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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

John Bauer, "The Princess and the Trolls," 1913. Via Wikimedia.

John Bauer, “The Princess and the Trolls,” 1913. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I appreciated this week:

Alex Cuadros reports on how the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitos that are repelled by air conditioning, exposes Brazil’s stark class divide.

Adam Isacson runs down the prospects for further US aid for the Colombian peace process, assuming the government is able to reach a deal with the FARC rebel group. Colombian president Santos recently said that there would be no extension of the peace talks beyond the self-imposed late March deadline.

Mark Galeotti looks at Russian military modernization, concluding that “today, Russian military might as we know it is halfway between a fact and a psychological warfare operation.”

Hugh Eakin on how Denmark is grappling with the refugee crisis, the challenge of assimilating immigrants, and its own latent prejudice (via Angela Chen). As others have noted, it is easy to liken the European nationalist right – “what made the Danish People’s Party particularly potent,” Eakin writes of a Danish populist party opposed to immigration,  “was its robust defense of wealth redistribution and advanced welfare benefits for all Danes” – to Donald Trump.

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Sanders’ Past Isn’t All Radical

By Taylor Marvin

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Earlier this week Michael Crowley reported in Politico that Bernie Sanders, in his days as a younger left-wing activist, urged that the CIA should be abolished. In 1974 Sanders, who as Crowley notes has often denounced the CIA-backed 1953 coup that restored the Iranian shah’s authority, deemed it “a dangerous institution that has got to go.”

Sanders’ past stance briefly became the controversy of the day. Crowley quotes Clinton campaign advisor and former chief of staff to CIA director Leon Panetta Jeremy Bash, who views Sanders’ views as naive and argues “abolishing the CIA in the 1970s would have unilaterally disarmed America during the height of the Cold War and at a time when terrorist networks across the Middle East were gaining strength.” At Slate Michelle Goldberg admits that Sanders’ opposition to covert action overreach was justified but sees his past radicalism as a liability in the general election, and the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz views the Politico story as simply Clinton campaign opposition research published as journalism.

On Twitter Jeet Heer – who later wrote a brief piece at the New Republic – and Robert Farley pushed back against accusations of Sanders’ naivety with an insightful series of points. (Unfortunately Farley’s tweets are not nestled, but are numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.) Farley, who has written a book whose title calls for abolishing the US Air Force and transferring USAF aircraft to the Army and Navy, argues that Sanders’ word choice obscures a more nuanced position.

As Farley and others note, from today’s perspective it is easy to paint the young Sanders as a wild-eyed idealist unaware of the cold realities of Cold War geopolitics. But by the 1970s it was widely acknowledged that CIA covert action had become at least counterproductive, if not outright immoral. Today few Americans defend the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mossadeq, CIA orchestration of the 1954 coup against democratically-elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, or the United States’ role in the 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. As Jason Catlin ‏replied this somewhat confuses the CIA itself with national policy – the US campaign against Salvador Allende was directed from the Oval Office – but staking out a left flank, in my words, in the debate over the CIA’s role in covert action was not unreasonable at the time. In fact, leaving the ‘abolishing’ word choice aside Washington came around to Sanders’ views, as Crowley himself admits. While the opacity of the Obama administration’s drone campaign remains controversial (via Danny Hirschel-Burns) today there is a broad consensus that overthrowing democratic if ideologically unpalatable governments is wrong, and that covert action during the Cold War was counterproductive and shameful.

As I wrote on Twitter, another aspect of Sanders’ youthful defense policy activism has become, in a way, the conventional wisdom. As Crowley writes about Sanders’ 1974 statements:

At the time, the 33-year-old socialist was running for U.S. Senate on the ticket of the Liberty Union Party, an anti-war group that likened the draft to “a modern form of slavery” and called for reducing the U.S. military in favor of local militias and the Coast Guard.

Conscription is not chattel slavery, and this terminology is offensive – though conservative economist Milton Friedman once called the draft “inconsistent with a free society,” language not entirely removed from the Liberty Union’s words. (Crowley leaves it unclear if Sanders personally shared this view, though it seems likely.) When discussion Sanders’ radicalism, however, it is worth remembering that American society has largely come around to this view. Sanders represented the Liberty Union Party in 1974, after the 1969 Gates Commission recommendation that the US establish a volunteer military and the end of the draft in January 1973. At the time returning to the draft was not unthinkable. Today it almost certainly is.

While the Selective Service maintains the infrastructure to quickly draft large numbers of American young men renewed conscription is vanishingly unlikely. Despite the recent furor over the prospect of requiring women to register with the Selective Service reinstating the draft is unthinkable for anything short of a major war. Indeed, this prospect is made even less likely by the not unreasonable chance that a war serious enough to justified renewed conscription would also be serious enough to quickly go nuclear, perhaps negating the question all together.

To be sure, the rhetoric and philosophical justification for modern opposition to the draft differs from the Liberty Union Party’s radicalism – and especially its “cannon fodder” for US imperialism line. An all volunteer military, many argue, is more skilled and motivated than a conscripted force. However, despite these arguments returning to conscription would be fraught in and of itself. The Vietnam War was a larger commitment than any war the US has fought in the All-Volunteer Force era. But most Americans today would see renewed conscription for any war short of a full-blown national emergency – that is, a war much more pressing than Vietnam – as unjust.

