Serbia, Israel and Switzerland.

Several individuals within the Australian Defence Forces I’ve spoken to over the last year have indicated that this policy change has been a long-time coming. Defence Minister Stephen Smith came out several months ago indicating his support for the policy change– even in the face of national concern and criticism. Despite warning signals from the department of defence, several national media outlets and opposition leaders are calling the policy a gimmick and an attempt to distract attention from recent sex scandals associated with the military, including the now infamous ‘skype scandal’ involving the un-consented broadcasting of a sexual encounter within a military academy. Neil James of the Australian Defence Association said that the policy ‘jumped the gun’ and warned that there could be more female casualties if women were allowed to serve in all combat roles.

One former naval officer told ABC radio that she didn’t expect many women to meet the physical requirements for some of these positions but that “it just has to be done, and I think Australia’s very brave to do this.”

The impact this policy change will have on the Australian military and its ability to recruit and retain women can only be measured in time. But if other military’s experiences of gender integration are any indication, this policy will largely be forgotten in a few months and women who meet the physical requirements will enter these roles with little fanfare. Perhaps this renewed debate will spark attention back in the US, where policy-makers and the US government still cling to weak arguments about the need to keep women out of combat.

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The World Is Waiting: U.S. Public Opinion and Climate Change

So, we’re almost in October, and it’s still 100 hundred degrees here in Texas.  We have just endured the hottest summer on record for any state in the United States.  Just last month, thousands of acres burned in a series of wildfires just outside Austin.

September 2011 Texas Fires

Our governor Rick Perry is running for the Republican nomination for president, and though climate change is not high on the agenda, he took time out of his busy schedule to deny that climate change was real and to claim his perspective was akin to being a modern day Galileo. These remarks prompted President Obama this week to quip: “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.”

Now, as I’ll say more in my next post, there are reasons from a scientific perspective to be skeptical that the drought and fires in Texas are attributable to climate change, but I think it may be smart politics.

Some months ago I posted about Republican elites’ allergies to all things climate change and how this issue had become a partisan signifier like abortion. This was before Perry threw his hat into the ring and before his rival Jon Huntsman took him to task for his climate change denialism via Twitter:”To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

At the time, I promised to come back to U.S. public opinion on the topic. So here goes. This isn’t just about U.S. domestic politics because unlocking U.S. climate policy remains the most important step towards addressing the problem globally.

What Do Americans Think About Climate Change?
There has been considerable flux in what Americans think about climate change in recent years in terms of how worried they are about the problem and whether or not they think it is real. While we know what the numbers are doing, I don’t think we have a really good handle on what is driving these changes. That said, we can make some pretty reasonable suppositions.

Between 2008 and 2011, Gallup came out with several polls suggesting that Americans were less worried about climate change and more likely to say the problem was exaggerated (2008, 2010, 2011). Gallup attributed this to the financial crisis based on previous dips in support for environmental protection during economic downturns.

Gallup also suggested the declining poll numbers might be the result of a series of so-called scandals that climate denialists have glommed on to try to make their case that climate change is a fraud perpetrated by scientists eager to get research grants (as if the self-serving motives of people who make their money from carbon-based fuels are somehow less powerful an incentive to deny the science).

So, if you followed this stuff attentively like I do, you read about trumped up controversies over the hockey stick graph (did temperatures increase in the 20th century after centuries of relative stability?). There was also flak over leaked emails by climate scientists from my alma mater the University of East Anglia, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got some grief for typos and sourcing errors in a several thousand page document. Small beer, as they say, but perhaps enough to move the dial for some people.

Other polls suggest that the most important differences really are between Democrats and Republicans, with as much a 30 to 40 percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether they worry about climate change and whether it is happening. A 2011 Yale-based poll also found that self-identified Tea Party types are the least likely to believe climate change is real, while they consider themselves knowledgeable about the problem. They are less trusting of mainstream news sources, scientists, and the EPA.  Tea Party supporters were much more likely (45%) than other groups, including Republicans (20%), to be aware of the controversial UEA hacked emails, most likely from their trusted news sources like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and various other conservative websites.


The Economist
 recently ran a story on this poll with the graphic below:

McRight and Dunlap (2011) draw some similar conclusions from their assessment of a number of polls: they conclude conservative white men are less likely to believe that climate change is real, which they attributed to a particularly risk acceptant attitude among that group.

The good news from the Yale poll and other polls is that a majority of Republicans think the problem is real. Indeed, a 2011 Reuters poll found that the percentage who believe the Earth has been warming increased from 75% to 83% between 2010 and September 2011, including 72% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats.

