Vignettes from a Trump Presidency

7 Nov

Election Day is tomorrow. I’m very nervous. According to Nate Silver, Donald Trump has about a 35% chance of becoming President of the United States. It might be difficult to imagine what that means. Trump has been less than precise when it comes to policy details during the campaign. Some proposals might be hard to implement, like imposing a religious test for admittance to the country, but I believe it’s worth taking seriously the effects his presidency could have on the American political system. Some policies would carry on as normal, but it’s not those I want to focus on. Such an approach helps us put in perspective the choice we’re making, which is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In these three hypothetical vignettes, I consider what it would mean to choose the latter.

In a nationally-televised address on Tuesday evening, President Trump ordered Immigration and Customs (ICE) Officers to cooperate with the American Patriots during immigration raids. The group, formed earlier this year, is a loose collection of armed civilians, whose leaders say they are dedicated to improving national security through immigration enforcement. Their role in rounding up alleged undocumented immigrants and transporting them to detention centers initially garnered praise from President Trump, but yesterday’s speech marked the first time he had ordered federal employees to work directly with the group.

The timing of the announcement, according to anonymous sources within ICE, is due to the inability of ICE agents to deport undocumented immigrants at the rate promised by President Trump. The Trump administration received sharp rebukes from many domestic and international organizations for the decision, citing allegations that members of the American Patriots were involved in several recent shootings targeting worshipers at mosques and Black Lives Matter protesters. Despite these criticisms and the spiraling cost of deportations, which some estimates peg in the tens of billions of dollars, President Trump has vowed to step up efforts to, in his words, “Make America great again.”

Following a reportedly fiery meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sino-American Summit that concluded Sunday, President Trump announced yesterday that he plans to ask Congress to impose a 30-day trade embargo on China.

According to anonymous White House sources, Presidents Trump and Xi began arguing over America’s trade deficit. Reportedly, Trump then left the meeting after Xi stated that the American government did not have the leverage internationally to implement higher tariffs without causing major damage to the domestic economy. Several journalists in the White House press corps have since reported that Trump interpreted Xi’s statement as a personal slight.

The announcement has caused stock prices around the world to plummet, amidst major consternation among major investors and international leaders. The European Union immediately issued a statement calling the proposal “reckless,” while the United Nations General Assembly was dominated by leaders abandoning their planned speeches to denounce the plan. Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose country maintains close diplomatic and financial ties to China, was particularly stringent in his criticisms, stating even a temporary trade embargo, “would irreparably damage the global economy and America’s international standing.”

In response to critics, President Trump gave an unscheduled press conference this morning. In a speech that lasted over an hour, he revealed that he has ordered thousands of US military personnel to be deployed to bases in South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines. The President said he’s confident the show of force will lead to China’s capitulation. Finally, in response to President dos Santos’ speech at the UN, Trump tweeted, “Angola should be careful. I have a lot more bombs than they do.”

In the aftermath of a bombshell Washington Post investigation that found President Donald Trump had been using the Army Corps of Engineers to build and maintain his commercial properties, White House lawyers have brought criminal charges, including espionage, against several Washington Post staff members.

In several statements issued in the last week, the Trump administration denies any improper use of federal employees, while also saying that the President has seen a lot worse in his competitors. Additionally, President Trump gave an interview with Politico this morning in which he was quoted as saying, “I have the right to bring criminal charges against the media for outright lies, everyone knows this. And I can guarantee I won’t go so easy next time.”

The vignettes are merely vague guesses of what a Trump administration could look like, but it’s far from all of the issues that might be affected by his election: voting rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, abortion rights, climate change, corporate taxation, student debt, the composition of the Supreme Court, and so many others. American democracy might survive a Trump administration, but it would certainly come out of such an ordeal a shell of its former self.

Life Update: Starting a PhD

24 Aug

Many of you reading this may already know, but I’m starting a PhD in Political Science at Yale this fall. I’ll finish (hopefully) in 5-6 years. I’m writing this post both so that I can look back and see what I thought I wanted to study later on and as an explanation for why I want to start a PhD. For those only interested in the why, and not the minutiae of political science research agendas, you can skip the first two paragraphs.

