Archive | August, 2013

Quickfire Thoughts on Obama’s Syria Announcement

31 Aug

Obama’s big Rose Garden announcement today deserves some attention.  I don’t have time to write a full post, so here are three reactions I had.  Any pushback is appreciated.

This was not Obama’s first choice

Obama has been quite cautious on intervening in Syria despite significant pressure to the contrary.  His approval of arms transfers smacked of an attempt to silence the critics.  This is evidenced by the fact that the FSA is yet to actually receive any of those arms.  The chemical weapons attack on Ghouta presented another instance in which pressure from within the administration and from other countries (France and Israel primarily)  forced Obama’s hand.  Enforcing the norm against chemical weapons likely played a role in Obama’s decision to take this route of action, but it is clearly a compromise to ‘do something’ rather than an intentional strategy Obama believes will help achieve his objectives.    Passing the buck to Congress was a brilliant political move.  Instead of taking unilateral (or perhaps multilateral if France and Israel jump on board) action, he’s making congress take the blame for an intervention that’s both widely unpopular and unlikely to achieve positive results.  These factors may mean an intervention doesn’t happen, allowing Obama to not use military force and coming out looking looking less weak than inaction would have.  Whatever Congress decides, it also improves Obama’s image as a consensus-seeker.

This is not a humanitarian intervention

Charli Carpenter said it well on Foreign Policy.  It’s not R2P because it’s not going through the UNSC.  Also, the scope and target of the mission are not consistent with protecting civilians.  Studies on interventions that target the incumbent demonstrate that they actually lead to more civilian deaths.  If an intervention was open-ended, and included a more expansive mandate, it could possibly decrease civilian casualties.  While my STAND colleague Hannah Finnie drew  my attention to the similarities between Obama’s speech and LBJ’s Vietnam speech, I think further escalation beyond a limited timeframe and mandate is unlikely.  Two key phrases encapsulate this line of thinking.*  First Obama said, “We know our military cannot solve the underlying conflict in Syria.”  This points to a limited and focused intervention.  Second, POTUS argued that the “ancient sectarian differences” present in Syria are impossible to solve with military force.  This is reminiscent of Clinton’s thinking on Bosnia (influenced by the Robert Kaplan book Ghosts of the Balkans), which caused him to be very pessimistic about the benefits of intervention.  While the US did eventually did get further involved in Bosnia, it was not at Clinton’s behest.  Obama’s buck passing has squashed the possibility of expanding the mission, at least for the foreseeable future.

Intervention, if it happens, is unlikely to be successful

Obama stated that the primarily goal of the mission was to enforce the norm against chemical weapons.  While there is generally an international consensus against chemical weapons use, it’s important to remember Syria hasn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, so it didn’t break that international law in the Ghouta incident (it was still a war crime according to my basic understanding of international law).  The limited timeframe  of this intervention makes deterrence against further use unlikely, however.  Assad already knows that Obama is reluctant to use force, and assuming the bombing happens, it’s unlikely Assad will be cowed into refraining from chemical weapons use following the conclusion of the US mission (doubts about CW’s strategic value aside).  There is simply not the political will for a open-ended mission that would potentially prevent the long-term use of chemical weapons.  Even then, it’s unclear what the value of such an intervention would be.  Many more civilians have been killed by conventional means than chemical weapons, and even if the latter arouse our disgust.  Deaths are deaths, and if a limited intervention is going to cause more than it prevents, it’s clearly a bad policy.  I seriously doubt that this is what Obama wants, but when military inaction becomes impossible, he’s judged that seeking congressional approval for a piecemeal strategy that’s bound to fail is preferable to a large-scale, boots on the ground intervention that has a slightly higher chance of success.

*I don’t have the speech transcript in front of me, so these were transcribed from memory.

A Blueprint for Local, Nonviolent Responses to Mass Atrocities (Part II)

18 Aug

*This post originally appeared on the Sentinel Project blog.

Separating mass atrocities into categories risks oversimplification, but different response strategies apply to different types of violence.  Therefore, modern-day mass atrocities can broadly be separated into two categories: counterinsurgency (COIN) and communal.  While this division risks empirical oversimplification and many scenarios have elements of both, delineating the two allows for a more concise construction of the logic behind civilian self-protection.