This could be a result of the way the poll was worded. Other studies by Schuldt, Konrath and Schwarz (2011) and Villar and Krosnick  (2010) have found that Americans, particularly Republicans, are far more likely to believe in the problem when framed as “climate change” rather than “global warming.”

It should be noted that even though a majority of Americans worry about climate change, environmental issues almost always rank low on the list of priorities for Americans, though they tend to identify environmental problems as being among the most important future problems (see these two Gallup polls here and here).

Where does this leave us? I think what this means is that the public is only intermittently attentive to the issue, and while most people are taking their cues from what the scientists are saying, other people are listening to climate denialists and hardening their attitudes to believe that the issue is a hoax.

Just a few years ago, when public concern was at its maximum, moderate Republican governors around the country were jumping on the climate bandwagon to support cap-and-trade initiatives and the like. If we think public opinion matters, then advocates have to do a better job, particularly among the Republican public in convincing them that the problem is real and worth caring about. The recent Reuters poll that showed an increase in concern suggests a possible reason why Americans are becoming worried again: the weather. My next post will discuss how, the science aside, focusing on the local consequences of weird weather (Hurricane Irene, floods in the Midwest, and drought in the Southwest) might concentrate the minds again. 

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Lest we forget about Somalia

The musician K’naan’s haunting elegy for his country Somalia, wracked by famine:

So, 20 summers after I left as a child, I found myself on my way back to Somalia with some concerned friends and colleagues. I hoped that my presence would let me shine a light into this darkness. Maybe spare even one life, a life equal to mine, from indifferently wasting away. But I am no statesman, nor a soldier. Just a man made fortunate by the power of the spotlight. And to save someone’s life I am willing to spend some of that capricious currency called celebrity.

My pale by comparison five-part series on Duck of Minerva here about this already forgotten tragedy.

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Obama Reveals his Superhero Powers at the UN


The world has been watching this week as the Palestinian Government prepares to make a bid to the Security Council for recognition as an independent state. Many thought Obama had backed himself into a corner with a statement last year declaring his support for Palestinian statehood. But never fear, the President’s propensity to dilute astute political goals to the point of meaninglessness appears to be limitless. In fact, if Obama was a superhero it is likely that his power would be to retract from lofty political objectives and political commitments at the speed of light. He entices victims with incredible speeches about change, ethics, and possibility and then inflicts disappointment, dissolution and disbelief to all in his realm of influence. In fact, he is SO talented that many victims have fallen into his charming trap more than once.
Many don’t want to see Obama’s dark side. Furthermore, with the scary Big Brother cast of rejects that make up the Republican candidates it becomes easier to hold on to fantasies of Obama’s potential as a good guy.
“He just needs more time, he’s under so much pressure, he inherited such a mess…” yeah yeah, we got it. But this week the President had an opportunity to follow through on his word. To make a politically difficult decision and support Palestinian statehood. Instead of sticking his neck out he gave a rambling UN speech that included a statement likening Palestinian requests for statehood to a ‘shortcut’ and declaring that “peace will not come through statement and a resolution at the UN.” I fell into your trap Obama- again. You got me on guantanamo bay and health care too. But now I see the superpower talent and I’m not going to get caught by your tactics again.

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Be Concerned but not Informed: Radical Islamic Terrorism and Mainstream Media since 9/11

The website e-IR asked me to review how mainstream media have represented radical Islamist media in the past decade, and what this means for the spread of radical discourses more broadly. Here is my reply, and you can read the original at e-IR here.

Mainstream media’s presentation of radical Islamic terrorism since 11 September 2001 is simply a continuation of how mainstream media have represented political violence for many decades. Moral panics about enemies within, journalists following agendas set by ministers, scandalised yet sensationalist coverage of violence, victims and perpetrators – all familiar from the post-9/11 period, but also thoroughly documented in the classic studies of media and violence in the 1970s and 80s. The focus on Islam has been hugely damaging for many people across a number of countries, but what is at stake is more fundamental. Modern societies have not found a way to manage the boundaries between their mainstreams and margins. In 20 years’ time, other groups will be demonised, journalists will continue to fail to explain why violence occurs, and many people trying to go about their daily lives will find themselves anxious, suspicious, and ill-informed.

Each society imagines its mainstream differently. Media are the condition for imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson put it, but also imagined enemies. Russia, Israel, France, Thailand – in any country we find journalists, artists, and political leaders routinely making representations of their own values and of groups that might threaten those values. The ‘war on terror’ label enabled a diverse range of states, each with their particular social antagonisms and historical enmities, to represent their struggles as part of an overarching conflict between themselves and radical Islam. They imagined their own community, and an international community, at war. Although some journalists challenged this, journalism as a general institution was a delivery mechanism for the very idea of a war on terror and for all its local manifestations. Reporters on newspapers, 24 rolling news and even ‘highbrow’ news analysis shows accepted the framing assumptions given by military and political leaders, and repeatedly and unthinkingly stitched together disparate attacks into one global narrative.

