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Academics are Policy Troubleshooters

By Oliver Kaplan for Denver Dialogues

President Lyndon Johnson meets with the "wise men," a group of informal advisors that included Undersecretary of State George Ball (left), a key devil’s advocate in policy debates among the “Best and the Brightest” surrounding the Vietnam War. Source: National Archives of the United States.

President Lyndon Johnson meets with the “wise men,” a group of informal advisors that included Undersecretary of State George Ball, a key devil’s advocate in policy debates among the “Best and the Brightest” surrounding the Vietnam War. Source: National Archives of the United States.

It seems like these days academics are increasingly striving to produce “policy-relevant” research. A side effect of this trend is the attendant anxiety that one’s research won’t be relevant enough for policymakers to pay attention. Relevant research can be a very good thing, but it isn’t the only way to “engage” with broader audiences. Social scientists can also contribute just by being in the room where policy discussions are being held and acting as sounding boards—as expert policy troubleshooters.

This kind of contribution is underscored in Micah Zenko’s new book, “Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy.” The book is a hagiography of red cells, the prime example being the CIA red cell formed after 9/11. [1] This team of analysts was encouraged to promote critical examination of core assumptions and introduce “fearless skeptics” and “devil’s advocates” into the intelligence process—to combat “groupthink.” The red cell’s “simulations, vulnerability probes, and alternative analyses, helps institutions in competitive environments identify weaknesses, challenge assumptions, and anticipate potential threats.”

Red-teaming is not exactly new. If academics are good for at least one thing, it is applying these kinds of intellectual skills to think outside the box. Sure, policy-makers may think of academics in terms of traditional stereotypes—they are too abstract, absent-minded, and aloof (am I be becoming more so by the day? I digress…). While academics don’t necessarily need to “think like the enemy,” who knew having one’s head in the clouds could be such a good thing?

The (dreaded!) academic seminar epitomizes collective troubleshooting with the goal of improving research and arriving at sound findings. This can involve the elaborate parading of methodological chops, with phrases such as “endogeneity,” “epiphenomenality,” “error terms,” and “instruments” flying freely.  Go ahead—try sharing an idea (or even starting a sentence) at one of these sessions and you’ll see how the full glory of academic critical thinking can make you question your assumptions (warning: when one’s own research is the object of such critique it can result in temporary emotional crippling!).

More precisely, academics are good troubleshooters because they do at least three core things well:

  1. Exploring counterfactuals. When it comes to examining whether a key causal variable or policy has a particular effect, academics are trained in constructing various counterfactuals to consider whether the same result would occur absent the key variable or policy. [2] This can be a crucial exercise for checking the assumptions of an argument through “thought experiments,” especially when it is hard to collect empirical evidence.
  2. Probing alternative explanations. When critiquing research, academics focus their attention on possible gaps and uncertainty in causal logic and think about whether competing causal “mechanisms” (omitted variables) may be at play. This can include consideration of alternative behavioral models of the enemy, as forcefully argued by Alex George, one of the original scholars to push for “bridging the gap.” Academics often talk about putting on the “hats” of different types of scholars to explore how different theories might account for a given set of facts.
  3. Indicators and evidence. Academics are pros at examining the evidence base for causal claims. They are also trained to consider the implications of such claims and think about how to later measure outcomes to know if one’s causal model is accurate.

Beyond these skills, academics tend to know history well, are good at applying existing literature and past cases to new problems, and are aware of where existing knowledge falls short (indeed, this is a good share of what PV@G does). Academics are pushed to be flexible thinkers and to import theories for new problems from unexpected places and from across disciplines. Finally, the transparency of the academic (scientific) process—its emphasis on peer review and getting multiple eyes on a problem—helps us check our (confirmation) biases at the door. Yet rather than being some deeply arcane tools, these methods are familiar to first-year grad students.

This doesn’t mean academics promise perfect answers for tough real-world decisions or are necessarily great forecasters. That may be asking too much of anyone (for instance, the complexity of the current situation in Syria has made events difficult to predict). But at least academic thinking can help assess the pros and cons of different policy options. It may then be up to the practitioner or analyst to decide how to weigh the (political) risks of competing options or if more certainty or information is needed before recommending a decision.

From the academic perspective, armed with troubleshooting skills, it can be frustrating to hear policy-makers debate options with little evidence or erroneous support. Yet it is incumbent on academics to resist the temptation of turning a policy discussion into an academic seminar. Showing off methodological chops in front of policy-makers is a terrible idea, as policymakers may not be interested in, or open to, research output written in academic-ese or that has few applied results. Instead, academics should policy-troubleshoot in ways that are accessible to non-academics and non-experts, as practitioners are often pressed to make decisions with incomplete information and little time. This could mean limiting comments on policy options to only the most central or most resolvable issues.

