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Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category

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.

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.

Trump, Deportations, and El Salvador’s Violent Crisis

By Taylor Marvin

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump’s appeal is not entirely, or even primarily, due to his harsh stance on illegal immigration: prospective Republican primary voters value his belligerence and apparent business competence, and are perhaps influenced by the reality TV-fueled perception that “he’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability,” in Kevin Drum’s words. However, calls to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the southern border are the centerpiece – literally; it remains the only issue detailed on the “Make America Great Again!” website – of Trump’s unconventional campaign, and a major part of his allure.

Deporting over ten million undocumented immigrants is an ugly prospect. As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, hunting down millions of immigrants would require an expanded police state and civil liberty violations that Americans – hopefully – find more acceptable in theory than in practice. Ending birthright citizenship is widely thought to require a constitutional amendment, and the muddled unstated implication that Trump will “keep families together” by forcibly deporting the US-born, American citizen children of undocumented immigrants is certainly unconstitutional, as well as barbaric.

Beyond its domestic impact, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants would likely have a severe destabilizing effect on their countries of origin, especially smaller Central American states. This dynamic has occurred before.

El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates,* with spiraling violence between the small Central American country’s two leading gangs producing a murder rate comparable to literal war zones. Last month the criminal organizations attempted to pressure the government by shutting down the country’s mass transit, killing eight bus drivers and transportation workers who violated the order not to work. Citing the threat posed to public safety and state authority, this week the Salvadoran government deemed the gangs terrorists, regardless of whether individual gang members have committed any crime (via Mike Allison).

What does El Salvador’s chaos have to do with Trump’s vision of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants? As a recent story in the Guardian and background articles by InSight Crime detail, El Salvador’s current conflict was in large part precipitated by US immigration policy.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the country’s destructive civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. An inability to gain formal asylum in the United States – in the 1980s “approximately 2 percent of applications were approved while the majority found their applications were considered ‘frivolous,'” Sarah Gammage writes – led many refugees to remain in the US illegally, often in Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods. Members of the newly-arrived Salvadoran communities in these gang-ridden areas organized their own gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha. Then a minor player in the US gang landscape, the mara allied itself with the more powerful Mexican Mafia, or la M; today Mara Salvatrucha is commonly called MS-13, “M” being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

In the late 1990s the Clinton administration, influenced by some of the same tough on crime and anti-immigration attitudes Trump draws on, began deporting foreign nationals convicted of less serious crimes than had previously merited deportation. These deported criminals included members of Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, another Latino street gang with origins in Los Angeles. The effect on the weak states of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – was disastrous. As InSight Crime writes:

Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities. The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society. They often turned to what they knew best: gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool spawned the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Unsurprisingly El Salvador’s criminal violence has flown back into the United States, just as it did during the civil war. Many of the Salvadorans seeking undocumented entry into the US fear for their safety back home. Both Calle 18 and MS-13 operate in the US, and there are strong links between the gangs’ leaderships in El Salvador and branches in the United States.

US deportation policy is not the only, or perhaps even most important, cause of El Salvador’s crisis of violence. The Salvadoran civil war devastated the country and, again as InSight Crime relates, left a cadre of veterans experienced in violence, some of whom turned to crime. The wider roots of Latin American violence, like the drug trade, also apply to El Salvador. Additionally, the Salvadoran government has also pursued harsh “Iron Fist” strategies to combat the gangs, which despite their widespread support – “those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all,” said one Salvadoran woman recently quoted by The New Yorker’s Daniel Alarcón (again via Mike Allison) – have likely worsened the crisis. By throwing young people who have only joined gangs to survive or aren’t affiliated with gangs at all in fetid, violent prisons, harsh policing strengthens and perpetuates criminal organizations.

To be sure, there are legitimate questions about whether the US should be responsible for imprisoning non-citizens who commit crimes, and American officials and the public were not unjustified as seeing the deported convicts as someone else’s problem. But even through a narrow lens focused only on US interests, nearly two decades on it is reasonable to question whether deporting convicts who contributed to El Salvador’s destabilizing crisis has been a net loss for the US.

