Author Archive | Erica Chenoweth

That Op-Ed by Putin: Where Is He Right, and Where Is He Wrong?

Here’s my quick and dirty run-down of Putin’s op-ed published in today’s New York Times. In some places, I assess whether his statements are accurate in terms of what political science research has said. In other places, I just look at it from a logic perspective. His statements are in quotes, and my responses are below.

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A Plea for Caution from Russia, by V. Putin (published in the print edition of the NYT on September 12, 2013, page A31).

“Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.”


MEH. This is an oversimplification of the League’s collapse and the UN’s role in world politics. Arguably its collapse began when countries initiated wars of aggression—particularly the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, during which the Italians used mustard gas on civilians. Haile Selassie, then Emperor of Abyssinia, came before the League to issue an emotional appeal for action to roll back Italian aggression, but none was forthcoming. This effectively killed the foundational doctrine of the League—collective security—where aggression was supposedly outlawed and theoretically deterred through universal military response to the aggressor. Ironically, then, the UN is in a bit of a paradox. The UN is concerned with two levels of peace—inter-state peace, which Putin references above, and intra-state peace, which he summarily ignores. Yes, it’s illegal for countries to go to war with one another when the UNSC flatly rejects it. On the other hand, it’s also illegal for leaders to commit indiscriminate murder against their own people (hence the R2P doctrine). This means that the UN is in a bind. Its presence as a force to check aggression against ones own people is thwarted by Russia’s insistence on placing the legality of UNSC’s veto player doctrine above the legality of punishing leaders who commit crimes against humanity.

 

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”

PROBABLY TRUE. Research is all over the map on the question of how limited military actions affect humanitarian conditions and escalation of conflicts. However, I am more persuaded by prior studies that show that on average, military interventions actually exacerbate killings (at least in the short term), lengthen “spells” of repression, and often lengthen civil wars themselves. Extremely robust multilateral interventions—involving boots on the ground and multidimensional efforts to reform political, economic, and social conditions—can halt these killings. But that’s not what the Obama administration is considering, nor is it plausible in this case given Russia and China’s objections.

 

“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

PROBABLY. Previous research shows that weaker states often use asymmetric capabilities to attack their more powerful rivals, and this often occurs in direct retaliation for military actions. Weaker powers know that they cannot confront stronger powers using conventional military force. However, weaker powers also know that sponsoring terror attacks is relatively cheap and low-risk (since they can always deny it), that stronger powers cannot prevent every terror attack, and that stronger powers tend to overreact to terror attacks, which can ultimately weaken them. Think about the series of events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing—Libya’s retaliation for Reagan’s strikes on Benghazi and Tripoli (which was, by the way, retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terror attack on American officers in a German nightclub).

 

“It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.”

QUITE LIKELY. My thought here isn’t based on research as much as my sense that a strike on Syria would preclude any chance for us to work with the Iranians or the Russians on anything in the near future. Part of the reason Putin has been so unrelenting on Syria is his displeasure with UNSC Resolution 1973. With its aftermath, the Russians felt they were felt tricked into withholding their veto and the result was a back-door regime change campaign in Libya. The Iranians have been launching one hell of a PR campaign lately, but a strike in Syria would probably heighten their security concerns rather than diminishing them. Moreover, Assad has repeatedly invoked threats to the Israeli-Palestinians peace process as something of a deterrent against a US strike, implying that if the US does strike, his regional allies will retaliate against Israel. If this happened, it could certainly be quite the distraction from the peace process.

 

“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

GIVE ME A BREAK. First of all, it depends on which laws you’re talking about (see my discussion above). Assad has broken a considerable number of international laws—as has Russia—over the course of this crisis. And second, the international order is based on the balance of power in the system, which seems to be quite stable at the moment. Although the United States has not been taking a forward military posture in the Middle East lately, objectively its hard power assets remain considerable. If there is one stable rule in international politics, it’s the one Thucydides wrote about in 431 BC: Great powers do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. If anyone knows that, it’s Putin.

 

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria.