One of the most striking aspects of this decade was that the enemy became a visual presence as never before. ‘Radical Islam’ could be seen. Indeed, Islam itself became a spectacle for all around the world to gaze upon and think about, the historian Faisal Devji argues. Al-Qaeda took advantage of real-time 24 hour media to project violent events onto all our screens in sporadic but spectacular ways. At the same time, religious views returned to everyday political debate as religious leaders and communities used the internet and TV to promote and discuss their dialogues, concerns and beliefs. This increased visibility created difficulties for many ordinary Muslims, who on the one hand wanted to argue that Islam is one religion and Muslims a united body of people, but on the other complained when the resulting single image grouped together Al-Qaeda’s terrorist iconography with everyday multiculturalism in the West, the rich diversity of Muslim-majority countries, and the terrible suffering of Palestinians. The struggle for the image of Islam took place in large part through mainstream media; if a Muslim person appears in Western news, statistically there is a higher chance it is in a story about terrorism and criminality than if it was an individual of another ethnicity. Lone figures – the angry bearded man and the veiled woman – are the stereotypes media reporting has bequeathed us from the 2000s. While many herald the emergence of social media and the shift from mass communication to what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, it is likely that mainstream media will continue to be a chief venue for the struggle for Islam’s image in the next decade.

Ironically, despite the routine presence of Al-Qaeda in mainstream news, journalists have not always been willing or able to explain what or who Al-Qaeda is, or how it functions. Equally, the term ‘radicalisation’ only became a public term in the 2000s, but journalists have used the term as if its meaning is obvious without actually explained how radicalisation works. Admittedly, these two confusions both stem from the fact that security policymakers lack reliable knowledge about Al-Qaeda and radicalisation themselves, or at least won’t release full information to journalists. Meanwhile a ‘radicalisation industry’ of so-called experts has emerged, willing to speculate on air about radical Islamic terrorism (witness the first 24 hours after Anders Breivik’s killings in Norway this year).These people are rarely challenged by journalists.

As a consequence of these media failings, audiences are routinely presented with the image of an angry bearded man, possibly a clip from a video linked to Al-Qaeda, and then an unspecific warning of an imminent threat. Audiences are asked to be concerned, but not allowed to be informed.

What does this mean for the spread of radical and radicalising groups in the future? Three interlocking, structural tendencies must be considered. First, the state will continue to assimilate all non-state violence as a single threat to international order and the domestic social mainstream. “Violence must not be allowed to succeed”, remarked a British official in the 1970s. It is a simple, unchanging principle. In April 2011 in London, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Drawing a parallel between students and those engaged in terrorism suggests a failure to appreciate that vibrant democracy requires space for dissent and disagreement. From the point of view of the state, however, it is all actual or potential non-state violence. Meanwhile, the latest version of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, has switched attention from addressing violent extremism to simply ‘extremism’. Extremism is understood as divergence from ‘mainstream British values’, defined as ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’. Society is asked to imagine itself as a community bounded by shared values, but this necessarily puts some people on or outside that boundary. Even if they are not violent, they might one day consider violence, and violence must not be allowed to succeed.

Second, it is a challenge for journalists to observe how political leaders are re-drawing and redefining these boundaries, since they – as responsible, professional insiders – will be asked to categorise and condemn those deemed on the radical outside. News values endure. The drama, simplicity and immediacy of acts of political violence will keep terrorism and violent protest on the news agenda while allowing a new cast of radicals to come to the fore.

Finally, radical Islamic terrorists or any radical group will play cat-and-mouse with security agencies as they try to use digital media to mobilize potential recruits and supporters. This game will be largely invisible to ordinary people. Nevertheless, we will be asked to endorse cybersecurity policies and work within modified internet infrastructures without being given any systematic data on connections between radicalism, radicalisation and cybersecurity. Journalists will be no better informed, but will be obliged to report as if there are connections.

These intersecting pathologies might leave the reader pessimistic. Opportunities for change seem minimal. On an immediate level, it is a question of changing behaviours. Can security journalists bring a more informed manner of reporting to mainstream audiences? Will the state decide it has a stake in a more informed citizenry? Will citizens themselves bypass mainstream media to find alternative ways to be informed? On a more profound level, it is a question of finding new ways to conceive and manage the relationship between social mainstreams and margins. The implicit equivalence of margin with radical and radical with violence makes for perpetual insecurity. Finding a more mature approach, however, opens up fundamental questions about the state, society and individual which few have begun to ask. This is where the challenge lies.

