Archive | Violence

Will the Media Treat Navy Yard Like Newtown?

This is a guest post by my GW colleague Danny Hayes.


In the aftermath of Monday’s deadly rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard, gun control will no doubt surge back into the news. But how long will it stay there?

If the months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre are any indication, the media are likely to lose interest quickly – unless gun control makes its way back onto the legislative agenda.

As has been documented elsewhere, news coverage after mass shootings follows a pattern. In a shooting’s immediate wake, gun control coverage spikes, before receding back into relative obscurity. This happened after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the 2012 attack at an Aurora, Co. movie theater.

But the pattern following Sandy Hook was different, and instructive. The graph below displays the number of stories that included the phrase “gun control” for each week since December 2012. The data come from a search of more than 500 outlets in the U.S. News & Wires database in Lexis-Nexis.


Like with other shootings, gun control coverage increased dramatically after the Newtown massacre, but tailed off within a few weeks. But in contrast to other cases, gun control arrived back on the front page in early January, when President Obama issued a series of executive actions intended to reduce gun violence.

The president’s influence, however immediate, was short-lived, as media attention fell off through the early spring. It was only in April – when a Senate bill to expand background checks failed to surmount a filibuster – that the issue gained prominence again.

Since the bill’s demise, gun control has largely disappeared from debates on Capitol Hill – and with it, the news. While advocates have continued to push for change at both the state and federal levels (with one group coincidentally on lobbying trip to Washington this week), the national media’s interest has continued to wane. Even Giffords’ nationwide tour in July failed to stop the slide.

This pattern suggests that only if Sen. Dianne Feinstein gets her way, with Congress taking up gun control legislation once again, will a renewed media debate over gun control occur. If political leaders in Washington decide the issue isn’t worth pursuing, the media are likely to turn their attention elsewhere – whether back to Syria, the next NSA intelligence-gathering revelation, or the looming battle over the debt ceiling.

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U.S. Gun Laws and Violence in Mexico


Yesterday’s terrible events at the Navy Yard will undoubtedly light up debates again about a possible ban on assault weapons. This issue is relevant not just in the U.S. but also south of the border where U.S. gun laws are believed to be partially responsible for increases in homicides. Some argue that this is just a convenient scapegoat but there is some solid social science evidence that the 2004 expiration of the U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban did have an effect on homicides in Mexico.

One paper I blogged about before, by  Arindrajit Dube (UMass)Oeindrila Dube (NYU) and Omar Garcia Ponce (NYU), is now the lead article (ungated for now, I believe) in the  American Political Science Review, the premier academic journal in political science. The graph above displays some of the evidence: homicides increased more in areas close to U.S. states that did not have a pre-existing ban than in California, which upheld its prior ban on assault weapons. The abstract is below:

To what extent, and under what conditions, does access to arms fuel violent crime? To answer this question, we exploit a unique natural experiment: the 2004 expiration of the U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban exerted a spillover on gun supply in Mexican municipios near Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, but not near California, which retained a pre-existing state-level ban. We find first that Mexican municipios located closer to the non-California border states experienced differential increases in homicides, gun-related homicides, and crime gun seizures after 2004. Second, the magnitude of this effect is contingent on political factors related to Mexico’s democratic transition. Killings increased disproportionately in municipios where local elections had become more competitive prior to 2004, with the largest differentials emerging in high narco-trafficking areas. Our findings suggest that competition undermined informal agreements between drug cartels and entrenched local governments, highlighting the role of political conditions in mediating the gun-crime relationship.

One may doubt that the plausible externalities of U.S. gun laws will be taken seriously in policy debates. That is probably so but this is a major issue among immigrants from Central America (not just Mexico). Hispanics are overwhelmingly supportive of stronger gun laws and we keep hearing that they are an important demographic.

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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.


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 Sit-Ins Succeed – Or Fail

In view of today’s events in Egypt, I wanted to encourage writers to see Monkey Cage occasional contributor Erica Chenoweth’s article at Foreign Affairs with the same title as this blog post from earlier this week. She writes:

Civil resistance involves unarmed people using a combination of actions, such as strikes, protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and stay-away demonstrations, to build power and effect change…. Although there is no set formula that guarantees success, from 1900 to 2006, the single most important factor was wide participation. The larger and more broad-based the campaign was, the more likely it was to succeed. In fact, all of the other factors associated with success—elite defections and the backfiring of repression—seemed to depend in part on the size and diversity of the campaign to begin with. That all makes sense: large campaigns are more likely to seriously disrupt the status quo. Diverse campaigns are more likely to be perceived as representative, hence legitimate.

Take, for example, Egypt in 2011. Small protests that began on January 25 soon escalated. They came to involve millions of Egyptians from a remarkable cross-section of society. President Hosni Mubarak attempted to disperse protestors occupying Tahrir Square, but he soon found that his own security forces were unreliable. Many simply ignored his orders and others joined the protests outright. Contrast that example with the recent Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins. Those involve primarily young men, whose claims to legitimacy are contested. Although these civilians do have allies among the Egyptian population, they do not boast the same numbers as the Tamarod movement that ousted Morsi, which had its roots in earlier anti-Mubarak sentiment. And whereas Tamarod assembled tens of millions of signatures calling for Morsi to step down and led influential government elites to defect, the pro-Morsi faction has not.

The piece concludes with a note of caution:

One of the most dangerous misconceptions about civil resistance is that several weeks of street demonstrations or sit-ins can bring about major systemic change. On the contrary, the average civil resistance campaign takes nearly three years to run its course. Although three years might sound like an eternity, the average violent campaign takes three times longer and is twice as likely to end in failure. History shows that civil resistance campaigns tend to succeed when they build the quantity and quality of participants, select tactics that provoke loyalty shifts among ruling elites, prepare enough to maintain nonviolent discipline, and skillfully change course under fire to minimize the damage to participants. All of this takes time, organization, preparation, and a good deal of strategic imagination.

The full piece – definitely worth a read – is available here.

[h/t to Daniel Treisman.]

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