In Defense of Consequentialism: A Response to Shadi Hamid

19 Apr

Two weeks ago, Shadi Hamid made the case in Vox that the US’ intervention in Libya was in fact a success (it’s worth a read in full). The blame for the current crisis lies largely, in Hamid’s eyes, on post-intervention decisions made by the US. My intention here is not to challenge Hamid’s Libya-specific arguments, as I do not claim myself to be an expert on Libya and I’m more interested in his broader claims about US foreign policy. Those claims specifically are mostly tied to his criticism of what he calls “consequentialism”, or the tracing back of all subsequent events to an initial intervention by an outside actor.

My difference of opinion is fundamental: I believe most US foreign policy to be short-sighted, and consequentialism, or the weighing of long-term ramifications against the initial intended effect of a particularly intervention to represent the ideal method of policymaking. Policies cannot solely be judged on intention, due to the frequency with which good intentions produce negative outcomes, nor can they be judged solely on initial effects due to the long-running causal chains produced by order-altering things like military interventions. However, Hamid is right that it is impossible to foresee some ramifications (even if we can see general correlations) of foreign policy, but he doesn’t apply that standard of doubt consistently across his analysis.

Early in the essay, Hamid makes the point that to evaluate the Libyan intervention, it is necessary to compare the current situation with the counterfactual: what would Libya look like if the US hadn’t intervened. In general, the assertion is correct, but the practice of counterfactuals is tricky. Hamid’s analysis of where the Libyan conflict was at when the US intervened is enlightening, but his conclusion that Libya would likely look like Syria today had the US not intervened is highly questionable. Political prediction, especially on rare events like mass atrocities or civil wars, is really, really hard. And when you consider all the differences between Libya and Syria (total population, population density, salience of sectarian divides, regime configuration, military capability of opposition, etc.) along with all contingencies that could have occurred in the past four years, it is impossible to say with any certainty that Libya would bear a resemblance to Syria. Syria is merely a convenient standard of comparison because it’s an ongoing civil war in the Middle East, but saying Libya would be Syria doesn’t actually tell us that much about Libya or the effects of intervention. It’s not that the intervention can’t be justified with counterfactuals, but they need to be more carefully constructed.

The central thrust of Hamid’s essay is to deride what he calls consequentialism, or evaluating the efficacy of foreign policy based on events years after the initial intervention in the target location. For Hamid, such an approach is particularly problematic because it a policy cannot be retroactively deemed a mistake if the limited goal of the intervention is achieved initially. Therefore consequentialism creates an impossibly high bar for foreign policy decisions: unless a foreign policy results in a peaceful, liberal democracy, than it’s a failure. This is, however, a major straw man. Certainly there are some critics that would deem the Libyan intervention a failure based on this standard, but Hamid lumps in those with reasonable concerns that a civil war (likely to continue for many years based on what we know about civil wars and foreign intervention) at least partially produced by the NATO intervention will have more negative long-term effects on Libyans than Gaddafi’s intended repression. Worrying about consequences does not preclude making foreign policy decisions. Recognizing that every decision has potential positive and negative effects is no more than an accurate framework for analyzing policy.

There are an additional two problems with Hamid’s argument here. First, the dismissal of consequentialism is one of the central dynamics that leads Western policymakers to struggle with conflict prevention. Short-term thinking produces short-term solutions. Policymakers become trapped in a vicious circle of continual crises that overwhelm them and prevent longer-term thinking that could go a long way in preventing violence. Second, Hamid’s insistence that the initial moral righteousness of an intervention negates any negative effects, is deeply problematic. As many before me have argued, focusing only on moral imperatives disincentives careful planning and allows policymakers to wash their hands of responsibility if the situation starts to go south. Evaluating military interventions isn’t personal morality, because very rarely can doing the right thing in your personal life lead to deaths of thousands of people. Afghanistan is a valid example. The United States was going after the Taliban in response to 9/11 initially, but the war has had disastrous long-term effects for the country. It would take quite a bit of chutzpah to declare it a success.