At Yale, I plan to specialize in comparative politics with a second sub-field likely in political theory. Broadly, I am interested in issues of violence, governance, and state-building. More specifically, I’m interested in non-state governance, wartime politics, and civilian agency in conflict. I’m hoping that studying state-building and non-state governance together can create insight both on how historical cases of the phenomenon are interpreted and use those lessons to interpret contemporary cases. Civilians have largely been left out of studies of intrastate violence, and while there are some notable recent exceptions, I think there is still work to be done on their role in influencing broader conflict systems. I am also still interested to a degree in the study of mass atrocities, but hope to more rigorously connect that research agenda to related ones, such as civil wars. I hope that my work on these issues relates back to more fundamental questions of (how violence interacts with) power, organization, and identity/ideology. Additionally, I’m somewhat interested in leftist strategy and the role of intellectuals/ideas in shaping social change, but that will probably remain a side interest.

In terms of regional specialization, I have always been more attached to themes than a region, but if I had to choose one it would be sub-Saharan Africa (obviously some countries more than others). I’m starting to learn French in order to make research there more feasible. Methodologically, I see myself more as a social scientist interested in the questions studied by political scientist rather than solely a political scientist, so I hope to draw inspiration from a range of disciplines. I plan on primarily using qualitative methods such as ethnography and historical research in my own work, but still need to learn more about others.

Especially for those reading this that may not be interested in devoting at least five years of their lives to obtaining a doctorate, the major question is probably “why?”. I’ve been interested in political issues for as long as I can remember, and once I got to Swarthmore, I realized that there were broadly three avenues through which I could pursue my interests: activism, policy, and academia. I’m choosing the third because, to quote Vaclev Havel, I want to “live in truth.” In his essay “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel reflects on life after communism, arguing its primary power comes not through brute force, but through fear, censorship, and labyrinthine institutions that gradually ensure acquiescence. However, “living in truth” by refusing to follow the system’s diktats, upends the status quo and empowers the previously-dominated.

Fortunately, I have never lived in such a society, but I see Havel’s point as having broader implications about how people come to understand what social arrangements are just, and how those ends can be achieved. Outside of academia, I have found the institutional and social pressures to think in certain ways, some of which seem unjust, baffling, depressing, and very, very hard to deal with. I still strongly believe that plenty of people do amazing and necessary work in the activism and policy worlds, but professionally, I am not cut out for such a life. Academia is no panacea to these problems, but the time granted for intellectual inquiry and the norms of research and discussion offer greater possibilities to live in truth. Furthermore, if my time at Swarthmore taught me one thing, it is that positive social change is very difficult to achieve, and good intentions often result in negative outcomes. Well-crafted, well-communicated research can help ameliorate this problem. This belief, coupled with the realization that I have long admired and aspired to intellectualism more than other personal traits, has led me to Yale, and hopefully beyond.

Why the Greens Aren’t the Answer

2 Aug

There’s been a lot of conversation recently around the merits of voting for a third party candidate, and while I firmly believe that voting for Hillary Clinton is necessary to stop the unprecedented disaster that would a Trump presidency, I do not believe that even in the long-term, the Green Party represents a viable opportunity for the Left.

I voted for Jill Stein in 2012, but I was voting in Michigan, where Romney had a close to 0% chance of winning. I will again not be voting in a swing-state, but I will be voting for Hillary Clinton. In 2012, I believed that absent the threat that not voting for a Democrat could elect a Republican, it was important to strengthen the Green Party so that over time it could provide a left counterweight to the moderate Democrats. However, I now find it highly improbable the Green Party will ever be that force for three main reasons.

First, the current electoral rules make it very hard for a third party to ever become prominent. The Democrats and GOP have very little incentive to change them, even if they become unpopular, because right now those two are the only game in town.

Second, the Green Party isn’t even the most likely third party to become prominent. It’s probably not even the second or third. Right now, either branch of the Republican party (classic, somewhat elite conservatives on one side, Trumpistas on the other), Libertarians, and maybe some mix of those three would probably have more appeal than the Greens. The biggest problem with imagining the Greens as a vanguard of the Left is that it is impossibly optimistic to believe that there’s a large number who actually support leftist ideals but aren’t speaking up due to a lack of current options. This hypothesis has been posited for decades, and it’s always been wrong. Even despite the relative strength of leftist social movements right now, there’s little support for the Green Party.

