The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

*The following is a guest post by my brother Timmy Hirschel-Burns.

Development and mass atrocities both interest me, and the articles I read are mostly about these two issues.  A few months ago, I realized that I could go from an article on corn production in Kenya to political conflict in South Sudan, but a major figure would be present in both articles.  Really, this was not one person, but two; Jeffrey Sachs and John Prendergast had melded together in my mind.  While this could be written off as subconscious sloppiness with little relevance to the real world, I think there are important parallels between Sachs and Prendergast.  Development and mass atrocities have much in common, and Sachs and Prendergast are among the leading figures in their respective fields.  Although Sachs’s ‘bookworm on a mission’ persona contrasts with Prendergast’s ‘cool guy out to save the world’ image, their methods are extremely similar.  That these two similar figures both became perhaps the most publicly recognizable person in their field is not a coincidence, but rather can shed light on how we approach developing countries-African ones in particular-, what types of activism gather attention, and how the shortcomings of these two figures can be avoided.  First, I will present some of the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast, and then I will discuss their broader significance.

Moral outrage- A constant theme for Sachs and Prendergast is their moral outrage about the suffering of individuals around the world.  In The Idealist, Nina Munk describes how after seeing how AIDS victims did not receive medicine in Zambia, Sachs was so appalled he decided to dedicate himself to ending poverty.  His shock is again apparent when he visits the Millennium Village in Ruhiira, Uganda, where he spends much of the visit muttering to himself about how outrageous poverty is.  Munk describes how after speaking with a doctor, “Sachs shook his head in disbelief; he was personally offended by the situation.  ‘They can’t go on like this,’ he said.”  Prendergast also puts his moral outrage at the center of his actions.  In Not on Our Watch, co-authored by Prendergast and Don Cheadle, they describe a visit to a visit to a refugee camp for those displaced by violence in Darfur.  They write, “As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might be like to be hunted as a human being…Enough is ENOUGH.”

Westerners hold the solution- Sachs and Prendergast both frame poverty and mass atrocities, respectively, as something the West allows to happen.  Prendergast focuses on Samantha Power’s idea that we must be ‘upstanders’ to genocide rather than bystanders in The Enough Moment.  Munk also describes how in Ruhiira, Sachs reacts to what he sees by saying, “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing.”  Of course, when Prendergast and Sachs say “we,” citizens of Darfur or Uganda do not really factor in.  Rather, the “we” they see as key to stopping genocide and poverty are Western citizens and policymakers.  Their policy prescriptions almost always follow this idea.  For Prendergast, the solution tends to come through Western-led diplomacy, peacekeeping forces, or in the case of the DRC, ending the purchase of conflict minerals.  For Sachs, Western-led aid interventions are at the center of his strategy.  Their seminal projects highlight their position at the center of solving mass atrocities and poverty.  Prendergast’s Enough Project and Sachs’s The End of Poverty both hold titles that emphasize finality.  Prendergast has had enough of mass atrocities and his organization will stop them, while Sachs knows how to end poverty and will describe how in his book.

Celebrity affiliations- A major feature of both Sachs and Prendergast’s work is their collaboration with non-expert celebrities in an effort to draw popular appeal.  Bono writes the foreword to The End of Poverty, Sachs starred in the MTV documentary “The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa,” and he has worked with Tommy Hilfiger.  Prendergast co-wrote two books with Don Cheadle, co-founded The Darfur Dream Team with basketball star Tracy McGrady, and has worked closely with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Affleck.

Negative reaction to criticism- Both Prendergast and Sachs have a reputation of taking criticism very personally and having relentless faith in their ideas.  Prendergast has had high profile arguments with Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, while Sachs has long-running feuds with Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo.  While all prominent figures will have critics and public debate can be valuable and constructive, in these debates Prendergast and Sachs’s tone is often noticeably defensive and aggressive.  A memorable scene in The Idealist describes Sachs screaming at parisitologist Christian Lengeler on an airplane over their differing views on malaria control.  While they have reacted poorly to criticism, Sachs and Prendergast have also shown unwillingness to examine their ideas.  Sachs failed to have the Millennium Village Project properly evaluated (although to his credit he did give Nina Munk fantastic and seemingly uncensored access).  Prendergast has consistently pushed the idea that Dodd-Frank 1502, the legislation aimed at preventing the purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his colleague Sasha Lezhnev.

