Tag Archives: Theory

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.


Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram

9 Apr

A couple of weeks back, Al Jazeera published the testimony of Apagu, a Christian, 16-year-old Nigerian girl who was kidnapped by Boko Haram and subsequently escaped to Cameroon. I really encourage everyone to read it, if only to understand what she, and many other women, have gone through. Beyond the emotional weight of the interview, Apagu’s story provides a fascinating insight into the physical, cultural, and social terrain that people in warzones have to navigate to survive.

The first obstacle Apagu had to overcome was the physical environment around her. Both before and after her spell in captivity, she had to walk long distances, find food and water, and remain hidden from Boko Haram fighters. The physical inability to flee, either because of environmental factors or physical weaknesses, creates a whole new set of possible choices. For Apagu, had she been unable to escape her captors, her choice would have been between accepting marriage to a Boko Haram fighter and death.

The physical environment of a warzone dictates the possibilities available to civilians, but cultural and social relations are largely what determine who survives. Reading Apagu’s testimony for the first time, I was struck by the number of times she almost died. These near-death experiences weren’t from falling into a swollen river or being bitten by a snake. Rather it was that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person or wearing the wrong set of clothing in the wrong place would have meant almost certain death. Apagu had to perform some delicate cultural dances, and individuals without a deep knowledge of the social cartography would have had little chance.

Her survival, more than anything else, was dependent on the help of the people around her. Without the aid of friends and strangers, she never would have escaped the Boko Haram compund in the first place. Previous literature has emphasized that environments of mass violence feature three types of people: perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. Stopping mass violence can be achieved through activating bystanders to protect victims from perpetrators.

Apagu’s story shows that there’s more to the narrative; individuals float between the three categories and the victims have significant agency. On the one end, some of Boko Haram’s member were more cruel than others, and in some moments, they were as much bystanders as perpetrators. On the other, Apagu could not have survived without the help of others, who by becoming active bystanders risked victimhood. But there were also some, like those in the village Palam (who helped them find the way to Cameroon), who would have killed Apagu if they thought she was a Boko Haram member. These constantly-shifting roles doesn’t fit traditional conceptions of unarmed actors in warzones, but it is line with work like Kalyvas‘ and Kaplan‘s that sees civilians as crucial in both the persecution of others and their own protection. Protection and persecution operate through small-scale social networks, in which the two behaviors are mutual. Most people can choose to inform on each other, or to steer each other away from harm. No group has absolute power, and no group is powerless. Even when individuals choose to become perpetrators, civilians, like Apagu, still sometimes find the strength to run, hide, and survive.

Civilians who do live through mass violence, as I’ve written before, tend to do so without the help of anyone beyond their local communities. International politics might influence the environment, and aid might cushion the fall, but when it comes down to the experience of proximate physical violence, civilians are relying on their friends, family, and neighbors. And even when these social networks are strong, and civilians successfully navigate the physical and social landscapes, survival is rarely possible without luck. Communities play a role in shaping mass violence, but they often can do little more than respond and adapt. Subsequently, not everyone, even those who are well prepared, will survive. Apagu came closest to death when she was spotted after her escape by a Boko Haram fighter, but mercifully he didn’t have a gun, and she was able to escape. That civilians need such luck, and that so many do not have it, is tragic.

Room for Debate: The Link Between Social Fragmentation and Violence

2 Feb

Does social fragmentation lead to violence? If it does, how important a factor is it? Is violence itself the primary cause of social fragmentation? Will reversing social fragmentation lead to less violence and atrocities? I’ll present the arguments for and against social fragmentation as a cause of violence, but ultimately leave it up to the reader to decide which theory is more convincing. Personally, I’m not entirely sure what I think.

For some conceptual clarity, here’s the definition of social fragmentation I have in mind: A lack of bridging capital or the opposite of social cohesion, and strongly related to a collective lack of social capital. Sometimes the result of social exclusion. It may also include a lack of bonding capital.