Third, from the research on political party affiliation (as I understand it; I’m not an Americanist), Americans identify with parties based mostly on identity rather than policies. As in people vote for Democrats because they’ve always felt like Democrats. Because the rational voter, who votes on a consistent set of principles is mostly a myth, it’s impossible to convince voters to abandon the Democratic Party for a little-known third party that claims to have better policies. Therefore, I think a leftist candidate in the Democratic primaries, backed up by strong social movement support that wins the presidential election, is the upper bound of leftist potential in my lifetime. The revolution isn’t coming.

I am deeply concerned about Hillary’s policies, particularly her foreign policy, but voting for her is necessary to prevent Trump from winning. The decision is even clearer when it becomes obvious the Green Party cannot and will not become a major force to the Democrats’ left.

On Terrorism

24 Jul

When compared to other forms of unnatural death for people living in North American and European democracies, terrorism barely registers. You may have heard these stats before, but allow me to repeat some. Domestic violence kills 500 times more people each year than terrorism. Americans are more than 1,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist attack. Ditto non-terroristic forms of gun violence. There are about 5,000 drug and alcohol-related deaths for every one American killed by terrorism. Americans are even slightly more likely to be killed by falling furniture (yes furniture!) than terrorism. However, I don’t remember the last congressional hearing on unstable dressers.

Instead, the United States has spent about $4,000,000,000,000 on the War on Terror, or $16,000 for every American. And this is all for a threat, that since 2002, has never killed more than 35 Americans in a year. Even in France, which has faced more terror fatalities than any other Western democracy in the last 12 months, only 1 in 300,000 people died due to terrorism. Something so insignificant is not only believed to be the biggest threat to the United States (in December 2015, 40% believed it was the most pressing issue for the US government to address, and another 21% said it was the second most pressing), but it is driving the foreign policy of the most powerful country on earth and many of its allies.

How to stop the lunacy? We need a broader cultural shift in how we think and talk about terrorism. Terrorism needs to be understood as something that does not fundamentally threaten our society, our democracy, or way of life, or even our lives. We need to get to the point where when a terrorist attack happens, we say, “that’s terrible,” just as we might with any other tragedy, and move on with our day.

(An aside: My argument only applies to North American and European democracies. In many other parts of the world, “terrorist” groups also have the ability to hold territory and the potential to topple governments. The threat presented by these groups, both in terms of political turmoil and loss of human life, is very different, and it is important to not confuse the two. Additionally, in the North American and European contexts, I’m writing about jihadist terrorism, rather than terrorism committed by far-right groups. The latter is more prevalent, but is rarely considered a major threat.)

We can still mourn. But even in mourning, we must be careful, for there are risks, both internal and external. Internally, mourning the victims of terrorism, especially when attempting to mourn equally for those killed in Paris and Baghdad, can prove to be overwhelming. Sadly, people are killed by political violence all around the world all the time, and mourning each death individually can leave us overly fearful that the same fate might befall us. Externally, there is the danger that our emotions can overwhelm prudent responses to terror. Too often, it is felt that the only way to mourn victims properly is to stress that only monsters could have taken their lives. Perhaps this provides some immediate comfort, but in the long-term, it is deeply dangerous. It leads to the stereotyping of entire ethnic, religious, and national groups as violent, and prompts policy responses that overlook the political context in which violence occurs and prescribes overwhelming force as the only possible solution. Donald Trump and his fellow fear-mongers are major beneficiaries of this impulse.

Despite these dangers, mourning can play a positive role. Beyond the potential emotional benefits, it can also serve as an opportunity to learn about why violence occurs in different parts of the world, and hopefully what can be done to prevent more.

Taking a step back, it is important to consider how terrorism came to dominate political discourse. At the most basic level, terrorism is scary because terrorism is the killing of random people for political reasons. It seems there are three psychological biases at play here. First is the fear of randomness. Because it’s impossible to predict exactly where and when terrorism will happen and who it will target, it’s hard not to think, when reading about Western victims of terror attacks, “it could be me.” Even if statistically, the chances are infinitesimal, terrorism is hard to rationalize. Second is the fear of violent ideologies. In popular discourse, terrorists are seen as ruthless, driven entirely by the will to kill others not like themselves. Additionally, terrorists are frequently imagined as working together as part of a wider, coherent conspiracy, and that their supposed ideologies are simply the product of their upbringing. This in turn spawns the assumption that entire identity groups hold pro-terrorist ideologies. Third is the fear of people unlike themselves, which amplifies the fear of violent ideologies. Most Americans have a poor understanding of Islam and know few Muslims, and so claims that America is at war with an entire religion can appear credible.