While some of these similarities are particular to Sachs and Prendergast, many can be applied to other prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.  Sachs and Prendergast are leading figures in a particular school of activism, and I think this is where the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast have the largest implications.  At the heart of the similarities between Sachs, Prendergast, and similar activists is their theory of change: they need to draw Western attention to problems in developing countries, Westerners will care more about these issues, their moral outrage will lead to more resources and money focused on the problems, and these resources and money will solve the problems.  This theory of change which is so prominent in Sachs and Prendergast also pervades Power, Kristof, Invisible Children, and a major portion of prominent activism, and I think this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about many components of this theory of change.  The inequality and brutality that is present throughout the world should bring moral outrage, and Westerners can play a meaningful and effective role in producing change in the developing world.  What this theory of change lacks, however, is humility.  It fails to consider that Western popular attention may be able to do little to help, that these activists may not be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or that their moral outrage may not be enough to solve incredibly complex problems.  Perhaps they don’t know the answer, or the answer they thought they had was wrong.  They often can’t stop to consider power, institutions, history, and local knowledge because they have had enough of genocide, poverty needs to be ended, and they need to do it right now.  We do need to stop mass atrocities and end poverty, but it will be hard, it will take a long time, and it will take more than this type of activism.

The Lesser Evil: When does it make sense to intervene on behalf of incumbents?

17 Aug

*This piece was first published in the SSR Resource Centre’s The Hub and is republished with permission from the Centre for Security Governance.

A few weeks ago, Edward H. Carpenter came out with two compelling posts (here and here) in the Duck of Minerva. In his first article, he notes that the Islamic State’s (IS) advance in Syria and Iraq is only one example of recent victories by mobile, non-state Islamic fundamentalist groups organized as networks. In his second, he argues that while the governments these insurgencies seek to topple may not meet international standards of good governance:

“No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm.”

These interventions, Carpenter writes, would combine airstrikes and ground forces comprised of government and international troops. Interventions would only occur when a conflict meets a threshold of a few pre-determined conditions, “Such a threshold would probably need to specify level and pace of conflict, presence (or lack) of diplomatic avenues of resolution, and several other measures beyond a simple casualty count.”

In response to Carpenter’s article, Rachel Strohm wrote a response piece teasing out some of the argument’s problems. Strohm uses the Rwandan Genocide as an example of a case when a state’s violent overthrow led to an improvement in the lives of its citizens. Because it is hard not to improve on a regime that kills a huge percentage of its population, there is a good argument that when a state is that brutal, seeking to crush any armed resistance will only allow the state to continue attacks on civilians.

Strohm’s point is a good one, and gets at something Carpenter’s argument seems to imply, but does not come out and say. The issue is not really with network insurgencies in general, but their relative capability to create a new stable new government. The ability of violent groups to create positive and intentional change is frequently overstated, and only in rare cases of extreme states weakness or government brutality does a rebel group’s ascent to power potentially offer a less violent future.

Determining when this is the case is difficult, but Carpenter’s own analysis of the nature of insurgent groups offers one potential avenue. He notes that they tend to be organized in networks rather than hierarchies, allowing for battlefield success. However, networks are less effective in performing governance than hierarchies because they lack the centralization and chain of command necessary to perform activities like tax collection, consistent law enforcement, and paying civil servants. As Weinstein argues, when commanders lack control over their soldiers, these soldiers are more likely to abuse civilians. Therefore, one metric for determining whether or not to support a non-state actor is their level of hierarchal organization in comparison to the state’s. In Rwanda, the state’s devolution of violent power to the Interahamwe, a non-state actor, meant it more closely resembled a network than the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels.

Following up on Strohm’s post, I see five additional implications of Carpenter’s argument that are worth fleshing out. First, Carpenter’s proposed interventions would follow the example of the French intervention in Mali, where superior airpower and ground troops were able to halt the insurgents’ advance. Carpenter hints that a similar policy would have been the right choice in Libya. However, these two countries share two characteristics that most others lack. Libya and Mali contain huge swathes of desert between cities and a correspondingly low population density. Rebels wishing to overthrow the state must traverse these areas, and in the process, become easy targets for a competent air force.