Of course, the main reasons to object to Trump’s deportation proposals is that many are flatly immoral, nonsensical, or unconstitutional. Migrants fleeing the Central American violence that US policies helped create should be treated as the refugees they are.

Beyond their immorality, commentators should remember that Trump’s policies could cause serious social problems in Latin American countries beyond the halted flow of remittances. Importantly, American deportation policies’ impact on El Salvador’s crisis centered on deporting convicts, and the vast majority of those deporting under Trump’s nominal plans would not be criminals. Even so, suddenly throwing hundreds of thousands to millions of deportees – some convicted of crimes, some with little knowledge of or no social networks in the distant country of their birth – into already strained societies would be disastrous. Since even extremely harsh enforcement is probably unable to seal the US border entirely, feeding economic and violent instability today will likely worsen the flow of undocumented migrants tomorrow.

Many Americans will not care about these consequences, or view them as much less important than the domestic impact of deporting millions of immigrants. But given the intimate economic, criminal, and social linkages between Mexico and Central American and the United States, these risks should not be forgotten.

*El Salvador’s homicide rate recently moved to the unenviable position of the world’s highest outside of wars, but there are reasons to question the accuracy of this ranking.

Marijuana Legalization in Uruguay

By Taylor Marvin

Uruguay has become the world’s first nation to legalize the marijuana trade. While personal recreational use of marijuana is currently legal, starting sometime after April of next year adult residents of the small Southern Cone country will be able to purchase up to 40 grams of the drug a month in pharmacies or grow six cannabis plants in their own homes. Prices for the legally-sold drug are expected to be roughly in line with the current black market price. Foreigners will not be allowed to purchase marijuana in the country. According to Reuters, critics of the law fear that legalizing the sale of marijuana will lead pot users to experiment with harder, more dangerous drugs.

It’s my hope that marijuana legalization in Uruguay and elsewhere helps finally demolish this gateway drug myth. On the face of it pot and harder drugs like cocaine and heroin have very little in common; if absent other factors using one mind-altering substance was enough to lead someone to more dangerous ones, we’d expect the more addicting and harmful alcohol to be a greater gateway. What marijuana and heroin have in common is that they’re illegal drugs. A habitual pot smoker has decided that they don’t mind breaking a pointless law, and presumably have become accustomed to purchasing prohibited drugs from criminals. It’s trespassing over these small legal, mental, and social barriers associated with pot’s illegality, not anything inherent to marijuana, that could make it easier for marijuana users to overcome the higher barriers to hard drug use. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug. Instead, it is marijuana prohibition that’s a potential gateway to further drug use.

Why Do Americans Care So Much About Sex and Politics?

Guest post by Sarah Alaoui

Just as French playboy and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn — or DSK as he is known to the masses — seemed to be off the hook, his escapades came back to haunt him. While a public prosecutor wanted to drop the case in June that would likely implicate Strauss-Kahn in a prostitution scheme at the Carlton Hotel in Lille, France, prosecutors announced on Friday that he would go to trial after all. The charges? “Aggravated pimping”, or in other words, facilitating prostitution – with lots of prostitutes. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison and a heavy 1.5 million euros fine.

His lawyers complained that he was being unfairly singled out because of the hoopla surrounding a certain hotel stay and a certain hotel maid in New York back in 2011, further inflamed by the ‘perp walk’ Strauss-Khan was then made to perform. Concerning Friday’s developments, one of Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers, Frederique Baulieu told BFM TV that “no offense has been found to exist. So there can be no conviction in this affair…we should be focused on the law, not morality. Sadly, in this affair, investigating magistrates have been led astray by morality.” Henri Leclerc, another of his lawyers, told Reuters, “We’re not in the realm of the law, we’re in ideology. We’re sending someone to court for nothing.”