It should also be in policy-makers’ interest to come half way, as Celestino Perez, Jr. has argued on this blog. I’m not saying hug an academic, but maybe consider keeping a few in the room.[3] So, next time, if you want to know the number of reasons why your policy analysis might be wrong (and what options might work better), don’t worry about it. We’ve got you covered from here till next Tuesday.

[1] To be clear, I am not arguing that additional troubleshooting can directly alter the course of events or could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. It can help yield more informed decisions and weighing of risks and alternatives.

[2] I.e., if examining the relationship where “factor a implies result b,” then the counterfactual claim is “if not a, then not b.”

[3] Academics may have much to contribute by advising policymaking processes, though I do not mean to gloss over real professional ethical tensions that “being in the room” may entail. Such a controversy was seen in resistance by some anthropologists to cooperating with the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System program.

Does Segregation Work to Prevent Ethnic Violence? Not in Northern Ireland.

By Laia Balcells, Lesley-Ann Daniels, and Abel Escriba-Folch


Peace Wall. By David Ramos.

Does segregation work to prevent ethnic violence? This question has been at the forefront of the partition debate in Iraq, and it is also currently relevant for Syria and Israel as well as for other countries undergoing conflict along ethnic or religious lines. At first glance, segregation might seem a straightforward method to prevent or stop violence between communities, but we can only know if it works by looking at the data.

In a recent article published at the Journal of Peace Research, we study subnational variation of low-intensity ethnic (also called sectarian) violence in Northern Ireland. Current low-intensity sectarian violence in Northern Ireland comprises attacks against individuals or groups using physical force, threats, verbal abuse, or intimidation; it also includes riots, public disorder, and damage to property.

We are particularly interested in the effect of segregation of the Catholic and Protestant communities. In extreme cases, peace walls have been built to separate the two groups. In our research, we use an original dataset of incidents of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2012 (the data is collected by the Police Service for Northern Ireland). Our dependent variable measures the recorded number of incidents of sectarian violence in a given ward (a subnational territorial and administrative unit) and year. The map below reveals the large existing variation across wards, according to which in some wards violence can reach a maximum of 78 incidents in a year, while 7% of wards have had no incidents during the time period studied. Interestingly, and contrary to what one might anticipate, low-intensity violence does not concentrate in the same exact areas where violence occurred during “The Troubles”, the armed conflict that plagued Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.

Balcells post

Authors’ elaboration. Reproduced with permission of Land and Property Services © Crown Copyright 2015

Contemporary violence between Catholics and Protestants is most intense in areas where both groups have similar sizes and are in contact with one another. This can happen within wards, but also between wards. High levels of violence occur in very homogeneous wards (e.g. predominantly Catholic wards) that border very homogeneous wards of the rival group (e.g. predominantly Protestant wards). This happens even if these wards are separated by peace walls. Areas of contact between segregated communities are particular hot spots because both sides are jockeying to increase the amount of territory under their control and because groups fear losing preeminence to the rival group. These interface areas are seen as disputed spaces in the context of a zero-sum competition over territory and social resources. Catholics and Protestants use violence in order to claim control over these pieces of territory and enhance individual physical safety – additionally, this both establishes and protects areas where groups can safely express their identity, symbols, and traditions. Further, group proximity creates opportunities for violence by increasing the viability of attacks, as targets are more visible and accessible and encounters more likely.

Overall, our micro-level study of contemporary interethnic violence in Northern Ireland suggests that segregation and physical separation of groups is generally not a solution to ethnic violence. By impeding regular interaction, segregation worsens intergroup trust and increases threat perceptions. Threat perceptions ignite into violence in the interface areas where the two groups meet. Notably, we find that violence takes place between segregated communities even in the extreme cases in which physical barriers are built to completely separate the groups, which makes the existence of these barriers seem quite futile. Our findings speak of a particular case, Northern Ireland, but these are lessons that should easily travel to other settings where segregation between communities is being considered as a possible solution to violence.

Laia Balcells is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University and Niehaus Visiting Associate Research Scholar at Princeton University. Lesley-Ann Daniels is a PhD student at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Abel Escribà-Folch is Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Weekly Links

By Sarah Bakhtiari

Trucks loaded with refugees and their bicycles, who were evacuated from south of Arnhem, arriving at Nijmegen, Netherlands, November 20, 1944. By Capt. Frank L. Dubervill.

Trucks loaded with refugees and their bicycles, who were evacuated from south of Arnhem, arriving at Nijmegen, Netherlands, November 20, 1944. By Capt. Frank L. Dubervill.