The case for social fragmentation as a cause of violence

The argument that social fragmentation leads to violence is a fairly straight-forward one. Colletta and Cullen argue non-fragmented societies have high degrees of social capital, which is important for positive outcomes, “…there is little disagreement about the role of social capital in facilitating collective action, economic growth, and development by complementing other forms of capital.” The resulting social cohesion provides societies with greater resilience to shocks, “Social cohesion is the key intervening variable between social capital and violent conflict. The greater the degree to which vertical linking and horizontal bridging social capital integrate, the more likely it is that the society will be cohesive and will thus possess the inclusive mechanisms necessary for mediating or managing conflict before it turns violent.”

On the other hand, social fragmentation results when institutions are unable to provide equally for all citizens or when leaders purposefully exclude populations. The resulting societies have fewer structures able to mitigate conflict and weaker norms that convince individuals not to use violence to settle disputes. Subsequently, groups tend toward inward to identity groups they feel they can trust for protection, sacrificing bridging capital for bonding capital. This exclusionary social capital can subsequently used negatively, stoking instead of hampering the chances of violence. Naraya et al. argue the effects of social fragmentation can be seen across society, from incidences of domestic violence to large-scale violent conflict.

Colletta and Cullen add to Naraya et al.’s theories by presenting a more specific framework for the link between social fragmentation and violence. Their basic thesis is, “Weak social cohesion increases the risk of social disorganization, fragmentation, and exclusion and the risk for violent conflict.” While social fragmentation can be managed, and therefore the conflict produced does not necessarily lead to violence, certain structural conditions make this more difficult:

Conflict does often engender large-scale violence if various structural conditions are present, such as authoritarian rule and a lack of political rights (as in Rwanda and Guatemala), state weakness and lack of institutional capacity to manage conflict (as in Somalia) and socio-economic imbalances combined with inequity of opportunity and a weak civil society (as seen in Cambodia)… Thus violent conflict is triggered by the presence of strong exclusionary bonds and disempowerment combined with a lack of horizontal bridging and vertical linking social capital.

So while social fragmentation alone does not cause violence or atrocities, it creates an environment conducive to atrocities, without which they would be highly unlikely to happen. For Colletta and Cullen, the most common route to violence is when social fragmentation causes groups to protect their own at the expense of others, and therefore they argue that working to improve bridging capital is the best strategy.

While Colletta and Cullen see the effect of social fragmentation and the potential for violence as occurring across society, Lindemann offers a clear vision for how social fragmentation directly influences violence. He argues that it is not social fragmentation that is the problem, but the lack of institutions able to handle the fragmentation at the elite level, a dynamic which previous studies of the causes of civil war had not examined in full.

Inclusive elite bargains redistribute rents and jobs, and ultimately unlink social fragmentation from violence because without elites participating in the shaping of exclusionary social relationship, they don’t lead to violence. When societies are socially fragmented, and ruling elites build political institutions that exclude the elites of already marginalized groups, these elites are prevented from providing benefits to their political or social group. This endangers their status as elites, and therefore they rebel if the following conditions are met, “First, the exclusion of certain ethnoregional elites needs to be maintained over time. Second, the exclusion of certain leaders has to be consistent across categories, that is, the affected groups and their elite representatives must be systematically denied access to most (or even all) state structures (jobs) and state resources (rents). Third, it is obvious that the importance of the alienated elites matters.”

These rebellions may lead to mass atrocities either because the opposition elites are threatened by being totally excluded from formal political power and commit a mass atrocity themselves, or these rebellions can threaten ruling elites, provoking a state-led mass atrocity. In sum, social fragmentation matters if elites carry it out against other elites along lines of differentiation already present in society, because it is these parties, the ruling and opposition elites, that have the power to mobilize violence. It should be noted that Lindemann is writing on civil war risk, rather than atrocities, and most civil wars do not lead to mass atrocities.


The case against social fragmentation as a cause of violence

The case against social fragmentation as a cause of violence does not deny that social fragmentation occurs or even that it has deep effects on society, but rather than social fragmentation itself is caused by larger, powerful forces, and isolating social fragmentation as the independent variable misses the true causality. In this view, violence is itself the main cause of social fragmentation and/or smaller social cleavages are multiplied by violence to make it appear as if social fragmentation is what’s ripping society apart.

