Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections

Harvard President Drew Faust gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in her recent 2017 commencement address. There was, however, one passage where Faust chose to focus on the price of Harvard’s commitment to free speech, arguing that it “is paid disproportionately by” those students who don’t fit the traditional profile of being “white, male, Protestant, and upper class.” That point has been illustrated by a few recent controversies over speakers whose words were deemed offensive by some members of those non-traditional groups of students. But focusing solely on those controversies, and on a handful of elite campuses, risks obscuring a larger point: Disadvantaged groups are also among the primary beneficiaries of vigorous free speech protections.

Universities have often served as springboards for progressive social movements and helped to consolidate their gains. They have been able to fulfill these functions largely by serving as spaces where ideas—including radical and contrarian ideas—could be voiced and engaged with.

Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. This becomes particularly clear when we leave the world of elite private universities and consider the kinds of academic institutions most students attend, particularly students of color.

Notwithstanding President Faust’s uplifting statistics about Harvard’s growing diversity (driven largely by international students)–the reality is that, as compared to white Americans, blacks and Latinos are much more likely to attend public universities and community colleges than elite private institutions. The same goes with those from low-income backgrounds as compared to the wealthy.

This dynamic even holds with regards to faculty: female professors and professors of color are more likely than their white male counterparts to end up teaching at public universities as opposed to elite institutions like Harvard.

Here’s why this matters: In virtue of their heavy reliance on taxpayer funding and major donors, public colleges are much more receptive to calls from outside the university to punish faculty and staff for espousing controversial speech or ideas. Groups like Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, or Campus Watch exploit this vulnerability, launching populist campaigns to get professors fired, or to prevent them from being hired, on the basis of something they said. The primary targets of these efforts end up being mostly women, people of color, and religious minorities (especially Muslims and the irreligious) when they too forcefully or bluntly condemn systems, institutions, policies, practices, and ideologies they view as corrupt, exploitative, oppressive or otherwise intolerable.

Those most vulnerable to being fired for expressing controversial views are the ever-growing numbers of contingent faculty—who also tend to be disproportionately women and minorities. Meanwhile, the better-insulated tenured and tenure-track faculty tend to be white men.

As a result, if progressives are concerned with ensuring a more representative faculty, if they are committed to protecting freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for women and minorities, then they need to be committed to protecting free speech across the board. Every attempt to censor Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopoulos makes it easier to mount a campaign to fire someone like Lisa Durden (who made controversial comments about holding an “all black Memorial Day celebration” that excluded whites). Progressives lose the moral high ground they would need to defend radical and provocative speech—which is unfortunate because they are arguably the ones who need free-speech protections most.

Americans tend to be politically to the right of most university faculty and students—and as a result the public is more likely to be shocked and offended by views expressed by progressive scholars than by academic conservatives, who are few in number, generally rather moderate politically, and usually cautious about what they say publicly. Politicians are also more likely to throw their weight behind campaigns against left-leaning scholars, given that Republicans control most state governments, and thereby the purse strings of most public universities.

And if progressive scholars face a constant threat from the right coming from off-campus, they also face a threat from the left on campus. Many of the student-led campaigns that have made national news in the last two years have targeted professors who, themselves, identify as liberal or progressive—but who managed to challenge or violate some tenet of the prevailing activist orthodoxy.

Progressives, therefore, have reason to celebrate the fact that conservatives and their allies seem to be rallying behind the cause of free speech on campus. They can take advantage of this moment to institutionalize more robust protections, clearer standards and policies, and a healthier civic culture that turns disagreements into opportunities for learning. If progressives fail to embrace free speech, and if they cede this basic American value to the right, then, as Harvard’s  President Faust warned in her commencement address, any effort to limit some speech “opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own.”