Today’s military is increasingly challenged to develop strategies that reflect the complex operating environment it confronts. What are the keys to developing the intellectual capacity for such complex problem-solving endeavors? Apparently, it’s the liberal arts. The belief is that developing a flexible mind is best suited to adapt to and overcome future challenges, like those identified in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ 2016 Global Forecast. Spoiler alert—three themes are underscored: the importance of historical understanding (reinforced by insights like this one on terrorism), the tight nexus between economics and security, and the enduring importance of human agency.

The recent ISIS attacks in Egypt and Paris have prompted demands for more action—but more is not necessarily better, unless it’s the right type of action. Douglas Ollivant argues that, in this case, its U.S. Presidential involvement that is necessary to compel the right kind of action. Christian Caryl, on the other hand, suggests that a robust Tunisian democracy offers an ideological alternative to ISIS that is a necessary complement to a military strategy. And just how much should terrorist threats like ISIS drive American foreign policy? Here’s Daniel Byman’s take.

How well is Europe coping with the tensions introduced by refugee flows and terrorist activity on home soil? Much debate revolves around Europe’s cohesion and commitment to liberal political principles. Hungary’s Victor Orban has declared such principles too dogmatic, acting as a mainstream straightjacket of sorts on variations in political freedom. Some simply make the case that accepting Syrian refugees is a legal obligation.

And in the United States, it seems the popular distaste for admitting Syrian refugees today is not inconsistent with America’s historical public opinion on refugees. What about US public perceptions of democratic accountability that is so closely tied to liberal ideals? Read the Pew study—the title says it all, really: “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government.” The study shows that not only does roughly half of the American population feel that ordinary citizens have little influence over the government through the vote, but also that they’d do a better job solving the country’s problems.

Think you’re pretty smart, do ya? Take care; David Dunning’s new study found that experts are more likely to claim they know the unknowable.

Finally, in light of the Thanksgiving holiday this week and the context of national turmoil, here’s an inspiring post-materialist account of and call for enduring American gratitude. If you’re looking for more hard data, check out the UC Berkeley Greater Good Research Center initiative “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” and the center’s 2013 survey on American gratitude.

I Am Muslim

By Barbara F. Walter


Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011. By Gage Skidmore.

One of the disheartening after-effects of the Paris attacks has been how quick many Americans have been to condemn Muslims. Donald Trump called for the mandatory registration of all Muslims in the United States. Half of the nation’s governors said they would refuse to accept Syrian refugees. And hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have increased.

Listen carefully to what people are saying. People claim that the US needs to keep Muslims out of the country to protect their families, their values, and their lifestyle. But hiding behind these words are fear and hatred and distrust – all packaged in ways that are publicly acceptable yet deeply pernicious.

It reminds me of how Americans used to treat homosexuals. It used to be perfectly acceptable to talk about the gay community the way we currently talk about the Muslim community – in negative, offensive ways. Not anymore. Attitudes toward homosexuals changed when courageous men and women began coming out of the closet. Suddenly the gay community had a human face that included our brothers and sisters, best friends and teachers. It was only after the gay community became public about their identity that the stigma and hatred of “the other” began to fall.

What if Muslims did the same? Imagine if all 2.8 million Muslims in the United States began wearing buttons that read “I am Muslim”. Or better yet, imagine if they all publicly shared their identity, with pride. Americans would see that their favorite actor, teacher, doctor, and respected neighborhood leader was Muslim. What if they took the bold step of revealing just how much a part of the community of American citizens they are?

I understand that this is a radical idea, perhaps best left as a thought experiment. I understand that it is asking a beleaguered and vulnerable community to make itself even more vulnerable at a time when fear is high. I understand that it is easy for me – a white woman – to ask others to take risks when I pay none of the costs of doing so. I also understand that it puts the impetus for change on the victims of racism rather than on the perpetrators.

But counterfactuals are often worth thinking through. The gay community took the bold step in the 1970s to face homophobia head-on. It was only after millions of individuals came out and said “I am gay” that attitudes began to change and equal rights began to be offered. What if American Muslims did the same with Islamophobia? The Donald Trumps of the world can try to dehumanize an entire population and treat them as people to be feared. But once you put a face to name, that type of fearmongering is much harder to do. So during this time of Thanksgiving, let us stand together in gratitude and say: I am Muslim.


Puzzling Aspects of the US Debate on Syrian Refugees

Guest post by Jeremy Pressman


Immigration station at Ellis Island, circa 1902-1913. Via New York Public Library.

One thing that struck me about the reaction in the United States to the Paris attacks of November 13 was how quickly many governors and presidential candidates announced opposition to allowing Syrian refugees into the United States. That was the first important signal that their decision was not based on any strategic or careful analysis of the situation – we didn’t even know how a Syrian passport played into the attack if at all – but rather was due to some other factor like a general panic, the pursuit of political gain, or kowtowing to anti-Muslim sentiment (never mind that the states probably don’t have the legal right to block federal refugee resettlement programs).