In many other countries this isn’t the case. In Syria, which Carpenter also mentions, putting down the rebels early would have required significant numbers of international ground troops due to western Syria’s population density. Assad has already tried, and failed, to crush the rebellion with superior airpower. While there is a good argument that Carpenter’s template approach would work against IS, there are many other insurgencies around the world where it would not.

Second, Carpenter doesn’t fully account for the possibility of failed interventions, which could happen in several ways. Had an international coalition attempted to intervene in Syria for example, its probable failure to crush rebel forces would have likely entrenched the conflict even more rapidly. Additionally, even if responses are pre-planned in the way Carpenter envisions, they may suffer from poor coordination, or a lack of financial and human resources. If the intervention fails to crush the rebels quickly, they may end up prolonging the conflict and supporting an abusive government.

Third, a norm that provides for consistent international military support of incumbents would provide abusive regimes with perverse incentives. Leaders wishing to crush a rival or gain domestic support could provoke a violent confrontation with opponents, leading to an international intervention in the incumbent’s favor. For states like Sudan that chronically make war against internal opponents, consistent international support for incumbents against military challengers could encourage persistent aggressive behavior.

Fourth, Carpenter perhaps underestimates the enormity of the normative shift that he prescribes. Widespread international armed support for incumbent regimes would effectively de-legitimize armed resistance as a way to force concessions or overthrow oppressive authorities. Subsequently, it would bring states closer together by putting each one, regardless of its behavior, on equal footing. While decreasing the overall legitimacy of armed challenges to states would likely be a positive development, the few potential exceptions outlined above stand out clearly. It would also be very difficult to convince powerful states to work together to defeat all armed insurgents. Powerful states are not the ones that tend to face armed challengers, while various non-state armed groups often further their interests. Therefore, it is highly unlikely the norm would be enforced consistently, even if this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Finally, the de-legitimization of armed struggle that would occur through Carpenter’s proposal would mean a likely increase in the number of nonviolent insurrections against incumbents. As Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth have shown, nonviolent campaigns that overthrow the government lead to more stable and more democratic subsequent governments, so this change would be unquestionably positive.

Carpenter’s argument has its merits, and his somewhat controversial support for incumbents makes sense in some circumstances. However, before taking the proposal seriously, as I hope some policymakers will, it makes sense to give the argument a stronger theoretical background and identify exceptions. Doing so might lead to an exceptionally promising if somewhat unconventional way to think about international violence prevention.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

11 Aug

A few weeks ago, Rachel Strohm wrote two exploratory pieces on the similarities between violence and its prevention in Iraq and Chicago and Boston and Mexico, respectively. The pieces got me thinking, because comparing domestic and foreign violence is a topic I really like and one I’ve written about before (here and here), but it’s taken me awhile to sort out my thoughts. This post is a bit scattered, but if you stay with it, I promise I have a point at the end.


Replicable violence prevention programs

I just finished David Kennedy‘s Don’t Shoot, which details the author’s experiences over many years of working to prevent inner-city gun violence. In the book, Kennedy argues that gun violence in inner-cities is really all about gangs. To stop homicides, you make it clear to gangs that if they kill anyone, law enforcement will come down with everything they got. The first gang that does kill anyone then gets decimated by raids and tough prosecution. Gangs then get the message that while they can continue operating, they absolutely cannot use murder to achieve their aims.

Kennedy was one of the major players in Operation Ceasefire, which was enormously effective in reducing gun homicides in Boston in the 90’s, and Strohm cites Ceasefire via this Dan Snyder piece that recommends a similar approach against Mexican cartels. At the end of Strohm’s piece, she asks whether Ceasefire-style tactics might work against rebel groups. In Mexico, there is an argument for Ceasefire-style tactics, but there are also reasons that we could expect it to be much less effective. Ceasefire relies on the issuing of credible threats by law enforcement, and since cartels frequently possess superior firepower than the Mexican state, delivering enforcement promises may be difficult. Additionally, Ceasefire relied heavily on changing social norms within cities’ tight-knit gang networks, but it’s unclear to me after reading Kennedy’s book if a similar approach could work in Mexico, where cartels are spread over vast areas.