Four months after the Sofitel debacle, DSK, once a presidential front-runner, appeared on French television to admit he had committed, “a moral error with regard to my wife, my children, to my friends…also an error with regard to the French people, who had placed in me their hope for change.” His saga did not include any awkward press conferences or forced public apologies to the public. Unlike their American counterparts, the French seemed to be more concerned with the legality of his acts than with his womanizing ways.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Anthony Weiner’s at it again – as if you hadn’t already heard the million phallic jokes being generated by the minute this week. Merely months before the New York mayoral race, new information leaked on Tuesday about Weiner’s ‘sexting problem’. As a demure Huma Abedin publicly stood by his side for the first time, Weiner held yet another press conference expressing his apologies. The New York Times and New York Daily News editorial boards both released statements on Tuesday demanding that the former congressman withdraw from the mayoral race.

Those who weren’t focusing their energy on pubescent, that’s-what-she-said-style jokes about Weiner’s name were fetishizing Abedin in almost poetic language, orientalizing her beauty as if they’d never seen an “ethnic brunette” in politics – or real life – and further derailing public discourse. Exhibit A from National Review:

“Huma is Kennedy glamour resurrected. She brings exotic beauty and a hint of Oxbridge intelligence — and of course cosmopolitan liberalism — to a town full of heartland men in ill-fitting brown suits and southern women in fire-engine-red blazers.”

Everyone has taken on the role of confidante and therapist, offering their two cents on what she now should and shouldn’t do, on what’s best for her and her toddler, on how she should move on from this scandal that they continue to help perpetuate with their speculations and unsolicited prying. In Slate, journalist Hanna Rosin rightfully noted that “the idea that a woman has to leave her husband in order to be considered brave is left over from a 1980s Dolly Parton movie.”

Why do we care so much? Do the American people have to be subject to an embarrassingly painful, yet predictable press conference every time one of our politicians hits the ‘send’ button with dirty fingers? As a teacher would make a student apologize publicly to another child so he can earn back his recess time, we are turning the political sphere into a playground, a public confessional of sorts for those who have wronged in private to offer publicly broadcast prayers of contrition.

Let’s use the simple metaphor of the tree falling in the forest: is the big fuss over the actual act or because the act was revealed? If President Obama held a press conference tomorrow announcing he had sexted another woman who was not Michelle, how would we react? Would our views of his leadership, assuming they had been positive before, become completely negative? Would former supporters immediately retract their endorsement on the grounds that he had deceived them, thus reducing their approval of him to how he behaves as a husband? Does the American public want to be led or bed by its politicians? There are many more questions that could be raised, but they correspond to the many inconsistencies and bouts of hypocrisy in the American relationship with its elected officials.

There have been intelligent articles written about Weiner’s political capacity to lead New York as mayor listing many valid reasons to oppose his candidacy, dirty texts aside: his destructive narcissism, abysmal record in passing legislation during his tenure in congress, questionable comprehension of pertinent issues such as what’s going on in the West Bank, and the list goes on… Ironically, until this week’s press conference Weiner was leading the polls for the Democratic primary of the mayoral race – he had 25 percent of the votes among registered Democrats. Now, he’s dropped to 16 points. What was the basis of these voters’ support prior to the surfaced texts? Pure name recognition? Is the 9-point drop the result of feeling sorry for Huma, who according to New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson, has brown eyes that are, “pools of empathy evolved through a thousand generations of what was good and decent in the history of the human race.” Cue violins here.

In an interview with Le Figaro, lawyer Christopher Mesnooh says that in France, “We don’t mix the lie to our wife with the lie to our country.” In the States, we attribute our expectations of the publicly orchestrated mea culpa to our Puritan roots which we so deeply value (will we ever be able to dissociate these roots from our politics?), but can we extend these same self-righteous expectations to our own homes and relationships? In a 2011 survey that polled over 100,000 people and published in the book The Normal Bar, data shows that 33 percent of men and 19 percent of women admitted to being unfaithful. Many participants also pointed out that the frequency of the sexual infidelity changed its gravity.