Moral arguments without strategic and humanitarian (writ large) considerations are also prone to abuse, because liberal interventionists and neoconservatives aren’t actually that far apart: both believe in the wisdom of Western democracies to improve the world through military force. Without more consequentialist standards, there’s not a clear line the prevents Iraq-like decisions. So Hamid’s own argument that Obama being right about Iraq decreases his likelihood he’ll be right about other situations is undermined by a lack of a standard that allows leaders to tell the difference between the two.

Going back to Libya, Hamid also argues that whatever you think of the initial decision to intervene, any blame attached to the US should be assigned only for a lack of follow-through post-intervention. This focus on a lack of bureaucratic focus and political will is a frequently-repeated argument wielded by liberal interventionists like Samantha Power. The problem, though, is that political will cannot simply be summoned; the extent to which it exists is the product of pre-existing ideological and bureaucratic structures. And when American interventions frequently fail due to the lack of follow-through, the conclusion that most logically follows, contra Hamid, is that the American government lacks the ability to follow-through effectively. The problem is not specific to particular leaders or administrations, but instead an endemic and systematic one. Improvements can certainly be made, but considering the cost and scale and foreign military interventions, it is far from obvious that a different president would’ve achieved a different result in Libya.

The Inescapability of Structure: Political Parties in Bolivia and Uganda

1 Mar

Over the course of the two weeks, Bolivia and Uganda both held elections. In Uganda, it was a presidential election, and in Bolivia, it was a presidential election thinly disguised as a constitutional referendum. In Uganda, the result was unsurprising. Yoweri Museveni won his fifth consecutive term as President of Uganda after a campaign of naked repression of his challengers, particularly Kizza Besigye. Bolivia, however, sprung a bit of a surprise. President Evo Morales asked voters to decide on whether Presidents could run for a third term (but in Morales’ case, it would actually be his fourth due to some creative legal interpretations). Morales has been the hegemonic force in Bolivian politics for most of the last decade, but following a scandal-filled campaign that included allegations that his mistress’ company received a multi-million dollar contract from the Bolivian government, the referendum narrowly failed. Though this means Evo will be unable to run again, his defeat reveals the utter lack of other leaders within MAS, which at the moment, is the only party capable of winning a presidential election.

How did Bolivia and Uganda arrive at this moment? Specifically, how did two political movements with leftist and officially pluralist missions come to be dominated so completely by two men? There are certainly differences between the experience of the National Resistance Movement (NRM; Uganda) and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS; Bolivia) and the political history of the two countries, but a major stepping stone to the accumulation of power around a single leader can be found in the party structures set up by the NRM and MAS. Both parties were dealing with histories of what they saw as the failure of political parties, so both endeavored to form a new form of political organization. However, their visions of new political possibilities were deeply flawed in practice, and combined with leftist ideologies that did not privilege structured dissent, the result was a largely authoritarian political system in Uganda and a largely authoritarian dominant political party in Bolivia.

The NRM came to power in 1986 following a sustained guerrilla campaign. The NRM’s ideology was heavily influenced by Marxism and its subsequent interpretations, and consequently was skeptical of a multi-party democratic system. According to Aili Tripp, “The NRM blamed parties for fostering sectarianism and perpetuating the ills of the preceding regimes; it wanted to create a political system that would undermine the power base of the older parties.” Additionally, it saw Uganda as constituting a single class of peasants, and therefore since the interests of the majority of the country were presumed to be aligned, there was no need for parties. Candidates ran for office without a party affiliation until 2005, but because the NRM continued to exist, and operate as a party in all but name, opposition candidates were unable to compete without comparable financial and organizational resources at their disposal. In short, the no-party system ensured that opposing political forces would remain disorganized, as any attempt to unify would have been illegal. By the time a party system was finally legally inaugurated, the NRM had become hegemonic. Additionally, over time, Museveni’s regime resorted to increasing levels of repression, funded by Western countries interested in the army’s counterterrorism potential, to maintain power.

Bolivia’s situation bares some similarities to Uganda, but also happened in a different political context. Despite a litany of coups throughout its histories, there was a tradition of democracy in Bolivia. Therefore, when indigenous groups, who had largely been excluded from the political process, gathered in the 1995 to create a united front, they intended to seize power through the ballot box. However, the leaders of the groups that formed MAS were deeply skeptical of political parties, and therefore pledged to form a “political instrument”. MAS, the political instrument, would run candidates for office, but not have a party structure, and the indigenous organizations that comprised MAS would retain their independence.