For rebel groups in general, I don’t see how Ceasefire-style tactics could be effective. The government would have to have the ability to militarily combat the rebel group without engendering resistance through excessive brutality. Perhaps, focusing on the most violent actors within a rebel group could send a message to other members, but finding the right balance of force and restraint would be very challenging for states lacking the relative unity, force, and intelligence-gathering apparatuses of America’s police departments.


Perceptions of the transformative power of violence

Strohm’s post on Iraq and Chicago, which I haven’t really mentioned yet, ponders leaders’ perception of the ability of American violence to change societies, illuminating a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, many prominent American pundits continue to promote the idea that Iraq can be/could have been fundamentally altered through US military might (despite all evidence to the contrary), “What does interest me about all of this is why foreign policy hawks continue to believe that this type of transformation is possible.  I don’t just mean ‘why haven’t they read their history’ or ‘why are they so arrogant,’ but rather ‘through which causal mechanisms do they believe that American money and troops can overcome sectarian divides, build a strong state and prevent violent rebellion?'” On the other, there is a consensus that the violence on Chicago’s South Side is natural, impervious to outside intervention. These dual approaches represent a paradox. Strohm again, “The place where the US government should in principle have the most policy leverage is where violence is depicted as uncontrollable, while the place where US leverage is limited by Iraqi sovereignty and, oh yes, the fact of being an invading force, is where American policy is expected to be most transformative.”

Without any specialist knowledge, it seems likely to me that a belief in the military abroad but not the police at home stems from cognitive biases. The more familiar we are with a situation, the more likely we are to understand why it exists and expect it to continue in perpetuity. However, the less familiar we are with a country’s history, the more likely we are to see any action our side takes as decisive, because we don’t understand the other important players.

Out of Iraq, Mexico, and Chicago, the latter would seem the place most likely for an armed intervention to positively shape the situation. However, Chicago’s homicide rate remains startlingly high. Surely, as Kennedy argues persuasively in Don’t Shoot, there is nothing inherent about certain cities that make violence high. While set in the general context of urban poverty, it is relatively flexible gang networks that determine the murder rate.


The problems of our own institutions

While Kennedy’s stories certainly gave me hope that there is a realistic way to combat inner-city gun violence (which could certainly teach us more lessons about violence prevention in general than the few I sketched out above), the often optimistic tone of the book is undercut by some serious and repeated failures. The original Operation Ceasefire, for example, fell apart due to the crumbling of the inter-agency cooperation required to do Ceasefire effectively. Consequently, gun homicides shot up again in Boston. Boston is not alone in failing to maintain a Ceasefire-style program. In my reading, Kennedy doesn’t fully acknowledge the systematic nature of the initiatives’ failings. Many of the Ceasefire-style programs were held together by exceptional amounts of interpersonal work that left Kennedy exhausted. Kennedy is adamant that these types of initiatives can work anywhere in America, but he doesn’t propose a strategy other than relentless mediation that can sustain the necessary cooperation.

Without denying the many successes of programs Kennedy participated in across the United States, his book also reads like a case study on the frequent dysfunction of American governmental institutions. It only gets mentioned once in the book, but nothing I’ve ever come across gets at this issue quite as well as The Wire. The show, while generous to its characters, is incredibly cynical about the possibilities for progressive change in America’s inner-cities. In season three, good-guy cop Colvin proposes his Hamsterdam plan to essentially legalize drug-dealing in a small area of Baltimore to stop the police wasting time and putting themselves in danger on low-level busts. The plan isn’t Ceasefire, but shares some similarities. The plan fails when the news reaches the media, forcing politicians to crack down in order to save face. Colvin’s plan was a sensible initiative that ran up against city politics institutionally incapable of supporting good drug policy.

