As originally posted at Duck of Minerva.
By Philip Martin
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks advises a U.S. approach to Iraq which uses military force to arm-twist Iraqi elites into forming an inclusive new government, since “if you get the political elites behaving decently, you can avoid the worst.” At Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara Walter also argues in favor of a negotiated settlement based on power-sharing as the optimal solution to Iraq’s current political fragmentation, an outcome that will supposedly “become increasingly attractive to everyone as the costs and risks of war increase.”
It is true that if moderate elites had more power in Iraq this would reduce the intensity of the country’s domestic political violence; it is less clear, however, that another power-sharing coalition government brokered by foreign interveners is an effective means to this end. For the last decade or more, scholars and practitioners have advocated for inclusivity, integration and power-sharing as the principal solution to the problem of civil war termination, expecting that these arrangements can reassure combatant groups of their participation in the post-war distribution of power, and eventually establish a cooperative model of governance which builds trust and moderation. Yet empirical research on foreign-imposed regimes and the determinants of peace agreement success provides little optimism about the likely effectiveness of these institutional arrangements.
I’ve decided to return to blogging in 2014 with a short reflection on my first semester over at MIT. Grad school here has been excellent in many ways: the course material is engaging (I particularly enjoyed a class on great power military interventions), the other students in my cohort are fantastic, razor-sharp people interested in the same issues as me and there is a great cooperative spirit among us, and I get to bike along the Charles River every day from home to the department. I even have a window office – what more to ask for?
Of course, it’s not all sunshine, and if it was it wouldn’t be interesting to write about. So, after one semester, what have I got to say about being a graduate student in political science in the U.S.?
Reports that the Obama Administration may be considering a “zero option” for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 have made plenty of waves and sparked debates over the future stability of the country (see Richard Weitz’s nice synopsis here). Given the war-exhaustion of Americans and their NATO allies, the stalled and uncertain peace process between Karzai and the Taliban, and the looming Afghan Presidential elections scheduled for next year, it really is a time of great uncertainty in South and Central Asia. Nobody knows what will happen over the course of the next 12 months, let alone five years from now.
Nevertheless, it is striking how little the popular narrative about the West’s intervention in Afghanistan has changed over the last decade. Political and military leaders give the same familiar talking points about building democracy and nation-building, although nobody seems to know what exactly these terms mean any better than we did in 2001. James F. Dobbins, the Obama Administrations special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently offered his view that “the future stability of Afghanistan rests on a peaceful transition of political authority from President Karzai to his successor in 2014 through an election that Afghans themselves accept as credible … Inclusive elections are critical to their country’s stability.”
In one month I’ll be moving to Boston to start my PhD, thus ending my “year off” from school after finishing my MA at NPSIA in 2012. It was a badly needed break from the stressful grind of course-work, research essay writing, and the never-ending cycle of applications and proposals which started consuming most of my time and effort somewhere around my 3rd year of undergrad. In this post I’d like to reflect briefly on the so-called “buffer” year, and what it has meant for me.
First, the expression “year off” is itself misleading. As others have pointed out, this is a somewhat pejorative phrase which implies that taking a break from grad school to pursue other professional or life goals is some sort of deviation from the correct “Path.” Leaving the university system opens up all kinds of opportunities for learning and professional development, many of which aren’t available while in school: traveling to new and interesting countries, working in a professional sector that you didn’t know much about before, learning a new language, and yes, getting some real hand-to-hand combat experience with the current job market (ouch).
So, what are some of the main benefits I’ve gained from my time outside the Ivory Tower?
I (finally) finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s popular 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is a compelling read (and miraculously jargon-free) with loads of insights on the sources and consequences of our psychological biases. Above all, Kahneman demonstrates the general inability of the human mind to deal comfortably with statistics; rather, we seem prone to making decisions based on rapid and often superficial intuitions, usually based on a small number of oversimplified analogies. We have particular trouble when simple analogies come to mind quickly and vividly.
Many of his insights are applicable to the study of foreign policy decision-making and international relations, and public policy-making more broadly. One of the concepts Kahneman describes, for example, is the planning fallacy. Individuals, business executives, and politicians alike commonly fall victim to this bias, making plans and forecasts that are unrealistic, overly optimistic, and fail to take into account the statistical base-rate of similar cases. In the grip of the planning fallacy, people overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, spinning “scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or to deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.” As somebody about to start a PhD in Political Science, I am no exception to this pattern.
This tendency towards over-optimism can be advantageous in certain situations. People feel happier when they are thinking on the bright side of things, which may actually make them more successful; entrepreneurs are more likely to attract investors to their company when they project confidence in their business model; politicians need to sell a positive message of hope and transformation of the status quo in order to win votes.
The ongoing civil war in Syria has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Aaron David Miller at Foreign Policy recently described it as Obama’s new “Problem From Hell,” a reference to Samantha Power’s book about other genocidal slaughters of recent history such as Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda. According to the UN’s latest estimates, over 93,000 Syrians may have died since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in March 2011. Syrian opposition groups put the number even higher.
These figures are deeply disturbing when you think about them. That people are able to slaughter so many of each other so systemically, and to so little constructive purpose, represents a catastrophic failure of human empathy and, in my view, a harsh indictment of the institutions of warfare. That being said, does Syria’s current level of bloodshed really compare with other major conflicts in recent world history?
The question is important because pro-intervention advocates are using these analogies to marshal support for external military intervention into the conflict. Up until a few months ago, the West’s experience in Libya in 2011 acted as the “window” through which many people saw a potential Syrian intervention. With the recent heightened pace of violence, more alarming comparisons have come to the fore, such as Bosnia, Darfur, even Rwanda. Are these comparisons valid?
What is it that leads governments to massacre large numbers of their own citizens, and even resort to indiscriminate and inhumane weapons like cluster bombs and chemical weapons? A recent fact-finding mission by Human Rights Watch indicates that the Syrian government has continued to use large-scale, indiscriminate violence in populated areas, including two documented instances of cluster munitions attacks on March 29th and April 3rd in the city of Aleppo. These attacks, according to HRW, “killed scores of civilians and destroyed dozens of civilian homes without damaging any apparent opposition military targets.” This evidence comes at the same time that multiple Western intelligence officials have confirmed with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian security forces have used sarin nerve gas against opposition forces, sparking a tense debate in the West about whether Assad has crossed the Obama Administration’s “red line”, and what kind of response that should precipitate (for interesting and opposing views from credible scholars see here, then here).
Now, Syria is not a party to either the Convention on Cluster Munitions (a comprehensive treaty banning their use) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (which prohibits the production or stockpiling of sarin), so in a narrow sense its actions are not technically a violation of treaty obligations. They are, however, a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and go against the widespread international norms against these weapons. As a result, any remaining legitimacy the Syrian government may have in the eyes of other countries (and its own citizens) is likely to be further eroded. The use of sarin in particular, which has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction by UN Resolution 687, could very well force Obama’s hand and precipitate stronger U.S. action against Assad’s regime, if not through direct military intervention then through increased support to the opposition. Indeed, it now appears likely that the U.S. will soon start supplying lethal weaponry to the Free Syrian Army.