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Stuff Political Scientists Like #9 — Being Liked, or Citations

Political scientists love citations, or, more accurately, to be cited. Actually compiling citations is a tremendously tedious chore that political scientists leave to the very end of any paper, one marked by a bitter struggle with Endnote.

Citations are the best marker political scientists have of success. As political scientists come in both male and female varieties, they cannot simply measure penises. And even if all political scientists were male, there would not be, to use political science parlance, enough “variation” in such a measure to properly differentiate between them. What is exactly is the substantive difference between 4 and 4.15 inches? Once could of course use the standard deviation, but many political scientists would simply not know what that meant.

Political scientists love to be cited for the same reason that rich people like to name buildings — proof of their existence after death. I was here! I was noticed! I was read! Political scientists are not going to cure cancer. Or even stop genocide, which as well all know is a simple product of strategic logic utility maximization that all human beings are powerless to stop. Every back issue of the American Political Science Review will one day be like a time capsule from the past, showing how we lived back then. It is not etched in marble, but it will have to do.

When pressed, political scientists will acknowledge that citations are a very flawed marker of current academic influence and future immortality because very few citations are actually indications of having learned anything from prior scholarship. Political scientists are bad listeners.

Ironically the most cited political scientists are those with the least influence, those whose work is so terribly bad that other political scientists write innumerable articles criticizing it, thus driving up the citation count. This is called the “Huntington Index.” One might think that if something is so wrong it should be so obvious that it need not merit such overwhelming response. This proves you are not a political scientist.

Political scientists also use “drive-by citations,” repeatedly citing the same one or two works seen as representative of an entire school of scholarship that one does not feel like reading but must acknowledge.* There are also “hat tip citations,” those perfunctory recognitions of those others who blazed the trail before you and who must be cited lest one incur their wrath for not being cited when they serve as reviewers. This is the academic version of saying, “ ‘sup?” and barely nodding one’s head.

Citations are also not immune to the influence of organized crime. Ordinary, law-abiding political scientists live in fear of “citation cartels,”** those who artificially inflate their citation counts by citing one another, thereby distorting the operation of ordinary market mechanisms based on actual consumption. See “peace, democratic.”

Finally political scientists must cite the work they seeking to discredit. Most citations are therefore passive-aggressive. Passive aggressiveness can be enhanced by finding a much older article that made the same point 80 years before and citing it first. This is not hard to do. Political scientists are the world’s leading consumers of old wine and new bottles.

*Credit goes to Mike Tierney for originating this term.

**Harald Schoen came up with this. My thanks.

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Mortenson declines Education Grawemeyer

In addition to filling an open faculty line in international relations (IR), I was hired in 1991 by the University of Louisville with the idea that I would eventually direct the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The World Order award was then one of four Grawemeyer Awards and at the time I was hired, I knew virtually nothing about any of them. The prize was worth $150,000, making it the largest award in Political Science. Nonetheless, it was not especially well-known even within the discipline, nor much publicized outside of it, though the earliest prizes were awarded to prominent IR scholars and Political Scientists like Samuel Huntington, Robert Jervis, Robert Keohane and Richard Neustadt.

The annual awards in Education and Religion were also relatively unknown. The award in Music Composition, however, apparently became a major global award and typically receives media coverage in the New York Times and other global outlets. The award amount eventually increased to $200,000 (though it decreased after the 2008 stock market dip) and a fifth award in Psychology was added in 2001. Sporadically, awards other than Music Composition have received a modicum of publicity.

The World Order Award winner received a great deal of publicity in 1994 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Louisville to speak and collect his payment. Though this selection occurred just before I assumed leadership of the World Order Award, I recall that most of the coverage concerned his missing pants truly. While I have never believed that the lack of media interest in the World Order winners reflected anything in particular about the field or the winning ideas, it can be frustrating laboring in relative obscurity. Many people reading this post have perhaps reviewed for the award in the past — and I know that many had never really heard about the prize until I asked them to read for it.

In any case, there are clearly far worse fates than being unknown to the wider world. Earlier this year, on April 14 — after months of delay and behind-the-scenes negotiation — the Education winner for 2011 was announced: Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea.

Was this the academic equivalent of the Grammy award for Milli Vanilli?


A few days later, “60 Minutes” ran the famous story questioning his honesty, humanitarianism, and research integrity. A couple of days after that story broke, best-selling author Jon Krakauer published a digital book slamming Mortenson for lying and losing “his moral bearings.”