 

Co-Authored with Jonathan Haidt
Published 7/8/2017 by The Atlantic

For Social Science to Survive, It Needs to Expand

Beginning in the late 18th century, post-secondary education was restructured across Europe—in part under the auspices of accelerating the transition to an envisioned rational and secular age.[1] In order to enroll the broadest swath of the public in this enterprise, institutions and curricula were rendered more accessible, inclusive, and professionally-oriented. At the time, Nietzsche condemned[2] the “ubiquitous encouragement of everyone’s so-called ‘individual personality’” and the growing trend to curb “serious and unrelenting critical habits and opinions” at universities—discerning as astutely in his own time as Jonathan Haidt today that the use of educational institutions for promoting a particular social vision is fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads.[3]

Yet across Western societies, and especially in elite circles, the 18th Century faith persists that a proliferation of education, science, and technology will help usher in a more rational and secular age[4]—one governed by expertise, and defined by worldwide peace and prosperity.[5]  Among adherents of this vision, universities are held in particularly high regard, as incubators of that better tomorrow—where our best and brightest hone the character, skills and knowledge to solve the world’s ills in an environment that promotes reasoned and civil debate, the free exchange of ideas, and an unflinching commitment to truth. However, contemporary research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests a much bleaker picture:[6]

For instance, rather than serving as an objective base upon which agreements can be built, evoking scientific studies or statistics in the context of socio-political arguments tends to further polarize interlocutors.[7] Both conservatives and progressives politicize science and evaluate its findings on an ideological basis: exaggerating conclusions when convenient while findings ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research which seems to threaten one’s identity or perceived interests.[8] Rather than contributing to open-mindedness or intellectual humility, greater cognitive sophistication or knowledge often renders people less flexible in their beliefs by enhancing their abilities to critique and dismiss challenges, or advance counter-arguments, regardless of “the facts”—thereby exacerbating people’s natural inclinations towards motivated reasoning.[9]

That is, if one wanted to create an environment which actually promoted closed-mindedness, dogmatism and polarization, contemporary research suggests the following prescription: consolidate societies’ most intelligent, knowledgeable and charismatic people, at a time in their lives when their identities are just taking shape (which increases the perceived urgency of protecting and validating said identities[10]), and place them in a competitive environment focused largely (and increasingly) on the sciences. [11] In a word: universities.[12]

Perhaps then, it should not be surprising that the long leftward trajectory of U.S. institutions of higher learning seems to have culminated with conservative faculty, students and perspectives almost completely absent from many fields,[13] while dissent from progressive ideology is met with increasing sanctions and scandal[14]—from which even historical figures are not immune.[15]

However one may feel about these developments from a moral or political point of view, they are harmful for the practice and profession of science–especially for the social and behavioral sciences.

Continue reading “For Social Science to Survive, It Needs to Expand”

The “Emerging Democratic Majority” and the “Wrong Side of History”

“What is at stake in the conflict over representations of the future is nothing other than the attitude of the declining classes to their decline—either demoralization, which leads to a rout….or mobilization, which leads to the collective search for a collective solution to the crisis.  What can make the difference is, fundamentally, the possession of the symbolic instruments enabling the group to take control of the crisis and to organize themselves with a view to a collective response, rather than fleeing from real or feared degradation in a reactionary resentment and the representation of history as a conspiracy.”

Pierre Bourdieu, The Bachelor’s Ball (p. 189)

“We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first.”

Frank Ocean, “Nikes” (Blonde)

 

In 2008, Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama outperformed his predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore with virtually every single demographic group, handily defeating his Republican rival John McCain.

This success spread to down-ballot races as well: Democrats expanded control over the House and the Senate; they controlled most governorships and state legislatures nationwide.

Many progressives came to believe that these results were not a fluke, that Obama’s coalition represented the future: an “Emerging Democratic Majority” that stood to reshape American politics as we know them.

The logic was simple: most of those who are young, college-educated, women or minorities lean left. Older white men lean right, but whites were declining as a portion of the electorate due to immigration and interracial unions. Therefore, as the older generation passes away and a younger, more diverse, and more educated cohort steps into the fore, America will become more progressive in an enduring way.

Right now, these predictions are not looking so good. In a virtual inversion of 2008 (only worse), Republicans comfortably control both chambers of Congress. They also dominate state legislatures and governorships nationwide —bodies which arguably matter more to people’s everyday lives than the federal government.

Meanwhile, Democrats lost perhaps their best chance in a generation to fundamentally reshape the Supreme Court. And the new Republican Administration seems committed to rolling back many of the signature accomplishments of the most impactful Democratic President since LBJ.