Ten years later, somewhat incredibly, MAS leader Evo Morales was elected to the Presidency as the first fully-indigenous president not just in Bolivia, but in all of Latin America. While this was a major victory for MAS, but soon came to look very different than most of its founders had intended. There had long been a split within MAS between groups that were organized as unions and groups that were based around allyus, an older form of indigenous social organization. Morales and his allies came from the union tradition, and because there was no structure to distribute power, he was able to slowly disassociate MAS from allyu-based groups and other dissidents. This process was accelerated in 2008, following a failed secession by the Santa Cruz province that discredited much of the country’s political opposition. Without a credible threat from the right, Morales had little reason to retain alliances with those that had a different vision of governance. Today, MAS is a party in name only. Power is concentrated in Morales and his small circle of advisors. Personal relationships with the President are far more important than official titles.

In both Uganda and Bolivia, the absence of political structure mostly did not create the forceful implementation of radical policy, as the founders of the NRM and MAS initially hoped, but the marginalization of many political opponents (though Bolivia has certainly fared better than Uganda so far). Another explanation for this outcome in Uganda and Bolivia is that Museveni and Morales have planned these developments from the beginning, and have always desired to have near-complete control. This interpretation, however, ignores both the well-developed political intentions the two men had at the beginning of their political lives and the very real issues that created a distrust of parties and party systems. Without a robust structure to institutionalize dissent and competition, it becomes easy, even seemingly prudent, for leaders wishing to create radical change to marginalize those that get in their way. Therefore, the Ugandan and Bolivian cases should throw into question political strategies that prize purity over process, and treat structure as the only barrier to the implementation of a utopian vision. These strategies are bound to both over-claim their representation of a marginalized group, and in doing so, erase the differences between members of that group. When change becomes difficult to implement, unrestrained leaders will generally decide that working with diverse groups is no longer worth the trouble.

Hillary’s Hawkishness

1 Feb

In the midst of the primary rat race, it can be easy to get bogged down by ultimately meaningless campaign proposals and detailed debates of those proposals. Most of them are unlikely to be enacted even if their creator wins the election. Moreover, the candidate elected President will serve for either four or eight years, and a lot changes in that period. Simply, there is a lot that no one can foresee. That’s why Presidential elections and primaries are mostly about selecting a vision for America. Now on the whole, American could do a lot worse than Hillary Clinton, but on foreign policy, her vision is terrifyingly hawkish. Her Presidency would likely ratchet up the War on Terror, overlook crucial diplomatic endeavors, and risk the intensification of various civil wars.

Hillary’s basic concept of how to conduct foreign policy is encapsulated in the term “smart power”, which means using diplomacy and military force in tandem to achieve objectives. While Hillary sees smart power as a revelatory doctrine, it is simply the corporate re-packaging of the basic elements of statecraft. In practice, smart power overestimates the power and suitability of military tactics. This trend can be seen throughout her career. She notoriously supported the Iraq War, pushed hard for airstrikes in Libya, and continues to support some combination of a no fly zone, bombing ISIS, and arming the opposition in Syria.

I’ll take those one by one. Iraq, was of course, a disaster in the end, and while she should get some points for admitting her mistake, it’s worth thinking about what this means for a Hillary presidency. If a major Islamic State attack did target America, would there be a third Gulf War? Is that a risk worth taking? In Libya, which she touts as a foreign policy success, she vigorously supported air strikes against the Qaddafi regime. Now some argue that without those airstrikes Libya would be another Syria, but considering the mess Libya is today and the untold number of casualties (probably numbering in the mid to high five figures), airstrikes prompting regime change cannot be a template for future strategies.