Needless to say, this created a publicity nightmare for the University of Louisville and for my colleagues in the School of Education, who administer the prize. Time magazine ran a piece detailing the trouble and the story of the university’s apparent gaffe made more news than most of the awards ever have.

This weekend, roughly one week before Mortenson was scheduled to visit Louisville, speak, and collect his prize, the University announced that Mortenson had decided not to accept the award.

“We, like millions of others, have been inspired by Greg’s work and we share his commitment to education and to his belief that we can provide a more peaceful future for all our children through knowledge and friendship,” [Provost Shirley] Willihnganz said.

While UofL will not give the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Education, Willihnganz said the university will provide $50,000 in privately funded scholarships (unrelated to the Grawemeyer endowment) to students who decide to major in education and agree to teach in Louisville’s poorest schools.

I have watched this affair unfold with both a sense of distance and uncomfortable proximity. Most of what I know about the Mortenson case has been learned by reading the newspapers and press releases. Each of the awards is quite distinct and I rarely see the faculty involved in the other awards — Psychology is a bit of an exception since it is part of Arts & Sciences. However, Education, Music, and Religion are located in completely different colleges within the University organizational chart.**

For months, people in Louisville and fellow scholars have asked me about Mortenson because they assume my involvement in World Order grants me access to the inside scoop. That is not the case.

Over the years, as you might expect, the World Order award has received nominations supporting fairly prominent political figures. Most of them, like Gorbachev, have baggage associated with their work even if they are best known for remarkable ideas or (more likely) for engineering dramatic political changes. Reviewers and the screening committee are supposed to focus on the nominated material, but these external issues inevitably loom in the background — and press against the foreground. I have no doubt that some ideas were considered more seriously at some steps in the multi-stage selection process precisely because they emanated from famous figures.

The Grawemeyer review process involves nearly a full year of hard work to select a single work — and awarding the prize to a well-known figure can bring immediate attention to the entire effort. I do not believe that the Education committee selected Mortenson because of his name recognition. However, I do think that the selection serves as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in the review process. It could be read, in fact, as another point in favor of blind review.

Before closing, I should note that I resigned my position directing the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World order in the spring, effective June 30, 2011. Our department chair had announced his intention to depart for another university, the faculty elected (and the Dean selected) me to succeed him, and I had a one semester sabbatical coming in fall 2011 that I did not want to interrupt. It seemed like a good time for a transition. As it happens, the chair of our Political Science department serves on the Final Selection Committee for the World Order award, meaning that I will again have some important Grawemeyer duties in fall of 2012.

** Correction/note: The Religion award is administered by a University faculty committee in conjuction with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The long-time coordinator of the award, Susan R. Garrett, holds a faculty position at the Seminary.

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R2Paternalism

The banner image of the ICRtoP (International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect) website  features a photo of seven boys under the protective gaze of a UN peacekeeper as he carries his bottled water, while other soldiers patrol ahead on the pathway that they all share together. From a structural perspective, the image is compelling because it situates the viewer as the rear-guard of the mission.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no context provided for this image on the ICRtoP website — not even a photo credit [there is a photocredit on the “contact us” page].

Nevertheless, there are several details about the photo and the context in which it was taken that I believe are worth mentioning: First, the photo was taken by Eskinder Debebe on March 1, 2000 in the Becora district of Dili, East Timor. All of the adults in the photo are Portuguese soldiers supporting the UNTAET (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor) mission; there are no Timorese adults in the photo.  Second, although all of the soldiers on this mission were armed, there are no visible weapons on the soldier standing closest to the children. One might notice the handle of an assault rifle on the soldier ahead on the path in front of the children, if one examined the photo very carefully, but weapons are clearly not foregrounded in this image. In fact, the soldiers are wearing berets and baseball caps rather than helmets, again creating the image of paternal protection without reference to the violence that may accompany humanitarian intervention by foreign forces. Third, while Debebe took several other photos on this day for the UN, including photos of one of the Portuguese soldiers who is clearly of African (and/or possibly Brazilian) descent — that soldier is not visible in this image. Fourth, there were other photos of these children interacting with the soldiers, but this was the only one in which all of the boys are clothed. Fifth and related to the previous point, there are no buildings from the surrounding impoverished village, making it easier to focus on the lives of the children saved by the presence of these troops rather than the monumental and prolonged task of rebuilding and developing this area. Finally, there is no hint of the complex colonial and neo-colonial history of East Timor or the political maneuvering by regional powers that led to UNSC Resolution 1264 which brought the peacekeepers to Dili. Without careful research one would not even suspect that the soldiers are from the former colonial power in this region. In fact, there is no hint of politics at all in this pleasant scene; power is masked through paternal benevolence.

