Author Archive | Erica Chenoweth

What are Turkey and Syria Fighting About?

Political scientist Idean Salehyan argues refugee flows are at the heart of the crisis:

in addition to being a humanitarian catastrophe, refugee flows can foster wider conflict in the region. This is especially true when transnational rebel organizations are able to move across borders along with legitimate refugees.

First, refugee flows threaten to spread civil conflict to neighboring countries. This dynamic especially threatens Lebanon, which suffers from frail political institutions and a delicate sectarian balance; if the crisis becomes any worse, it could also jeopardize gains made in neighboring Iraq. Second, refugee camps and cross-border militant groups exacerbate conflict in their country of origin  It is well known that the Free Syrian Army operates freely from bases inside of Turkey (although it may now be in a position to move its command center into Syria). The ability to move back and forth across the border makes a government victory especially unlikely, meaning that we may be in for a very protracted war. Third, refugee flows and transnational rebel bases can spark conflict between states. Syria and Turkey have had numerous diplomatic rows and even exchanges of artillery fire after Syrian forces violated the border. Recently, the Turkish Parliament upped the ante by approving military action against its neighbor, potentially sparking a regional war.


Check out the full post here.

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Anti-Japanese Demonstrations in China

A banner on a store called pattad reads: “pattad firmly defends China’s right to the Diaoyu Islands. / We will give a 15% discount to customers who yell THE DIAOYU ISLANDS BELONG TO CHINA! in the store / We will give a 20% discount to customers who yell JAPAN ALSO BELONGS TO CHINA!”

This is a caption from a series of photos documenting Chinese demonstrations against Japan’s bid to purchase some of the Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea (via Valerie Hudson). Protestors have targeted Japanese businesses and products throughout China, leading several Japanese companies to suspend work at their factories.

Leon Panetta expressed concern about the possibility of war between the two countries today, but these concerns may be premature. Although Chinese authorities used extremely strong language toward Japan last week, the intensity of the protests seems to be more than they bargained for. Yale political scientist Jessica Weiss suggests that the rapid spread of the demonstrations has made them incredibly difficult to manage, and that the protests are poor indicators of Beijing’s intentions.

 

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Carrots AND Sticks Necessary for Counterterrorism?

This is a guest post by Scott Weiner, a PhD student at George Washington University.
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Last week, Political Violence @ A Glance ran a summary of a fascinating new academic paper in the American Sociological Review by Erica Chenoweth and Laura Dugan.  The paper argues that conciliatory actions – those which reward non-participation in terrorism – may be more effective than repression in reducing terrorism.  It uses Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians between 1987 and 2004 as a case.  Using a dataset of 6,070 Israeli actions, the paper demonstrates a lagged but statistically significant effect of conciliatory actions on the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks.  That is, when Israel increased the number of conciliatory actions, Palestinian terrorism ultimately decreased.  The full academic paper is only about 22 pages and definitely worth a read.

For political scientists, better understanding conciliation is an important step forward.  The international relations literature, as the authors explain, tends to overplay the importance of demonstrating resolve in an international crisis.  Concessions are often understood in the literature as mere “appeasement.”  In addition, work on the effectiveness of violence tends not to examine seriously conciliatory behavior (with this notable exception).  Comparative politics literature can also benefit from the paper’s findings.  In particular, work on state-minority relations in nationalism and ethnic politics (Jenne, 2004; Mylonas, forthcoming) is just beginning to speak to the issue of government repression versus concession of nationalist groups.

For policymakers, the article offers important lessons about how to respond to terrorism.  Its findings are easily applied to Egypt’s relations with its Sinai Bedouin population, and other contemporary conflicts between governments and terrorist groups.  By touting conciliatory actions rather than repression, the article also speaks to the importance of population centric measures in successful counterinsurgency.  It reaffirms the idea that punishment alone is not sufficient strategy to defeat terrorism.

Given the importance of the issues to which the paper speaks, I offer three reactions – followed by concrete suggestions – of how the paper’s argument could be honed for maximum impact.