Ceasefire suffers from some of the same vulnerabilities. It requires prosecutors and police to functionally crack down on some drug dealers and not others at particular times, and could feasibly be accused of containing Hamsterdam’s same fatal flaws. If politicians, cops, or prosecutors begin to doubt the program’s effectiveness, it can all fall apart. And while the Hamsterdam incident is revealing of The Wire‘s beliefs on political change, no episode is more crushing than the series finale. Without giving too much away, despite the best intentions of numerous individuals to break the negative cycle, it repeats itself, this time with new protagonists. For The Wire‘s creators, inner-city Baltimore is a machine that unceasingly produces poverty, corruption, and violence. Those wishing to change the cycle, including those coming from the outside, are quickly sucked in and co-opted by the machine. Fittingly, in the end of his Baltimore chapter, after suffering rampant in-fighting and ultimate failure in the city, Kennedy writes, “I don’t know how to control the good guys.”

This leads me to an important, if obvious point. Whether it be in Chicago or Iraq, the challenge of stopping violence is about both the intervener’s institutions and the difficulties presented by the target society. In Iraq, the problems presented by Iraqi society would have made it very difficult for any intervening force to make a difference, but American institutions also failed to create the internal conditions most conducive to making change. The same lesson holds true in Mexico. The cartel’s tactical superiority makes enforcement difficult, but the thorough corruption of the Mexican state makes even attempting enforcement challenging. In Chicago however, one could make a reasonable argument it is entirely about the intervener’s institutions. If what Kennedy proposes is true (and I’m strongly inclined to believe it is), then a fairly simple plan could drastically reduce gun violence in Chicago. Because that plan exists and is fairly well-known among US law enforcement, it is these formal institutions, as compared to the informal institutions of Chicago’s gangs, that carry the culpability for astronomical homicide rates. Now, obviously Chicago law enforcement is not the root cause of gun violence in Chicago. But if we’re talking in terms of making change, the breakdown is occurring with the intervener’s capacity to implement and carry-out a plan, rather than the target society’s pushback (even if the two are connected at some level).

When originally conceiving this post, I had thought about heavily citing James Scott’s theories on the limits of transformative state power. However, I realized Scott and Kennedy are coming at the same problem from different directions. For Scott, the inherent complexity of society makes it impossible for the state to control many things about society. For Kennedy, eliminating violence is impossible, but pulling certain levers within gang networks can lead to radical change. The challenges for the intervention are internal.

Scott’s work is certainly helpful for thinking about why states, or other organizations, fail to accomplish certain goals. However, without downplaying  the importance of Scott’s, his framework is a limited one. Scott defines failure in terms of programs that are implemented and do not accomplish their goals, but doesn’t examine why certain programs with transformative goals are sometimes never implemented at all (there’s also a case that Scott erroneously sees all government failure as due to external, and not internal, problems). The institutions themselves, rather than the society they serve, may be the primarily source of failure.

To fully understand why violence prevention initiatives fails, it’s necessary to combine the Kennedy approach and the Scott approach. However, academia seems to largely be on the right. There are large bodies of work both on why societies are resistant to change, and literature like Young, Autesserre, and Ferguson on international institutions’ deficiencies.

Strohm’s post on Iraq focused on policymakers, and I think that the problems lie with this group. For example, policymakers regularly speak of a foreign policy toolbox, without examining the situation-specific effectiveness of those tools. Overcoming that barrier is just the first step, though. Policymakers and pundits, especially those recommending violence prevention plans or military interventions, should more strongly consider the possibility that “effectiveness” is a two-sided coin, requiring both effective institutions and societies conducive to deep change. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now a grudging acceptance of the latter, but I fear few take the former seriously. By seriously, I mean that it is not just that the American governmental bureaucracy has some problems, but that government bureaucracies in the 21st century state-system are unprepared to launch effective interventions to prevent or mitigate violence, at home or abroad.

What Explains Israel’s Military Tactics in Gaza?

24 Jul

Since Israel’s dismantled its few settlements in the territory, Gaza’s residents have suffered from a blockade and repeated engagements between militants and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), costing thousands of lives. The conflict originated in mid-June, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by an unknown group of Palestinians. While Hamas’ Gazan leadership almost certainly had nothing to do with the kidnappings, the Israeli government used the boys’ disappearance to launch a crackdown on Hamas, first in the West Bank, and subsequently in Gaza. In turn, Hamas responded with an increased volley of rockets directed at Israel.