Benjamin Valentino lays out the basic components of this analysis in his book Final Solutions, which looks specifically at mass atrocities. Broadly he notes that many fairly homogenous societies have experienced mass killing, while many societies with deep social cleavages have not. Furthermore:

Proponents of the plural society theory, however, offer surprisingly little evidence that social cleavages are more intense in societies that have experienced genocide or mass killing than in those that have not. To date, quantitative research on ethnic conflict and genocide has found little correlation between indicators of ethnic, social, economic, and cultural differences and the likelihood of large-scale violence between groups. Nor do ethnic wars appear to be more likely to result in mass killing that political or ideological conflicts.

Mass atrocities and large-scale violence are such rare events that looking for deep social cleavages produces too many false positives, and the social fragmentation theory doesn’t offer an obvious mechanism for certain how attitudes, relationships, and norms lead to organizations with high capacities for violence.

Another reason to doubt the social fragmentation theory is the role elites and the “greed” side of the “greed vs. grievance” formulation play in sparking violence. If what causes violence and atrocities is largely elites feeling threatened or sensing an opportunity to increase their power, then social fragmentation is secondary because opportunity, not identity or grievance, is the driving force.

Thirdly, many studies of violence and identity see the former as primarily driving the latter, and not the other way around. In his study of the Mozambican civil war, Lubkemann argues trying to find causality in pre-war fissures is misguided because the war itself shaped identities to a degree that there was often little resemblance between people’s pre-war and during-war identities. Experiences of violence, both in myth and in reality, determine how people view others, and subsequently the “othering” that occurs produces social fragmentation.

Finally, looking at social fragmentation may overstate the role that ideology and social relations (writ large) play in atrocities. Lubkemann’s argues that while “new wars” (defined as civil wars between often weak forces after the end of the Cold War) are indeed about politics, they’re not the macro-politics they’re often made out to be. Instead, the political goals of actors are highly localized and diverse.

His work is in line with Kalyvas’, who sees civil wars as driven by civilian decisions to give denunciations to the warring parties. Civilians tend to ideologically support whoever controls the region where they live, but use armed actors to settle personal scores (admittedly often shaped by micro-level social fragmentation) through false denunciations. War is ideological, in that civilians direct violence for political purposes, but their goals are limited and it is violence that allows social fissures to be exploited, rather than the social fissures that bring the violence in the first place.

In sum, social fragmentation can be observed in violence, but it is not the primary cause nor can attempts to decrease social fragmentation prevent the violence from beginning in the first place.

5 Pieces on Trends in Violence and Contentious Politics

16 Jan

These five (well really seven) articles were the most eye-opening for me in the past year.

1. Edward Carpenter – The New Blitzkrieg and Keith Somerville – Ivory, Insurgency, and Crime in Central Africa: The Sudans connection

While these articles take on different topics, together they offer up a few lessons about the nature of modern warfare. In his article, Carpenter notes the high recent incidence of mobile rebel groups taking vast territory quickly in under-populated areas. These groups tend to operate by using Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and operate as networks, rather than the top-down hierarchies favored by yesterday’s rebels. These rebel groups have proved difficult to combat because they’re both physically and organizationally agile, and even when superior air power halts their advance, they tend to disperse even further, launching well-entrenched rural insurgencies.

Somerville’s article examines similar types of groups, but instead of focusing on their military tactics, he highlights the ways in which they involve themselves in illicit economies across borders. Armed groups from Darfur to Cameroon trade in ivory, and this trade is both based on a long history of trading between semi-nomadic groups and the more recent rise of armed groups on the margins of weak states. Somerville’s research demonstrates that these armed groups have both deep local roots and an international reach. Particularly in the Sahel, vast spaces do not have strong government presence, providing ample opportunities for networked groups to sustain themselves. Any solutions have to take this reality into account.

2. Jay Ulfelder – The Political Power of Inertia

The dynamics Jay describes in this piece are not new, but their historical lack of recognition, particularly among the NGO community, makes his argument a worthy inclusion. When we think of how to lessen the potential for violence in sub-Saharan Africa, we tend to think in terms of big, explosive events: mass atrocities, wars, and political transition. All of these, however, are very rare events. The vast majority of analysis predicting dramatic political change turn out to be wrong.