In reality, support for groups like ISIS is pretty small, and even out of those that support the group, few are willing to carry out violence. Additionally, many of the motives for individuals to carry out terrorism are non-political, such as wanting to become someone in life or wanting to fit into a group of friends. Many pundits will lump yesterday’s Munich shooting in with other jihadist attacks simply because the attacker had Iranian citizenship, but initial information suggests jihadist ideology played no role in the attack.

The current responses to terrorism are failing, and will always fail. The fear has led us to imagine terrorism as primarily a problem of terrorists: there is a finite number of terrorists, and if they are killed, terrorism will cease. But terrorism exists in a broader social and political context, and violence used to kill terrorists will almost always prompt others to feel that their culture is under attack. It is important to acknowledge that many terrorists are responding to grievances such as unemployment, social isolation, and unequal international relations, and to remember that addressing these can help reduce tensions. But we must also remember that terrorism will always exist in some limited form. Even if all the injustices of the world were all ironed away, some people would still feel that their freedoms and privileges were being impinged on, and that violence is the only solution.

This conclusion may be unsettling, but acknowledging both that terrorism will exist and that it is fundamentally not very threatening is crucial. Because terrorism itself is not profoundly dangerous; government responses to terrorism are. States can wield far more violence than terrorist groups, and state violence can lead to wars that kill thousands of Westerners and hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners. Counter-terrorist policies can take away our freedoms and cause us to turn on entire identity groups. No terrorist group in North America or Western Europe could alone dream of such a success.

Brexit, Expertise, and Finding Meaning in Political Life

10 Jul

On both sides of the Atlantic, openly xenophobic and anti-establishment movements are gaining momentum. Brexit and Trump, two movements that would have been impossible to imagine even two years ago, are proudly ignoring facts, stoking racism, and at least in the case of Brexit, winning. Why?

I believe the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise are not mere blips, and instead underscore two central problems in modern Western democracies. The first is the failure of expertise, specifically that of elites, to convince the public of its worth and veracity. The second is the failure of liberal political movements (Democratic Party in the US, pro-EU Labour/Conservatives in the UK) to provide an attractive version of the future that people can latch onto.

Some writers have asked whether we’re living in “post-factual democracies” and focused on how information is distributed, especially with the increased use of social media. While there are certainly some interesting effects of social media, like the political clustering it produces, the issue is much less with how information is distributed than with how it is interpreted. For Brexit’s claim that money sent to the EU would be given to the National Health Service or Trump’s claim that Mexicans are rapists to be believed, people have to be so distrusting of the current political system that they’re willing to set aside all the facts and norms associated with it. Yes it might not be true, but the system is much less trustworthy.

It is not that we’re living in a dystopian present, and that there was a recent past where people could easily separate truth from lies. But what has changed qualitatively it seems, is that people are losing faith that liberal political movements and governments will produce the political outcomes they aspire to. While it would be comforting to adopt a Marxist critique, and attribute the relative unpopularity of pluralism solely to austerity and liberals’ reticence to bank hard left, thus fully embracing social democracy, it would neglect the ideological component. Over the last two and a half decades, intellectuals and politicians are failing to shape a vision of politics that provides meaning to the individual.

I’m not sure this failing is particular to the current crop of leaders and thinkers, and is partially the result of popular expectations in the current historical moment. The fall of the Soviet Union represented the vanishing of an obvious, existential threat to Western democracies, providing leaders with few excuses for economic and social stasis. Simply, it is difficult to assure people that the world can only get better, that all the major struggles have been overcome, when it seems the next generation might be worse off.