Firstly, whether or not an action is conciliatory may be a matter of subjective judgement.  Examples of conciliatory action in the paper include everything from leniency towards former Red Brigade terrorists in exchange for information, to freedom for ETA supporters to practice cultural traditions, to building better wells for Palestinians.  Whether an action is conciliatory seems to be dependent on its context.  The general principle of a conciliatory action is that it builds trust and between the group in question and the government, bolstering the government’s legitimacy.  The idea seems correct.  At the same time, such a wide range of potential forms of conciliation which vary in every context necessitates a subjective determination of whether an action is conciliatory.    This determination is further complicated by the notorious challenge of defining trust and legitimacy in the first place.  Looking at a specific set of actions which are understood as conciliatory might allow for a more precise operationalization of the formal theory the paper presents.

Secondly, terrorists and constituents may have different valuations of the status quo.  The paper argues that terrorists and those who support them act out of a desire to improve their status quo.  Conciliation dissuades terrorism because it raises the value of the status quo such that not attacking becomes a better strategy for a would-be terrorist than attacking.  However, the paper also emphasizes the importance of a terrorist group’s constituents (e.g. the ETA and those who support them).  If terrorist groups lose this support, they will lose operational capability.

In the paper, the discussion of the model accounts for this fact, but the model itself does not.  The status quo variable is singular, rather than accounting for potential differences between what aspects of the status quo matter to terrorists versus constituents.  This is important because terrorists and constituents may not react to the same changes in the status quo.  For constituents, it makes sense that an improvement in quality of life could reduce support for terrorism.  However, terrorists who commit attacks are often reacting to past humiliation, personal trauma caused by involvement in the conflict, a sense of existential emergency, or any number of other factors.  It is unclear in this case what “rewards” for non-participation by Israel would be sufficient to shift the calculus of would-be Palestinian terrorists for whom these factors are the motivator.  The authors allude to some of these points in their discussion, but disaggregating the status quo variable into one for terrorists and one for constituents may improve the explanatory power of the model.

Finally, the level of attacks may be less a factor of conciliation versus repression than the interaction between them.  The paper is a bit confusing in communicating the extent to which repression and conciliation are considered separate in the first place.  The article codes events along a 7-point scale from “accommodation” to “extremely deadly repression,” indicating that repression and conciliation are two ends of the same scale.  However, the results table reports each as separate values for each given time period.

But as the authors hint at in the conclusion, repression may not operate in opposition to repression, but rather in tandem with it.  In developing this idea, the authors could draw on American counterinsurgency doctrine, as outlined in FM-324.  That document understands success against insurgents to be based on a combination of conciliation and repression (4-7).  Success during the Iraq troop surge of 2007, for example, was not only the result of creating infrastructure and services in Baghdad, but also raiding houses of suspected insurgents and engaging them on their own turf.  For the purposes of this paper, perhaps an index accounting for the ratio of repressive actions to conciliatory ones could lend greater insight into the questions at hand.

As all these points illustrate, this article is incredibly thought-provoking and engages important questions about terrorism and political violence.  Discussion of the issues it raises speak to important contemporary debates in political science and policymaking alike.  Both camps will enjoy taking the time to read it.

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Do Drones Change Americans’ Views on the Use of Force?

This is a guest post from James Igoe Walsh, a political science professor at UNC-Charlotte.
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America’s wars are increasingly fought by drones, not soldiers. Drones reduce the costs of conflict to the United States by eliminating the possibility of American military casualties. Does this make political leaders and the American public more willing to support the use of force? Peter Singer, whose work has done much to highlight the political implications of new military technologies, writes that

The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter — and the impact that military casualties have on voters and on the news media — they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way.

Drones are indeed popular across the political spectrum. The campaign of drone strikes initiated by the Bush administration in Pakistan has been expanded by the Obama administration to other parts of the world. One recent survey found that eighty-three percent of Americans approve or strongly approve of drone strikes “against terrorist suspects overseas”.