One might suppose that the selection of this particular photo as the banner image is just a fluke, but the same photo is also used as the cover image in the ICRtoP’s latest report — again without any attribution or context.  In fact, the same image is now used on over 200 websites.  The preference for this 11 year old photo — particularly for a website that discusses current interventions justified on the grounds of R2P is peculiar to say the least.

In the absence of any context, the image becomes an abstraction; it is an image of European soldiers, acting in the name of the international community and benevolently protecting a group of happy but poor, brown children in some nameless tropical locale. In other words, this is the new portrait of the white man’s burden.

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Learn to Love Lawfare

Photo courtesy of Etsy. The perfect lawfare key chain!

Over at the Lawfare blog, Jack Goldsmith recently offered up a “mea culpa” on his changing views of the concept and practice of lawfare. I don’t want to address the specifics of that post, but this and the Libya situation got me thinking again that a non-pejorative conceptualization of lawfare needs to be put forward. Particularly in the context of the International Criminal Court. Stay tuned. But for now…

Charles Dunlap defends that his original conception of lawfare was meant to be a neutral one. But it has since been co-opted by various scholars and political actors as a pejorative accusation – meant to delegitimize those who abuse law for strategic purposes. There’s an important distinction to be made though between the understanding of lawfare as a strategic weapon of war versus a coercive alternative to war. Specifically, there is a normative gap between the pejorative conceptualization of lawfare in the realm of U.S. national security and as a “weapon of the weak” to constrain U.S. military power, and the multilateral realm of international criminal law where the lawfare of the ICC and other tribunals is viewed as a a benchmark of moral progress.

Certainly, this latter form of lawfare is both coercive and strategic, whether it’s arresting war criminals or threatening judicial intervention if human rights abuses are not curbed. Therefore, this use of lawfare is meant to prevent and end conflict, not provoke it, entrench it or restrain legitimate uses of military force. The combined use of judicial and military intervention, in the Former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Libya, and Cote d’Ivoire, etc., underscores this trend.

Among the few that have addressed this understanding of lawfare are those that participated on the international tribunals panel at a conference on lawfare at Case Western University School of Law a year ago. (I posted a brief summary of this conference here.) Discussion of the ICC was scant and the selected quotes below, from the subsequent special journal issue, demonstrate there’s little consensus on lawfare in this realm so far.

Justice Ogoola on the peace vs. justice nexus in Uganda:

“In many senses, lawfare is the opposite, indeed the very antithesis of warfare. Warfare is the ancient, primitive, and largely discredited mode of dispute resolution between nations and among peoples. Lawfare, on the other hand, has all the civilized undertones of letting the law fare well in the struggle to achieve peaceful resolution of disputes. If has the ring of due process, of the doctrine of the rule of law, and rule of reason – of the principles of fairness, equity, and justice in bringing a peaceful end to a  violent conflict.”

Robert Petit on political interference by the Cambodian government in the ECCC:

“If, however, we intend lawfare to equate to what is more traditionally viewed as political interference in the application of justice, then yes, lawfare is practiced in International Criminal Law.”

David Crane on the “take down” of elite perpetrators and Charles Taylor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

“The law is a powerful tool. Some say it can be used as a weapon. That power was used to bring down the most disruptive and evil warlord in Africa and his co-defendants not just by the stroke of a pen on March 3, 2003, but in the execution of two operations, Operation Justice and its follow-on Operation Rope.”
“The term – lawfare – has been viewed somewhat negatively and at best as a clever turn of a phrase. Used in the appropriate context it can be a force for good and positive change.”

David Scheffer on accusations against the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court:

“I plead guilty to being a major perpetrator of lawfare, on behalf of the U.S. Government, during the 1990s. My mission…was to use the power of the United States to build international and hybrid criminal tribunals that would subject the leaders of other nations and rebel movements engaged in warfare, including internal armed conflicts, to international criminal justice. I used the law aggressively and continuously and sometimes such actions served as at least a partial rationale for avoiding the use of American armed might or more political negotiations.”

“The commentariat believe that the ICC may be used by weak nations or by a rogue prosecutor to isolate and shame the United States. They fear that lawfare will prevent Washington from using its military power for just cause through the threat of investigation and prosecution of its often controversial policies and actions.”

There’s clearly room to interpret the ICC’s, or any international tribunals’, intervention in escalating conflict as a legitimate form of lawfare. Understandably, advocates of international justice will not want to associate such institutions with coercion, violence, and political strategy. But saving the concept as an alternative, not means, to war opens the door to a better understanding of the ICC’s potential role in conflict resolution.