Let’s assume for a moment that ISIS would try to slip a terrorist in through the US refugee resettlement program. What is the evidence that the US screening process, which lasts 1 ½ to 2 years, wouldn’t catch them? What are the specific shortcomings of the screening? Has any governor or candidate made that case: here are the particular problems with the current screening process? The argument seems far less credible if it is just a generalized rejection of screening without any evidence these politicians know how the process actually works.

Or, where are the past examples of refugees admitted to the United States who committed acts of domestic terrorism? One friend suggested the Tzarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing), but their parents originally came to the United States on a tourist visa and then later sought asylum. Asylum is not the same as refugee resettlement. To seek asylum, the Tzarnaevs needed to already be in the United States. The resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees involves Syrian refugees who currently are living in neither the United States nor Syria and much of the screening process takes place even before they step foot in the United States, if they even get to that point (see here for one refugee’s experience of how that process works).

Have refugees been especially violence-prone once settled in the United States?  @ZaidJilani claimed “169,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees came to the US in the 1990s, from a radicalized warzone. Not one terrorist.” @Daren_J_Zehnle, a Priest of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, pointed out one counter-example, allegations a Bosnian who resettled in the US traveled to Syria to join ISIS (he is now dead). Relevant, but not an example of a US refugee who committed a domestic act of terrorism in the United States, the core line of attack on resettling Syrian refugees today. Along these lines, Seth Jones of RAND listed 10 cases of refugees arrested on terrorism-related charges in the US from 2009-2015.

Part of the problem is a blurring of different categories. As Alex Nowrasteh points out, “Foreign- born terrorists tend to enter on student visas, tourist visas, business visas, have asylum applications pending, or are lawful permanent residents – all nonimmigrant or immigrant categories [that] face fewer security and background screenings than refugees do.”

I have been struck by the total decontextualization in thinking about the concept of threat or danger. Refugees are dangerous compared to what? Again, Nowrasteh:

Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States and none was successfully carried out.  That is one terrorism-planning conviction for a refugee for every 286,543 of them who have been admitted.  To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014. 

Actually, don’t these numbers mean we should accept more refugees since they are less violent than the US average and would thereby dilute the violence of American society? To me, this broader decontextualization is symptomatic of an irrational panic.

Overall, this debate over Syrian refugees highlights a hawkish tendency to falsely claim a monopoly on security arguments. No worries, it happens many times across debates over international affairs. The hawkish claim here: Syrian refugees are dangerous, thus blocking them makes the United States safer.

But hold on a minute. What if blocking refugees makes the United States less safe? This is not simply a debate of security hawks vs. empathetic doves, even though that is the framing debate hawks much prefer. They like to claim the safety mantle, even when it is not theirs to claim.

How might blocking Syrian refugees worsen US security? Some hypotheses: 1) It plays right into the ISIS and AQ storylines that they are engaged in a war with the West and the West reviles Muslims. So it could bolster that storyline and help ISIS with recruitment, thus bolstering their ranks. 2) In a small way, the possibility of US resettlement could create a little more hope among Syrian refugees and in refugee camps. Without it, a little more desperation. ISIS feeds on desperation, and it too helps them recruit people with no other means of survival. 3) Grateful Syrian-Americans and Muslim Americans could help burnish the US image 4) More specifically, down the road a cadre of Arabic-speaking Muslims, Syrian or otherwise, could feed into US personnel needs in the US military and intelligence community. Assuming we are still in this fight, and we very well could be, in 10 or 20 years, grateful communities who can push back against ISIS or the next incarnation of violent jihadism could be instrumental in ensuring the safety of the United States.

Not to mention the humanitarian angle; the general productivity of refugees in the United States; and the centrality to absorbing more people, including refugees, to the growth of the United States, both now and historically.

Can we have a reasoned debate where to be taken seriously, arguments have to have some historical and factual basis? Is that too much to ask? Or is the flight from careful analysis to become a permanent feature of our politics?

Jeremy Pressman is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. You can follow him on twitter @djpressman

Does Emergency Food Assistance Prolong Conflict?

By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues

Bread distribution inside Syria by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation.

Bread distribution inside Syria by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. By IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. 

