Author Archive | Erica Chenoweth

The Culture Wars Go Global

Clifford Bob has a new book out this week called The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics. The book documents the influence of right-wing transnational advocacy networks: a group that has been highly influential yet under the radar in most academic studies. Here’s what Professor Bob has to say about the book’s core argument:

International activism is no longer the preserve of the left, if it ever was.  More specifically, the book focuses on conflicts over gay rights and gun rights at the UN and in Brazil, Sweden, and Romania—as well as the ways in which these overseas conflicts are used in the American culture wars.  There are current conflicts over gay rights at the UN Human Rights Council (though not well-known) and … in African countries such as Uganda. Similarly, battles over the Arms Trade Treaty continue at the UN, though they are again not heavily reported.

This book comes at a time when many people have been preoccupied with humanitarian causes, like Kony 2012, or other campaigns with fairly progressive aims. Bob reminds us that global human rights, social justice, and gun control campaigns have determined opponents who use a variety of tactics to challenge their foes and advance more conservative policy agendas. In fact, they are often extremely effective in pressing for social and political reforms in foreign counties.

Check out the book for lots of examples.

For a 20% discount through Cambridge University Press, click here (U.S. only) or here (outside the U.S.).


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The Syrian Conflict is Already a Civil War

The headline of Anthony Shadid’s article in Sunday’s New York Times reads “Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens.” The Arab League’s Secretary General, Nabil el-Araby, is quoted as saying “I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war.” Others concur, while stopping short of saying that Syria is currently in a state of civil war.

But by most standards, the conflict in Syria has been a civil war for quite awhile (see, for instance, Nicholas Sambanis‘ thorough analysis of civil war’s competing definitions). Although there is some controversy surrounding the definition, scholars typically consider a conflict a civil war when:

  • two or more armed groups are fighting within state borders over some incompatibility (change of leadership/government, territory, or major policy issue);

  • one of the combatant groups is the government;

  • at least 1,000 people have died due to combat; and

  • at least 100 people have died on either side of the conflict.

Some people add that the armed combatants must be organized, or possess an internal military structure, although this is not central to all definitions. Others reduce the necessary threshold of fatalities, thus admitting lower-intensity conflicts to the list of “intra-state armed conflicts” in general.

Regardless, the Syrian conflict clearly meets all of these criteria—in fact, the conflict probably crossed these thresholds sometime last summer. Since July (maybe earlier), there have been at least two organized armed groups fighting over the center. The incumbent government is clearly one of the combatants, with the Free Syrian Army (and maybe some other armed militias) prosecuting the conflict against it. With thousands of Syrians killed, including up to 2,000 regime loyalists, the casualty figures are straightforward—assuming these figures are accurate. All of this has unfolded within a relatively short time span, indicating a level of conflict intensity that is on par with other “typical” civil wars.

By the way, the seeming reluctance to call the Syrian conflict a civil war reminds me of a similar debate that occurred in 2006, when Iraqi and Coalition officials denied that Iraq had fallen into a civil war. The facts on the ground elicited a compelling op-ed and article by James Fearon, who pretty much established that Iraq was in the midst of a civil war—a pretty bad one, too. (In fact, I should mention that James Fearon is the one who first raised the question of Syria’s civil war status during a conversation we had a number of weeks ago).

One issue, of course, is “who declares” a civil war. I suppose this thankless task is often left to the academics who count them. So, we can add another one to the list. Despite denials, the Syrian Civil War is already well underway.

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Democracy and Islam in the Arab Elections

The following guest post is from revolutions expert Jack A. Goldstone of George Mason. Check out his new blog too.

No doubt the most difficult task in the months ahead for Western leaders responding to changes in the Arab world will be to stick to their guns on democracy — that is, to accord elected governments and their leaders all the respect due to democratically chosen heads of state. This is because the elected governments will almost invariably be Islamist, hostile to Israel, and suspicious of the United States.

But really, what else could we expect?  “Democratic” does not simply equate to pro-Western. If you tell people:  “We have oppressed proponents of your historical religion for decades to create dictatorships for the sake of better relations with the West and Israel, and now we want you to choose your own government”, what else would people do than repudiate the pattern of the old dictatorships? And wouldn’t that repudiation more likely take the form of voting for well known and established parties that stood against the dictatorships, rather than for new parties with young faces that stand for such vague things as “secularism and liberalism?”