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On Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Construction of a Liberal International Order

Debate over NATO’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war has reinvigorated discussion among observers of international relations on the merits (or demerits) of the United Nations’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. You can find links to important entries in the current debate at the end of this post, but I’m going to react here to one part of it. In a rejoinder to her critics, including IR student and Slouching Towards Columbia blogger Dan Trombly, Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter casts R2P as an instrument for positive change in the international system, a wrench that ratchets the world closer to the liberal ideal of government for the people on which, she claims, the contemporary notion of sovereignty is based. For The Atlantic, she writes:

It is international law itself — or rather the governments that bring it into being — that is in the process of redefining the international definition of sovereignty (e.g. the conditions on which you can be a player in the international system) to include a responsibility to protect (R2P) their citizens. Trombly argues that this conception of sovereignty “essentially strips its value,” because the whole point of a sovereign is to protect individuals from each other, in return for which it can and must demand absolute obedience. In the R2P world, by contrast, the sovereign “protects and serves.” Strips its value? Really? I may be an international lawyer, but I’m also a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Monticello and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Last I checked, “protects and serves” was his definition of domestic sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, argues that all men have inalienable rights and that governments exist “to secure these rights … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Protects and serves” is how all liberal democratic governments define their relations with their citizens; and I would wager the majority of the world’s autocracies at this point as well.

To my mind, though, R2P’s power as an instrument of positive change in the international system is greatly weakened by its dependence on a process of selective enforcement in which the judges are effectively immune from the coercions they impose upon others. Strong supporters of R2P often justify selective enforcement in terms of opportunity, saying it’s reasonable to apply limited resources to cases where they might be expected to make the biggest difference, and to choose the instruments of intervention based on their expected costs as well as their benefits.

I agree, but that’s not the kind of selectivity that bothers me. On both moral and consequential grounds, the virtual immunity of the powerful is the larger problem. As Slaughter notes, R2P is rooted in liberal thought. The moral equivalence of individuals, and thus the right to equal protection under the law, is the core idea of liberalism. As long as application of R2P depends on political bargaining among powerful actors who are not subjected to the same coercion, I think the doctrine does as much harm to the normative foundations of a liberal international order as it does good. Targets and observers of R2P-based sanctions will see the national interests of the powerful, not the health of the international order or well-being of its constituents, as the engines of those interventions. (See this analysis, for example.) The ensuing cynicism does not reinforce liberal internationalism, it undercuts it.

To think about how a liberal international order might really develop, we can look at how liberal orders have arisen within states. Here, I think Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s recent book Violence and Social Orders is especially useful. In that book, the authors (NWW) argue that contemporary states are founded on two types of order–natural states and open access orders–that represent different solutions to the common problem of controlling violence. “The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges,” they write (p. 18). By contrast, open access orders control violence through powerful, consolidated military and police organizations that are subservient to a political system, control of which “is open to entry by any group and contested through prescribed, and typically formal, constitutional means” (p.22).

Based on those two descriptions, it’s clear the international system we have today is more like a natural state than an open access order. The UN Security Council represents the dominant coalition, and the veto power of its members conveys the special privilege of virtual exemption from R2P.

For liberal internationalists, then, the crucial question is how to secure a transition from the one type of order to the other. On that, NWW write (p. 26):

The transition…has two stages. First, a natural state must develop institutional arrangements that enable elites to create the possibility of impersonal intra-elite arrangements. Second, the transition proper begins when the dominant coalition finds it in the interest of elites to expand impersonal exchange within the elite and institutionalize open elite access to organizations, effectively creating open access for elites. We call the conditions that may evolve in a natural state that enable impersonal relationships among elites the doorstep conditions. The doorstep conditions represent institutional and organizational support for increased impersonal exchange, as well as institutions consistent with the logic of the natural state that can be used in the transition to support open access orders.

According to NWW, the three doorstep conditions are: 1) rule of law for elites; 2) perpetually lived forms of public and private elite organizations, including the state itself; and 3) consolidated political control of the military.

As I see it, R2P advances none of these doorstep conditions. It does not create any new or expand any existing “perpetually lived” organizations, depending instead on existing (exclusive) organizations for decisions about enforcement. It does not consolidate political control of a non-existent international military force. Last and maybe most important, it tries to advance rule of international law, but it does so by appeal to an organization whose decision-making procedures are premised on elite bargaining and exceptionalism.

In short, I think R2P is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt to advance the liberal cause in the international system. Because it fails to advance any of the doorstep conditions identified by North, Wallis, and Weingast, I think it ends up reflecting rather than transforming the conflicted nature of the contemporary international order. Transformation will only happen when the most powerful states agree to subject themselves to equal scrutiny and sanction, and I see few signs of that happening any time soon.