If the first casualty of war is the truth, the second is usually full stomachs. While the question of whether food insecurity causes conflict remains contested, the reciprocal—whether conflict causes food insecurity—is not. Conflict, especially civil conflict, is a massive contributor to acute food insecurity. Population displacement, destruction of cropland and processing centers, and large increases in the cost (and risk) of transshipment, and deliberate food denial (or “starvation siege” tactics) often cause food prices in active conflict zones to spike and availability to plummet. To wit, by the third quarter of 2015, wheat flour and rice prices in battle-ravaged Eastern Ghouta, Syria, had increased by factors of eleven and fifteen from pre-war (August 2011) prices and were several times higher than prices in nearby and comparative stable Damascus. Despite global food prices having come down from historic highs, a mixture of transshipment barriers and donor fatigue is threatening the food security of those lucky enough to escape the fight. In September, budget shortfalls forced the World Food Programme to halve its assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan, leaving hundreds of thousands of the displaced scrambling for sustenance. The situation is sufficiently dire that many Syrians are actually returning to Syria—to an active conflict zone—in search of food. By late October, the WFP was able to resume operations. Budget restraints, however, mean that 15 percent of the identified need is not being met.

Faced with a humanitarian crisis like Syria, the obvious and seemingly ethical response is to provide emergency food assistance to affected populations. Some, including my colleagues at Korbel, have even argued that this can and should be done using military force: when governments or rebels wield hunger as a weapon, the UN Security Council should be willing to intervene on humanitarian grounds. While the merits of militarized humanitarian intervention may be debated—the U.S.—led multinational effort in Somalia is not exactly a sterling example of humanitarian intervention— there is virtually unanimous consensus and a body of international law that commits the international community to address humanitarian disasters with emergency food aid.

But what if this food aid—and humanitarian intervention more generally—prolongs the very conflicts whose effects it seeks to mitigate? Scholars have pointed to humanitarian assistance, particularly in irregular conflicts, as engendering perverse incentives for armed actors, who capture and divert humanitarian assistance in order to continue to fund their war aims. The logic of the argument is relatively straightforward. First, because emergency food shipments to conflict zones are somewhat fungible (i.e., they can be captured and resold or consumed by armed actors), they constitute an often-unintended form of material support for rebels: Give a person a fish and s/he eats for a day. Give a person a fish in a conflict zone and a warlord steals it, re-sells it, and buys a few more Kalashnikovs and Hilux. Second, the provision of food and basic social services by the international community, even if imperfect, releases pressure on both the government and the rebels to negotiate a settlement: Any move that makes a hurting stalemate more tolerable reduces incentives to end it. Third, humanitarian interventions that address basic needs may free up more time for engaging in politics and resisting governments and their allies: If an army marches on its stomach, dissidents probably organize on theirs. No wonder that active food denial has been a part of counterinsurgency operations for centuries.

This debate, which began in the 1990s as a direct response to US-led intervention in Somalia and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, was reinvigorated recently by an article by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian in the highly influential American Economic Review. The article demonstrates between 1971 and 2005, US food aid was conflict prolonging, and especially so in countries with histories of recent conflict. That is, US food aid was most conflict-prolonging in precisely the kind of fragile, post-conflict states where it is most needed. Predictably (and not altogether unpersuasively), USAID challenged these findings, but not before articles in Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, and the Economist seized on them to question the wisdom of emergency food assistance.

As an academic debate, the literature on whether humanitarian assistance prolongs conflict is quite stimulating. As a guide for policy, however, it has some significant shortcomings. First, it conflates average effects of past interventions for prediction of how future interventions will work. That Nunn and Qian show an average increase in conflict duration as food aid increases is not the same as saying that food aid will always translate into longer wars and more suffering. Context and assistance targeting matter greatly. Assistance channeled through effective multilaterals like the World Food Programme and targeting specific UN-designated refugee populations may be better at separating the “wolves from the sheep”, as former UN Representative to Rwanda, Shahyar Khan, referred to it.

Second, the discussion presumes that conflict termination is “good” and conflict prolongation is “bad” eo ipso. But conflict termination is not the same as a just peace; stability is not at all times and in all places a virtue. I was reminded of this when strolling by the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam earlier this month. Lend-Lease certainly prolonged WWII and attendant human suffering, but the alternative would have been even more intolerable. Fighting may be always the least-best option, but some things are worth fighting for. Given present circumstances, curtailing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees might shorten the Syrian conflict, but it might also leave the fundamental issues at stake—exclusionary rule and repressive government behavior toward ethnic and religious minorities— unchanged, though some governance outcomes could conceivably be much worse than the status quo ex-ante.

Responding to humanitarian crises in Syria and elsewhere inherently entails arduous ethical tradeoffs: A dollar invested in providing food in Syria is a dollar unavailable to do the same in Central African Republic. This is true regardless of whether that very food assistance prolongs the human misery it was intended to address. Whatever the implications for conflict dynamics and imperfections in delivery, emergency food assistance is still the ethical thing to do. The deeper question is how to target it in ways that, as Henk-Jan Brinkman and I have argued, not only address the crisis of the day but can contribute to lasting peace in the future. Thus, the relevant question is not whether humanitarian assistance prolongs conflict but whether humanitarian assistance can be delivered in ways that promote sustainable, peaceful outcomes.