The Weiner jokes will die down soon enough, but they present us with a timely opportunity to examine ourselves and our politics. The cheating individuals in The Normal Bar study may not be running for office, but if they are projecting their own moral beliefs through the ballot box, perhaps they — and we — should step back and think about practicing what we preach… or toss the Puritan hats once and for all.

Thoughts on Snowden, Civil Disobedience, and Cowardice

By Taylor Marvin


NSA leaker Edward Snowden apparently intends to seek refuge in Ecuador, a country, like Snowden benefactors Russia and the PRC, not exactly noted for its free press and civil liberties. As many have noted, there’s a certain irony to Snowden fleeing to countries with much, much worse records of repression and civil surveillance than the United States. At best this is hypocritical, and many allege that Snowden’s desire to evade US justice weakens his credibility as a whistleblower. Like many others, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews went so far as to call Snowden a coward for fleeing punishment, and others claim his flight make him a traitor.

First, I a very skeptical of PRISM, surveillance of routine communications, and the general government culture of secrecy. Moreover, the security bearucracy’s natural tendency is to grow if unchecked. In a perfect world whisleblowing would not be necessary, but we obviously don’t live on that plane of perfect oversight and moderation. That said, I am also wary of endorsing Snowden’s actions. Much like Dan Nexon recently wrote, I believe that security clearances are very serious, and low-level employees should not be able to unilaterally decide what should, and should not, be secret. As Kevin Drum noted, with too many Snowdens it would be impossible to run any intelligence service at all. I also feel that Snowden sacrificed credibility by apparently attempting to avoid having his material thoroughly vetted (though this is notably better than going to WikiLeaks, which has proven itself entirely irresponsible and unable to responsibly release secrets).

That said, it’s perfectly natural for Snowden to try and avoid punishment for his actions. Kevin Drum sees Snowden’s flight as a reasonable desire to avoid punishment for civil disobedience if that punishment is a lifetime in prison. Suffering legal penalties can’t be separated from legitimate civil disobedience — this willingness for self-sacrifice demonstrates commentment and strength of belief, and is an important part of the public performance inherent to civil disobedience. However, Snowden’s actions aren’t civil disobedience per se. It appears that Snowden’s goal was simply making PRISM public; of course, his public announcement and media embrace is self-aggrandizing, but isn’t inherent to his goal. It’s true that Snowden escaping legal consequences will encourage future leakers by suggesting that releasing classified information has no penalty (though it’s also arguable that never being able to return to the country of your birth is a penalty in and of itself). But as Snowden appears to see it, unlike many other civil disobedients there’s no real value in his public martyrdom. As long as the information is made public, suffering extreme legal penalties adds nothing to the discussion. If he can leak classified information and escape US justice so much the better. Without condoning Snowden’s actions, this isn’t cowardice, it’s simple self-preservation.

Update: This originally read “good sense,” which in retrospect doesn’t convey the sentiment I was aiming for. Additionally, while accepting punishment isn’t an integral part of Snowden’s performance, it is true that putting himself in Chinese and Russian custody is a best enormously irresponsible.

What’s the Political Value of the Red Line?

By Taylor Marvin

After recent reports that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, last week I speculated about what motives would prompt Assad to violate the Obama administration’s red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, whether purposefully or inadvertently. At the time the Obama administration’s red line was widely criticized, from both directions. If Assad decided to use chemical weapons despite American threats the red line could force the US into a Syrian intervention it had no desire to fight and little ability to decisively resolve. Conversely, if the Assad regime used chemical weapons and Obama didn’t intervene, his inaction would damage American credibility and demonstrate to future human rights-violators that US threats could be safely ignored.

Worse, by declaring that the US would punish chemical weapons use the Obama administration broke the cardinal rule of deterrence by issuing a threat that was neither clear nor credible. On what scale would chemical weapons have to be used to cross the red line? Obviously, the US would not commit itself to a major war if the Assad regime used chemical weapons in small amounts, especially as the deaths of 70,000 Syrians hadn’t already prompted an intervention to stop the killing. By declaring a fuzzy red line — Obama’s statement that Assad would have to use “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons to trigger intervention appears designed to avoid rhetorically committing the US to punishing minor chemical weapons use — the US left ample room for confusion and uncertainty, lessening the deterrence value of the threat. Similarly, the Obama administration’s reluctance to fight in Syria is obvious. Since Assad knows that Obama has little ability to force his future self to intervene if the red line is crossed, the threat is less effective.