IT DEPENDS. There are plenty of people there still fighting for democracy—some still using nonviolent means, believe it or not!—while armed rebel groups there are doing what armed rebel groups do pretty much everywhere else. Most civil wars of this nature don’t wind up as democracies regardless of who wins, but that’s besides the point. The most pressing concern is to stop the killing. Actually no one has a very good sense of who the “good guys” are in Syria these days. Putin certainly doesn’t know who the good guys are, given that he has supported the first side to commit indiscriminate murder from the very beginning.

 

“But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations.”

YES, BUT SO WHAT? The Obama administration’s strike on the Syrian government’s assets would allegedly be so limited that it would not affect the balance of power on the ground. And even if the strike did give the Qaeda fighters better chance against the Assad government, it would give similar advantages to secular rebels groups.

 

“This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.”

UM…How about all of those foreign weapons supplied to the regime? When states fund incumbent regimes, the likelihood that the rebels receive state support goes up dramatically. C’mon, Putin. Don’t you remember the Cold War? It’s true, though, that external support generally increases incentives for rebel groups to emerge, while increasing the likelihood that they abuse civilians.

 

“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

YEP. It’s a problem. There are no easy, short-term solutions, though, and Putin is being disingenuous here when he implies that a U.S. strike (or lack thereof) will alter this situation.

 

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

BLAH BLAH BLAH. Russia’s attempt to push for “peaceful dialogue” occurred while Russia was sending arms to Assad and blocking the all of the UN’s attempts to resolve the conflict. Syria is on trial now for its own violation of international law. Again, see above.

 

“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” 

THAT IS TRUE. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, a U.S. military strike would be illegal.

 

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

FEW ARE BUYING THIS. In fact, there is every indication that the UN—the law-enforcing body Putin so clearly respects—will point the finger at Assad’s government in the report it will release on Monday.

 

“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

I DOUBT IT, on two fronts. First, Putin seems to be conflating militants here. There are Al Qaeda types in Syria, who seem to be preoccupied with Assad at the moment. Then there are Al Qaeda types in Lebanon, who recently fired rockets into Israel. Second, if such an attack is in the works, I highly doubt that Israel is “ignoring” it.

 

“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”’

IT DEPENDS. Pew polls suggest that people still have fairly favorable views of the American government, although some see it as something of a bully (this is especially true in the Muslim world). On the other hand, Putin doesn’t really seem to care much about how “millions around the world” view it either. Global popularity may help a country get what it wants, but it is not a vital interest.

 

“But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.”

KINDA. Although major military adventures weren’t too successful in the end, some have argued that special operations missions and targeted killings of Al Qaeda affiliates have been quite effective, actually.

 

“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”

MUCH OF THIS IS TRUE. No military strikes, regardless of how “surgical”, can avoid collateral damage. It’s important to keep in mind that even when we’re talking about “humanitarian interventions,” we are talking about killing other people. Unfortunately systematic research on precisely how many people die in such strikes is hard to come by. Why? Because governments don’t keep track of how many civilians die in such strikes.

 

“The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”

AND WE’RE BACK TO IRAN. It’s difficult to fully understand what’s going on in Iranian leaders’ minds at the moment. But working together on nonproliferation—including the Iranian issue—will be difficult if Putin withdraws his cooperation from U.S. efforts. I do think that the claim that inaction in Syria will embolden Iran is overstated, though. The U.S. has been much more considered and consistent as to its interests regarding the Iranian nuclear program than Obama has been vis-à-vis Syria.

 

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

A WELCOME IDEA INDEED…if Putin is sincere, that is.

 

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations. If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

TOTALLY. To me this is the most promising aspect of the current negotiations. If the US and Russia can work together on this problem and find a way to get to common ground, it may build trust and provide opportunities to do more together—both on Syria and elsewhere.

 

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.”

WHY EXTERMELY DANGEROUS? Studies show that nationalism (and other forms of identity) are only really dangerous when leaders take advantage of these symbols to pursue policies that are dispossessive and dehumanizing, and predatory. I don’t know of any studies that argue that self-congratulatory nationalism alone leads to violence.

 

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

NO OBJECTION HERE.

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Action is not Synonymous with Force

This is a guest post from Deborah Avant, Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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The debate among Ivo Daalder, John Mearsheimer, and Hisham Melhem last night on the Newshour was quite poignant. All three actually agreed on the important point: the action the US is considering to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons will, as John Mearsheimer put it, “do little good”.  A very good set of arguments from CNAS arrive at similar conclusions.  There are many nods to the brutality to Assad’s regime but no one thinks the options being considered will improve the situation.