During counterinsurgencies, the flow of information is the central cause of mass atrocities.  Combatants use civilians to gather information about enemy troop movements and the identity of civilian supporters of the opposition.  Because armed actors need this information, but are often unable to verify it independently, civilians have quite a bit of power in determining the strategic use of violence.  This power is often abused.  Kalvyas and Kaplan have both extensively documented how civilians partner with armed actors not because of ideologies, but to settle personal scores.  Fear is also a powerful explanation for civilian cooperation.  Kalyvas argues that physical control by armed groups is a highly influential factor in explaining civilian cooperation, especially as the conflict progresses.  Finally, when armed actors lack information to determine who’s working with the enemy and who’s not, they may resort to indiscriminate violence to intimidate would-be enemy collaborators.  This strategy, however, is not very effective, and so combatants will likely only pursue this strategy when there is a lack of resources to devote to information-gathering.

To counter these issues, there are a few basic measures civilians can take.  Collectively, these measures are most coherently contained within the concept of “Zones of Peace” (ZoP’s).  ZoP’s have been established in varying forms and with varying levels of success around the world.  They rest on the basic principle of civilian non-participation in COIN.  In his study of ZoPs in Colombia, Kaplan lists a few generalizable strategies communities can use: Creating a culture of peace, implementing conflict resolution processes, creating internal investigative bodies that have the trust of armed actors, and naming and shaming.  The first two help prevent civilians from using armed actors to settle disputes, while the second solves the information problem for armed actors.  If combatants on are confident that a certain community is not aiding any armed group, then they are much less likely to target the community.  Finally, the last strategy allows civilians to shame certain armed actors that have committed abuses.  If the guilty parties need to maintain good relations with NGOs, foreign governments, and local civilians, they may refrain from committing atrocities in the future.  One final strategy is for civilians to confront armed groups en masse and demand an end to atrocities.  While confrontation carries a high element of risk, if an armed group is hesitant to kill large numbers of civilians at the same time, it can be effective.

Responding to communal conflict differs from COIN mass atrocity mitigation, but the difference is not as clear as one might think.  In both situations, civilians become the intentional targets of violence as part of a process in which other goals necessitate the use of violence directed against civilians.  One commonly advocated strategy to address communal violence, particularly among studies examining the Holocaust, is to identify societies with deep social cleavages and cultures conducive to mass killing, and then attempt to positively change those elements through public messaging.  However, since explanations focused on pre-existing societal rifts seem to poorly explain why mass atrocities emerge and these rifts are widespread and deeply-rooted in many societies, addressing such issues directly would require huge resources (human, financial, and institutional).  Instead, addressing “hot spots” (as mass atrocities are often committed and directed by a very small group) with contact programs or education aimed at violence-reduction could be effective.  Perpetrators beyond central leaders often have fairly apolitical motives for participating in mass atrocities, with group dynamics being a more important cause.  Therefore, creating an atmosphere in which potential perpetrators feel increased social pressure to not participate mass atrocities could have a positive mitigating effect.  Similarly, the public challenging of perpetrator leaders early in the process of mass atrocities can also reduce violence by creating the political will to withdraw the public complicity necessary to commit large-scale violence.  Communal violence is also often driven by misinformation.  This misinformation helps to create the social myths necessary to justify the killing of others, but it also can create erroneous beliefs about the opponent’s actions or motives.  Initiatives such as the Sentinel Project’s proposed text messaging service in the Tana Delta that would verify the truthfulness of rumors can help stop the spread of false information that leads to violence.

Two other locally-focused strategies that hold promise for mass atrocities violence mitigation are locally-led advanced mobile aid (LLAMA) and localized conflict early warning systems (LCEWS). LLAMA provides, quick, mobile humanitarian aid to communities at risk that are beyond the political, geographic, or temporal reach of traditional aid agencies.  It can also be adapted forcivilian protection in conflict situations.  It can improve information flow to isolated, at-risk communities and provide them with the information and the means to move to lower-risk areas when physical escape is the best option.  LCEWS are another important strategy.  Currently, early warning systems mostly exist at the level of national or international organizations, which according to Barrs, creates the problem that “alerts, bulletins, and reports are sent around the world in real time. Yet they rarely touch ground where the killing happens. They fly through cyberspace, high over the victims’ heads. People at risk on the ground might never learn that the ‘demarches’ we write on their behalf even exist.”  Therefore, localized early warning, especially ones with advanced vertical integration, could greatly improve the flow of information to at-risk communities, allowing them to better assess their options.