Divide and Conquer – The Long-Term Political Effects of Terrorism

By Thomas Zeitzoff and Anna Getmansky

President George W. Bush delivers an address regarding the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States to a joint session of Congress Thursday, Sept. 20, 2001, at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

President George W. Bush delivers an address regarding the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States to a joint session of Congress. Via The U.S. National Archives.

The recent attacks attributed to ISIS in Paris, Beirut, the Sinai, and Ankara shocked the world. A central question many have asked is what is the logic behind ISIS’s attacks outside Syria and Iraq? Barbara Walter argues that the attacks are part of the strategy of attrition designed to increase the costs of involvement in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. According to this logic, terrorist attacks instill fear and anxiety among voters in Western democracies, as well as in Turkey and Russia. These feelings, in turn, would lead voters to pressure their governments to stop military engagements against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in order to avoid future attacks.

An alternative explanation is that ISIS uses terrorism to sow divisions within the targeted countries and to intensify already existing frictions between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially in Europe. Andrew Kydd shows that provocation has long been a core component of ISIS strategy in Iraq, and the recent attacks may be an attempt to extend their “propaganda of the deed” to other countries. The end game of violence is to increase support for ISIS, especially among Muslims who become disillusioned with the West, and ultimately to facilitate recruitment of new supporters and operatives.

Recent studies on the effects of terrorism across different contexts can shed some light on the possible consequences of the recent attacks. How do voters react to terrorism? Does the violence result in a long-term change in political attitudes among those targeted by terrorists? This is especially important given the upcoming French regional elections in December 2015. In the wake of the attacks, some predict that the far-right National Front party led by Marine Le Pen will gain votes. Others suggest that these attacks may induce anger, and shift the positions of the French voters rightward. These possible developments may be consequential, not only for the future of French involvement in the Middle East, but also for the relationship between the non-Muslim majority and the Muslim minority in France and beyond.

The reaction of Spanish voters after the 2004 Madrid bombings is an important case. Some argue that the terrorist attacks moved Spanish voters to the left in the subsequent elections that took place just a few days after the bombings. Voters punished the more conservative government for dragging Spain into the Iraq War. An alternative story is that the election reflected how unpopular the incumbent government was and the bombings simply reinforced this sentiment, especially in light of the government’s attempt to falsely attribute the attacks to ETA.

Our own research in Israel looks at the effect of continuous exposure to rocket fire from Gaza Strip. Rockets from Gaza are largely inaccurate and have resulted in comparatively few Israeli casualties. We show that exposure to rocket threat increases voting for the right-wing block in Israel during 2003-9 elections. Thus, simply the threat of violence or terrorism – without widespread casualties – is enough to shift voter’s support. Other studies examining the effect of Palestinian suicide bombings on voting behavior also find that attacks shift Israeli voters to the right. Results from Turkey likewise confirm this effect – attacks by the Kurdish PKK militants increase votes for nationalist parties.

Exposure to terrorist violence does not just affect voting behavior but also attitudes by inducing intolerance, eroding support for civil liberties, and promoting exclusionist attitudes towards minorities.

Research in the US shows that losing a family member in the 9/11 attacks increased political participation and also made voters more conservative by leading them to shift allegiance to the Republican Party. Other research echoes these findings that exposure to violence – whether it be crime in Latin America or being abducted as a child soldier – makes people more likely to participate politically. Exposure to violence makes people more altruistic (here and here), yet also more discriminatory towards other groups.

It is impossible to perfectly predict how the attacks will influence the upcoming elections in France or the political situation in other places that have recently suffered from ISIS violence. Research suggests that while voters may become more politically engaged and more likely to vote, they won’t necessarily demand their governments stop military actions against ISIS. Rather than demanding disengagement from foreign conflicts, voters may become more nationalistic and favor sectarian policies. Thus, the attacks may not put an end to military actions against ISIS. Rather they may sow ethnic divisions in France and other affected countries. These anti-minority policies would then feed future violence. A key for policymakers and community leaders is how to harness the increased political interest following the recent attacks for a positive and resilient response rather than a xenophobic and divisive one.

Anna Getmansky is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. 

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson


Interior of the Colisseum by Ippolito Caffi. Via National Gallery of Art.

As the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate, the country’s Tripoli-based General National Congress has threatened to flood Europe with migrants unless the European Union recognises their legitimacy vis-à-vis the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. In the midst of lawlessness and chaos, a group of voluntary fighters known as the “Masked Men” has emerged to deal with the threat presented by people smugglers. And while the refugee crisis in Europe garners the majority of headlines, countries such as Yemen and Djibouti – already facing significant troubles of their own – are now experiencing increased migrant flows.