Really?  The US is thinking of launching a missile attack at no insubstantial cost (extrapolating from the costs of the Libyan intervention, which of course no one can agree on, we are looking at $1 billion minimum or as much as $2 billion/day) that will kill Syrians and promise many disruptions. Yet we cannot possibly foresee—when the vast majority of experts who agree on little else finally agree—that it is likely to do little good?

The conversation on the Newshour demonstrates how poorly the options the US is considering address the concerns American leaders feel.  Ivo Daalder admits (and Hisham Melhem is incensed by) the fact that we are considering only something that will punish Assad, not something that will help the situation on the ground.  The best one can say about the action being considered is that punishment is meant to “deter” future action, but Jon Mercer and others have demonstrated how fraught such a deterrence strategy is. I disagree with John Mearsheimer’s assumption that we should only act in ways that further our narrowly defined national interest, but he does have a point that taking action that promises to do little good makes little sense.  The other implicit option in this conversation, though, is doing nothing.  This is also hard to stomach (on that, see George Packer’s conversation with himself).

Perhaps it is time to move beyond the fallacy that the only action that counts is military force.  There are many, many things the US could do (and may be already doing) – working with the Arab League, working with global businesses who have impact in Syria, engaging people close to Assad…maybe even engaging with Hassan Rouhani.  These are all actions too.  Indeed, as Charli Carpenter points out, even if all the US wants to do is to punish Assad, there are many actions that may be more effective than a military strike.  The exercise of power does not require military force.  Power comes in many forms and often the most effective forms are the least violent.

Rather than being boxed in to a military strike (serious action) vs. no military strike (doing nothing) frame, Obama could use his considerable rhetorical skill to reframe the question as: what can the US do to either 1) reduce the chance that Assad will not use these weapons in the future or 2) improve the situation for civilians on the ground?  I am not suggesting there are easy answers to either of these questions. But at least if the US frames the questions in the right way, it will be less likely to take costly action that is worthless – or worse.

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More Political Scientists on Intervention

Josh Busby gives a good timeline of the political science blogosphere’s Syria conversation so far. The thesis: we are all conflicted. Prior studies should generally make us pessimistic, but not all cases are the same.

Additional links:

Commentaries by political scientists at the Center for a New American Security are all over the map in terms of whether intervention in Syria is a good idea. All of them urge caution and a clear strategic endgame for any intervention.

Marc Lynch warns against the possibility of mission creep.

Sara Bjerg Moller argues that compellence is the best way to describe an American air strike in Syria (if it happens).

For some more optimistic takes on the potential effectiveness of intervention:

In the July 2013 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, Andrew Kydd and Scott Straus argue that interventions can have modest benefits (in terms of further atrocity prevention) “if the third party is relatively neutral and if alternative costs are imposed on decision makers.” Their paper is here (gated).

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Jacqueline Demerrit finds that international intervention in support of rebel groups can limit the escalation of killings, whereas intervention in support of the government can prevent the onset of mass killings. Her paper is here (ungated).

Please feel free to add more in the comments section below.

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When Do Interventions Work?

Jon Western is right to point out that there are certainly cases of intervention success. Indeed, those arguing in favor of intervention in Syria will surely draw on cases like Bosnia and Kosovo to make their case for intervention in Syria.

Setting aside the possibility that cases like Bosnia and Kosovo are not great examples of intervention success, there is certainly some persuasive evidence that military interventions can work. The cumulative research from people like Page Fortna, Barb Walter, and Michael Doyle & Nicholas Sambanis suggests there are some important qualifications to this.

First, the interventions need to take the form of peacekeeping missions—with well-resourced boots on the ground to protect civilians and enforce the peace.

Second, the missions must be multilateral, providing further credibility to enforcement and legitimacy to the cause.

Third, the peacekeeping missions must be multidimensional. This means they aren’t just military missions, but that they also involve extensive efforts at state capacity-building, humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, economic development, election monitoring, and the like.