This bias of always predicting or imaging how to produce sensational change belies that for the most part, change is subtle or doesn’t happen at all. And when they do happen, they often prove to be momentarily blips that quickly recede and the status quo ante re-entrenches. Bureaucratic logic prizes stasis over change and humans tend to be creatures of habit. All of this means that while it is not futile to plot how to make change, we have to be aware that it very rarely happens (at least in the way we imagine). If there is one upside here, it is that violence will likely not emerge in most countries not currently experiencing it. If Jay’s right, and inertia is an underestimated political force, then working to achieve un-dramatic change in countries teetering on the brink is an advisable course of action.

3. De Waal et al. – The epidemiology of lethal violence in Darfur: Using micro-data to explore complex patterns of ongoing armed conflict

In their analysis of violence statistics in Darfur, de Waal and his fellow researchers come to a surprising conclusion. While the conflict had traditionally been portrayed as one between an Arabizing government and African tribes, they found far more complexity. Some of their most interesting findings were that the Sudanese Armed Forces engaged in armed confrontations with every other armed actor, including other government agencies and allied Arab tribes during the studied period. The Arab tribes, generally portrayed as aggressors against the Fur and Zaghawa, actually had more casualties caused by inter-tribal fighting than all the African tribes combined. While the violence did have some patterns, like that it tended to have clear high and low intensity periods, it appeared somewhat random. It looked much less than political violence and more like banditry, where every armed actor sought to take advantage of every other through violence.

While de Waal et al. are careful not to overclaim, it is not unreasonable to expect other warzones to exhibit similar patterns. While Darfur, admittedly, may be an extreme case because of the lack of formal governance and the sheer number of armed actors, it’s possible scholars of violence have traditionally overstated the degree to which identity and ideology affect the execution of violence. Warfare may in fact largely follow the logic of violence, rather than the logic of politics. If this is true, violence prevention strategies have to focus more on preventing the conditions that allow violence to happen (poor governance, illicit economies, poverty, etc.) than getting combatants to strike political deals.

4. Nils Gilman – The Twin Insurgency

Gilman’s article is the most theoretical on this list, but it still provides concrete ways to better understand trends in contentious politics. Gilman’s main argument is that the modern state is facing a “twin insurgency”. From above, the state has to deal with an emerging class of plutocrats who feel they have no duty to pay taxes or otherwise act in the interest of any state. For this select but powerful group, the ideology of nationalism is unimportant and states only exist to be wielded for personal profit. Even more insidiously than disengaging, they actively use their economic power to limit the ability of governments’ to collect revenue from its citizens. From below, “comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires.”

The implications of Gilman’s theory are enormous. In countries like Nigeria, it is not just the peculiar economic impact of oil has created elites uninterested in service-delivery, but that these elites are part of a global movement. Even the upper limits of successful institutional reform may not be enough to limit the corrosive power of internationally-connected plutocrats. The implications are similar for the insurgency from below. While globalization generally connects licit businesses and activities, it’s underbelly is an increasingly connected illicit world that makes it harder and harder to compartmentalize and attack. The lines will begin to blur between criminal enterprises, rebels, and terrorist groups, and these amalgamations will have increasingly internationalist goals (though not in the way Marx envisaged). Neither insurgency is a formal entity with the goal of capturing the state as 20th century insurgencies were, but both seek to keep the state at arm’s length. Without pushing it away entirely, both insurgencies seek to exploit the state’s power to achieve particular goals while carving, “out de facto zones of autonomy”.

5. Krasner and Risse – Well-governed failed states? Not an oxymoron!

Krasner and Risse write, “Failed states are supposed to be safe havens for terrorists, where anarchy, violence and chaos reign. This is the conventional wisdom.” They go on to explain why the conventional wisdom is wrong. They start with a theoretical point, nothing that pretty much all countries (with the possible exception of Denmark) have areas of limited statehood. By this they mean there are areas of the country where the state has less than complete (violent) authority. Therefore failed states are very rare (maybe only Somalia and DRC), while most other states have some degree of limited statehood.

Additionally, Krasner and Risse find that there is no link between service-provision/governance and the degree of statehood/government capacity. In short, there are well-governed failed states, where non-government entities, from NGO’s to civil society to kin networks, step in to provide services to residents. Furthermore, they argue there are three conditions that make service-provision more likely: legitimacy (acceptance by population of governing actor), task properties (simpler tasks are more likely to be completed), and institutional design (the strength of connection between external and local actors).