In the midst of such a bleak reality, it may be tempting to hold onto the faith that the Emerging Demographic Majority thesis remains essentially sound: Trump is an anomaly, certain to self-destruct, ushered into power as a final, desperate act of defiance by a segment of the population that knows its time is up.

However, in this instance, optimism would be ill-advised: the electoral trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. If anything, it seems as though progressives may be on the “wrong side of history.”

 

Continue reading “The “Emerging Democratic Majority” and the “Wrong Side of History””

Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Originally published in Comparative Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Fall 2016)

Print version available here.

 

In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism,” Martha Nussbaum (2011) persuasively argues that political liberalism is superior to its perfectionist cousin. However, her critique of perfectionism also problematizes Rawls’ account of political liberalism—particularly as it relates to his account of “reasonableness” vis a vis comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs). In response, Nussbaum attempts to refine Rawls’ account to make it more inclusive—however, her alternative conception of political liberalism may actually be more parochial than that of Rawls, and seems to rest uneasily atop a series of profound contradictions. Yet, if we render her position more consistent, while the inclusivity problem is largely addressed, the normative force of political liberalism seems to be severely undermined—especially in contexts which are not already predisposed towards liberal ideologies, systems and institutions.

This dilemma arises out of the brute reality that, in many instances, there is not a clean correspondence between promoting the will (or even the interests) of a given population and advancing liberal practices and institutions therein. In the event of such a conflict, the internal logic of political liberalism seems to not only allow, but to mandate, deference to the former—even if the resultant society exceeds the bounds of liberalism, per se.

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On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations

Due to the intentionally vague language of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have been empowered to interpret their counter-terrorism mandate broadly, to include targets from the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other derivatives and affiliates of al-Qaeda—anywhere around the world and indefinitely.

A key component of these efforts has been the U.S. drone program, intended to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States.

However, through open-source data mining, analysts have long known that those killed in the strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants—with “militant” (or “Enemy Killed in Action” [EKIA]) denoting virtually any fighting-aged male struck down in a campaign. In fact, most of the time the U.S. was not even sure who they were killing, what (if any) group the “militants” belonged to, what (if any) crime they committed which warranted execution or what (if any) threat they posed to the U.S., its personnel or its regional interests.

A cache of military documents leaked to The Intercept confirms this picture by means of the Pentagon’s own statistics and internal reports. However, perhaps the most significant and least explored aspect of the leak is how the documents confirm that the program is not only fundamentally ill-suited to achieve its raison d’etre, it is actually counterproductive in many respects.

 

Continue reading “On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations”

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even in the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. And even among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Although most Americans continue to believe they are “middle class,” overall 15% of the U.S. population lives in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials. Similarly, when reminded of the fact that whites are trending towards being a minority in America, both Republican and Democratic whites grow more conservative in their political views.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

 

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What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?

The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war—one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests—thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to  dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War—before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda—groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.

And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.

Unfortunately, the mission was not a success, and most of the promises made at the outset of the conflict, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, have failed to materialize. In response, insofar as they talk about Afghanistan at all, policymakers have attempted to claim that the primary U.S. interest in the country is, and always has been, about denying a foothold to the Taliban and other extremist groups—although even by this measure, the campaign has been a failure.

Nonetheless, this revisionism cannot be allowed to stand. We must evaluate America’s longest war according to the terms by which the occupation was justified–improving the status of Afghan women. And by this standard, the war must be condemned in the strongest terms: according to the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), it is impossible to verify whether any of the U.S. investments in Afghanistan have benefitted women at all.

 

Continue reading “What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?”

Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

Slavoj Zizek

 

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group.

 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

 

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What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)

Police brutality has been an integral part of the black experience since the birth of the modern law enforcement. Until recently, however, it was difficult to establish how stark or pervasive the problem was; this opacity plagues many aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. In part, the data has been hard to come by due to the decentralized nature of policing in America: while the FBI attempts to collate national statistics on the use of force, they rely exclusively on voluntary reporting from America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies–the overwhelming majority of which (more than 95%) do not participate fully or at all.

However, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have trained the social consciousness on police use of force. And as a result of open-source data mining and some outstanding investigative journalism, a clearer picture of the problem is finally beginning to emerge…and it isn’t pretty.

By the numbers

An in-depth report from the Washington Post identified nearly twice as many fatalities from police than FBI estimates–and this investigation only considered shootings. Over this same period dozens have been killed by Tasers, in chokeholds, by vehicles, or otherwise while in police custody. For information on these, The Guardian has a more comprehensive and interactive database, updated in real-time.

Some troubling patterns elucidated by these studies include:

  • On average, three people have been killed by police every single day in 2015—this equates to 1 out of every 15 homicides in the country (by all means).
  • Gunfire is the cause of 87% of police killings, and 82% of non-accidental line-of-duty police deaths (vs. 73% of all national homicides).
  • As of the time of writing, 419 Americans have been shot to death this year by police. These amount to nearly 1 out of every 12 gun deaths in the country overall. Over this same period, 14 police officers were casualties of hostile fire: for every cop killed by guns, the police shot nearly 30 civilians to death.
  • Adjusting for census data, blacks are killed at more than 3 times the rate of whites or other racial groups: while whites are nearly 64% of the total population, they only constitute about 51% of the total gunfire casualties (49% of overall police killings). By contrast, blacks amount to roughly 12% of the total population in America, but total 26% of police gunfire casualties (28% of overall police killings).
  • Nearly 1/10 of police shootings (and more than 1/5 of all police killings) are against people who are unarmed. For whites, the ratio is 1/16 shooting deaths (1/6 total casualties). For blacks, the unarmed ratio is more than 1/6 for shooting deaths, and roughly 1 out of every 3 total casualties. That is, police are twice as likely to kill an unarmed black suspect as an unarmed white one. But even among those suspects who were armed, dozens were killed while running away.
  • Nearly a quarter of those shot to death were known to be mentally ill or disabled.

 

Continue reading “What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)”

Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2015)

Print version available here.

 

With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues–perhaps too moderate to ultimately win his party’s nomination.[1] On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.[2]

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility.[3] The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.[4]

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).[5]

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo:[6] “Don’t do stupid shit.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such an apparently modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid *stuff*” is not an organizing principle, and “Great nations” need doctrines to guide their foreign policy.[7]

On its face, this line of criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional).[8] Granted, it’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do. However, for this very reason, it is more basic (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means,[9] there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t.

 

Continue reading “Foreign Policy Fundamentalism”

Social Movement Requires Force

 

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Other America

 

On the night of Freddy Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. The revolt was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations, to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.

We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace.   We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the illegal arrest and extrajudicial execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.

Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: there is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.

Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence which enables non-violent resistance.

 

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Factions Speak Louder Than Herds

There is a growing body of research suggesting that when beliefs become tied to one’s sense of identity, they are not easily revised. Instead, when these axioms are threatened, people look for ways to outright dismiss inconvenient data. If this cannot be achieved by highlighting logical, methodological or factual errors, the typical response is to leave the empirical sphere altogether and elevate the discussion into the moral and ideological domain, whose tenets are much more difficult to outright falsify (generally evoking whatever moral framework best suits one’s rhetorical needs).

While often described in pejorative terms, these phenomena may be more akin to “features,” than “bugs,” of our psychology.

For instance, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis holds that the primary function of rationality is social, rather than epistemic. Specifically, our rational faculties were designed to mitigate social conflicts (or conflicting interests). But on this account, rationality is not a neutral mediator. Instead, it is deployed in the service of one’s own interests and desires—which are themselves heavily informed by our sense of identity.

This is because our identities are, among other things, prisms through which we interpret the world. These trends hold just as true for secular agents as religious ones, for liberal ideologues as conservatives (as for so-called “independents,” they are generally partisans in disguise)—the phenomenon is known in academic circles as “cultural cognition.” Continue reading “Factions Speak Louder Than Herds”

On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities

Following ISIL’s immolation Moaz al-Kasasbeh, many attributed the viciousness of his execution to the fact that he was a Jordanian pilot. The narrative is that the coalition airstrikes have been devastating for ISIL, and this extreme act was a desperate bid to dissuade allied forces from further strikes. By this logic, their tactic backfired: not only did the execution lead to more airstrikes, but caused widespread revulsion among Muslims.

