Author Archive | James Fearon

Red lines

The kerfuffle over “red lines” maps into some recent debates about how international crises work in an interesting way.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, and other Israeli officials are upset that the Obama administration is not setting clear “red lines” defining at what point the U.S. would attack Iran to try to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.   Their best case would probably be for Obama to publicly announce something like “we would consider Iran’s doing X, Y, and Z, or failing to stop doing X, Y, Z  by such-and-such date, grounds for military action.”

They say they think the effect of such a public pronouncement would be to raise the likelihood that Iran would be deterred from proceeding, and so an attack would not be necessary.  They also say that failure to make such a pronouncement may lead the Iranian leadership to infer weakness, giving them permission to go ahead.

So far, at least, the Obama administration seems reluctant to state a definite red line beyond which they would start a war.

It’s hard to make any sense of what’s going on here unless both the Israelis and Obama think it would be pretty costly for him to make a clear commitment and then not follow through on it.  But why would it be costly?

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Grievances and civil war

I’m late to the Jacqueline Stevens’ op-ed party, and don’t think I have much to add on the main issues – about forecasting, capital ‘S’ Science, etc. – discussed by Henry, Erik, and Andrew (or others linked to here).  But Stevens also gave an interpretation of the core argument in Laitin’s and my 2003 APSR paper that, for what it’s worth, I think is a misreading.  Since I’ve seen this elsewhere over the years, I thought I’d try to speak to it.

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Maliki and coup-proofing

Just as US combat troops are completing their exit from Iraq, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki orders the arrest of the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi for allegedly ordering assassinations and terrorist attacks.  This escalates a broader tendency of Maliki to go after Sunni politicians, and a decision by Iraqiya, Hashimi’s party, to boycott the parliament and the cabinet.  Then yesterday there is a horrific round of car bombs and IEDs in Baghdad.  It’s not clear exactly what group or groups are to blame, though the NYT mentions al Qaeda and Juan Cole refers to “Sunni Arab guerrilla groups.”

The most common interpretation of these events that I’ve seen goes like this:  Maliki never liked the power-sharing arrangement negotiated with lots of US input about a year ago, and now that US troops are gone, this somehow makes it is easier or more possible from him to ditch the agreement and carry out his authoritarian designs.

Here is another, not mutually exclusive interpretation:  The US army performed a lot of roles in Iraq over the last eight years, but one of the most important and least explicitly discussed was to function as a Republican Guard for the governments we helped set up.  That is, US troops were a competent armed force that could be expected to respond aggressively to armed attempts to depose the regime, coups in particular.

Despite their exit, US troops could still come back to play this role if a high-level violent fight breaks out over control of the government.  But there is much more uncertainty about whether “the police” would or could show up now than there was a few months ago.

Maliki realizes that there are a lot of armed Sunni groups (and Shiite groups as well) that see deposing him by force as a good thing if they think they might get away with it.  Maybe he’s more paranoid than he should be, and it’s also puzzling that he is not doing more to try buy support from some subset of Sunni leaders.  But with US combat troops gone it’s a situation ripe for realistic paranoia.

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This is confusing

Andrew Sullivan quotes Jon Huntsman, back in September, loving all over Captain Beefheart and specifically referring to Trout Mask Replica.  Wow.  That has to be the most non-mainstream musical identification (cf. party identification) ever given by a U.S. presidential candidate.  And a Republican to boot.

What’s the logic whereby you are willing to say that, but not to be the one guy to raise your hand in response to the question about whether you would accept a budget deal with a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases?

You’ve already given up and figure what the hell?  You don’t think this could ever feasibly be used against you in a future campaign?  Despite seeming sane compared to some of your rivals, you actually do believe that it’s more important not to raise any taxes at all than to actually lower the deficit?  Probably there’s just no logic or strategy going on here, but while I haven’t done a systematic study, my impression had been that presidential candidates are as careful and boring about music choices as they tend to be about sports team advocacy.


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The debt ceiling deal: What should we have expected?

This is basically a small plea for insight from the Monkey Cagers and commenters who know more about US politics than I do (it’s not my field of study by a long shot).

I’m seeing tons of assessments of “who won” the debt-ceiling bargaining, with basically every single one saying the Republicans did much better.  The analyses stress that the Republicans got no tax increases (or even loophole closures) and lots of cuts, thus not anything like the more balanced deal the President had argued was fair and best for the country.  Even commenters who think the Dem’s didn’t do as badly as the consensus view seem to believe that the administration would be just terrible at buying rugs in Morocco.

But I’m wondering, What should we expect in terms of bargaining power here?  Continue Reading →

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The UN and Libya

James Joyner has nice post about the apparent lack of planning and organizing for a peacekeeping operation in Libya—with boots on the ground—if and when the Qaddafi regime ends.  I agree that this is a big problem and a big concern.   See also Bruce Jones et al who were suggesting that the UN wake up on the issue back in April.  Maybe a PKO won’t be needed to help keep a transition from getting awful.  Much stranger things have happened.  But the PKO powers-that-be shouldn’t be counting on it.

Joyner notes statements by various officials indicating that their country or organization won’t actively participate in a Libyan PKO.  I would add that regardless of what they are saying now, if chaos and score-settling in Libya makes for a big surge in refugee flows across the Mediterranean, then there will probably be strong pressure for a PKO from at least a good chunk of the EU.  For reasons that Jones et al detail, the UN is the most likely venue for launching such an operation.  I’ve heard rumors that bureaucratic in-fighting in the Secretariat has prevented planning for a robust mission.  These rumors could be totally wrong or out of date, I don’t know, but I hope some enterprising journalists will look into it.

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Why aren’t there IRB’s for the development industry?

I recently attended a talk by Ted Miguel presenting results from an  experimental evaluation of a “community driven development” program in Sierra Leone that he conducted with Katherine Casey and Rachel Glennerster.  It’s a terrific and very interesting paper and project, but that’s not what I wanted to post about.

After the talk, a colleague of mine, who was impressed by the paper and who knew that I was involved in a similar randomized evaluation of a “community driven reconstruction” project in Liberia, said something along the lines of “Still, I don’t know, isn’t there something about these experimental evaluations that makes you a little uneasy, kind of like we’re treating these people like rats in a maze?”

I said, in so many words, “yes, definitely.   But we tell ourselves it’s for a good cause [which I think it is – figuring out what sorts of development aid actually produce good results], and in any event it’s nothing compared to what the development industry itself is doing on this score.”   By which I meant that the little experiments and surveys and measurement devices being used in randomized aid project evaluations are like nothing compared to the billions of dollars of attempted social, political, and economic engineering undertaken every year in donor-funded development projects.

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