So let us start from the fact that an Islamist majority was always logically to be expected from free elections in Arab countries, and show no disappointment on that score. The crucial issue regarding the new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is not that they are Islamist, but how will they act? How will they act toward other non-Islamist parties, and non-Islamic groups in society? How oppressive will they be toward women? How effective will they be on economic policy and science and technology? How will they manage popular hostility toward Israel? These are the issues that will determine the risks and success of these regimes.

So what can we realistically expect? I remain optimistic–for now. Egypt’s leaders, whether military or Islamist, have no interest in a war with Israel. Egypt’s people desperately need jobs and investment, which a war will put at risk. So provided Israel provides some modest concessions or assistance to Palestinians, so that Islamist governments can point to something positive, the Israel/Arab relationship should not shift too harshly.

Regarding domestic affairs, the interesting division to watch will be within the Islamist ranks, between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties. Westerners tend to assume that all Islamist parties will stand together on policy, and that the strong showing of the Salafists will pull all Islamist groups to a more strict and extreme view.

I disagree — that was not the dynamic I observed when I was in Cairo earlier this year. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders, anticipating coming to power, were striving mightily to disassociate themselves from the Salafists. The Brotherhood wanted to present itself as open, democratic, cosmopolitan, ready to work with others on the world stage and to respect human rights within Egypt. They viewed the Salafists as putting all of that at risk, as wanting to drag Egypt back into a pre-modern past and isolate itself.

So my guess is that we will not see a Muslim Brotherhood-Salafist coalition ruling Egypt (or elsewhere). Rather, we will see either either the Brotherhood allying itself with one of the secular parties to burnish its bonafides with the West, and bringing the Salafists into government only to a limited degree. Ideally, for the Brotherhood, the secular parties would balance the Salafists, leaving the Brotherhood to call the shots and guide the country. That would be much preferable for them to simply allying with the Salafists, which would create anxiety and suspicion from the West and risk a massive counter-reaction from secular and military forces within Egypt. The Brotherhood has seen the power of Tahrir square, and they are well aware they cannot ignore or wholly oppose the forces that appeared there.  I expect the Ennahda party in Tunisia to take the same, moderate, approach – the better to stay in power and wield it.

So let us be patient and see how things unfold.  It is not time to panic about the rise of Islamist parties — yet.

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How Important is Turkey’s Support of the Free Syrian Army?

This week, the New York Times reported that Turkey has begun to actively support the Free Syrian Army by providing shelter in a guarded camp. From the Times:

Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

Two questions immediately emerge: 1) How will the provision of sanctuary affect the rebels’ chances of defeating Assad; and 2). What are the long-term regional consequences of providing sanctuary to a rebel organization? The answer to both questions: rebel group sanctuary can be a game-changer.


Regarding the first question, a number of scholars have previously found that external sanctuary is associated with insurgent success. Jeffrey Record, for instance, reviewed a number of insurgencies and found that rebel groups that secured sanctuary abroad were likelier to succeed. Dan Byman, Peter Chalk, et al also identified sanctuary as the most important type of support an insurgent group can receive, as it allows rebels to move and organize freely, to import weapons, and to train for operations. However, they write,

Foreign assistance in the form of international sanctuaries, while often extremely useful to guerrillas, can also have a negative impact. In moving abroad, insurgents risk cutting themselves off from their base of popular support. Resting and recuperating across a border, while providing obvious benefits, also carries the danger of operational isolation from potentially lucrative political and military targets.

This seems particularly true in the Syrian case, where the Free Syrian Army’s contact with local activists and rebels is contested. From the Times:


Though many analysts contend that defectors’ attacks in Syria appear uncoordinated and local, Colonel As’aad claimed to be in full operational control. He said that he was in charge of planning “full military operations” while leaving smaller clashes and day-to-day decisions up to commanders in the field. Nevertheless, he is in daily contact with the commanders of each battalion, he said, spending hours a day checking e-mail on a laptop connected to one of four telephones — including a satellite phone — provided to him by Syrian expatriates living in the United States, Europe and the Persian Gulf.

In sum, sanctuary can help an armed insurgency, but it certainly carries a number of risks and does not guarantee success by any means.


So how will these developments affect the conflict in the longer term? Recent research is pessimistic. According to Idean Salehyan, providing sanctuary to a rebel group makes a conflict more likely to escalate to civil war—and one that lasts longer than the average civil war. Moreover, providing sanctuary increases the chances that the civil conflict will escalate into an inter-state one (in this case, between Turkey and Syria) or perhaps even wider.