Israel’s approach to the conflict in Gaza makes little strategic sense. It cannot eliminate Hamas (without a lengthy and unlikely occupation), and doing so would likely only provide an opportunity for even more radical groups to come to power. The initial stated goal was to destroy Hamas tunnels, but Egypt managed to do just that without any kinetic military action. Attacking Gaza has increased the number of rockets heading toward Israel and resulted in the deaths of 31 Israelis.  As Israel expert Brent Sasley argues, Israel’s strategic objective of creating a “quiet” Gaza is vague and likely unattainable.

If Israel does indeed lack a strategy in dealing with Gaza, then what is guiding its tactics in the current conflict? 680 Gazans have been killed by the IDF since Operation Protective Edge began. According to the UN, 74% of those have been civilians (though this is statistic reflects the death toll from a few days ago). Human Rights Watch, while being conservative in its claims, notes there is evidence that Israel likely deliberately targeted civilians. Additionally, there is evidence Israel has used anti-personnel flechette shells. In all likelihood, Israel has repeatedly and intentionally shelled civilian targets.

Hundreds of civilian deaths in a few days is a horrendous record, but it should also be noted that Israel does have the capacity to kill more. Consequently, Israel has walked a fine line between portraying itself as a protector of Gazan civilians and publicizing fairly transparent attempts to deny the category all together. What explains Israel’s seemingly schizophrenic strategy of intentionally targeting civilians (knowing these incidents will end up in local and international news) while simultaneously trumpeting its humanitarian credentials? Why kill huge numbers of civilians while also targeting Hamas? Why not just one or the other?


Factors that lead Israel to target civilians

Domestic politics: Going after Hamas has long been popular in Israel, and this current flare-up is no different. The drawn-out saga of the kidnapped teenagers was manufactured to gain public support for the Netanyahu administration, and the subsequent blaming and targeting of Hamas seems to represent a continuation of the strategy. Creating a high body count, be the victims militants or civilians, in a war against Hamas garners public approval, especially among the Israeli right.

Revenge: Some within Israeli’s government and military may genuinely believe Hamas was responsible for the kidnapped teenagers’ deaths or that they deserve to be punished for launching rockets at Israel. This desire for revenge may cloud their differentiation between Hamas militants and innocent civilians. If these officials have the ability to authorize airstrikes, then civilian targets may appear as fair game. In sum, ideology alters strategic perception.

Poor strategy: The IDF may be targeting civilians in the misguided hope this will deter future support for Hamas. While there is ample evidence that Gazan suffering at the hands of Israel increases support for Hamas, a purely militaristic vision of incentives for altering behavior may result in the counterproductive targeting of civilians. The competing role of Israeli institutions also likely plays a role here. As Brent Sasley argues in an interview, despite the rise of impressive government-sponsored research institutes, the IDF still tends to have the final say. Civilian agencies that may tend to favor more dovish approaches are losing out.

Poor intelligence: While the Israeli government would be loathe to admit it, it’s possible that the IDF consistently lacks the necessary intelligence to consistently strike locations containing Hamas members. Commanders are under pressure both from military superiors and political officials to kill militants, and therefore they frequently launch airstrikes against targets that may be of no military value to appear successful.

Malfunctioning technology: Despite lauding its “pinpoint strikes”, it’s possible Israel does not have the ability to hit the targets it intends to consistently. While I am no expert on military technology, this explanation seems unlikely considering the IDF’s ability to warn homes it is about to bombard. I have not come across a case of the IDF warning a house only for them to then miss.


Factors That Prevent Israel From Targeting Civilians

International pressure: The extremely unequal casualty rate from this conflict, combined with significant public evidence of intentional targeting of civilians, provides Israel with a significant incentive to halt deliberate attacks against civilians. Even the United States, Israel’s normally staunch ally, has quickly called for a ceasefire. Israel is already fairly isolated internationally, and it risks becoming even more so.

The remnants of strategy: Simply, removing Hamas militarily will only lead to an even more radical alternative. Prior to the conflict, Hamas was at its weakest point in recent years and its unity deal with Fatah meant it would likely play a subservient role in any future Palestinian government. While political calculation seems to have generally won out over strategical concerns in this conflict, it’s possible those within the Israeli government concerned about the conflict’s bolstering of Hamas are encouraging a lower body count.