However, new reports have surfaced suggesting that Syria’s rebels, not regime forces, had released small amounts of chemical weapons (Syria’s rebels of course dispute the claim). While this confusion has made discussions of the anti-chemical weapon red line less urgent, criticism of the policy remains. Critics argue that tying US entry into the war to chemical weapons use gives the rebels an incentive to mislead the US, for example, and small-scale chemical weapons use can be very difficult to verify, giving Assad room to employ them but avoid punishment. But if the regime has not employed chemical weapons, does that mean the red line is an effective deterrent? Or does it remain an less-than-credible threat unlikely to successfully coerce Assad if he actually does decide to use chemical weapons?

On Twitter, Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell asked an interesting question:

You can make the admittedly contrarian case that Obama’s red line is a tool to decrease domestic demand for intervention in Syria (though recent reporting, noted by Erica Chenoweth, that the red line was an off the cuff improvisation makes divining its political motivations difficult). The Obama administration has no desire to intervene in Syria, whether by arming the opposition, destroying Syrian air defense systems in order to enforce a no-fly zone, or launching an air campaign targeting Assad’s forces. While domestic demand for US involvement in Syria is low, it’s possible that as the casualties grow American public opinion could slowly shift toward favoring an intervention to stop the killing. While the administration would, of course, make the final call on any intervention, public opinion could pressure Obama into an intervention policy he seeks to avoid.

Again, history suggests that presidents are rarely punished for inaction while atrocities continue. But there is a real possibility that elite opinion could coalesce around a perceivably-inexpensive intervention plan centered around airpower, rather than a boots-on-the-ground invasion (which no one is seriously discussing).

Setting the red line around chemical weapons use, instead of an arbitrary number of Syrian dead, is a potential way for the administration to avoid these domestic political pressures. There is considerable reason to suspect that the Assad regime will continue to avoid high-profile chemical weapons employment, in spite of its brutality. Chemical weapons are imprecise, difficult to use effectively, and would inflict massive civilian casualties if used to target rebel fighters in the urban battlefields that characterize Syria’s civil war. Even before accounting for the risk that chemical weapons use could draw down international intervention, it’s reasonable to suspect that Assad is unlikely to engage in full-scale chemical warfare.

By setting a red line prohibiting crimes Assad is unlikely to engage in anyway the Obama administration can present itself as invested in the outcome of the Syrian war and ready to intervene, while hopefully avoiding being actually forced to do so. Daniel Byman hinted at this logic in a recent New York Times op-ed, noting that red lines can potentially “placate domestic critics” of non-intervention. Of course, dedicated advocate of intervening in Syria will find this watchful distance intolerable; Shadi Hamid’s complaint in The Atlantic that “in saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line” is certainly true. But the chemical weapons red line dismisses a core argument in favor of intervention by replacing an ambiguous trigger for intervention — Assad’s brutality — with a more concrete, if still fuzzy, one Assad is less likely to cross. If Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons and the US continues to stand by the Obama administration isn’t “doing nothing”; instead, it is simply abiding by its stated red line. While not enough for many proponents of intervention, it does reduce their ability to drum up political support for US entry into the conflict.

It’s entirely possible that Assad will judge Obama’s threats not credible and use chemical weapons anyway — and potentially force the US into war — but again, it’s similarly possible that political pressure could eventually force Obama to intervene in the absence of a broken chemical weapons red line. As Assad is much more likely to kill large numbers of Syrians through conventional means than chemical warfare, the red line is conceivably a device intended to separate Obama from a hard choice.