Krasner and Risse’s research has two central implications for peacebuilding work. First, increasing state capacity is not necessarily the most effective route to improving the lives of citizens, especially when states can be predatory actors themselves. Second, working with communities requires acceptance and a good working relationship with local elites. Finally, in states that are truly failed, and no indigenous capacity exists, it is advisable to perform relatively simple tasks that only require a few partners, and larger projects without indigenous partners are much less likely to succeed.

6. Honorable mention: Duncan Green – What are the big trends on conflict and fragility? Some great presentations at DFID

Structure, Ideas, and the Functioning of Social Change

10 Dec

In August, Waging Nonviolence published an article on how same-sex marriage in the United States went from being a political impossibility in the late 1990’s to a political inevitability today. In regards to the manner of the victory, the authors Mark and Paul Engler write, “Rather than being based on calculating realism — a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate — the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.” For them, same-sex marriage is sweeping the country now not because of an abundance of political money, effective lobbyists, and committed lawmakers, but because “average” Americans changed their opinions on its morality. When it came time for them to vote on the issue, political figures had to listen to the (democratic) will of the people.

In a very different article a few weeks earlier, Jim Sanders made the case that the success of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria is because the group’s strategy does not conform to the government’s expectations. Group’s imagined contexts (or in other words, a worldview) set the boundaries for which strategies are possible, and the context in which Boko Haram sees itself is very different from Nigeria’s, “They have created their own reality, an amalgam, as John Campbell says, of twenty-first century technology and esoteric (medieval) Islamic texts, which they hold up as guiding documents.” Boko Haram has not sought to engage in traditional electoral politics, formal or informal. For Sanders, Boko Haram is “postmodern” because its strategy derives from a significantly different belief system, rather than, as Mark and Paul Engler put it, “…a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate…”

Both articles make claims on how change can happen. For Sanders and Englers, political structures (by structures I mean a set of political relationship that are not all horizontal) can be shaped entirely by ideas. For this thesis on the functioning of change to hold true, the assumptions that power is diffuse and that horizontal relationships based in ideology have the capacity to change vertical relationships based on authority without needing a weakness in those structures must also be true. In short, Sanders and the Englers are implicitly arguing that ideas are the basis of how society is organized (or at least can be), rather than the logic of bureaucratic politics.

These claims align broadly with postmodern theories of power and change. Foucault, for example, writes in Power/Knowledge that power is, “…localized here nor there, never in anybody’s hands”. Gene Sharp’s theory of power, which may or may not be generally classified within the postmodern school, shares many similarities with Foucault (Mark and Paul Engler devote an entire section of their article to detailing Sharp’s theory of power). Sharp makes the important insight that power is relational. By that, he means that “power” exists only in individuals’ relations to each other, rather than being a monolithic force that exists within institutions and governments. Sharp’s project in describing power is demonstrating how social movements can accumulate it and ultimately overthrow regimes. He uses the metaphor of pillars of support, which activists seek to knock over, by gaining allies, one at a time.

The problem with postmodern theories of power, and by extension the two articles I’ve cited above, is that they tend to minimize the ability of structures to attain and wield power. Let me explain (with examples first, theory second). Sanders and the Englers argue that ideas are the primary driver for achieving the change they describe. However, both articles sell themselves short by failing to highlight the effects of structures on ideas in their respective scenarios. Though Boko Haram’s strategy is a result of an imagined context quite different from others’ expectations, the context it imagines can’t be disentangled from political structures, or to say it differently, structure and ideas form a feedback loop. By this I mean that Boko Haram’s military force has created a balance of power (which creates a political structure) that gives Boko Haram’s ideas space to exist. The counterfactual here is that if Boko Haram could not muster the military power to evict the Nigerian government from much of northeastern Nigeria, its ideas would be inconsequential in terms of social change, and would probably not exist in their current, outrageous form.