While European responses to the terrorism/migrant nexus control the spotlight, interesting developments are taking place in other parts of the world as well. Costa Rica has proposed a “humanitarian corridor” for Cubans on their way to the US, but the Nicaraguan government has sealed their border, leaving thousands stranded. In Africa, Senegal has announced plans to ban the Islamic veil in a supposed bid to curb terrorist activity while also proposing legislation to force mobile SIM card registration in a move that resembles recent developments in Nigeria. Also in Nigeria, President Buhari declares that government forces are winning the war against Islamic extremism in northern Nigeria. Let’s hope he’s right – for while ISIS garners the most media attention, Boko Haram is actually the world’s most deadly terrorist organization.

Last week, Barbara Walter brought attention to the potential for mass atrocity in Burundi. Unfortunately, the number of wounded appears to be growing while Belgian officials have encouraged their citizens to leave the country. Meanwhile, next door in Rwanda, a recent decision by lawmakers has cleared the way for a referendum on President Paul Kagame’s efforts to seek a third term in office.

In the Middle East, the situation in Yemen has gone from bad to worse despite the return of exiled President Hadi – Houthi rebels are now using land mines while Saudi war planes indiscriminately bomb innocent fishermen. And while provision of even the most basic services is nearly non-existent, the situation is likely to deteriorate even further as Western aid is repurposed to deal with Europe’s own migrant crisis. Politicians and policymakers alike should note that the situation’s increasing complexity may eventually produce Europe’s next wave of would-be migrants.

Remember Daesh is a Network

By Deborah Avant


Paris, France. By Moyan Brenn.

With the downing of a Russian plane, suicide bombings in Lebanon, and carnage in Paris, Daesh (what many call ISIS) appears to be on the move. So are efforts to understand what Daesh really is. It is a profoundly Islamic organization says Graeme Wood. It is a group of desperate, terrorized laborers says Lydia Wilson. Who is right? Both – and neither. Daesh is a network: it is made up of people linked to one another. Understanding network logic[1] is key to successful ideas about how to unravel these links or reduce their violent tendencies. Rather than trying to understand what ISIS really is, we should examine the structure, logics, and vulnerabilities of these links, which both define Deash and make it ever-changing.

Already, we have seen these links ebb and flow. The organization thrived in the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency and then lost strength in the wake of the Sunni (or Anbar) awakening. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi regenerated its leadership after 2010 with ex-Baathists, many of whom had suffered at the hands of the US and/or the Malaki government. This core – what Staniland might describe as a “vanguard organization” – with strong horizontal links has since attempted several types of additional linkages.

In Syria, its interactions with al-Nusra strengthened both organizations and led to the 2014 proclamation of a caliphate. But it also generated tensions among the larger set of rebels resisting Assad and relations among all continue to be fluid (see here and here and here). Fotini Christia demonstrates that this is all too common among conflict networks. Key to the Daesh gains in Iraq was its ability to recruit Sunni tribal leaders angry with the Malaki government, but it is not clear that the group has established strong vertical ties – as demonstrated by both the reported frustrations on the part of the Sunni leaders and the reports of the “terrorized laborers” in Wilson’s story who are motivated by fear alone.

Then there are the sympathetic westerners who have traveled to the region. Some, motivated by the brutality of Assad, have joined ISIS accidentally when they were turned down by al-Nusra’s tough vetting. Many of these are reportedly human cannon fodder given their weak vertical ties. As many suspected (and we now know given the Paris attacks), others remain encamped in the west. The “inflow of jihadists…unprecedented in its pace and volume” that Wood describes means that those in the fight are simultaneously part of a wide variety of other networks.

What one could take away from this is that Daesh is a vanguard organization that is trying to generate vertical ties in both Iraq and Syria. Its recent success has been in competition with corrupt and abusive governments in those countries and even here, its vertical ties remain tenuous (see here). There is little evidence of actual deep support for Daesh – or its apocalyptic vision – among local populations. As Wilson reports, the prisoners she interviewed, “are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

Following the Paris attacks, Dan Nexon, Erica Chenoweth, and others mused in a Facebook interchange about the prospect that Daesh’s attacks abroad were evidence that things were not going so well at home (a view that is supported by the last part of this NYT article). Graeme Wood asserts that the Islamic State “requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it (its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces).” If this is true, its external aim may indeed be evidence that it is easier to attack soft targets abroad than to create stability at home. Though attacks abroad may generate an illusion of momentum, Daesh efforts abroad are also harder to control and could fragment the vanguard.