Now, this research assumes that the rebel group is viable and not just a small and disorganized group. We don’t really know whether the Free Syrian Army is the real deal yet. Rebel groups have massive incentives to over-represent their size and strength in such situations. As the Times reports, the movement’s claims that it consists of thousands of followers and dozens of battalions have not yet been verified. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe the group is coalescing. Recent attacks against government troops within Syria suggest that there is at least some coordinated contact among operatives on the inside. Apparently the Syrian Free Army is actively recruiting new members on a regular basis. With the accumulation of weapons, the ability to organize freely, and the fact that many previously nonviolent Syrian activists are now openly calling for armed uprising against the increasingly brutal state, the Free Syrian Army has considerable sympathy and support within the country. And Turkey’s decision to support the group is also telling: in a new paper, Salehyan, David Cunningham, and Kristian Gleditsch argue that states are more likely to support rebel groups when they gauge the groups to be moderately strong. This suggests that Turkey, at least, may view the Free Syrian Army as a viable entity.

Ultimately, research tells us that if the Free Syrian Army is the real deal, then Turkey’s provision of sanctuary heightens the risk of protracted civil war breaking out in Syria. Before this development, civil war was already a risk. But now the risk is much higher. Before territorial protection, the group was no more than a radical flank accompanying a nonviolent campaign. But their new sanctuary will certainly help them build their strength, if not their operational effectiveness, to become a full-blown insurgency.

The good news is that there is still a committed civilian-led uprising occurring in Syria, and although the regime’s extreme violence has dealt some severe setbacks to this movement, it is still quite active and disruptive. This is good news is because recent research shows that civil resistance activities—even when conducted in the context of armed conflict—can enhance the possibilities of more durable civil peace and democracy after the conflict ends. In other words, although some people may choose to use violence to confront the regime, the conflict does not have to devolve into a purely violent one. And if civilian-led nonviolent resistance does remain the centerpiece of the anti-Assad campaign, we can be much more optimistic about the outcome and aftermath of the conflict.

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Terrorism in Democracies

Yesterday the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man, who has been subsequently charged with a number of crimes related to terrorism. [1] This is the latest in a string of plots that the U.S. has successfully thwarted, yet it raises alarms for many Americans who have felt immune from Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism on U.S. soil. Erik Dahl, of the Naval Postgraduate School, has identified dozens of credible plots (as many as 45 by jihadist-inspired groups or individuals, according to John Avlon) since 9/11, all of which have been either botched by offenders or thwarted by the authorities.

Americans should not be too surprised by this latest wave of domestic plots. After all, domestic attacks make up the vast majority of terrorist activity—jihadist or not. Neither should they be too surprised about homegrown AQ-inspired activity, which is simply part of the current wave of terrorist activity around the world, as Karen Rasler and William Thompson tell us. Some scholars have even argued that Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism is simply a “fad” that will eventually go the way of all other other fads.

Nonetheless, this brings up three important questions:  (1) Will the current wave of jihadist terrorism be replaced? (2) If so, by what kind of terrorism? (3) Where?

My answers: (1) Probably. (2) Who knows? (3) Largely in democratic countries, most likely.

One of the most important continuities during the past forty years is the fact that terrorism tends to occur much more in democratic countries than in nondemocratic ones—the subject of the book I am currently completing for Columbia University Press. Take a look at this chart, which shows the the number of terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 according to the Global Terrorism Database, distributed by regime type (click on the image for a larger version):

This chart shows that democracies remain the most frequent targets of terrorist attacks around the world [2]. Additional research confirms that despite all of the concern about terrorism in weak states, democracies also remain the most frequent sources of terrorist activity.

There are lots of reasons why, about which much has been written.

But here’s the good news: terrorism is incredibly rare, even in democracies. As John Mueller insists, a person is more likely to drown in one’s toilet than to be killed (or hurt) by a terrorist. Although there is a fascination with terrorism among the public and in the media, and although it is certainly destructive, violent, and terrifying to those who experience it, terrorist attacks almost never occur.

Moreover, in a recent working paper with Joe Young, he and I find that terrorism does not actually threaten “our way of life,” as some argue. Democracies are incredibly resilient to terrorist threats, and although democracies occasionally do circumvent limits on civil liberties, such measures are usually temporary and are typically repealed over time. Martha Crenshaw has found that democracies almost never retaliate against foreign terrorist attacks using military force, although when they do, it can be quite consequential as we’ve seen in Afghanistan.