There are many problems with this narrative, comforting as it may be—not the least of which its assumption that ISIL somehow couldn’t foresee that Jordan’s likely response would be to escalate. Or that ISIL was somehow surprised that most of their co-religionists were outraged that the group burned to death a fellow Muslim. Of course, these were rather obvious consequences, and it strains credulity that ISIL was taken off guard by them. Indeed, this deepened engagement by hostile powers and heightened polarization of the Muslim community actually serve ISIL’s strategic interests.

They burned alive Lt. al-Kassasbeh in the hopes of provoking a heavy-handed Jordanian response. ISIL’s roots in Jordan run deep: the country is among the top producers of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria; ISIL’s movement was started by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian released from prison in 1999 when Abdullah II took the throne. Accordingly, ISIL knows their adversary well–they know that Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign is unpopular (despite the monarch’s best attempts to quell signs of dissent), especially given the country’s endemic social and economic problems; they know that the Jordanian monarch is already struggling to maintain his credibility.

And so, to the extent that ISIL is seen as directly challenging King Abdullah al-Thani, of being able to withstand his “earth-shaking” retaliation—it bolsters their own legitimacy even as it makes Abdullah seem weak or inept by comparison. Especially if they can successfully coax Jordan into deploying ground troops: the heavier Jordan’s investment, and the bolder Abdullah’s rhetoric gets, the more pronounced this effect will be.

Outside the region, ISIL is aware that their provocative actions alienate Muslims in Western societies, often provoking Islamophobia, hate crimes and institutionalized discrimination. They proudly tout progress in achieving a “clash of civilizations” because, to the extent that the Muslim diaspora feels marginalized or persecuted, the greater the appeal of an “Islamic state.”

Continue reading “On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities”

The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless

On Dec. 30, the United Nations Security Council rejected a proposal put forward by coalition of Arab states and the Palestinian Authority calling for “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” from all Palestinian territories seized after 1967, and full Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza by December 31, 2017.

The resolution needed 9 votes to pass, but ultimately garnered 8, with United States and Australia voting against it and 5 abstentions — an outcome achieved by Washington cajoling Nigeria to abstain at the last moment. But even if the measure passed, the U.S. had already signaled plans to exercise their veto and override the vote—as it has already done 41 times on Israel’s behalf since 1972. Continue reading “The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless”

Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter

In 1984, the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The treaty forbade signatories from carrying out torture or related practices, or from deporting to detainees to other places where they knew these acts would be carried out. It would be ten years before the U.S. Congress ratified this agreement, which would then take on the force of law.

In light of the U.S. signing onto the convention against torture (and also, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the activities revealed in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program constitute clear violations of international law, perhaps even crimes against humanity. But it unlikely that anyone will face justice:

Violations would typically be investigated and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the United States struggled to prevent from coming into existence. While President Clinton eventually signed onto the Rome Statute which established the court towards the end of his term, his successor would withdraw the U.S. commitment before the agreement was ratified by Congress—precisely out of concerns about American policies in the wake of 9/11. And as Undersecretary of State (and future U.S. Ambassador to the U.N) John Bolton underscored at the time, because America is not a member of the ICC, it is not accountable to the court unless referred by a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. would simply veto.

Because the perpetrators will not be held to account in international forums, the United Nations and human rights groups have called on the White House to prosecute those involved in American courts, compliant with U.S. treaty obligations to prevent and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the United States helped condemn to death Japanese soldiers and leaders who committed or approved of these very same acts against American forces during WWII.

However, contrary to these international obligations (or even the U.S. Bill of Rights which repeatedly prohibits torture), Bush Administration officials approved the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. As a result of this clearance by White House and the Department of Justice, prosecution in U.S. courts would be difficult. Moreover, President Barack Obama has already de facto pardoned those who took part in the program, even those who stepped outside the permissive framework laid out by the Bush administration. In fact, the only agent who has been jailed with regards to the “enhanced interrogation” program to date is the CIA whistleblower who leaked these abuses to the press.