Fear of Israeli deaths: While the Israeli government has recently shown itself to be fairly willing to escalate conflict to suit political needs, it may also fear a backlash if too many Israeli soldiers and civilians die in the conflict. Killing Gazan civilians will only increase Hamas attacks, and this presents a dilemma for Israeli politicians and military leaders.



While there are factors pulling Israeli military tactics in multiple directions, there is one element that may be doing both simultaneously. Israel’s long-term strategy for dealing with military threats has been an attempt to manage, rather than destroy, them through periodic engagement (or “mowing the grass”, itself a deeply unsettling term). This strategy emerged out of Israel’s earlier conflicts with conventional Arab armies, but Israel is now much stronger and its enemies much weaker. Mowing the grass may have made strategic sense in 1967 and 1973, but in the present day it is highly counterproductive. However, it may be nothing more than strategic inertia that causes Israel to engage in semi-regular medium-intensity conflicts. Killing a few hundred civilians is a part of mowing the grass, and if Israel’s strategic logic does not evolve, a similar conflict will erupt a few years from now.

All of these factors likely play some role in determining Israeli behavior, and I’ll leave it up to those that know more about the conflict than I do to identify the more influential ones.

How Civilians Protect Themselves Nonviolently During Mass Killings

16 Jul

*This post summarizes my undergraduate thesis.

International interventions in mass killing episodes often fail to adequately protect civilians.

The UNMISS peacekeeping operation in South Sudan is a case in point. Bureaucratic, political, and financial constraints consistently inhibit the deployment of well-staffed interventions, and often prohibit them outright.

Therefore, many civilians must survive without external assistance, but we know surprisingly little about how this occurs.

No scholar has produced a work combining empirical examples of civilian self-protection with a theory of the mechanisms that allow it to function during mass killing or even conflict more broadly. The lack of focus on civilian self-protection is symptomatic of a larger issue of how scholars envision violent conflict.

Check out the rest of the article at the Monkey Cage. You can read the entire thesis here.

The Girls That Brought Themselves Back

9 Jul

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign began with a crescendo of indignation, only to fade as those paying attention quietly accepted that the girls were probably never coming back.  Since then, good news in northeastern Nigeria has been hard to come by.  Fortunately, that changed two days ago.  U.S. media outlets began reporting that approximately sixty-seven women kidnapped by Boko Haram in mid-June escaped their captors and fled to safety over the weekend.  It seems that these are not the individuals originally kidnapped in mid-April, but the news nonetheless is a bright spot in an exceedingly bleak saga.

The recent history of online humanitarianism seems defined by a number of sponsored campaigns that find traction very briefly, punctuated by the occasional cause célèbre–sometimes sponsored, sometimes not–that lingers in the public imagination.  #BringBackOurGirls was the first landmark campaign since Kony 2012 able to permeate into political, humanitarian, celebrity, and public circles.  The campaign, though less centralized than Kony 2012, was likewise able to achieve concrete policy changes.  The US sent a team of consultants to aid the Nigerian government, while the public pressure forced the Jonathan administration to acknowledge the kidnapping had taken place and launch a search effort.  Even though, unlike most humanitarian campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls successfully altered policy, the policies themselves have had no discernible effect on status of the kidnapped women.  Additionally, the campaign risked increasing the domestic and international support for a brutal counterinsurgency strategy that has killed thousands of civilians.  #BringBackOurGirls has succeeded in providing some degree of democratic accountability where it is sorely lacking in Nigeria, but it has failed to achieve its primary objective.

Despite the international cooperation, the extensive search effort, and a willing public, the kidnapped women themselves proved the most able to ensure their own survival.  Those cast as the least powerful did the most good.  The concept is simple, really.  Those at risk of violence have both the most motivation to protect themselves and the information to make it happen.  Outside forces face political, logistical, and financial barriers to civilian protection, which even solid intelligence often cannot surmount.  This incident should give us pause about the wisdom and effectiveness of top-down humanitarian interventions, especially in politically and geographically remote areas.  It is not that outside solutions have no place in global humanitarianism; such an attitude would amount to throwing out hands up in the air.  However, we must remember that the most effective actors at pursuing civilian protection are also the likely victims of violence.  Aiding them to do what they are able to do most effectively, rather than working to save their lives from the outside and without their assistance, is usually the best we can do.