As Michelle Goldberg notes, the Liberty Union Party’s call to abolish the standing US military in favor of “a return to the system of local citizen militias and Coast Guard” is radical, and is certainly not a mainstream position today. But like Farley remarks, it’s important to not let extreme rhetoric obscure how American society has changed in the last four decades. While today few would use the same words the Liberty Union Party’s stance has become, broadly speaking, mainstream.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

1915 British recruiting poster, printed by Spottiswoode & Co. Ltd. London E.C. Via Wikimedia.

1915 British recruiting poster, printed by Spottiswoode & Co. Ltd. London E.C. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

In a story profiling the scions of China’s wealthy building lives in Vancouver, Jiayang Fan mentions how corruption and the government’s periodic purges drive the wealthy abroad:

“But, for affluent Chinese, the most basic reason to move abroad is that fortunes in China are precarious. The concerns go deeper than anxiety about the country’s slowing growth and turbulent stock market; it is very difficult to progress above a certain level in business without cultivating, and sometimes buying, the support of government officials, who are often ousted in anti-corruption sweeps instigated by rivals.”

This seems like a serious institutional barrier to future Chinese growth. (Via Andrew Erickson.)

Rio de Janeiro sold the Olympics as an impetus to transform the city. One problem: Rio isn’t meeting many of the Olympic commitments that would improve the lives of its citizens, including sanitation (via Mark Healey). Given the state’s history of failed promises, many residents are understandably wary of new sanitation initiatives.

Max Fisher recounts how neoconservative ideology let America into deluding itself into the invasion of Iraq.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has urged the UK to retain its nuclear forces, arguing that Britain’s Trident has “”continue to play that outsized role on the global stage that it does because of its moral standing and its historical standing”. (Story initially via Reuters.) Interestingly this contradicts a 2013 report that the US quietly supported more British spending on conventional forces, rather than its nuclear deterrent. Jarrod Hayes discussed this at the time.

Janell Ross on what Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz’ brief debate clash over the latter’s Spanish skills reveals about the two Republican candidates’ upbringing, and Spanish’s place in American public life (via Damien Cave and EM Simpson).

Yelena Akopian has photos from a summer in Georgia.

Discussing why much of the coffee served in Colombia is subpar, Mark Wetzler mentions my favorite Bogotá coffee shop.

Perverse Incentives and Killings By Security Forces

By Taylor Marvin

Extrajudicial killings by security forces are not unique to the Americas, but have repeatedly dominated the region’s headlines. While these killings stem from many causes, occasionally they are encouraged by almost deliberately perverse incentives.

As Juliana Barbassa recounts in her excellent Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, by the late 1980s Rio de Janeiro’s police forces found themselves increasingly outgunned by drug traffickers. “That imbalance lasted until 1994,” Barbassa writes, “when Rio elected a new tough-on-crime governor, Marcello Alencar.” In addition to up-gunning Rio’s Polícia Militar with more semiautomatic weapons, Alencar also “instituted raises for police who demonstrated bravery on the job—bravery as measured in the number of bodies left on the ground. This became known as the Wild West bonus: shoot, then collect.” Again according to Barbassa, the new policy doubled the number of suspects police reported killing in gunfights, many who the police are suspected of instead executing. Although Rio de Janeiro police’s harsh tactics predate the bonus policy – which was revoked in 1998 – “taking the Wild West bonus off the books did not change the culture it had reinforced within police departments” and today on-duty police commit 16 percent of Rio’s homicides.

This calls to mind Colombia’s so-called “false positive” scandal, which was first widely reported in 2008 (this Human Rights Watch report comes via Boz). Lured by a 2005 directive which rewarded combat kills in the war against leftist rebels with leave and cash bonuses, Colombian soldiers murdered thousands of civilians – usually poor men – before dressing them in fatigues and reporting them as rebels. These murders were systemic: citing Colombia ReportsJoel Gillin notes that when false positive killings peaked in 2007 “at least 40 percent of combat kills were in fact civilians.” As Tom Feiling writes in his book Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia, false positive killing spread throughout the Colombian Army. Similarly to Rio’s police, while the bonus policy was revoked in 2006 “body count syndrome” had already infected the Colombian military. Despite public outcry, investigations, and the forced resignations of some senior officers, “once the peripatetic gaze of the camera had passed,” Feiling writes, “the armed forces returned to time-honored tactics.” Both the military and the governments of Presidents Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos balked at imposing real consequences, and the Colombian military’s human rights record remains poor.

What is particularly striking about both of these cases is how predictable the consequences of “body count syndrome” policies should have been. Beyond a myopic focus on body counts as a metric for judging counterinsurgency and policing, directly rewarding soldiers and police for killing the ‘enemy’ creates an obvious incentive for soldiers to murder civilians, or in police’s case for extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force. Indeed, this is not a case of Latin American institutions inadvertently allowing human rights abuses, but rather directly fostering them.

While Colombia’s insurgency is largely unique today, extreme insecurity continues to challenge many Latin American governments. Under public and international pressure to impose order these governments are tempted to reward soldiers and police who ‘get the job done,’ measure security though body counts, and impress the public with this progress: a 1997 diplomatic cable cited by Colombia Reports argues that the incentives created by institutional body count syndrome tended “to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” This is a mistake.

Recognizing the perverse incentives that rewarding security forces for combat kills create is vital for avoiding human rights abuses, but alone is not enough. Extrajudicial killings and coverups are not only prompted by personal rewards: InSight Crime has noted body count syndrome elsewhere and Boz police coverups in Mexico and Venezuela. American police forces and local governments also frequently conceal police murders, often of people of color. Just as in the US, Latin America’s false positive killings – and the Americas’ high homicide rate more broadly – are linked the region’s extreme inequality and racism. The victims of the Colombian Army’s false positive murders are mainly the poor, and according to a recent Amnesty International report the majority of those killed by Rio de Janeiro’s police are young black men. (Not coincidently, as Rio on Watch writes Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police is descended from a force tasked with keeping slaves down.)

The consequences of policies that reward individual soldiers and police for killing are predictable. Despite their very real security challenges it is difficult to imagine Latin American governments rewarding body counts if they valued the bodies of these policies’ victims.