My point is that terrorist plots and terrorist attacks are rare but normal in democracies—and that’s likely to continue. Although terrorism is a nuisance, it is not an existential threat to the United States, nor is it ever likely to be.

On the whole, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The Department of Homeland Security should put that on a billboard.

[1] I shan’t dabble in definitions of terrorism because the caveats and qualifications could go on ad nauseam. For those interested in debates on how terrorism should be defined, Chapter 1 of Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism is great on the subject. I use a fairly noncontroversial definition: terrorism is politically-motivated violence by non-state actors directed at civilians to produce fear in a broader population.

[2] 1993 is omitted due to missing data.

[this is a cross-post from the Duck of Minerva]

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Do Educated Ethnic Minorities Choose Nonviolent Resistance?

Renat Shaykhutdinov has an interesting piece in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Peace Education. From the abstract:

ethnic groups that enjoy a higher educational status are less prone to using violent strategies choosing instead peaceful protest. I test this hypothesis using data on 238 ethnic groups in 106 states from 1945 to 2000. The results of the statistical analysis indicate that groups with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to engage in non-violent protest. Conversely, groups that enjoy lower educational status in their respective societies tend to use violent tactics.

The basic idea here is that ethnic minority groups that have better educational access and privileges than the majority (or “core”) population are more likely to use nonviolent protest to make territorial or group demands. Ethnic minorities that have no significant advantages (or the same educational access and privileges as the majority population) will be a little less likely to use nonviolent resistance, and ethnic minorities with observable disadvantages relative to the majority population should be more likely to adopt violence. You can read the article to see the evidence he brings to bear on this question, his control variables, and the methods he uses.


This is a great, under-explored question with important ramifications for the policy and advocacy communities. In general, we should probably think more about how learning shapes world politics. Moreover, I like Shaykhutdinov’s argument, mostly because I can get behind its policy implications (who is pro-educational-inequality-across-ethnic-groups and would say so in public?). Nevertheless, the article brings to mind a couple of issues for me.

  • What is the causal mechanism here? Shaykhutdinov argues that educational attainment (what he codes as “educational advantage” vs. “no significant educational advantage” vs. “educational disadvantage”) should reduce the propensity to use violence because education instills norms, values, and skills. I’d call this the “violence is for dummies” argument. This argument has some appeal, as well as some empirical support when forecasting where nonviolent uprisings will occur. But we also know that a lot of the most dangerous terrorists or insurgents in the world have been educated elites—including many suicide terrorists. Those who use violence aren’t really dummies. Moreover, if education makes people less violent, then why do highly educated people in many societies commit the worst violence? Seemingly this argument would apply to government officials as well as to ethnic groups. But very highly educated people in the world have been some of the 20th Century’s greatest mass murderers (I’m thinking Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, of which many at the top were educated in France prior to returning to Cambodia and committing one of the world’s worst genocides). So why doesn’t educational attainment make violence go down in those cases too?

  • To me, one of the most important effects he may be picking up is the fact that ethnic groups that enjoy educational “advantages” may simply be “advantaged” in general. Privilege is privilege. I suspect that educational advantages would be highly correlated with business advantages, for example. The problem is that advantage—or status—may be explaining both the educational status of the groups and their adoption of different protest techniques. What I mean is that ethnic groups that enjoy privileges in society may not wish to threaten that privilege by appealing for more rights through violence. People with less privilege, on the other hand, are already starting from a lower point on the social totem pole. They likely already face considerable barriers to social, economic, and political satisfaction, and educational access is simply more of the same. It is precisely these conditions that may explain both their educational disadvantages and the grievances that they use to justify their violence. This is the classic endogeneity problem (and to be fair, there are no easy ways to overcome this problem statistically).

  • Does the type of education matter? Substance of education might be important. For instance, people who have spent their entire lives in parochial schools may have different feelings about nonviolent and violent resistance than people who have spent their entire lives in public schools. People who receive training in civil resistance methods during their education may be more likely to favor these methods over violence (and vice versa!). A potentially more precise (and theoretically defensible) type of education might be whether the ethnic group has had access to training from other civil resistance or civil society organizations on how to launch an effective nonviolent protest, versus contact with violent insurgents on how to train for a violent uprising.