This support for drone strikes is consistent with the large body of research, drawing on John Mueller’s seminal book, which finds an inverse relationship between military casualties and support for the use of force. If such casualty aversion reduces support for the use of force, then drone technology creates a politically easy way to strike overseas. This has disturbing implications. American authorities might authorize strikes against targets that represent little threat to the United States. The United States might resort to drone strikes use them even when their chance of eliminating the target is slight, since there is no downside in terms of US casualties. And it might become increasingly easy to justify drone strikes that will kill (foreign) civilians along with targeted enemies.

But other factors might influence support for drone strikes as well. In Paying the Human Costs of War, Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler hold that Americans’ support for the use of force depends on their estimates that the military mission will be successful. If perceptions of success are important, Americans might be less willing to support drone strikes that are likely to fail. It is also possible that Americans would decline to support drone strikes that produce civilian casualties, although this proposition has not been as thoroughly investigated in the academic literature.

How well do each of these explanations—casualty aversion, success, and civilian casualties—account for Americans willingness to support drone strikes? The available public opinion data asks respondents only if they support the use of drones, and thus provides little leverage on the question of why they do so. To tackle this problem, earlier this summer I recruited via the internet a convenience panel of 1248 respondents in the United States to participate in a survey experiment. Each respondent was randomly assigned to read a hypothetical news story about planned military strikes on terrorist training camps in Yemen. These vignettes contained different information about the consequences of such strikes. The baseline treatment described the attacks as drone strikes causing no US military casualties, having a high likelihood of military success, and creating no civilian deaths. The next three treatments varied one of these factors, describing the attack as a raid that would produce about 25 US military casualties, as a drone strike that was unlikely to succeed, or a drone strike that would kill civilians. Respondents were then asked to rate their degree of support for this use of force on a four-point scale, with higher values indicating greater support.

The figure below depicts the mean level of support for each of the four treatments, as well as the associated 95 percent confidence intervals. The baseline condition receives the highest level of support. This is not surprising, since it imposes no costs in terms of US or foreign casualties and results in a successful military mission. The remaining treatments all lead to statistically-significant reductions in support compared to this baseline. The smallest such reduction is introduced when the mission is described as unlikely to succeed. Perceptions of success do moderate support for the use of force. However, the fact that this effect is small suggests considerable willingness among some members of the public to risk using deadly force even when it has a high chance of failing.

The treatment describing military casualties leads to a lower level of mean support for the use of force. The chance to avoid military casualties by using drones rather than soldiers produces a noticeable increase in willingness to use force, consistent with the arguments of Mueller and Singer. Finally, the possibility of civilian casualties leads to the largest drop in mean support compared to be baseline treatment. This is a real surprise, since it means that respondents attach as much or more value on the lives of foreign civilians as they do on US military personnel.

It would be unwise to assume that these findings directly reflect the preferences of the American public, since they survey is not based on a random sample. It is, though, reasonable to conclude that the effects of varying the information provided to respondents here would produce qualitatively similar effects in a more representative sample. It is also possible that these relationships would be quite different if what Bruce Jentleson terms the “principal policy objective” where altered from drone strikes to counter terrorists to using drones to, for example, punish abusers of human rights or to bring about regime change overseas.

These results suggest that drones may well alter how Americans think about using military force. The effect of military casualties found here implies that drone technology could make it much easier, and perhaps tempting, for Presidents to use them in conflicts overseas. The smaller effect of mission success means that even the prospect of failure may serve as only a small brake on such impulses. Civilian deaths, though, may well moderate support for drone strikes.

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No More Cups of Tea: Terrorism Research and the Law

This is a guest post from Tanisha Fazal, a political science professor at Columbia University, and Jessica Martini, a human rights and international trade attorney based in New York City.
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To conduct research on terrorism and insurgency, it’s best to be able to talk to people.  Combing through incident reports is helpful, but often an informal conversation over a cup of tea is as, if not more, illuminating.  But according to ban on providing “material support” (18 United States Code (U.S.C.) 2339B), buying a cup of tea for a terrorist can land you in [US] jail.  In 1996 the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) prohibited providing “material support or resources” to terrorists, which included providing goods and financing, in addition to intangibles such as training and personnel.  This was expanded in 2001 in the wake of the September 11th attacks, as part of USA PATRIOT Act, and subsequent court decisions interpreting this law, to include “expert advice and assistance” and coordinated advocacy.