Bureaucratic Barriers to Successful Interventions

9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddBy Taylor Marvin

I recently finished Can Intervention Worka slim volume of twin essays authored by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus examining how humanitarian-motivated military interventions can succeed. Stewart’s essay, which opens the book, suggests an interesting comparison between the practitioners of modern intervention and British colonial administrators. One of the key failures of the current effort in Afghanistan is a lack of local knowledge among military and especially civilian practitioners. Because of security concerns, conflicting priorities, and the generalist focus of most modern government agencies and NGOs few practitioners spend extended periods in the Afghanistan, are able to create durable connections with ordinary Afghans, or learn local languages.

Stewart contrasts this disconnect separating international practitioners and ordinary Afghan society with British imperialists. While few modern officials or NGO workers would appreciate the comparison, in contrast to today the colonial officials of the British empire prized the local knowledge of specialists and created institutional structures that encouraged and fostered these skills.

British colonial officials were often cruel, erratic, and racist, as well as representatives of a colonial system fundamentally designed for exploitation, not development. However, Stewart argues, in contrast to their modern counterparts, British colonial officials stationed in Asia served abroad for decades, acquiring — and, crucially, were promoted on the basis of — language and cultural skills. Unlike today “this cadre of specialists in Parliament, the military, and the media,” Stewart writes, “provided a well-informed challenge to exaggerated ambitions or fears about Afghanistan.”

There are reasons to question this reasoning.* For all their local knowledge British colonialists suffered major defeats which were often sparked by their tone-deaf indifference to local grievances; the 1857 Indian Rebellion is one example of many. Indeed, despite the “well-informed” regional knowledge of 19th century British colonialists the First Anglo-Afghan War was certainly a Western defeat in Afghanistan more severe than today’s war. This suggests that while regional specialization is important, it is no panacea for the arrogance inherent to colonialism and often foreign invasion.

But it is true that today’s practitioners in Afghanistan — and the entire international effort they embody — appear to often lack the specialized local knowledge crucial to successful state-building. As Stewart and others have noted, this is a serious weakness of the current effort in Afghanistan. For military servicemembers, the demands of rotating deployments makes it difficult for veterans to pass on regionally-specific experience and lessons learned. For civilians, this disconnect is arguably even worse: security concerns restrict most foreign aid workers and administrators to guarded compounds, and few possess relevant cultural and language skills. The senior officials responsible for setting policy, both in and outside of NATO governments, spend little time on the ground in Afghanistan, and have even less local experience.

Of course, Stewart is carefully to differentiate between the local specialization and general outlook of colonial officials. Western governments, Stewart writes, “should not be trying to replicate a nineteenth-century ethos”; obviously, Western and Afghan societies would not support them if they did. But it is obvious that the modern practitioners’ generalist outlook is problematic. Too few speak Afghan languages, and too few are able to meaningfully interact with ordinary Afghans. This generalism is the result of many limitations: the buzzword-heavy culture of modern management consulting that stresses universal principals over regional specifics, the casualty-adversion that isolates practitioners into guarded compounds, the short overseas tours that disincentivizes learning specialized local knowledge. But whatever its cause, a generalist outlook disconnected from local realities is not conductive to successful, realistic policy — as Stewart’s anecdote of attending a government conference on Afghanistan, held in Estonia and attended by only three Afghans, all US born, amply illustrates.

Stewart expands his critique into a general call for smarter interventions; in this telling, decisions to intervene should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments on why we cannot intervene in a particular place, or why we should not intervene too deeply.” This is certainly a valid critique of liberal interventionist thinking, though I would caution that the general hurdles to successful interventions are as vital as specific knowledge.

But the importance of local knowledge is potentially a general deficiency that makes nearly all full-scale, boots-on-the-ground interventions unfeasible. Successful full-scale interventions, especially those with state-building components, require practitioners with local knowledge. While neoconservatives and to an extent liberal interventionists once downplayed the importance of this specialization, in the post-Iraq environment this assertion isn’t controversial. However, this language and cultural knowledge gap is a human capital problem that poses a real obstacle to advocates of humanitarian military interventions, despite their motivation.