Finally, Hillary’s policy on Syria is simply egregious. A no fly zone would bring the US into direct conflict with the Syrian government, and by extension Russia. Bombing ISIS is simply a massive failure. Beyond the civilian casualties it’s causing, it has not met its stated military objectives. Even though the Pentagon has begun using the dubious metric of body counts to mark its own success, there has been no progress. Even though the campaign has allegedly killed 25,000 ISIS members, there has been no change in the overall number of ISIS fighters. In other words, the group is replacing its members as fast as the US can kill them, perhaps due to the propaganda value of the US bombing a caliphate. Then there’s arming the rebels, which she supports despite an incredibly expensive program that only trained a handful of fighters. Arming Syrian rebels rests on two assumptions: 1) the United States has the capacity to identify and train moderate rebels and 2) these rebels will follow American plans. As for the first part, it seems fairly obvious that is not the case, while for the second, US-trained rebels giving equipment to Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate is pretty damning evidence to the contrary.

Hillary’s support of arming Syrian rebels is a fairly accurate portrayal of the problems with her worldview. She sees the United States as a power with the capacity to successfully intervene militarily in foreign wars. If there is one lesson of the War on Terror, it’s that American military power is not particularly good at engaging with violent non-state actors or eliminating terrorism. When the overwhelming evidence suggests that foreign intervention in civil wars lengthens and intensifies them, believing that using even the world’s most powerful military to fight the good fight is, to turn a phrase around on her, naive.

A few months ago, I read Anand Gopal’s immensely powerful book No Good Men Among the Living, which chronicles the effects of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The most arresting point he makes is that, two weeks into the war, the Taliban was essentially defeated. Its leaders had fled to Pakistan and its foot soldiers had returned to their villages. America, however, was not satisfied that those that aided the 9/11 hijackers could be beaten so easily, so they continued their search for the Taliban. Local warlords took advantage of the Americans’ willing violence to settle scores with local rivals. It was only after the US allied itself with brutal warlords and committed appalling violence against innocent Afghans did a renewed Taliban insurgency begin. Now, if Hillary were President during a military intervention in which it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe, is there anything about her record or worldview the indicates that she would not make the same mistakes as George Bush? That she would privilege the political dynamics of the situation on the ground over the political incentives to kill “terrorists”? I do not believe so.

The US, and the world, is in desperate need of a better foreign policy that privileges diplomacy and non-military options. Now up to this point, Bernie Sanders has largely shied away from talking foreign policy, but he has some promising positions. He supports normalizing relations with Iran and encouraging rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and (our appalling ally) Saudi Arabia, which would address tensions that are tearing apart the Middle East. He has also voiced concern over US-sponsored regime change and intervention in general. He still supports drone strikes and a military-centric approach to counterterrorism, but there’s almost no politician out there with reasonable views on the subject (why I was briefly Feeling the Chafe). At least with Bernie, there’s the possibility that the United States will pursue a foreign policy that values diplomacy and aid over military strategies that stoke costly wars. It’s not about being an expert, but having the sense to avoid the most harmful policies.

2016 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

25 Jan

In Friday’s post, I evaluated my predictions for 2015. In sum, I improved a bit on 2014, but still had some shortcomings.

I define a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group in a calendar year. My predictions are not designed to highlight cases where a new case is likely to start, but simply where I think a combatant group will intentionally kill 1,000 civilians.

  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Nigeria (90%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Yemen (50%)
  • Sudan (40%)
  • Cameroon (40%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Pakistan (25%)
  • Burundi (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Central African Republic (20%)
  • Libya (10%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Somalia (10%)
  • Zimbabwe (10%)
  • Ukraine (5%)
  • Lebanon (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Uganda (5%)
  • Venezuela (2%)
  • Republic of the Congo (2%)

The top 5 are all fairly obvious. Yemen, after its deadly 2015, jumps up to 50%. Cameroon too doubles in risk, partially due to some indications that Boko Haram may have killed more than 1,000 civilians last year, but also because the Nigerian offensive against the group is likely to push it into Cameroon.

Burundi is a major climber in the list following a lengthy political struggle. I’ve been fairly optimistic about Burundi over the last year, however the beginning of armed attacks by the opposition bodes very poorly. However, it’s still far from clear opposition forces have the ability to launch a sustained insurgency, which from my reading of the situation, is probably necessary to provoke the government to committing a mass atrocity in response. Any unrest in Burundi may spill over into the DRC or Rwanda. Both countries are also facing the build-up to national elections, and while Kagame maintains a much tighter grip than Kabila, a collapse would be much more deadly in Rwanda than the DRC, even if it is considerably less likely in the short-term.