As part of the government’s broader counterterrorism strategy, The Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security all have major initiatives and funding today to develop and promote better research on terrorism.  But another element of US counterterrorism – the material support ban – not only directly hinders the conduct of exactly this type of research, but also puts scholars in a position where they risk being fined or even imprisoned for researching terrorism and/or insurgency.

According to the American Bar Association, the material support ban

prohibits “providing material support or resources” to an organization the Secretary of State has designated as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The material support ban was first passed as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The provision’s purpose is to deny terrorist groups the ingredients necessary for planning and carrying out attacks. Congress was concerned that terrorist organizations with charitable or humanitarian arms were raising funds within the United States that could then be used to further their terrorist activities. The provision outlawed any support to these groups, irrespective of whether that support was intended for humanitarian purposes.

The list of foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, contains many groups whose members scholars would like to interview to further their own research.  In addition to the restriction on contacts with FTOs and other entities listed on a number of other US Government lists, there are restrictions on bringing the modern tools of research, such as laptop computers and cell phones – into sanctioned countries like Syria or Iran due to trade sanctions and  export controls.

Prominent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, The Carter Center, and the International Crisis Group and academic centers such as Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute have protested these restrictions, specifically by submitting amicus briefs (see more such briefs here, here, and here) in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which was an unsuccessful test case challenging the constitutionality on First Amendment grounds of the material support ban.  Ambiguity in the Holder decision creates uncertainty about what is legal when conducting research involving people who may be affiliated with terrorists.  Any resources transferred to these groups – be it a discussion of your broader research that could be translated into advice, or buying lunch for a subject to thank them for taking the time to speak with you – could, in theory “free up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” according to the majority opinion of the court.

The Holder decision is an issue not just for academics, but also for journalists and activists.  Many of the groups co-sponsoring the amicus briefs were engaged in peacebuilding activities with groups such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka.  But the court’s ruling was that training members of these groups in international human rights law was illegal.

The material support ban and export control restrictions serve an important purpose. Terrorists are a proven threat to the US, and we shouldn’t abet them.  But in restricting resource transfers wholesale, we limit our ability to understand and help these groups find alternative means to achieve the ends they currently seek violently.  There are, in other words, important unintended consequences to the law and to the subsequent decision on its constitutionality.

The main danger for scholars is the vagueness of both the law and the court’s decision.  Insofar as academic research tends to stay within the academy, it’s highly unlikely that a terrorism scholar will be prosecuted for buying a cup of tea for an interview subject on the FTO.  But to the extent that scholarship makes it up to the levels of policy debate – which is partly the point of government programs such as the Minerva initiative, as well as foundation and university initiatives such as the Bridging the Gap program – these laws make conducting research on terrorism and insurgency even riskier than it already is.

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Why Assad Will Likely Fight On

This is a guest post from Scott Wolford of the University of Texas-Austin and Emily Ritter of the University of Alabama, both international relations scholars.
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The Guardian reports the US and the UK are considering offering Syrian president Bashar al Assad safe passage and possibly clemency for his alleged role in war crimes to entice him to attend a conference designed to negotiate a settlement with Syrian rebels and facilitate the peaceful transition to a new government.*

We don’t think an offer of clemency is likely to help the situation, however, because it can encourage peace only if it entices Assad to agree to something that the rebels will also accept—and clemency alone is unlikely to do that. In other words, clemency might affect Assad’s willingness to negotiate, but not the rebels’ willingness to accept a deal.

The terms of any successful settlement will have to credibly promise both Assad and the rebels at least as much as they can expect by continuing to fight. However, keeping Assad in power in any form is unlikely satisfy the rebels, because his commitment to sharing power once they’ve laid down their arms isn’t credible—just as the terms of the Annan Plan weren’t self-enforcing a few months ago. Thus, an arrangement the rebel group will accept will probably have to entail a substantial, if not complete, handover of power. In other words, for this effort to produce a stable peace settlement, Assad must agree to (a) leave power and, possibly, (b) leave Syria, an arrangement that he’ll likely only accept with the promise of asylum and clemency.