All modern interventions are nominally short-term, despite the tendency of mission creep and unplanned setbacks to expand their mandate. This makes it difficult for institutions to incentivize building the local skills that Stewart stresses. Unlike the colonial administrators Stewart cites — who could expect their postings to last for decades, making acquiring local languages and cultural knowledge a valuable long-term investment through their career — today’s practitioners know that the US presence in Afghanistan will dramatically shrink in the next few years. Even excluding the modern security-driven isolation that makes in-country cultural interactions difficult and institutional cultures that fail to reward specialization, modern practitioners have significantly less incentive to invest the time and effort required to acquire deep cultural knowledge they can expect to soon be dramatically less relevant. Just as Americans who became experts in Vietnamese culture saw less applications for their skills after 1975, those who invested considerable energy in learning Dari or Pashto — while admirable — may see this specialization as less valuable to their career than generalist skills with less of an expiration date.

US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.

US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.

While this is an arguable point, I believe this is a major structural flaw in liberal interventionism. As long as foreign interventions are benchmarked around politically-acceptable short timeframes, civilian and military practitioners will have less career incentives to acquire specific cultural skills with little direct applications decades on. As Stewart argues, government agencies and NGOs could certainly place more emphasis on rewarding those who acquire these skills. Additionally, this isn’t to say that acquiring cultural skills doesn’t provide indirect career benefits — acquiring them certainly demonstrates commitment and general aptitude. But as long as practitioners cannot, unlike colonial administrators, see a stable long-term market that directly applies their skills, they have less incentives to acquire them.

If the success of intervention is dependent on the availability of a large cadre of practitioners with deep local knowledge, this bureaucratic incentive problem is a major barrier to pro-intervention arguments. Prospective interventions can draw from existing regional specialists in academia or NGOs — though, as the Iraq War demonstrates, these specialists are often ignored when they bear unwelcome counsel, and distinguishing disinterested experts from those with agendas is difficult. But successfully implementing counter-insurgency and state-building programs require large numbers of regional specialists also knowledgable about whatever technical field they will be working in, whether military of economic or political. These very specialized human resources take time to grow, and cannot be counted on to emerge in sufficient quantity.

This is particularly troubling because countries have repeatedly failed to incentivize regional expertise even in regions known to be potential trouble spots. For example, during the period leading up to the Falklands War British officials could have reasonably expected that, while they never expected an actual war with Argentina over the islands, building and maintaining institutional Latin America expertise was a prudent strategy. But as reported in Max Hasting and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklandsthe British were unprepared for the diplomatic requirements of successfully averting conflict. Despite their two possessions in the region — the Falklands and, until 1981, British Honduras — Latin America was not a priority for the British Foreign Office. Specialists tasked with the regionlacked resources, and in the early post-war era was primarily focused on commercial, not political, relations. British intelligence on Argentina was minimal, and during the conflict few British servicemembers landed on the islands spoke Spanish. The point is that maintaining institution’s regional expertise resources is difficult, even in regions known to present potential future problems. Because humanitarian crises cannot always be expected to occur in regions with a deep bench of specialists available, this problem is even more apparent for humanitarian-minded interventions.

No matter how many existing regional specialists there are to draw on, successful full-scale interventions will always require dramatically increasing relevant human capital. Not only is this time-consuming — and, as the Iraq War again shows, mistakes made in the opening states of an intervention can have dramatic long-run effects — but incentivizing these specific, limited-application skills is a difficult bureaucratic problem. While many critics of foreign interventions point to a lack of local expertise as a key flaw of these efforts, few question whether bureaucracies can offer sufficient incentives for practitioners to acquire them. The short-timeframes inherent to full-scale interventions suggest that this human capital problem is so challenging that it should be considered a integral hurdle to successful full-scale, state-building intervention.


*More specifically Stewart’s status as a regional expert himself, which he largely casts himself as in the text, has been questioned.

Update: Edited for clarity.