Now, the background reading:

  • You can find excellent background information on R2P on the web site of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP).
  • Slaughter kicked off the recent debate I describe with this entry in her new blog for The Atlantic.
  • That post prompted ripostes from Dan Trombly (here, here, and here) and Joshua Foust (here).
  • For The Dish, Zach Beauchamp weighed in on Slaughter’s side (here).
  • Most recently, Slaughter responded with the post from which the quote above was taken (here).
  • Also worth reading is this article by Cristina Badescu and Thomas Weiss from the November 2010 issue of International Studies Perspectives, in which they discuss how fights over the application of R2P can help advance the norm by clarifying its scope and process.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

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Conflict prevention and early warnings: closing the gap through communications?

The catastrophes of Rwanda and Bosnia led to a debate in the 1990s about the warning-response gap. Conflict prevention and early warning systems did not seem up to scratch. Third parties intervened too late, if at all. Spending was skewed towards mitigating the effects of conflicts, not on stopping them happen in the first place. The spread of satellite television brought conflicts into more immediate public vision. It was feared this created a CNN effect whereby policymakers were forced into military intervention for humanitarian causes to satisfy a more globally-aware public opinion. But this meant only those conflicts caught on camera would be responded to. The overall picture was a mess, it was argued. International relations lacked an effective system of warning-response.

A new study has cast doubt on these assumptions. This opens a space for a more analytical approach to how media, NGOs and intelligence agencies provide warnings and how states and international organisations can decide to respond. The Foresight project has spent three years analysing under what circumstances warnings are noticed, prioritised, and acted upon.  The team, led by Christoph Meyer, has looked at a series of case studies offering various degrees of warning and response, including Estonia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Darfur, and Georgia. They have interviewed responders from the UK, US, Germany, the UN, EU and OSCE and analysed media and NGO reporting around these conflicts. In short, they’ve done a lot of the empirical work that was missing from the 1990s debate. What have they found?

First, Rwanda could not have been prevented. Valid warnings only emerged when conflict was escalating, not pre-escalation. Those who suggest a lack of political will or ignorance on the part of decision-makers have misinterpreted the warning data available at the time. Second, those providing warnings anticipate what responders want to hear, and provide them with that. Decision-makers hate surprising warnings which don’t fit their mental models of how the world works. They are overloaded with situations they’re already dealing with and favour responding to emerging conflicts that look like ones they’ve dealt with before. Third, decision-makers are as likely to respond to warnings from preferred journalists or NGOs rather than intelligence from their own state agencies. They trust lone, grizzled hacks or aid agencies they might be funding. Fourth and finally, for all the usual factors of resource-availability, credibility of warning sources and so on, military and aid responses are often a matter of context and chance, neither of which social scientists handle particularly well. 
At a discussion of the findings yesterday, Piers Robinson, author of The CNN Effect, made the point that journalists cannot be relied on to provide early warnings in the future. The study indicates it is too dangerous, insurance is too expensive, and they are driven by news cycles in which what is happening trumps what might happen. Robinson also suggested that the Foresight project misses the systematic relation media and NGOs have to political power. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all point to the fact that journalists only question a war when leading politicians have already expressed dissent. Journalists don’t lead, they follow. While the former BBC journalist Martin Bell might argue for a ‘journalism of attachment’ that ‘cares as well as knows’, mainstream media organisations do not employ journalists to undertake moral crusades to warn states that if they don’t act in Rwanda, Georgia or wherever, there’ll be trouble.
Will citizen journalism and data mining of social media conversations around the world lead to improved warnings? This is the question decision-makers have been asking recently.  They want to know how to integrate warning data from journalists, social media, NGOs and intelligence channels. In theory, the warning-response gap should shrink to zero.  The time between an event and the state knowing about it promises to disappear with the right technology and tools to mine Big Data. But decision-makers are often of an age or disposition not even to understand Facebook and Twitter: there is a generational anxiety they are missing out on something and the kids have all the answers, and a cultural faith that free information will lead to the best outcomes. No discussion can develop until someone has mentioned ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘if only we had known’. But anyone who has done social media monitoring knows it requires a lot of qualitative know-how and interpretive work to get any sensible findings.

And as the Foresight study shows, decision-makers will still pick up the New York Times or turn on the BBC and trust their favourite reporter, even though those reporters might no longer be able to go to the countries they’re reporting on. Hence, for all the promise of communication technology, foreign policy is still about the human factor and cognitive biases.  Understanding the warning-response gap in the next decade will involve some careful unpicking of the interplay over time of stressed, confused people in media, humanitarian and government agencies.


[Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/

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