In the absence of rapid material progress for the upwardly mobile, politics also needs a powerful ideological component; something people can find meaning in, something people can identify with. Technocratic, incrementalist politics, so common among today’s liberal political parties, does not deliver this. Part of the problem is that the institutions representing the international order that liberalism aspires to evoke little sentimentality. Few people feel personally involved in attempts by the UN or World Bank to solve the world’s problems through multilateral diplomacy and development. Not only in international organizations, but also in national governments, there is a growing economic and cultural gap between those that make decisions and those that are supposed to benefit from them. This encourages suspicion of these institutions and those within them. Hillary’s historic unpopularity is a testament to this dynamic.

This is where nationalism, and other forms of identity politics of the dominant, come in. Unlike technocratic liberalism, nationalism provides its disciples with an identity and a mission. “Make America Great Again” is compelling, because it serves both as a call to action and a vision for the future. And especially in an era when it seems pluralist politics can’t deliver the goods for all, nationalist movements like Trump pledge to restore a supposedly marginalized group to its imagined previous prosperity, implicitly at the expense of outsiders. Not only does nationalism become attractive as a antidote to failed liberalism, but anti-politicians, who deride the norms of political life and even basic decency, like Farage, Trump, and (Boris) Johnson, appear “authentic”, untainted by the failure of political institutions.

The need for meaning in politics is well-articulated by Shadi Hamid here, speaking about Islam and political life in the Middle East:

As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, ‘Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?’ But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise…There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering. I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives…

Hamid isn’t the only one to make such an argument. In Modernity’s Wager, Adam Seligman posits the need to reincorporate the sacred (i.e. religion) into Western societies to prevent extremism from flourishing outside mainstream political life. Now Seligman was writing in the early-2000’s, immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, when religious extremism seemed to some a potentially catastrophic threat to Western liberalism. Fifteen years later, it’s clear that’s not the case. But Seligman isn’t wrong about the need for meaning in politics, but it is not clear to me that that meaning has to be organized religion, especially as religious adherence declines rapidly in Western democracies.

In the last half-decade, several leftist movements have sought to challenge liberal technocratic hegemony. There’s Sanders in the US, Corbyn in the UK, PODEMOS in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. They have all adopted an anti-elitist, anti-capitalist approach to politics, leading many to describe them as “populists”. I am, however, deeply skeptical the term has any meaning (Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is relevant here; it’s on my bookshelf but I haven’t read it yet).

Most basically, what all four do understand is the need to make ordinary people feel that they have an active role to play in politics. They have largely done so by painting a picture of the majority of society engaging in a struggle for survival against a small, wealthy elite. While this may or may not be the right story to tell, liberal political parties need to incorporate similar approaches. It is certainly important to recognize that “left populists” are not perfect, and sometimes promote impractical strategies. However, do liberal elites really have any other choice if they want to to fend off racist, xenophobic, and nationalist elements? The liberal order is not as strong as it once was.

For liberal/left intellectuals, the success of politicians in both creating a form of politics invested with meaning and delivering goods and services is of tantamount importance. Academics aren’t always looked at as beacons of knowledge in today’s society, especially on the right, and it doesn’t help when the politics that many academics espouse are unpopular. However, there’s still intellectual work to be done. As John Sonbanmatsu argues in The Postmodern Prince, the left needs a new way to view the world following the fall of communism. Postmodernist theory remains obtuse and terribly impractical, while technocratic liberalism isn’t cutting it either. Intellectuals need to do a better job of sketching what the future might look like and how to realistically get there if there is to be a renewal in trust of the academy’s expertise.

Coming to Terms with Refugee Policy

9 Jun

The world is in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since WWII, but instead of dealing with it properly, rich Western countries are doing shit like this: “…the EU is planning to provide training, equipment, and detention camps to the government of Sudan, which is led by a wanted war criminal, so that they can prevent human beings from crossing the border out of Sudan in the direction of Europe.”

But it’s not just Sudan. The US, Canada, and the EU are increasingly warming to proposals that involve paying off developing countries to “host” refugees in a bid to prevent them reaching their shores. Kenya, for example, has taken note of this trend and threatened to close Dabaab refugee camp, the world’s largest, unless Western donors cough up some more funding. While it’s true Western countries have failed to adequately fund the maintenance of the camp, Kenya is no innocent victim. It has cited Dabaab as a safe haven for al-Shabaab in order to justify closing the camp, despite lacking any evidence to support this assertion. Much of the extra funding will be pilfered by Kenyan politicians (many of whom aren’t exactly angels) and the security forces, who, wouldn’t you know it, are working with al-Shabaab to smuggle charcoal.