Fourth, the combatants are ready to negotiate and consent to the intervention. Although there is some controversy about this (Fortna finds that Chapter VII enforcement missions are just as effective as consent-based ones), Doyle & Sambanis suggest that multilateral peacekeeping missions aren’t too successful at ending civil wars; rather, they help to enforce the peace once hostilities have ceased.

All of these conditions being present, there have been some peacekeeping successes (e.g. East Timor, El Salvador, etc.). Any of these being absent, the results are more mixed. All of them being absent, the outcomes of international intervention are much less favorable in both strategic and humanitarian terms. See several of my previous posts (here, here, and here) for more on this.

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Do Military Interventions Hasten the End of Civil Wars?

Political scientists argue: generally, no.

From the abstract of an influential 2002 paper, Patrick Regan:

Recent research has begun to focus on the role of outside interventions in the duration of civil conflicts. Assuming that interventions are a form of conflict management, ex ante expectations would be that they would reduce a conflict’s expected duration. Hypotheses relating the type and timing of outside interventions to the duration of civil conflicts are tested. The data incorporate 150 conflicts during the period from 1945 to 1999, 101 of which had outside interventions. Using a hazard analysis, the results suggest that third-party interventions tend to extend expected durations rather than shorten them.

From the paper:
The policy implications of these results are fairly stark. If the objective of an intervention is to shorten the length of a civil conflict, then an outside military or economic intervention is not a terribly effective strategy to do so. Regardless of how the intervention is conceived – or empirically operationalized—there seems to be no mix of strategies that lead to shorter expected durations. Even maintaining a neutral posture or organizing the intervention under the auspices of a multilateral rubric is not sufficient to form an effective means of conflict management (p. 31).

Full paper is here (gated). See also his comprehensive overview of the literature here (gated).

Also, in an earlier paper, Andrew Enterline and Dylan Balch-Lindsay find similar effects. From their abstract:

To test our hypotheses about the impact of third parties and geopolitical factors on civil war duration, we rely on event history analysis and a sample of 152 civil wars for the period 1820–1992. We find empirical support for the idea that extremely long civil wars correspond to the equitable distribution of third party interventions—stalemates prolong wars.

And from the paper:
as [international] support for either of the domestic combatants increases, the hazard rate [of civil war termination] decreases, corresponding to a lengthening of the duration of civil wars (p. 632).

Their full paper is here (ungated) or here (gated).

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Do Military Interventions Reduce Killings of Civilians in Civil Wars?

From the abstract of a 2012 paper by Reed Wood, Jason Kathman, and Stephen Gent:

As a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit. The reason for this is twofold. First, declining capabilities increase resource needs at the moment that extractive capacity is in decline. Second, declining capabilities inhibit control and policing, making less violent means of defection deterrence more difficult. As both resource extraction difficulties and internal threats increase, actors’ incentives for violence against the population increase. To the extent that biased military interventions shift the balance of power between conflict actors, we argue that they alter actor incentives to victimize civilians. Specifically, intervention should reduce the level of violence employed by the supported faction and increase the level employed by the opposed faction. We test these arguments using data on civilian casualties and armed intervention in intrastate conflicts from 1989 to 2005. Our results support our expectations, suggesting that interventions shift the power balance and affect the levels of violence employed by combatants.

In fact, they find that military interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40% (see Figure 2 below from p. 656).

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 8.58.11 AM


From their conclusion:

Supporting a faction’s quest to vanquish its adversary may have the unintended consequence of inciting the adversary to more intense violence against the population. Thus, third parties with interests in stability should bear in mind the potential for the costly consequences of countering murderous groups. Potential interveners should heed these conclusions when designing intervention strategies and tailor their interventions to include components specifically designed to protect civilians from reprisals. Such strategies could include stationing forces within vulnerable population centers, temporarily relocating susceptible populations to safe havens that are more distant from the conflict zone, and supplying sufficient ground forces to be consistent with such policies. These actions could fulfill broader interests in societal stability in addition to interests in countering an organization on geopolitical grounds. Successful policies will thus not only counter murderous factions but will explicitly seek to protect civilian populations.

The full paper is here (gated).

 

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How Do Military Interventions Affect Human Rights Practices?

With a military intervention in Syria on the table, it’s worth considering what the impacts of such interventions are. Over the next few days I’ll be featuring political science research on this topic.