By Taylor Marvin

Political Violence @ a Glancethe blog I am lucky enough to work on, has been voted the ‘Most Promising New Blog’ of the 2013 Outstanding Achievements in International Studies Blogging awards, run by Duck of Minerva’s Dan Nexon. Cool! If you’re interested do check out all of the other finalists, which are all excellent blogs I enjoy.

Of the nominees in the best individual post category, I especially enjoyed Robert Farley, John M. Hobson, and Phil Arena’s work. Check them out.

Irrationality and BMD

By Taylor Marvin

David Weigel closes his Slate profile of Senator Rand Paul’s recent trip to Israel with an interesting quote. When asked what he thought of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, Paul took his support of the system further, proposing that the US field a similar system:

“But absolutely I’m in favor of it. Think about on 9/11. There’s no reason our White House, our Capitol, and our major cities shouldn’t have a missile defense… I argue that there will be irrational actors on the stage. There’s no way to stop irrationality from eventually getting weapons into the hands of people who might attack us.”

Really, it’s pointless parsing this statement: Senator Paul clearly means this less as a carefully considered defense policy position and more of a hyperbolic demonstration of his support for Israel: whether policy or military hardware, when it’s good enough for Israel, it’s good enough for the US.

But it’s worth remarking just how misguided this proposal is. Iron Dome is a worthy system that has saved lives. But it is a particularly poor analog for a US-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. The Qassam rockets Iron Dome is designed to intercept are short-range, travel relatively slowly, do not maneuver, and do not mount decoys or other systems to increase their survivability. No terrorist would ever fabricate a similar limited-range rocket in the US. Instead, a ballistic missile launched at Washington, DC would be exponentially more difficult to successfully intercept than a Hamas rocket to the point that the two are incomparable. A prospective city-defense ABM system would more resemble the 1970s-era Safeguard program proposed to defend US ICBM sites from a Soviet counterforce attack, which relied on nuclear interceptor warheads and was only briefly operational. Anyway, this entire discussion ignores that fact that terminal-phase BMD for civilian targets is probably unworkable — even a successful interception by a modern non-nuclear interceptor would still leave fast moving debris flying towards the target — and can easily be defeated by low-cost countermeasures.

More pertinently, Senator Paul appears to not devote much time to contemplating strategic rationality. As is frequently noted, the concept of rationality does not denote any moral judgement, only that a rational actor’s behavior follows a reasonable cost-benefit calculation and is in accordance with their desired end. Al Qaeda’s attack on the US was not irrational; rather, it was a rational outcome of bin Laden’s desire to kill Americans given his limited means. Deeming it — and other terrorist campaigns — rational is not an endorsement of its morality.

Paul’s focus on irrationality is simply a rhetorical strategy. A rouge state launching a limited ballistic missile attack on the US would indeed be an irrational act — that’s precisely why it is unlikely. Despite protestations to the contrary, legitimately irrational regimes rarely arise; after all, attaining and holding leadership status in an organization as complex as a nation-state — thus far the only groups capable of deploying the ICBMs required to attack the mainland US via missile strike — requires sophisticated decision-making, the precise decision of rationality.

This is important, because accusations of irrationality are a frequent argument by neoconservatives keen to justify military intervention. This argument was a prime driver of the Iraq War, and is repeated today to justify a strike on Iran. Reasonable observers conclude that an Iran armed with nuclear missiles would be unlikely to risk national destruction by launching a nuclear strike on Israel. Hawks sidestep this conclusion by arguing that, contrary to all evidence, Iran’s leaders are not rational at all — in this argument, mutually assured destruction may have deterred the Soviet Union, but the fanatical Iranians only care for destruction. Of course, this argument is more based in racist assumptions of Muslim fanaticism than any real scholarship. While Paul is a relative moderate on US-Iranian relations, his willingness to adopt the same rhetoric as hawks is support of a nonsensical BMD advocacy is lazy. Today accusations of strategic irrationality have become more of a rhetorical shortcut to war than a evidence-based concept.

When the word “irrational” leaves a politician’s mouth, be doubtful.