  • Ironically, I think that oppressive regimes would much rather face a violent insurrection than a nonviolent one. Check out this creepy video released by the Iranian Interior Ministry to see what I mean:

Civil resistance campaigns are scary for autocrats. They don’t know how to competently respond to them. Violent insurgencies, on the other hand, are relatively easy for them to dispose of, using a wide range of repressive tools that are readily available to them. If we took Shaykhutdinov’s conclusions to their logical policy implications, therefore, scholarly-inclined autocrats might use this research as a pretext to generate more educational inequality among their ethnic groups. That way, they could continue to suppress these minority groups socially, economically, and politically, while also denying them the fundamental skills and knowledge required to launch effective nonviolent challenges to the regime. Yikes.

But not so fast, autocrats. I think the empirical relationship between educational advantage may be overstated a bit in Shaykhutdinov’s piece. Take a look at the cross-tabulation below (from the article).

What this table tells me is that the preponderance of ethnic groups in the sample are either advantaged or equal to society as a whole. Few ethnic groups in the sample (only 12 out of 238) were really disadvantaged, and among those that were, only 1 adopted a purely violent strategy. Among the most educationally privileged groups, however, over 15% resorted to a purely violent strategy (the highest percentage of all three categories), whereas only 10% of the educationally-equal groups used a purely violent strategy. A roughly equal percentage of them (38-39%) used nonviolent resistance. As such, the “middle” category of a “mixed” nonviolent and violent strategy is doing the most work in the statistical analysis. But the middle category is the one that is the most problematic fro the theory, since the theory relies on the notion that educationally-privileged ethnic groups should avoid violence, not use it occasionally.

To me, the cross-tabulation suggests that Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis has little support. I am not sure if there is some colinearity in the regression that moves the coefficients into being significant, but my guess is that the substantive effects of educational equality are pretty small.

From my reading, here are the four key takeaways:

  • Shaykhutdinov should be commended for taking on a crucial question that needs further inquiry. We need more research on the relationship that education has on the choice to use nonviolent or violent resistance (or both), using methodological techniques that can help us to account for potential endogeneity.

  • There seems to be a weak positive association between educational advantage (as well as general education of the overall population) and the adoption of nonviolent strategies of protest, though the association needs further testing.

  • If Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis is robust, then educational inequality may be a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. This means that people who want to promote the spread of nonviolent resistance (and reduce the spread of violence) should focus on improving the educational status of ethnic minorities in troubled countries.

  • If there ends up being no support for Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis, we should be encouraged that educational inequality is not a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. Even the educationally disadvantaged should be able to adopt and practice nonviolent principles. This should scare autocrats, because it means that one of their tools—deprivation of educational rights—doesn’t really make a difference in terms of an ethnic minority’s ability to rise up and make demands of them.

Regardless, we need to know the answers to these vital questions. Kudos to Shaykhutdinov for taking the first cut.

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Who Are the “Authorities” in International Relations Scholarship?

Daniel Maliniak and Ryan Powers, Ph.D. students at UCSD and Wisconsin respectively, have an interesting website that uses network analysis to map the centrality of different IR scholars. Their research is based on citation counts of articles in the major political science journals, although they are expanding it to include other journals as well (see also the TRIP Survey of IR Faculty, which is soon-to-be updated).

They write:

Larger nodes represent articles that are more “central” (higher authority scores). Nodes are colored by their publication date. Bluer nodes are older. Redder nodes are newer. For the sake of clarity, we only display those articles cited at least 5 times. Co-authored pieces are identified only by first authors. Citation data are from the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge.

This visualization brings up some interesting questions, including:

  • Does centrality imply authority, controversy, or agenda-setting? Higher citation counts may mean that more people are writing more articles that contest the cited source. It also may be the case that highly-cited articles set the agenda on a particular topic but left many important questions unanswered. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that one can be an agenda-setting, controversial authority all at the same time.

  • Does centrality in articles correlate directly or inversely to centrality in books? There may be considerable variation between scholars who publish in peer-reviewed journals and scholars who publish books. For instance, some of the recurring scholars with a highly central nodes are Alexander Wendt and John Mearsheimer, both of whom have also written highly influential books. Robert Keohane, on the other hand, appears once or twice in the network with some relatively older citations, but he has written quite influential books, including one with Joseph Nye (who doesn’t appear in the article database as far as I can tell).