Initially I found Mark and Paul Engler’s thesis to be quite convincing, but after putting it on my Facebook wall, fellow Swarthmore alum Jonah Wacholder pointed out some of its holes. Jonah wrote, “Everything about the fight to achieve same-sex marriage, from its choice as a goal to the (successful) tactics used to achieve it, was grounded in a series of pragmatic political judgments…[same sex-marriage advocates] kept marriage litigation out of the federal courts until 2009. They accepted civil unions in multiple states. They compromised on religious exemptions to bring in recalcitrant state legislators. They deliberately adopted a public relations strategy that focused on same-sex couples that met the norms of conventional respectability as thoroughly as possible.”

Therefore, while proponents of same-sex marriage did try to shift public opinion, they also calculated their strategy to partially conform to structural constraints. This dual theory of change was both top-down and bottom-up. It sought to both change the structure that ultimately determined the status of same-sex marriage while influencing the norms that informed the structure’s thinking. Whether transformational change on same-sex marriage was possible without engagement with the concentrated power of political structures is impossible to know for sure. However, the fact that advocates assumed focusing solely on moving public opinion was sub-optimal implies ideas alone couldn’t substitute for working to alter political structures and political ideas.

The implication I see here is that seeking to achieve change solely with ideas, which can be defined as horizontal power relations, overlooks the strength of political institutions and structures. This brings me back to Gene Sharp. He would argue that structures are simply the accumulation of person-to-person relationships, and therefore vulnerable to change through the same tactics as individuals. However, this neglects why structures are powerful in the first place. The structures exist because of the strong quality of relationships between individuals in those structures, which are not only based on ideas. Bureaucratic politics play a strong role in determining the cohesion of structures, and this force is more impervious to alteration from outsiders. Sharp is not naive in the need to wield power and leverage support to achieve political change, but I would argue that in not distinguishing between power relationships based on ideology and power relationships based on structure and authority, he fails to fully describe what makes political institutions resilient to change. In terms of change, political institutions are usually more successful at removing pillars of support from activists than vice versa.

In some cases, significant social change can happen primarily through the power of ideas. While the fight for same-sex marriage was about both responding to structural opportunity and norm diffusion, ideas played an important role. Jonah again, “We’re succeeding for homophobia (at least sometimes, for some people) because the political tactic of coming out is brilliant and extremely powerful when you have a group that exists in every family and every socio-economic category. (Successful same-sex marriage advocacy leverages this by connecting the same-sex couples who want to marry to people the audience knows and has emotional commitments to, or could imagine knowing and having emotional commitments to.)”

In some movements, like same-sex marriage, the role of ideas (and public opinion) can have an out-sized effect of determining outcome. However, in most cases attempting to disentangle ideas from structure/opportunity is a futile endeavor: focus only on ideas and you’ll never achieve change, focus only on structure, and you have no rationale for achieving change. The only answers are imperfect.

Why Study Peace Versus Violence?

11 Nov

*This is a lightly edited version of a short paper I prepared for an external project.


The choice of whether to study peace or to study violence is a more difficult dilemma than it would first appear. First, what is the relationship between the two? Are they merely inverses? If that’s true, why study one or the other? If they’re not, what are the differences? These questions will not fully be answered in this post, but I should be able to shed some light on ways to better conceptualize these problems.

Strangely, there seems to be very little written explicitly about the advantages of studying peace or violence (to the point where a literature review becomes unhelpful). It becomes even stranger when one realizes an entire academic discipline, peace and conflict studies, was founded in response to a perceived over-focus on the causes and manifestations of violence. However, from a bit of research I’ve done and my experience within the peace and conflict literature more generally, it seems peace and conflict scholars are more interested in how studying peace can lead to a more peaceful (defined broadly) world, rather than the advantages and disadvantages of studying one over the other.

The relationship between peace and violence

Determining the relationship between peace and violence depends on how one defines each. While “violence” is fairly well understood, peace is much more abstract. Some would define peace as the mere absence of physical violence, but some scholars, particularly in peace studies, go much farther, hypothesizing that peace entails everything from human’s symbiosis with the planet to harmonious family relations. While I would argue this expansive definition takes the concept of peace too far, rendering it practically meaningless, there is significant precedence in the peace literature to define peace as more than the opposite of violence. Peace, in the most basic conception, exists in negative form – that is, the absence of physical violence – and positive form – that is, the absence of barriers to social, political, and economic equality. When peace is defined as being comprised of positive and negative components, the distinction between “peace” and violence’s inverse becomes more clear, and peace becomes a concept worthy of study in of itself.