In other words, that’s a pretty bad deal for Assad.

It’s a particularly bad deal compared to his prospects for fighting on. Continuing to fight is costly, but he preserves a decent chance of remaining in power as long as he holds the upper hand militarily. Of course, he also risks losing and then either dying or facing domestic trial…and then probably dying. The poor prospects associated with losing could make him prefer the international out, but we’ve shown in print that surrender is likely to be optimal only if he is likely to lose or be caught anyway—-otherwise any offers of clemency will have to be so generous that states like the US and UK will be unwilling to make them.  Instead, it seems Assad and his supporters have the upper hand in this fight and are unlikely to lose without foreign intervention on the rebel side (as discussed on this blog here, here, and here).

Thus, Assad is likely comparing the prospects of fighting (which is costly, but his prospects are good and he maintains power and its benefits) to those of negotiating an end to the war (which will mean he survives but no longer has power and may not be allowed to remain in Syria). He’ll probably choose fighting on.

If, however, the situation changes and it looks like he’s going to lose the war, power, and his head, an international deal with clemency is likely to look far more appealing. But in that case, we wouldn’t really need an international transition conference to end the war, because the rebels would be getting exactly what they want.

  • Of course, it’s not entirely clear in this situation what “clemency” could mean, as ICC referral is unlikely (given a likely Russian veto at the UNSC), and—-as we discuss—-that clemency granting Assad safety at home is likely to be a non-starter for the rebels.

 
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Why Syria Could Turn Into 1990s Algeria

The following is a guest post from Morgan L. Kaplan, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Chicago studying insurgency and civil war.

With each week, Syria appears to be spiraling further and further into the throes of what will likely be a long and drawn out civil war.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is rapidly gaining experience, the likelihood of direct intervention remains dubious, and government forces are growing increasingly relentless in its pursuit of the opposition.  In such a situation, it is painful to speculate whether the situation can get any “worse.”  But as many scholars of civil war can agree, it certainly can.

In some ways, the Syrian conflict is coming to resemble what was perhaps one of the most lethal and gruesome civil wars of the last two decades: the Algerian civil war (1992-2002).  The resemblance is not derived from the source of the conflict or the particular goals of the opposition.  Though sectarian conflict between Syria’s Alawite and Sunni populations are clearly motivating factors, the political goals of the Syrian insurgency are not religiously focused, nor are there any serious calls for the establishment of an Islamic government in Damascus.  Instead, the similarities between today’s Syria and 1990s Algeria can be reduced to three important characteristics.

First, both the Assad regime and the opposition are responsible for committing human rights violations, which could potentially trigger a spiral of increasingly gruesome tactics.  While David Kenner points out that regime forces are responsible for the greater share and degree of such violations, the precedent of extra-judicial killings and the targeting of non-combatants by elements of the opposition are worrisome.  Abuses from both sides make it increasingly difficult for the belligerent parties to curb future violations should a spiral of revenge killings ensue.  Once the precedent for ruthlessness has been set, belligerents will have few incentives to employ restraint unilaterally. (Though the prospect of Western aid could serve as notable constraint).  And while Syrian atrocities have not yet reached Algerian proportions, images of competitive targeting and tactics between state and insurgent forces appear on the horizon.

Second, the explicit targeting of journalists is creating a precarious environment in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold human rights violators accountable for their actions.  To this day, we are still uncertain who was behind some of the most gruesome mass killings of the Algerian civil war.  Some sources point to the GIA, others to Algerian security forces, and still others ascribe blame to both.  Part of our inability to place blame – and also why Algeria remains an elusive empirical case for civil war scholars – is simply because we know very little about what actually happened on the ground.  This, of course, was largely due to the dearth of active reporting from the conflict zone as both the Algerian state and insurgents openly targeted journalists.  Whereas the Assad regime already maintains a notable track-record on intimidating foreign journalists and targeting those remaining within its borders, this last week marked the introduction of such targeting by the opposition.  On June 27, Syrian rebels launched a bold attack on a pro-government television station, killing its civilian employees.