  • Is the field becoming more specialized, or more integrated? The small blue (older) nodes are generally spread out, indicating that people used to cite each other less and presumably study very different topics. The red nodes, which are newer, seem to be concentrated in dense clouds surrounding particular articles (see the cluster of activities surrounding Russett 1993), or in figure-8-like patterns in which scholars are citing one another (see the Bernhard-Frieden-Broz connection in the upper-right-hand corner). This would imply increased specialization, which isn’t surprising given subfield and subject expertise, etc. But given calls to integrate across subject and subfield, is specialization a good or bad thing as the field moves forward?

These are just my initial impressions. Thanks to Brian J. Phillips for bringing this to my attention. Comments welcome.


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Lots of Buzz about Drones

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have been running a number of articles on the United States’ increasing reliance on drones to prosecute conflicts in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and in general. The question of whether drone strikes help or hinder American interests has not yet been resolved, but it is likely to become even more relevant as Obama draws down American troops in Afghanistan and continues to authorize drone strikes in Libya against a sitting regime. Leaving aside questions of legality and morality for a moment, what do we know about the effectiveness of drone strikes?

Some research exists, but it is largely in the early stages. Patrick Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi have an interesting working paper on whether drone strikes in Pakistan have reduced terrorist attacks there. Here’s a graphic from their paper showing how drone strikes line up with terrorist attacks:

Using WITS data on terrorist attacks, they basically find that drone strikes between 2004 and 2010 have had a modest negative effect on the frequency and lethality of terrorist attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan, as well as a modest decline in suicide attacks and IED attacks. The study is rigorous and compelling.

One the surface, Johnston and Sarbahi’s piece suggests that drone strikes have worked so far in Pakistan. But there are three important caveats: (1) The study is limited to a single country over a relatively brief time span, when the drone program was just becoming a mainstay of the United States’ long-term overseas contingency operations strategy. It remains to be seen whether such trends play out in other contexts over time. (2) One never knows whether American drones accidentally killed more civilians than the terrorists would have: did the drone strikes ultimately hurt more Pakistanis than the deceased Al Qaeda affiliates would have if they survived? (3) We cannot know whether whether those civilians could have been spared if the United States (or Pakistan) had relied on human operations to neutralize these targets.

Many people bring up the objection that drone strikes aren’t really that precise, and civilians often get caught in the crossfire. In Pakistan, this has been an oft-cited source of anger directed at the United States, even though Pakistani military officials discreetly acknowledge that the drone strikes have helped reduce terrorism in Pakistan because they have dispatched high-profile Al Qaeda operatives. The New America Foundation keeps up-to-date information on drone strikes, locations, and fatalities (which you can access here). Take a look at this graphic from Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann’s 2010 study, which is based on these data:

Through the beginning of 2010, a nontrivial number of victims of drone attacks were non-militant “others” (presumably civilians). 2008 was a particularly bad year. But reports indicate that the proportion of civilians killed by drones in Pakistan has declined in recent years, and if Johnston and Sarbahi are right, the regrettable civilian fatalities have not led more Pakistanis to retaliate against the United States than would have normally done so regardless. In fact, Christine Fair argues that many Pakistanis appreciate the drone program.

One skeptic is P.W. Singer, whose book Wired for War makes the claim that relying on drones undermines American interests in the long term. His Ted talk is worth watching:

Singer certainly seems dubious of the strategic effectiveness of the use of drones in or out of combat. Laying aside the problem of civilian casualties, he suggests that the use of drones simply angers insurgents or their constituents, who are offended that Americans “don’t want to fight us like real men.” Another important point is that the United States cannot maintain a monopoly on innovation for these war-fighting technologies, and that ultimately, the United States’ major military rivals may be the ones who perfect such technologies to the United States’ peril.

From the American military’s perspective, Singer expresses some concern that American troops have suffered increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder because of the psychological disconnect between the “video game” platform and the experience of killing. He also cautions that because drones have lowered the costs of killing, Americans will be more cavalier about and quicker to support the use of deadly force abroad. Like his other points, this seems like an empirically testable proposition that political scientists might explore in the future.

But in the meantime, given that the Obama administration seems keen on using drones to manage terrorist suspects abroad, the field is wide open for researchers to collect more data to determine whether drone strikes actually do systematically decrease subsequent terrorist attacks in contexts like Yemen and Afghanistan. Whether drones are preferable to other types of air power in coercing state opponents like Qaddafi’s Libya is an entirely different question that also merits study. Are drones more buzz than bite? Some ambitious researcher should go find out.

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