Israel seems to assault Gaza about every other year, and while one may not happen this year or lead to a mass atrocity, the probability is still reasonably high. In the Central African Republic, the situation is certainly better than in 2013, but sectarian violence in September demonstrates that the risk is not gone.

Despite ongoing armed conflict, I see the risk of a mass atrocity in Ukraine and Burma as fairly low. Eastern Ukraine’s conflict is petering out, but Russia certainly has the capability to re-ignite it. Still, the conflict has not shown signs of either side intentionally targeting large numbers of civilians. In Burma, low-level violence will likely continue, but it seems unlikely any counterinsurgency will become much more violent. As for the Rohingya, the awful discrimination will continue, but without government support, a mass atrocity is unlikely, and I don’t see the new government committing one.

I added three new countries to this year’s list: Uganda, Venezuela, and the Republic of the Congo. Uganda gets the nod due to next month’s Presidential elections, which are likely to produce significant repression, if not mass violence. Still, Museveni’s electoral victory is not absolutely guaranteed, and any sign he’s losing will likely prompt a vicious reaction from his allies in the security forces. Venezuela is in the throes of a political crisis and Maduro’s government is increasingly erratic, making the chances of a mass atrocity possible if still very unlikely. Finally, like many other countries in Africa, the Republic of the Congo is in the midst of a term-extension crisis, and opposition to the extension of Sassou-Nguesso’s rule could spark a backlash.

How’d I Do on My 2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts?

22 Jan

For the third year running, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2015 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by a discrete group in a calendar year) last January. Here’s what I predicted. I’ve put “YES” next to places that did experience atrocities and “NO” next to the countries that didn’t. For the countries where I’m not willing to hazard a guess based on insufficient data, I’ve put a “?”.

  • Nigeria (95%) YES
  • Iraq (95%) YES
  • Syria (95%) YES
  • Pakistan (75%) NO
  • Afghanistan (70%) YES
  • South Sudan (70%) YES
  • Sudan (65%) NO
  • Mexico (55%) ?
  • CAR (50%) NO
  • North Korea (50%) ?
  • Somalia (30%) NO
  • DRC (30%) NO
  • Libya (25%) NO
  • Gaza (25%) NO
  • Cameroon (20%) NO
  • Ukraine (10%) NO
  • Rwanda (10%) NO
  • Lebanon (10%) NO
  • Burundi (5%) NO
  • Yemen (5%) YES
  • Chad (5%) NO
  • Guinea (5%) NO
  • Kenya (5%) NO
  • Ethiopia (5%) NO
  • Burma (5%) NO
  • Eritrea (5%) NO
  • Zimbabwe (5%) NO
  • Mali (5%) NO

Going forward, if you’re interested in looking at the numbers or the analysis, then read the whole thing. If you’re just interested in basic conclusions, read only the MAIN TAKEAWAY portions.

One method to figure out how successful I was is to see each case for which I put forward a prediction as containing 100 points. If an atrocity happened, I get the percentage I predicted that an atrocity would happened, and if no atrocity happened, then I get the result of that percentage subtracted from 100. For example, I’ll get 95 points for Burundi but only 5 for Yemen.

Using this method, I get 2035 out of a possible 2600 (this excludes Mexico and North Korea for which I couldn’t make a judgement.) Initially that sounds pretty good, coming in at 78% accuracy, while in 2014 I was 68% accurate. However, my numbers are of course padded by the high probability countries and the low probability countries. If I only look at countries between 90%-10%, I’m 68% accurate, whereas if you look between 80%-20%, I’m only 62% accurate. Regardless, I still improved on my 2014 forecasting, where for between 80%-20%, I was 47% accurate. This bears out something I highlighted last year: it’s really easy to predict the high and low risk countries, but it’s the ones in the middle that are difficult. MAIN TAKEAWAY: I’m getting better at forecasting, and while my level of forecasting does have some value, it still lacks the sort of predictive ability that I would like or would be obviously useful for policymakers.

Another thing I looked at last year was whether I was too optimistic or pessimistic about whether atrocities would occur. I’m interested in this because of the forecasting bias that makes people more likely to over-predict the likelihood of rare events and under-predict the likelihood of frequent events. Mass atrocities, of course, are extremely rare events. To do this, I’ll see about how many atrocities should have happened by adding up the percentage points I predicted. For example, in two cases, if I predicted a 95% likelihood in one and 5% likelihood in another, then out of the two, I predict one will happened (now I understand statistically this probably isn’t technically correct, but it’s close enough).

MAIN TAKEAWAY: If I do all that, I come up with a predicted atrocity total of 8.25, while there were 6 actual atrocities. So I over-predicted the likelihood of atrocities worldwide, but not terribly. I considerably under-predicted in 2014.

Before I conclude a few notes on several countries and measuring techniques. First, and perhaps most importantly, is how I determined whether a mass atrocity occurred. For many, like Syria or Zimbabwe, it was a no-brainer. For the ones I had any doubt about, I scoured the internet for figures, made some judgment calls when the figures weren’t clear or comprehensive, and then used my knowledge of the situation to determine whether the deaths were intentional. In short, my judgments are far from perfect, but so is the data. For some cases, there were UN or other reports with credible casualty figures, but I largely relied on ACLED. The problem with ACLED is it counts deaths conservatively, which means, for example, it lists the Janjaweed as only having killed about 4,000 civilians over the last 13 years in Darfur. One of the question marks I had, especially concerning the ACLED data was over Cameroon. ACLED listed 345 Cameroonian civilians killed by Boko Haram in 2015. That number seemed too low, especially considering there were reports more than 500 died in Fotokol alone. However, data from the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research put the number at 422, while the Center for Complex Operations’ Hilary Matfess said that 1,200 people total had been killed in the conflict, but that included combatants. With that information at hand, I made the call to mark it a no.

For the second year running, I’ve been unable to determine whether a mass killing occurred in North Korea and Mexico. The Early Warning Project determines an ongoing mass killing perpetrated by North Korea against political opponents, but the information wall means I have no way to determine whether 1,000 died this year. As for Mexico, it’s too hard to know who counts as a civilian and whether any single cartel killed over 1,000.

Clearly, my biggest failing for this list was Yemen. I didn’t foresee the rapid advance of the Houthis and the resulting Saudi intervention that has resulted in thousands of deaths. Definitely a country to watch in 2016. On the other side of the spectrum, Sudan looks like a failure on my part because no atrocity occurred despite a 65% predicted probability. However I should note it’s quite hard to figure out exactly how many civilians government forces killed across Sudan. I couldn’t find enough evidence to determine with enough confidence that more than 1,000 people died across Sudan, but regardless, there was significant violence. In Pakistan, I also considerably overestimated the ability of jihadist groups to launch attacks in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre.

My forecasts for next year will go up Monday (assuming DC has not experienced the snowpocalypse).

The Left and Policing in Burns, Oregon

6 Jan

The takeover of federal property at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon is a most unwelcome development. Personally, I think violent protest is tactically and morally problematic, but I’m less worried about a couple dozen angry white men who think America’s ripe for a conservative revolution than the ramifications of the response, particularly on the Left. I say this because America has been down this road before, with horrific and far-reaching consequences.

There’s a lot of history that’s relevant to this incident, but from what I’ve read, the story largely begins in Waco, Texas in 1993. The Branch Davidians, a fundamentalist religious group, began a standoff with federal agents after refusing to allow them to serve a search warrant. After an initial attack was fatally repulsed, the FBI launched a second assault that started a fire and killed 76 people, including many children.

Considering the massive death toll, Waco should’ve been an example of the dangers of militarized policing, but in fact the exact opposite happened. Fear, that was not totally unfounded, of far-right domestic terrorism prompted tougher terrorism laws and an increase in the adoption of military tactics and equipment by police forces (which is excellently and extensively detailed in Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop). The perpetrators of attacks like Oklahoma City were white reactionaries, and in response, the most strident supporters of tougher anti-terrorism forces, like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), were liberals. Joe Biden, for example, was a major proponent of increased police militarization. However, the effects of policies originally designed to target conservative extremists were mainly felt in low-income, minority communities in the middle of the Drug War. Because terrorism is rare and drug raids are not, police and other federal agencies with an armed component mostly utilized the anti-terrorism tactics and equipment on drug raids and in everyday policing. It wouldn’t be a stretch to tie what happened in Ferguson to laws and government programs pushed through by Democrats in the 1990’s.

The current episode in Oregon is largely a result of anti-terrorism politics in the mid-90’s, though relations between ranchers and the government in Western states has also played a role. The federal government owns vast tracts of land in rural areas of the West, but allows ranchers to graze their herds on much of this land for a small fee. The Hammonds, the father and son duo at the center of Ammon Bundy’s protest movement, are one such pair of ranchers, who fell foul of the law after setting fires on their property, which then spread to federal land, for what they claim were legitimate reasons. Now federal prosecutors disagree, but regardless, the fires did not injure anyone. However, a law passed in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, mandates five-year minimum prison terms for those that cause fires on federal land. There are two major problems here. First, lighting fires on one’s own land, for potentially legitimate reasons such as fighting invasive species, is being dealt with by an anti-terrorist law. That’s absurd. It’s quite a testament to the growth of the national security state, and also legitimates a reactionary narrative that decries federal tyranny. Second, the mandatory minimums in this case are too harsh. Mandatory minimums as a concept, of course, was championed by liberals in the 70’s and 80’s as a way to prevent racial bias in sentencing, but have instead produced mass incarceration. Armed protest may be the wrong way to demonstrate displeasure, but when Ammon Bundy says that federal government is treating the Hammonds unjustly, he’s right.

As this situation progresses, I think those on the Left need to be especially careful with how they frame recommended responses. There is no option worse than an armed crackdown (though fortunately this outcome seems unlikely). It would likely create more support for Bundy’s reactionary fringe and lead to the loss of significant life. I think few Leftists truly hope for a crackdown (though they do exist), but some comparisons between how the government is currently acting and how it would act if the occupiers were not white make me uncomfortable (for reasons Jamelle Bouie powerfully explains). There is no disputing this truth, and there is also real value in identifying the double standard. However, it is a moral and political imperative to support a better status quo rather than calling for a lowest-common-denominator approach. There is certainly a leftist argument to be made against state violence here, but more importantly, laws that allow for more state violence will ultimately unleash it primarily on those who have the least privilege and influence. Measures aimed at violently suppressing white extremism will be used more forcefully on Muslims and the extra equipment given to police forces will be unleashed against racial minorities in the Drug War. The real power to inflict harm lies not in the hands of Bundy’s few dozen men, but in government agents tasked with responding to terrorism long after the current occupation ends. Therefore, those on the Left must be more consistent in their convictions on responding to violent extremism.

A final note on how we can understand the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as they’re calling themselves: There’s been some dissonance between how those on the Left are characterizing these men and the best methods I know for evaluating violent groups. To generalize, many on the Left see Bundy’s men as violent terrorists driven by a sense of white privilege, or even a perfect example of American white supremacy. I think that’s the wrong approach. First of all, they can hardly be classified as terrorists, a word that has the remarkable ability to stifle critical thought. They have not committed any violence against civilians, or even threatened it. They have, however, indicated a willingness to violently confront the government, and therefore they can be classified as rebels or insurgents. But more than that, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom should be taken seriously as political actors with complicated ideologies, even if we find those ideologies abhorrent. For example, seeing them merely as a manifestation of white privilege misses how the historical relationship between Mormons and the government plays a role or the origins of the struggle in federal land management. Digging deeper into this conflict not only presents a more accurate picture of who the insurgents are, but also highlights some problematic political dynamics. Now accepting that right-wing insurgents occupying federal land have legitimate grievances might be uncomfortable, but it can only lead to better politics.

Three Thoughts on the Paris Attacks and Their Aftermath

17 Nov

On Mourning

I think it’s fair to say the Paris Attacks have initiated an unprecedented wave of public displays of grief on my Facebook and Twitter networks. While many have gone out of their way to express their solidarity with those killed in Paris, others have made sure to express their sympathy for victims of the Sinai plane crash and the Beirut bombing. Yet others have lashed out at those mourning these attacks for caring disproportionately about Western victims (with some posting the BBC article about the April Garissa attack that left 147 dead), and otherwise ignoring violence perpetrated in the non-Western world, sometimes by Western forces.

There is merit in each of these arguments, but they all neglect a basic principle of following mass violence: people are killed by political violence all over the world all the time, and it is impossible to mourn for each and every victim. Attempting to do so would be extremely emotionally destructive. Mourning, therefore, is a personal act, and we should be wary of mourning when it becomes competitive. For many people I know, the Paris Attacks feel closer to home. And that’s not a surprise. Few people I know are more likely to find themselves in northern Kenya or Beirut than Paris.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t think about what violence prompts Western attention and what slips under the radar. We can both mourn Paris and think critically about how political violence overwhelmingly affects non-Western victims. Because we have a finite ability to mourn, I think there’s more value in attempting to learn about what’s happening in Beirut or northern Kenya than publicly acknowledging an incident of violence happened there.

On Terrorism

It can be difficult in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack to put things in perspective. Terrorism inspires fear that opens up opportunities for extremists of all stripes and shifts the conversation to a zero-sum conception of security. It is important to recognize this phenomenon and push back. A few facts can help. The world, in the long-term, is becoming a safer place . Terrorism, including ISIS, does not pose an existential threat to any Western country. Very, very few Americans have died of terrorism since 9/11. And these trends are very likely to continue.

The biggest danger to human life comes not from terrorists attacking Western targets, but from Western leaders reacting to terrorism. Terrorists themselves have a very limited ability to conduct attacks and recruit followers. For that they must rely on Western leaders, who can be counted on to react forcefully, killing thousands of civilians in the process, and creating an atmosphere in which terrorists can claim to defend a broader community. Transnational terrorist groups cannot achieve the goals of their disciples in the long-term, but can survive, perhaps indefinitely, on the policies of leaders that are “tough on terrorism”. And yet, the proposed policies of most Republican presidential candidates would heap legitimacy on ISIS’ stated mission.

Finally, there can be a bit of dissonance between normatively condemning terrorism and seeking to understand the forces that make it possible. However, it is important to recognize that immoral acts are not beyond the realm of comprehension.  We can mourn and condemn the attacks while simultaneously recognizing the ways in which the social and economic exclusion of Muslims in Europe contributes to terrorism.

On Refugees

In the last few days, I have been ashamed to be an American and a Michigander. There are few things worse than turning away those in desperate need.

However, moral claims alone won’t convince those who truly believe admitting Syrian refugees endangers Americans. There are two good, purely strategic arguments, that I think can be effective here. First, Syrian refugees are trying to escape the very violence that ISIS (and Assad) perpetrates. ISIS implores all Muslims to come to the Caliphate and participate in its violent expansion, but in their flight, refugees have rejected this call. Second, maltreating refugees aids ISIS, which relies on a narrative that ISIS defends Muslims against a violently Islamophobic West. The more that refugees are shunned and rejected, the more young Muslims will find ISIS’ message attractive. Even in terms of pure American security, admitting refugees is the more prudent option.

I think these two arguments are good for engaging with those that hold anti-refugee views in the here and now. Nonetheless, I think there is a danger in relying solely on a zero-sum security narrative that in fact distorts the causes of violence. Many people on Facebook have been sharing a photo that indicates not one refugee has been brought up on domestic terrorism charges. But what if that ceases to be true? What if the FBI, as it so often does, entraps an impressionable teenager? I think progressives need to also articulate a moral pro-refugee argument that presents accepting refugees as simply the right thing to do, the American thing to do. The scale of the world refugee crisis is so large that arguments that can hope to drastically change the socially acceptable range of beliefs are desperately needed. Without them, Western countries will continue to debate whether to accept no refugees or a few thousand every year, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.1 million.


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