As one can see in the Kenya example, this stance on refugees has the unwelcome distinction of being both evil and stupid. By this I mean that not only are attempts to keep refugees out morally (and legally) unjustifiable, but they are counterproductive in terms of achieving other long-term foreign and domestic policy goals. To be more specific, here’s why attempts to keep refugees out by paying off poorer countries to host them are evil and stupid.

Those fleeing war are forced to stay in inadequate camps rather than being integrated into societies, which is their legal right. The suffering this causes for refugees is hard to understate.
– Tiny, poor countries like Lebanon end up hosting huge numbers of refugees in proportion to their population, putting a huge strain on physical space and natural resources.
– Paying off governments like Sudan’s to repress refugees will almost certainly also result in violence against citizens of those countries. Not only do donated funds and weapons give these governments the ability to further violently suppress internal problems and challenges, but their repressive actions gain credibility with donor nations.

– Paying off governments like Kenya and Sudan further entrenches corruption and rewards predatory governments. In the long-term, this is likely to produce various forms of political violence, prompting costly Western diplomatic or military interventions.
– Building the metaphorical wall higher will make those that can get around it even more powerful. Human smuggling will become more lucrative as smugglers are able to demand more money to get refugees past the barriers set up to prevent them reaching the West. Beyond thwarting efforts to end human trafficking, much of this money will flow to rebel groups, some of which will seek to launch attacks against Western countries.
– Turning away refugees is great propaganda for jihadists and other anti-Western militant groups. These groups can present themselves as defenders of persecuted groups who are under attack by a violent and heartless West.
– Finally, it’s the economy stupid. As birthrates in Western countries decline, younger workers are needed to support social safety nets that are increasingly caring for elderly citizens. Refugees can be these workers, and despite conservative rhetoric about how they suck up government benefits, taking into account their potential for economy productivity negates the economic losses (it should also be noted that the number of refugees that would be admitted per citizen to Western countries would be nowhere close to Lebanon’s rate).

Refugee policy is, as many people who know me are aware, a very personal issue for me. My grandparents were refugees, Jews born in Germany who were forced to flee the Nazis for England. My grandmother’s family managed to avoid the worst of it by leaving in 1936, while my grandfather spent a few months in Buchenwald concentration camp before a fake visa (in other words, he was undocumented) convinced guards to release him. The rest of his family didn’t survive. For me, what’s most depressing is that the debates today (whether refugees are a Trojan Horse for ISIS, whether refugees want to sponge off government benefits without working, etc.) are not new. In Germany, Jews were assumed to be Bolshevik agents, while the English government thought Jewish refugees might be German spies. Consequently, my grandmother’s family had to turn in their radios, due to fears they might be communicating with the enemy.

Knowing what we know about the history of the Holocaust makes these suspicious seem ridiculous, but I fear too many are incapable of seeing how history will also harshly judge mistrust of refugees today, whether they are fleeing gang violence in El Salvador or Russian warplanes in Aleppo. And therefore it is the lack of change that I am most afraid of. To be an activist, advocate, or even a socially-conscious social scientist requires believing that positive change is possible, but when that hope seems remote, it throws any affiliation with those three identities into doubt. And despite the rise of “human rights” rhetoric in the last twenty years, the concurrent emergence of the national security state and far-right popular politics may mean stances toward refugees are even worse than they were 80 years ago.

In Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, John Gray writes, “Western societies are governed by the belief that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign. As societies become more modern, so they become more alike. At the same time they become better. Being modern means realizing our values – the values of the Enlightenment, as we like to think of them.” Excluding those fleeing war from integration in Western society belies this vision, highlighting the vast contradiction in Enlightenment values. On one side is human rights and the social contract, which together seek to limit and order state violence. On the other is nationalism, in all its ugly manifestations, that clearly delineates who is us and who is them, and justifies the exclusion, exploitation, or eradication of others in the name of progress. Everything from refugees to foreign wars to neoliberalism make it hard for me to understand the belief in the primacy of modern Western thought and society (how to separate out the emancipatory from the oppressive?), because those maladies are as much a part of Enlightenment intellectual heritage as our greatest achievements. Turning away refugees makes it hard to be proud of our society, and hard to find hope.

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.