Furthermore, the targeting of foreign and domestic journalists will make it more difficult for the international community to decide whether and how to intervene.   As attacks against journalists increase, the flow of critical information outside of the conflict zone is bound to get thinner and thinner.  And with less information on both state and insurgent behavior, the international community and potential interveners will be faced with far greater uncertainty as to how they should to act.

Finally, reports of violent competition between insurgent factions appear to be more serious than previously thought.  (Scholarship on the effects of multi-factionalism and insurgent fragmentation is gaining a tremendous amount of attention in the field. Bakke, Cunningham, and Seymour currently have an excellent article on the subject in PoP).  Beyond the organizational issues that plague the loosely organized FSA, the growth of factions outside the fold of the FSA is forcing the opposition to compete both against Assad and its fellow insurgents.  Perhaps a defining characteristic of the Algerian civil war was the extent to which inter-factional competition between the GIA, AIS, MIA, etc., contributed to the number of dead and wounded during the decade-long conflict.  With reports of hardening divisions between the mostly secular FSA and Islamist elements, we may begin to see more widespread violence amongst insurgent groups and more complex dynamics of competition between specific factions.

There seems to be some confusion, however, whether the disorganization and fragmentation of the opposition movement can have positive effects.  A recent blog-post in ForeignPolicy.com by Elizabeth O’Bagy argues that the movement’s characteristic fragmentation is what makes it so resilient – which should bode well for its supporters.  Apparently, the Syrian opposition is employing what one could call the “Hamas Model” of the 1990s and 2000s: a strong and stable external leadership, with a vulnerable yet highly fluid internal leadership.  But what O’Bagy views as “good” for the durability of the opposition movement in general, may only exacerbate the “bad” that comes from factional competition.  High degrees of factional resiliency will only ensure that groups remain divided as each believes it can achieve its specific goals independently.  In such a scenario we are bound to see deeper factional in-fighting and its toll on the Syrian public.

This is not to say that “all is lost in Syria,” or that the Syrian civil war will reach Algerian proportions.  Though the level of violence in Syria is already at dizzying heights, opportunities still exist to reverse the three exacerbating trends discussed above.  First, the international backers of the FSA – including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – should make aid contingent on the group’s respect for the rights of combatants and non-combatants.  While the Assad regime would be less likely to reciprocate the opposition’s unilateral restraint, it is likely to slow the aggregate spiral of human rights violations, as well as help ensure that the Syrian opposition can maintain whatever support it already holds.  Second, the international community should do all it can to ensure the safety and security of foreign and domestic journalists within Syria.  At some point, those responsible for human rights violations (on both sides) should be held accountable and the international community should work to ensure that those individuals remain identifiable over the course of the conflict.  Finally, it is always possible that the Syrian opposition can be unified.  Still, should the opposition succeed, a serious effort should be made to ensure that the coalition does not backslide into inter-factional fighting as it has in Libya.

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Syria: Lessons from Iraq and Libya

The following is a guest post from Kimberly Marten, who is a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Acting Director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute.  She is the author of Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States (Cornell University Press, 2012).

Creeping military intervention is underway in Syria’s civil war.  The State Department has been providing communications equipment to Free Syrian Army (FSA) insurgents for months.  Several Arab states are arming the rebels.  The CIA is reportedly working with the weapons recipients and vetting them, trying to ensure that armaments don’t fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or other extremist organizations.  Turkey is providing refuge to defecting Syrian military officers who are training the FSA.  International calls abound for humanitarian “responsibility to protect” (R2P) intervention, in the wake of ten thousand civilian casualties.

But the experience of two recent wars in nearby Arab states with similar authoritarian regimes, Iraq and Libya, should give us pause along the road to warfare.  Success in warfare is not correlated with stability or security afterwards.

In all of these cases insurgent forces have been made up of dozens or even hundreds of independent militias.  Most are not random individuals who came together for the first time to defend their homes.  They may lack prior military training, but many have long-standing experience in running local criminal protection and smuggling rackets.  They represent the economic interests of violent local power brokers, in addition to whatever nationalist goals they may have.

Iraq’s Anbar Awakening tribal leaders, the Sons of Iraq forces elsewhere in the country, and the Free Libyan Army all broke down into squabbling militias once foreign military support was withdrawn.  Many engaged in mafia-style threats and attacks against their own putative allies as well as the new regime.  This lack of post-war unity helps explain continuing insecurity in both Iraq and Libya. These recent cases suggest that even if the FSA can come together as an effective fighting force, it is unlikely to form a unified army once the Bashar al-Assad regime falls.

Fragmented militias today are particularly dangerous because Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is trying to stage a comeback.  AQI is known to have carried out terrorist bombings against Syria’s ruling Alawite minority regime earlier this year, and AQI has deep experience in leading disparate Sunni militias in bloody sectarian fighting.

The experience of Iraq tells us that it is highly unlikely that any vetting of FSA forces will stop AQI inroads once Western attention flags.  In Iraq Sunni militias changed external patrons easily: from Saddam’s Baathist regime, to the extremist Sunni AQI, to the democracy-promoting U.S. military.  These militias may be turning back to AQI once more, given the growing wave of sectarian bombings in Iraq.

When push came to shove, the interests of many Sunni militias in Iraq and Libya were personal, parochial, and criminal—not ideological.  We should expect the same thing from Syria’s Sunni militias in the future.

The lesson to be learned is clear: no matter how many dollars and lives are thrown into wars in the Arab world, the U.S. and its NATO allies cannot control the ultimate strategic outcome.

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Mike Horowitz: Help Us Become Better Forecasters

From Mike Horowitz’s post today at the Duck of Minerva:


Jacqueline Stevens recently argued in the New York Times that “Political Scientists are Lousy Forecasters.” In her article, which others have already dissected, she discusses Phil Tetlock’s work on expert forecasting. His book, Expert Political Judgment, has become the definitive work on the subject. The postage stamp version she cites is that experts are only slightly better than dart-throwing chimps at predicting the future, if they are better at all.

However, the notion that Tetlock argues that experts are know-nothings when it comes to forecasting is simply wrong, as others have already pointed out. More important, Expert Political Judgment was a first foray into the uncharted domain of building better forecasting models. Several years later, Tetlock is back at it, and this time he has invited me, Richard Herrmann of Ohio State University, and others to join him. The immediate goal this time is to participate in a forecasting “tournament” sponsored by the United States intelligence community. The intelligence community has funded several teams to go out and build the best models possible – however they can – to forecast world events. Each team has to forecast the same events, a list of questions given to the teams by the sponsor, and then submit predictions [note: Tetlock’s team dominated the opposition in year one – so we’ll find out this year whether adding me helps or not. Unfortunately, there’s no place to go but down].


Our team is called the Good Judgment team, and the idea is to not only win the tournament, but also to develop a better understanding of the methods and strategies that lead to better forecasting of political events. There are many facets to this project, but the one I want to focus on today is our effort to figure out when experts such as political scientists might have advantages over the educated reader of the New York Times when it comes to forecasting world events.


….we need experts who are willing to participate. The workload will be light – promise. If you are interested in participating, expert or not, please contact me at horom (at) sas (dot) upenn (dot) edu and let’s see what you can do.


For more information, read the entire post here.

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What NSF-Funded Projects Have Taught Us About National Security Issues

by Erica Chenoweth (@EricaChenoweth) and Jason Lyall (@jaylyall_red5.)

Yesterday’s House of Representatives vote to defund political science research has yet again put many political scientists on the defensive. Arguing that the federal government is spending way too much money on political science research, the amendment’s sponsor, Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), remarked,

These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?

We’d like to point out some of the past and current research findings that NSF supported—some of which established what policymakers and scholars now view as conventional wisdom—that may justify such spending.

  • Violent insurgencies—including ethnically-motivated ones—tend to set on not because of religious or ethnic differences, but rather because a state’s weakness permits them to. Thus the outbreak of civil wars is driven by low state capacity and the inability to deliver public goods to the population. This finding, although not without its critics, has informed a great deal of policy practice with regard to capacity-building in weak and failed states (for more on James Fearon and David Laitin’s project, click here).

  • Terrorists are generally rational actors whose behavior often responds in predictable ways to different policies. For instance, after a spate of airline hijackings, most airports installed metal detectors, which drastically reduced the number of airline hijackings. However, many terrorists simply switched to kidnappings—an example of the so-called “substitution effect”—which is a cautionary principle that informs a great deal of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism policy today (see some more work by Walter Enders and Todd Sandler).

  • Citizens in democratic countries remain supportive of democratic values in the face of terrorism when policymakers issue reminders about core democratic values, which help to keep citizens from losing confidence in democratic practices. However, citizens of illiberal democracies—i.e. many of our allies—are much more vulnerable to support non-democratic practices in the face of terrorism (see Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister’s book). This research helps us to better understand how societies may remain resilient and avoid overreaction to terrorist threats.

Additional projects investigate questions such as:

This is but a small sampling.

NSF-funded research has also provided extraordinary public goods to those of us who study political violence and terrorism through the creation of data sets on civil war, repression, and terrorism. Researchers turn to these data sets routinely to better understand the causes and responses to political violence. In fact, without some of these data sets, it would be difficult to imagine where the field of international relations would be today. To name just a few:

Such datasets are clearly good investments. Once released, other researchers use them to investigate important questions related to the causes and responses to political violence. The data sets above (and many others funded by NSF) have returned countless articles on a variety of issues directly related to international security—and at very low cost relative to what private security consulting firms would charge for the same product).

In addition, NSF grants, often quite small in nature, have supported fieldwork in strategically vital regions and countries. Indeed, a short list of projects funded this year in these areas would include:

  • Driscoll’s study of Al Shabaab’s provision of security and governance in Mogadishu, Somalia

  • Lust’s investigation of Egyptian, Moroccan, and Tunisian elections during the “Arab Spring” and their respective transitions to democracy

  • Beissinger’s study of energy and water cooperation between five Central Asian states

  • Ermakoff’s study of the formation of armed self-defense groups in rural Sudan

These grants do not only facilitate the collection of new knowledge about important places, however. Since these issues and areas are often difficult to access, especially for outside researchers, they require the creative use of new methods and approaches—including GPS sampling of populations, new survey methods, and the use of satellite imagery—to provide rigorous answers to timely and often-sensitive questions.

Put differently, these small grants act as proofs of concept for the wider community of scholars who will embrace and then extend successful applications. In fact, a strong case could be made for increasing rather than reducing NSF funding given the clear multiplier effects of these small seed grants. To be sure, some of these experimental approaches may fail, but the natural outcome of this trial-and-error process should not be held out as an indictment of the NSF. Instead, it should be viewed as evidence of the NSF’s critical role as an incubator of promising new approaches and innovations.

Finally, NSF funds have had enormous impact on the production of top-quality doctoral dissertations that may never have been completed without support for fieldwork or data collection. In fact, most recent security and defense-related NSF grants have gone to graduate students (or even undergraduates; see here and here) who wish to develop new insights necessary to reduce political violence. Some of the insights that have emerged from these dissertations include:

  • David Cunningham’s finding that the more distinct armed groups there are in a civil war, the longer the civil war will endure.

  • Dara Cohen’s finding that insurgent groups that abduct recruits and rely on contraband funding are more likely to employ sexual violence against civilians, and that such groups use rape to create social cohesion.

  • Aila Matanock’s finding that negotiated settlements that allow combatants to participate in elections result in a more lasting peace.

These projects and many others yield findings that have clear implications for U.S. foreign and defense policy, which Flake cites as defensible expenditures, and they also have clear educational value for those scholars whose work will inform such policies in the future. We doubt that our colleagues have pursued these projects solely to satisfy their curiosities. Instead, they’ve pursued these projects—and received NSF’s highly competitive grants—because their topics are of vital concern to the country and the world, and they think their research can improve responses to extremely difficult (and as-yet unresolved) policy problems.

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