Killing in Vain: “Unstrategic” state-led mass killing during wartime

9 Jul

*This post originally appeared on the Center for Genocide Prevention’s blog.

For all the hatred, fear, and chaos they produce, mass killings are, at their heart, strategic endeavors, as Benjamin Valentino so persuasively argues in his landmark study Final Solutions. Leaders with extreme political goals only settle on mass killing when other, less costly means have been eliminated. Just because mass killing is an instrumental process, however, does not mean that it’s always successful. There are many examples of states carrying out mass killings during wartime, only to lose power through military defeat; Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda come to mind.

The correlation makes sense. Committing mass killings risks sparking international and domestic opposition, and requires massive financial and human resources that could be used to fight armed opponents. Mass killing also frequently has corrosive effects on the perpetrating organization, a point frequently made by Daniel Solomon. This presents a puzzle: why do some states carry out mass killings when they are “unstrategic,” or in other words, clearly detrimental to a war effort?

Three influences can explain this phenomenon: ideology, misperception of the effectiveness of mass killing, and intra-organizational competition. Any one of these factors can cause a state to carry out an unstrategic mass killing, but they may also all be present in a single episode.

The first factor, ideology, is really at the center of the three cases mentioned above. For these regimes, their extremist goals mean that even during wartime, certain ideological projects (such as creating an ethnically pure society) supersede military success, even when facing an existential threat. Valentino’s logic is consistent here. Mass killings are indeed instrumental process, but the specific goals of perpetrator organizations shift their perception of what actions are “strategic”.

The misperception of mass killing’s effectiveness is itself a result of two potential influences: ideology and an increased potential of military defeat/attrition (which are likely interrelated phenomena). Just as extremist ideology can shift perpetrators’ goals during war, it can also make perpetrator leaders excessively paranoid. For example, Hutu extremists before the Rwandan Genocide came to believe that all Tutsi were actively assisting the RPF, and therefore the only way to preserve Hutu life was to indiscriminately target Tutsi. Though the Genocide certainly played a role in hindering the fight against the RPF, for Hutu extremists, one front of the war could not exist without the other.

States frequently begin or enter wars believing victory will be quick and easy (the “planning fallacy”), but the reality of violent conflict is often quite different. When states face either the prospect of defeat or an extended entanglement, they often seek to quickly change their fortunes. Mass killing becomes an act of desperation. Alexander Downes writes, “Even if leaders did not previously believe in the efficacy of civilian victimization or think that they would use such a strategy, the costs of the fighting convince them that something must be done to win the war but also limit losses. Civilian victimization is a promising option on both counts.”

The third factor, intra-organizational dynamics, can be a powerful driver of unstrategic mass killing. Wendy Pearlman, writing in the compiled volume Rethinking Violence, argues applying the strategic logic of an individual to a group is empirically flawed. Instead, violent actors—in this instance, states—should be viewed as interactional organizations with complex structures and hierarchies. Decision-making power is diffused throughout the institutions, but to varying degrees depending on the organization. Consequently, in the right context, a mass killing may result because some individuals (who may not be formally recognized as leaders) see it as beneficial to their own goals, rather than the objectives of the entire organization.

Intra-organizational competition is another potential driver of unstrategic mass killings. Especially in a regime without a solidified power structure, different factions will vie for power. During wartime, these aspiring factions may see killing civilians as a low-cost method of proving themselves militarily and gaining political prominence.

A similar dynamic operates during counterinsurgencies. Selective violence, as Kalyvas writes, is unquestionably more effective, but a certain amount of intelligence is needed to carry out selective violence. To gather that intelligence, commanders must either expend significant human and financial resources or use selective violence to coerce it. If commanders are either unable or unwilling to commit to the slow and expensive process of intelligence-gathering, a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma ensues. And, lacking the ability to commit selective violence, commanders may choose mass killing to avoid appearing inactive or ineffective, even if indiscriminate violence is ultimately strategically counterproductive.

Mass killings are primarily instrumental processes directed by leaders with extreme political goals, but individual mass killings emerge through a wider range of dynamics. Mass killing is, at its core, a strategic endeavor, but ideology, misperception, and intra-organizational dynamics can detach mass killing from its military objectives.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers