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.

Yale and Mizzou: Notes on Swarthmore’s Experience with Change

14 Nov

In the last few weeks, reacting to long histories of inequality and recent incidents of egregious racism, students at Yale and Mizzou rose up. The protests at both schools called for increased administrative interference in student language and culture, with the aim of using the power of the administrations to hamper prejudiced speech and action. This recent trend, where marginalized students actively seek increased intrusion from college authorities is notable and I think merits a bit of reflection. By contrast, there’s perhaps a tendency in left-wing circles to see student activism, whenever it occurs, as the natural consequence of oppression, but that view strips agency from the activists themselves, who have to make decisions about the tactics they will use. Especially on today’s left, which lacks a unifying ideology, these choices are frequently contested. In a different time or place, the contexts at Yale and Mizzou may have led to activism that sought to largely ignore the administration.

The activists at Yale and Mizzou are dealing with a stressful and rapidly-changing situation. My goal is not to offer specific solutions or critique specific tactics. I want to echo Daniel Drezner’s recent piece about what’s happening at Yale: outside observers are likely to lack the local knowledge necessary to comprehend what’s happened. There are few places as insular as residential college campuses, and the “bubble” effect creates politics that have a highly specific and personal character. Coming to definitive conclusions with only a cursory understanding of those politics is analytically dubious. Therefore, my goal is to offer some reflections on what happened at Swarthmore since the Spring of 2013 (otherwise known as the Spring of Our Discontent), about which I published an essay this past April. Swarthmore’s experience provides the advantage of a longer view of how student demands were translated into policy, and how those policies shaped out.

At Swarthmore, unlike Yale and Mizzou, allegations the college was mishandling sexual assault cases was the precipitator. Activists called on the college to reform its internal justice mechanisms to more fairly and sensitively deal with sexual assault allegations. While the way forward for addressing sexual assault clearly necessitated administrative involvement, other campaigns adopted a similar theory of change. After repeated urinations on the door of the Intercultural Center, students pushed the administration to install a camera facing the door and increase Public Safety patrols of the area. A campus-wide referendum on the existence of the fraternities sought to gauge student opinion and appeal to the administration to act on that opinion. Finally, Mountain Justice sought to force the Board of Managers to divest the schools’ endowment from fossil fuels. In each case, there were avenues available that did not involve increased administrative oversight. However, the activist left at Swarthmore largely chose to pursue social change through the policies of the college administration.

More than two years after the Spring of Our Discontent, Swarthmore looks very different. When I was an underclassman, social life was mostly governed by social norms, and students were left to regulate themselves in the belief that this would improve the student experience and aid personal growth. Alcohol, generally a central point of administrative intrusion on college campuses, was easy to obtain for free no matter your age. Administrators were really only there to manage the college and step in when students absolutely couldn’t mitigate conflicts on their own. Over time, the college has moved away from this hands off approach. During the Spring of Our Discontent, conflicts on campus were gracing the pages of the New York Times, and while the causality is perhaps unclear, there was a noticeable drop off in the number of applications in subsequent years. Additionally, increased attention from the Department of Education meant the college perceived an increased risk of lawsuits, and to avoid making itself an easy target, Swarthmore’s administrators sought to move its practices in line with other schools.

Sometimes, this move to limit liability had positive effects. Swarthmore was forced to take sexual assault proceedings seriously, and after a major turnover in staff, has implemented much more effective, sensitive, and consistent policies. But many of these changes have been less than positive. Generally, the school was become more inclined to cut students out of decision-making processes and punish students formally for transgressions, rather than addressing them through dialogue. Perhaps the most poignant example is alcohol policy. Prior to the Spring of Our Discontent, college alcohol policy allowed students to indirectly use college money to buy alcohol, which was then served for free at all-campus parties. Consequently, students largely consumed alcohol in large groups, and those who were too inebriated were aided by designated sober students at each party. That’s all changed as concerns about liability have taken precedence over student well-being. The college now prevents any college money from going to alcohol purchases, which runs the risk of pushing drinking into unsupervised dorm rooms, where binge drinking is more likely. The most harmful effect, however, was that the only institutions capable of holding regular parties were the fraternities, and now most large parties happen there. One of the principal complaints of sexual assault activists was the prevalence of sexual assault at the fraternities. That the movement to address sexual assault led to a relative increase in the social importance of fraternities is particularly unfortunate.

What can we learn from what happened at Swarthmore? For me, the central lesson is that the combination of media attention and calls for administrative intervention will have long-term consequences, many of which seem entirely unrelated to the initial incident. Like at Swarthmore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the calls to address racism end up affecting housing policy, decision-making processes, and disciplinary proceedings at Yale and Mizzou.

From Swarthmore’s experience, it seems clear to me that the more students ask for the administration to intervene, the more they invite over-reach and weaken students’ ability to force change in the future. In short, the intrusion stays, but the power students have to direct this intrusion doesn’t. I worry that attempts by marginalized communities to increase oversight by a hierarchical authority will prove counterproductive in the long-term, because non-marginalized communities have more access to power, and will eventually be able to influence the oversight for their own ends. Especially when the target of regulation is language and culture, the cost of losing power over that regulation is facing conservative attempts to limit marginalized populations’ political expression. Now, there’s no right answer. Administrative intrusion is often needed to achieve certain social goals, but it’s worth recognizing the dangers of relying solely on administrative action.

What’s Going on in Chad?

20 Aug
Rond point de l'Armée in N'Djamena, Chad. By Ismouz.

Rond point de l’Armée in N’Djamena, Chad. By Ismouz.

Chad’s been in the news recently primarily because of Boko Haram and the subsequent ban on the Islamic face veil. In June and July, several attacks in N’Djamena and on Lake Chad islands killed around 55 people. Despite N’Djamena’s physical proximity to Boko Haram areas in Nigeria and Cameroon, these were the first major attacks in Chad by Boko Haram following Chad’s entry into the international coalition fighting the group. These attacks have happened against a political backdrop of extreme poverty, government repression, and a history of armed conflict. Among the many problems that Chad currently faces, probably none of them alone are existential threats to Deby’s regime or the harbinger of impending mass violence, but Chad faces a uniquely toxic cocktail of political, economic, and social problems.

Social Fragmentation

Chad is 45% Christian, but since independence, Christians have been largely shut out of political power. It’s not that they’re second-class citizens, as most people besides a small elite have been shut out of political power, but even Christian elites have few political prospects.

There is also discord within the Muslim community. Historically, Chadian Islam has been dominated by Sufi sects, but recently there’s been an increase in more conservative forms of Sunni Islam, partially due to increased funding from the Gulf. The government, and its allied religious leaders, has cracked down on these forms of Islam, claiming they promote violence and are anathema to Chadian tradition (some of these religious leaders are using Boko Haram attacks to settle scores with rival Salafists, who in Chad have almost always advocated peace). While Chadian imams have traditionally preached against violence, there is a danger “moderate” Muslim authorities could become complicit in a large-scale government crackdown. Additionally, these imams might come to be seen as government puppets, lose credibility, and thereby create a power vacuum that could be filled by more radical individuals.

There is a major gap, both in terms of wealth and government attention, between rural and urban areas, leading to significant discontent and frequent clashes between farmers and pastoralists. The Toubou in Chad’s far north are particularly neglected, but they are generally disorganized and it seems unlikely they’d launch a large-scale rebellion (however some analysts worry that after the defeat of jihadist forces in northern Mali, they’ll link up with the Toubou) due to a lack of capacity and the strength of Chad’s armed forces. In these areas, traditional authorities have generally kept the peace, but when they have been weakened, either by the government or other external factors, violence and crime have generally increased.

Civil society only became a force in Chad after the ascension of Idriss Deby to power in 1990. However, it’s never become a major player for a few reasons. The government associates it with the opposition and Christians, so any activity is generally seen as a direct challenge by the government, and sometimes even a Trojan Horse by Christians to gain political power. There are few forums for political activity not organized by international NGO’s. Independent media does exist, but it only reaches a small number of people, whereas government-controlled media has a mass audience. Print media is dominated by Southern Chadians, further earning the ire of the government.

International Relations

Recently, after many years of essentially being an international pariah (partially because of his close links with Gaddafi, who was also in the process of being rehabilitated at the end of his rule), Chad has reinvented itself as a key counterterrorism partner for Western countries. This shift in policy began in 2008-2009. In the last three years, Chadian troops have served in Mali (under AFISMA), CAR, and Nigeria. In Mali, Chadian forces distinguished themselves in desert warfare, and lost around 30 soldiers. Following these losses and what Deby felt was insufficient support (diplomatic and material) from the international community, Deby chose to withdraw Chad’s forces in Mali. Chad’s intervention in CAR, however, was a disaster. Chad was accused of backing Seleka, then pulled back support from Bozize late on, and Chadian troops massacred Central African civilians. However, Chad has redeemed itself in Nigeria. It has successfully cleared large areas of Boko Haram, and has been recognized as the most effective fighting force in the conflict.

The US and France are Chad’s major allies when it comes to counterterrorism. Chad is a member of the US’ Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and the US has been slowly expanding its presence in Chad. The US already runs many air operations in Central Africa out of N’Djamena (like assisting in the search for the Chibok girls), but is quietly moving toward establishing a more permanent base. Though Chad had previously been cited for using child soldiers (in 2010, 2011, and 2013), it controversially received a waiver in 2013 and since hasn’t appeared on the State Department’s list of countries using child soldiers. The US has trained Chadian soldiers and intermittently donates equipment to the armed forces. France bases its 3,000-strong regional counterterrorism force in N’Djamena, with 1,200 soldiers permanently stationed in Chad. France has two bases in the country. Though France has previously come to Deby’s rescue, Hollande is trying to move away from propping up strongmen and toward fighting terrorism, securing borders, and supporting small teams that can prevent hostage-taking or free hostages.

Chad’s relationship with Sudan is also crucially important. Chad and Sudan were de facto enemies, and supported rebels (the JEM and various Chadian rebellions, respectively). In 2006 and 2008, rebellions sponsored by Sudan almost overthrew Deby (requiring French support in 2008). However, in 2010, the two governments came to an agreement, and ceased supporting cross-border rebel groups. The alliance was solidified by the marriage of Deby to the daughter of Musa Hilal, a key player in the Sudanese government in Darfur (who has since defected from the NCP, so that’s a relationship to watch). Without Sudanese support, it’s highly unlikely an insurgency would have the capacity to seriously challenge Deby, and since 2010, there’s been no renewed insurgencies or problems with Sudan.

Chad has also had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Nigeria recently. While Buhari has cautiously welcomed Chadian help in fighting Boko Haram, he has been careful not to give them too much credit or leeway. Both countries have reported there is little to no coordination between their forces in the fight against Boko Haram.

Government Structure

Since independence, governance in Chad has been kleptocratic and reserved for a small elite. Deby’s regime is also quite repressive. Opposition MP’s only have a few seats in parliament and the judiciary is loyal to Deby. Opposition politicians and government critics are routinely arrested. A democratic opposition does not really exist; opposition leaders may make perfunctory statements about democracy, but they would likely implement a similar system of governance, only they’d be the beneficiaries..

To prevent alternate power bases from developing, Deby frequently reshuffles his cabinet and military leadership. The Deby regime is heavily dependent on Deby’s Bila-Bideyet clan, which is a sub-group of the larger Zaghawa, who have filled many key positions in the security forces and government. Furthermore, some of his family members hold top positions. Beyond ethnic ties, the government is heavily reliant on patronage to buy fealty.

That patronage is largely funded through oil revenues, which only began flowing in the early 2000’s. Oil has had a major effect on the Chadian political scene. It has allowed Chad to dramatically strengthen its military, which prior to 2008 was poorly equipped and trained. The strength of the army has allowed Deby to disregard calls for reform, repress domestic opposition, and gain international prestige (and more money) through its participation in international counterterrorism efforts. A big reason all of this was possible was the stronger position in which Deby found himself. He faced serious armed challenges in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, but since then, excluding a 2013 coup attempt that may have been invented by the regime, the government has appeared much more in control.

Oil revenues have been used for development, but these projects have mostly happened in urban areas to the benefit of the elite. The lack of benefits provided by oil revenues to the urban poor, rural populations, and oil-producing region has prompted protests, but these have been repressed. However, the number and intensity of protests may increase in the run-up to the April 2016 presidential election if no tangible economic benefits are provided to most of the population.

Recent Boko Haram Attacks and Government Response

Four suicide attacks in June and July in N’Djamena killed about 55 people. The perpetrators were widely suspected to be Boko Haram after the group threatened Chad in its released videos. In response, the Chadian government launched airstrikes against Boko Haram targets in Nigeria, attacked Boko Haram militants on Lake Chad islands, banned the full face veil (the niqab/burqa because one of the bombers was wearing the garment), and arrested suspected Boko Haram members (and unidentified “foreigners”). Religious leaders publicly supported the decision, but they probably didn’t have much of a choice. In the short-term it’s unlikely this leads for widespread support for Boko Haram, but Chad does risk alienating more conservative Muslims with its heavy-handed and probably ineffective tactics. Additionally, it’s unclear to what degree the regime will use the Boko Haram threat to crackdown on non-jihadist opponents.

Key Things to Watch

  • Inter-Zaghawa tensions: Probably the biggest threat to the Deby regime is a coup by Zaghawa allies, and any public break between Zaghawa elites and Deby could be a sign of an impending coup. Many Zaghawa are unhappy with Deby for his abandonment of the JEM in Sudan, who were mostly Zaghawa. Additionally, many elites, including some in his own family, seek to improve their position, and it’s unclear if patronage will mollify them. While Chad’s newly-strong army means an insurgency is unlikely to topple the government, a coup could happen either with the collusion of the armed forces or be timed to take place while they’re largely deployed in northern Nigeria. The last coup took place just before troops were about to come home from Mali. A coup probably wouldn’t descend into mass violence, but given the number of well-armed troops and foreign interests at stake, it’s possible.
  • Protests: Protests haven’t lead to major unrest under Deby’s rule, but it’s conceivable. Trade unions have organized medium-sized demonstrations in the past, and recently, partially because of Boko Haram, the prices of basic goods have spiked. This has caused smaller, more sporadic protests, but they could become larger as the election approaches. If protests do break out, it’s worth identifying the leaders and how the government responds.
  • Relationship with Sudan breaks down: There haven’t been any outward signs of the deterioration of the Sudanese-Chadian détente, but such a deterioration would have negative consequences on both sides of the border. It’s likely Sudan would sponsor another insurgency, but given the Sudanese regime’s relative weakness and the ease with which Chad put down the 2009 attempt, it might be a flash in the pan. However, there are still 350,000 Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad, and they would likely be in the middle of any conflict. Any accusations of support for proxy groups could be a sign the alliance is collapsing.
  • Boko Haram: At the moment, Boko Haram poses only a sporadic threat in Chad. However, if the group were able to launch more regular attacks and/or control territory due to popular support or unforeseen government weakness, the Deby regime would likely respond with massive violence, and that is something to watch for. At the moment, however, the government’s own repressive actions present a similar degree of danger as Boko Haram.

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