Ultimately, there are plenty of strategies out there for nonviolent, local mass atrocities mitigation, but the growing abundance of such studies has been largely ignored by policy makers.  So while policy makers would do well to accept less bureaucratic, nonviolent, and local methods for preventing and responding to mass atrocities, scholars also need to expand this idea theoretically, rather than the conceptually and geographically limited studies that populate the majority of the relevant literature.  A key question still remains: how do perpetrators and victims actually interact?  The dearth of scholarship that addresses this question on the theoretical level is a real shame, and better analysis could seriously improve our understanding of how civilians can protect themselves during mass atrocities.  It’s a question I’d love to see answered as work in this field progresses.

A Blueprint for Local, Nonviolent Responses to Mass Atrocities (Part I)

8 Aug

*This post originally appeared on the Sentinel Project blog.

The task of preventing and responding to mass atrocities mostly falls to international organizations.  While the UN and other regional organizations often develop approaches to mass atrocities and political violence, bureaucracy and competing political interests inhibit timely and effective mitigation efforts.  In light of this response gap, the persistently common occurrence of intrastate wars, and a peacebuilding culture that disproportionately focuses on the national level, prevention and response strategies must further examine how communities can protect themselves from the specter of mass killing.

To understand how nonviolent, local responses to mass atrocities can be effective, a brief typology of mass atrocities is helpful.  According to Harff (2003) and Valentino (2004), mass atrocities almost always occur during war.  In these moments of upheaval, extremists have a better chance of seizing power and the pursuing their radical goals.  While such agendas certainly do not always lead to mass killing, if perpetrators do not see another way to achieve their goal mass atrocities often result.  However, since perpetrator groups aren’t unitary, strategic choice theories that focus on groups on the whole aren’t fully explanatory.  Other conditions that have been demonstrated to be conducive to mass atrocities are: authoritarian regimes, group-based inequality, political polarization, and the existence of two main ethnic groups in which one is much smaller than the other.  Many scholars have emphasized the importance of political polarization and ethnic cleavages in predicting mass atrocities but, as Valentino writes, these are actually ineffective indicators.  As Kalyvas (2006) writes, wars may in fact be the main bases for ideologies and not vice versa.  So while ethnic cleavages are certainly a cause of mass atrocities, they themselves are largely shaped by conflict.

While scholars such as Daniel Goldhagen have argued that mass atrocities occur because of widespread hate and complicity among the perpetrator group, the reality is more complex.  Valentino argues that for mass atrocities to occur, it really only takes a small group of perpetrators in power and the complicity of society, which is uncomfortably often quite forthcoming.  Even in historical mass atrocities such as Rwanda, a relatively small number of individuals actually participated in the killing.  Killers are almost always part of military or paramilitary organizations, though civilians do play a large role in obtaining information and giving denunciations to armed actors.  In that sense are mass atrocities often quite personal.  As Kalyvas points out, these micro-level interactions help explain the often vast variation in violence levels by area in civil wars.

Responding nonviolently to mass atrocities on the local level is often a necessity as communities rarely have the military might to take on armed actors (though vigilante groups in Mexico and village defense forces in Colombia and Liberia are examples).  These strategies are surely not comprehensive for atrocity prevention on the whole as some scenarios make civilian actions futile.  Therefore, more comprehensive strategies must focus on vertical integration of prevention strategies.  However, scholarship on atrocity prevention and response has historically neglected the role that civilians play in their own defense (that fact was a main motivator for conducting this research).  Scholars frequently and erroneously charge that once violence in a mass atrocity situation has begun, there is little civilians can do to stop it.  This statement relies on two false assumptions.  First, it sees violence as dichotomous: either there is a mass atrocity or there isn’t.  Mass atrocities are a process in which violence builds and self-reinforces.  Certainly it becomes harder for civilians to intervene further along in the process, but that does not mean there is a point at which they immediately lose all effectiveness.  Second, it ignores the role civilians play in encouraging or slowing violence.  Numerous historical examples, from Colombia to Greece to the Philippines (Kaplan, Kalyvas, and Hancock and Mitchell respectively) demonstrate how civilians are able to decrease violence through strategic interactions with armed forces.  Finally, an emerging theme in conflict scholarship (Autesserre, Kalyvas, Kaplan) is attempting to understand the micro-dynamics of violence.  While more scholarship is certainly needed on the subject, the influence of individual civilians and communities on the course of armed conflict is likely larger than scholars previously believed.