The yoking of its fight to Islam is important. As Wood reminds us, Daesh leaders’ claims to authority are based on the project of bringing the world to its day of judgement. This project is certainly important to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s strategy. But while it might play in some transnational recruitment it is unclear that it will carry at home. While the majority of those fighting for ISIS are devout Muslims, many of them are driven by less apocalyptic visions (and thus might be open to appeals like Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s fatwa against the violence), and some are fighting to resist corrupt governments (or enrich themselves) rather than in support of Daesh or its vision.

The bottom line? Trying to find the “one real ISIS” blinds us to the fissions that will be key to undermining it. We should heed the message from Paul Staniland’s award winning book and the network analysis of conflict more generally: the social ties on which rebel movements are built hold the key to understanding – and changing – their dynamics.

[1] For some used applications of network analysis in other studies, see Elisabeth Wood’s demonstration of how different sorts of links drew people into the insurgency in El Salvador and how the war changed the country’s social structures. Wendy Pearlman shows how the fragmentation and factional competition in the Palestinian national movement generated more violent strategies. Most recently, Paul Staniland analyzes the extent of horizontal and vertical ties to explain different dynamics among rebel movements in South Asia.



Overconfidence and the War in Syria

Guest post by Dominic Johnson


French President Francois Hollande prepares to welcome US Secretary of State John Kerry on January 16, 2015. By U.S. Department of State.

The attacks in Paris have elevated both the desire and the case for a full-scale war against Islamic State in Syria. French President Francois Hollande has vowed not just to fight IS, but to destroy it. The US and Russia are poised to significantly up their stakes, and Prime Minister David Cameron has begun laying out the argument to extend British airstrikes into Syria as well. The war is already underway and likely to escalate into an even greater coalition of military power than already exists.

However, wars are unpredictable. This is especially so in the case of Syria, with multiple non-state armed groups interacting with each other, multiple foreign state actors, and no legitimate government. Even the vast asymmetry in power between the international coalition and IS does not make the outcome predictable: powerful states have often lost wars against much weaker foes, from the United States in Vietnam, to Russia in Afghanistan, to the British Empire in the American colonies. If they have the right strategy and motivation, the weak can win, and this is a trend that has increased over time.

There is, however, one thing that is predictable about war: overconfidence. Even if the outcome of war cannot be known in advance, the historical record shows a remarkable empirical regularity in that politicians, military leaders, and the public on both sides tend to believe they will win, with astounding repetitiveness. Nations around the world and over the centuries have repeatedly underestimated their enemies, overestimated their own capabilities, and exaggerated their ability to control what are inherently unpredictable events. Notably, the bias becomes stronger once we decide we must fight (which is now), and enter an implemental rather than a deliberative mindset.

Overconfidence might seem like a naïve pitfall that has afflicted distant generations or other states—not us. Yet western states have been as susceptible to overconfidence as everyone else, in numerous wars from WWI and Vietnam, to Kosovo and Iraq, and it continues to plague foreign policy. In 2011, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe acknowledged that NATO had underestimated resistance from Gaddafi’s forces (and hence the war became longer and costlier than anticipated). In 2014, the US Director of National Intelligence himself, James Clapper, admitted they had underestimated IS and overestimated the Iraqi Army.

This overconfident bias might seem surprising, but it should not be. Psychologists and neuroscientists have long shown that human beings have a natural tendency towards overconfidence, or “positive illusions”, a phenomenon that affects most of us most of the time. Indeed, it is considered a vital component of mental health. Optimism engenders resolve and persistence against the many obstacles we face in life. The conclusion of this research is that optimism is actually not just a quirk of western cultures, but a critical ingredient of human nature. While it may help us in everyday life at home, it can become a major disaster for critical judgments about war and strategy on the international stage.

We have already underestimated Islamic State and it is likely that we will continue to do so. At least, that is the conclusion from cognitive psychology and the historical record. Obama and others have impressed us with the number of countries involved in the anti-IS coalition. This is heartening. But it also highlights the problem: with so many powerful countries already in the fight, why are we losing? Evidently, we face an incredibly resilient enemy and ideology on the ground, and one that we are only prepared to engage from the air.

This is not an argument against intervention. It is a prediction that intervention will take longer and cost more than we think. With many coalition states hard pressed to sell another war in the Middle East to a skeptical public, leaders are likely not only to perceive but also to push a vision of rapid victory at affordable cost.

In fact, it will be costly, slow, and any kind of clear-cut victory is unlikely. The ideology will live on even if the current cohort is dead, and with each brother killed, we plant the seeds of new avengers. However tempting it is to claim a comprehensive strategy and the prospect of victory to gain public and political support, great expectations will only lead to greater disappointment. In 1940 Churchill sold the British people a war on blood, sweat, toil, and tears. We should not be promising anything else.

Dominic Johnson is the Alastair Buchan Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. 



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