From the abstract of a paper by Dursun Peksen in the September 2012 issue of Political Research Quarterly:

military intervention contributes to the rise of state repression by enhancing the state’s coercive power and encouraging more repressive behavior, especially when it is supportive or neutral toward the target government. Results … show that supportive and neutral interventions increase the likelihood of extrajudicial killing, disappearance, political imprisonment, and torture. Hostile interventions increase only the probability of political imprisonment. The involvement of an intergovernmental organization or a liberal democracy as an intervener is unlikely to make any major difference in the suggested negative impact of intervention.

The full article is here (gated).

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Why Defining Terrorism Matters

This is a guest post by Karolina Lula, a PhD student at Rutgers-Newark.
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The terrorism industry has grown exponentially since 9/11.  Whenever a terrorist attack occurs, a plethora of terrorism scholars eagerly spoon out their collective wisdom.  The chance to be included in the over-caffeinated media spotlight justifies decades cooped up in small offices pouring over data. In a certain respect, terrorism scholars mirror their subject.  They both love an audience.

Despite their growing presence in the media, academics fail to persuade others about what terrorism is in the first place.  Language evolves and academia is only one source of influence.  The media would do well to adopt their stricter definition.

Academics have their own set of rules for defining terrorism.  Despite intra-field debate, most North American scholars adopt the three-prong definition of terrorism:  it is politically motivated, perpetrated by non-state actors like lone wolves or organizations, and targets civilians rather than the military.  This means that when a government attacks civilians like in Assad’s Syria, when the perpetrators are motivated by pecuniary gain like on the streets of Detroit, or when they target military assets like the USS Cole, academic purists would distinguish such acts of violence from terrorism.

When it comes to defining terrorism, motives therefore matter.  Mass shootings—like the one in Tucson by Jared Loughner, the one in the Aurora movie theater by James Holmes, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting by Adam Lanza, or the New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting—would be treated as something else.  Some scholars provide no distinction between rampage violence and terrorist acts.  But in reality, there is an important difference—rampage shooters are not politically motivated.

Another important criterion is target selection.  Guerilla attacks on military targets are often distinguished from terrorist attacks, which are directed against civilian targets.  Critics of the Obama administration have hammered him for his hesitancy to label Benghazi as a terrorist attack.  In fact, Benghazi was not a terrorist attack.  It was a guerilla attack against high-level U.S. diplomats, hardly a case of indiscriminate violence.  When most academics think about a terrorist attacks, we recall 9/11 and the Boston marathon because ordinary citizens were targeted, rather than agents of the state.

If Benghazi was not terrorism, was the Woolwich murder?  The video footage of the perpetrator reveals a clear political motive.  Bloody cleaver in hand, he speaks to the camera. “The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers,” he says.  “Remove your government, they don’t care about you.”    But did he target civilians?  The soldier was struck en route to work wearing a military shirt.  And yet the man in the video shows little interest in harming civilians.  He even expresses a weird concern for the witnesses: “I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our lands, our women have to see the same.”  No, the perpetrator didn’t target aimlessly.

This stringent definition may seem silly to non-academics, but its value lies in predictive power. Those who lump other forms of violence with terrorism are clouding their ability to make accurate predictions.  Consider the divergent political effects of terrorist campaigns versus guerrilla campaigns.  Whereas terrorists have an abysmal track record of getting what they want, guerillas sometimes win against capable opponents—like when the U.S. withdrew from Somalia in 1994 after a black hawk was shot down.

Academic research at its worst is obscure and elitist.  At its best, it impacts policy.  Research that yields accurate predictions creates policy solutions that could prevent violent attacks.  Researchers who lump all violence with terrorism, on the other hand, are like doctors who can’t cure a misdiagnosed affliction.

Politicians are notorious for using language to disguise policy choices. Words, the DNA of language, can be exercised to change the way we feel.  Steven Pinker says a “taboo word” may be used instrumentally to trigger an emotional response.  In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature he notes there is “something about the pairing of certain meanings and sounds [that] has a potent effect on people’s emotions” (326).   Although Pinker explains that the “pairing between a sound and meaning is arbitrary,” humans “can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in the audience quite against their wishes” (333).