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist and philosopher writing at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His work is foundational for the field of peace and conflict studies. In his essay “Conflict”, Simmel lays out his vision for the interconnectedness and form of peace and violence. Simmel argues that conflict is ever-present, but that it can take violent or peaceful forms. He writes that conflict, in whatever manifestation, is an attempt at socialization and unity, in that it seeks to redress grievances and eliminate sources of tension. Therefore, conflict can be physically destructive, but it is also generative in that it produces new social arrangements (a point now frequently made by anthropologists).

Simmel’s argument provides a basis for understanding the principles of conflict transformation: if conflict always exists, the challenge is to have it exist in a peaceful manner. A conflict transformation lens opens up avenues for studying the causes of peace, it more specifically, how violent conflict can be made peaceful without eliminating grievances.


Studying peace can be challenging because as a former peace studies professor of mine told me, it is like, “looking for answers on a blank piece of paper.” He went on to argue that because peace is the norm, it is best to study derivations in order to understand the norm itself. I was somewhat surprised to hear this from a peace studies professor, but I think it points to just how little understanding there is of why or how to study peace.

Part of the difficulty in studying peace involves disentangling peace from violence. Brewer argues that there cannot be one without the other: peace and violence imply each other. Even if peace is the norm, and is therefore difficult to study, it is conceived as normal in comparison to infrequent outbreaks of violence. Simply, it is hard to define peace without mentioning violence (whereas the reverse is not quite as difficult, because peace is so pervasive that it is assumed as the normal state). Even in a peacebuilding lens, studying the causes of positive peace is undertaken with the intention of preventing violence in the long-term.

Therefore, there is some confusion on what the explicit study of peace adds. The difficulty justifying its detachment from “violence” is hard enough, but even if that is achieved, it’s murky what studying peace provides that studying violence does not.


Ashutosh Varshney, an Indian political scientist, began a research project in the early 2000’s on why certain cities in India experienced Hindu vs. Muslim riots. He realized that to better understand why it happened in certain cities, he needed a basis of comparison, so he chose to also study cities where violence had not broken out.

Varshney’s research gets at a couple of key points on studying peace versus violence. First, it creates a context for violence as “abnormal” by setting a baseline for comparison. This is important for peacebuilders, because when seeking to prevent violence in a society, it is important to have a conception of what a low-violence society would look like for the target community. Since most peacebuilding organizations are Western and/or employ Western staff, and the paradigm of liberal peacebuilding, centered around concepts honed in Western countries like rule of law and an independent judiciary, is pervasive, peacebuilders are likely to operate with an implicit, but uncritical vision of peaceful societies present in the West. This vision may or may not have much in common with a realistic vision of how to create peace in the target community. When trying to prevent violence, failing to study what causes peace will lead to distorted perceptions of the routes to peace.


The existing research on understanding the causes of peace or the causes of violence is incomplete and scattered. No authors I found took on the theoretical issue directly, even if there is much work related to the question. For example, much of the peacebuilding literature operates on the assumption of preventing violence through causing peace, and therefore works on improving governance, for example, are largely looking at the causes of peace. While there is certainly a gap in the literature to be filled, I am skeptical of the value of studying the causes of peace in isolation. Because it is, as I have argued, so difficult to conceptually disentangle peace from violence to create two independent, non-overlapping bodies of study, I would argue that the existing research agenda can best be improved by seeking to studying the causes of peace and the causes of violence, much as Varshney has done. Such an undertaking would redress the overall lack of studies of peace and help ease, if not eliminate the dilemmas of a short-term versus long-term lens and focusing on physical versus structural violence.

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not You, It’s Me

11 Aug

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

Replicable violence prevention programs

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

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

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

Perceptions of the transformative power of violence

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

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

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

The problems of our own institutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Explains Israel’s Military Tactics in Gaza?

24 Jul

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

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

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

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


Factors that lead Israel to target civilians

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

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

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

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

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


Factors That Prevent Israel From Targeting Civilians

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

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

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



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

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