British Prime Minister David Cameron declared in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich attack, “We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms.”  President Obama, by contrast, studiously avoided using the t-word on the heels of Benghazi.  Whereas Cameron was lauded, Obama was vilified.  Both men chose their words carefully.  In the face of terrorism, electorates tend to reward right-wing candidates opposed to government concessions.  It’s no wonder that Obama, a Democrat, wanted to eschew the word “terrorism,” while Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, readily adopted it.

The media should take a higher moral ground than politicians and avoid politicizing the t-word. The age of Twitter dysentery calls for greater conceptual clarity.  The media are the wellsprings of information, but no longer serve as its gatekeepers.  While academics are still trying to figure out what terrorists really want, they at least agree on the meaning of the word.

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Some Stuff I Learned at ISA

—This is a cross-post from Political Violence @ a Glance

Like many of my colleagues, I attended the 2013 International Studies Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco last week. Here are some of the headlines from me:

1. More and more IR scholars are looking to make a difference in the world, and not just by writing the occasional op-ed. I was approached by so many colleagues who wanted to brainstorm about how the field can better reach out to diverse audiences, make research accessible, and help the world be a better place. I must say it’s good to see this motivation taking center stage.

2. Conflict data is converging. I went to a workshop with the principal investigators of COW, ICOW, ACD, SCAD, MAR/MAROB, GTD, KEDS, ICEWS, WHIV, and others. The conversation revolved around 1) best practices in collecting conflict data; and 2) how each of these data sets can be made compatible with one another for easier integration. There was also talk of using brief informational videos (rather than just codebooks) to transmit information about data sets. We’ll likely write something up from the proceedings. Oh, and also: GDELT is out. It’s a game-changer. Check it out.

3. The new generation of IR scholars is the best thing going. I was amazed by the volume of graduate students and newly-minted PhDs creating ambitious and exciting new data, methodologies, and substantive findings. For a glimpse at the future of the field, check out work by students like Marianne Dahl(Oslo), Joel Day (Denver), Cassy Dorff (Duke), Jessica Maves (Penn State), Amy Nelson (Berkeley), Evan Perkoski (Penn), Chris Sullivan (Michigan), Ches Thurber (Tufts), and Arne Wackenhut (Gothenburg) — and these are just the ones I talked with at length!

4. Blogging events are the next best thing going. This year’s inaugural Sage/Duck of Minerva-sponsored Blogger Reception involved more energy and enthusiasm than any academic event I’ve ever seen. I won’t miss it next year. And, by the way, Political Violence @ a Glance received an OAIS Award as 2013’s Most Promising New Blog. Congrats to our contributors, and many thanks to our supporters!

5. Political scientists are taking nonviolent resistance seriously. The program this year included at least 28 papers that dealt, in some way, with civil resistance, nonviolence, or alternatives to violence. Yay.

6. There is a serious gender bias in IR citation practices. You (yes, you) can help to address this problem in a few simple ways: 1). Cite women when you write; 2). If you’re a woman, cite yourself (women are much less likely than men to self-cite); 3). When you’re putting together your course syllabi, make sure you fully represent women’s contributions to the discipline; 4) When you’re asked to do service for the discipline (editorial boards, committees, etc.), request that the board/committee include a representative number of women; and 5). Remind your colleagues and students to do the same. Easy, right?

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A New Conflict Data Source

From an announcement from Jacob Shapiro and Joe Felter:

We are pleased to announce the launch of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC) website, which can be accessed at http://esoc.princeton.edu/ .

ESOC identifies, compiles, and analyzes micro-level conflict data and information on insurgency, civil war, and other sources of politically motivated violence worldwide. ESOC was established in 2008 by practitioners and scholars concerned by the significant barriers and upfront costs that challenge efforts to conduct careful sub-national research on conflict. The ESOC website is designed to help overcome these obstacles and to empower the quality of research needed to inform better policy and enhance security and good governance around the world.

The ESOC team includes about forty researchers (current and former) and is led by six members: Eli Berman, James D. Fearon, Joseph H. Felter, David D. Laitin, Jacob N. Shapiro, and Jeremy M. Weinstein.


The website contains data on six countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Colombia. Take a look at the data and related publications. They are providing quite a public good.

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