Reforms to rein in U.S. intelligence agencies seem highly unlikely as a result of the partisan way in which the report was received on Capitol Hill—with some Republican lawmakers going so far as to defend the torture program and even its continued use. And across polls, a plurality of the American public seems to agree with these torture apologists.

This leads one to question whether the SSCI report even matters. Continue reading “Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter”

Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve”

In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.

These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.

Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else.  Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.

Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).

Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.

The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.

But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.

In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”

Continue reading “Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve””

Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have insisted that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. Worse still, they argue that the group’s barbaric practices are intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world.

The ignorance of these commentators is stunning. In fact, there are organizations whose depravity, scale, and threat to the United States far surpass that of ISIL. But these groups do not engender the kind of collective indignation and hysteria that ISIL provokes, begging the question: Are Americans truly concerned ISIL’s specific atrocities or the threat they supposedly pose? Or are they particularly disturbed because it is Muslims who are carrying out these actions, or posing this threat?

For example, even as U.S. media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the U.S.:

Continue reading “Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL”

Reclaiming Jihad

In the wake of the excesses by ISIS, and the public outcry against them which often takes on an Islamophobic hue, many Muslims have tried to defend their religion by minimizing al-jihad (the struggle) as something peripheral to the faith, or else as antiquated: necessary in the time of Mohammed, but rarely of relevance in contemporary societies. Still others attempt to portray jihad as almost entirely metaphorical, as being primarily an internal and personal struggle—this interpretation based on a questionable hadith in which the Prophet makes reference to a “greater” struggle, which is inside oneself v. the “lesser” struggle, which is in the world.

Ultimately, all of these methods are counterproductive to promoting understanding, be it within the Muslim community, or between the community and the broader population. To many who are wary of Islam, these maneuvers seem disingenuous because, as they are eager to point out, the Qur’an clearly tells a different story. Rather than trying to avoid this basic reality, Muslims should embrace it. Jihad is not a dirty word, it is the base upon which Islam’s other “pillars” rest.

 

Continue reading “Reclaiming Jihad”

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State

The public discourse about transnational jihadist organizations indiscriminately lumps together al-Qaeda, its forerunners (such as the Taliban), affiliates (such as Jahbat al-Nusra), its derivatives (such as Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State), and even groups which have no strong connection to al-Qaeda or such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or local tribal militants. It is not just laymen who succumb to this error, but media organizations, policymakers, analysts, and often even intelligence and law enforcement officials.

However, understanding the raison d’etre of these transnational jihadist organizations is critical for escaping the pointless cycle of escalation and retaliation which have defined the last decade of “War on Terror.” And in the shorter term, assisting with the evaluation of, and response to, the threats (and opportunities) these groups may pose to the United States and its interests.

Al-Qaeda is a prime example. Osama Bin Laden got his start in the U.S.-sponsored and Pakistani ISI trained mujahedeen resistance movement against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, the movement drew resistance fighters from across the Muslim world—and after the Russians were driven out, a plurality of the exogenous fighters continued to follow Bin Laden in his new organization, which was to continue to the work of expelling foreign powers and autocrats from the Greater Middle East in order to promote the sovereignty of Muslims. At that time, they considered the United States to be an ally.

The group came at odds with America during operation Desert Shield (and later, Storm) when, against Bin Laden’s protests, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to host U.S. forces in the Hijaz to defend and project power against Saddam Hussein (who, for the reference, Bin Laden also wanted to overthrow). This was the moment where America shifted from being an ally of the cause to another foreign occupier which must be resisted.

It’s been nearly 30 years since al-Qaeda first declared jihad against America. A whole generation has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11—and yet it is astonishing how little people understand about al-Qaeda, its ideology, methodologies, and organization. They are even less informed about the nascent Islamic State—to our collective detriment.

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State”

Fantasyland Syria and its Horrific Real-World Consequences

In the wake of the Islamic State’s takeover of northern Iraq and Syrian territories, several foreign policy hawks have blamed the Obama administration’s for failing to act in Syria. They claim that had the U.S. provided greater arms to the Syrian rebels or directly intervened on their behalf, Syria’s “moderate” opposition would have long triumphed over both the government and religious extremists.

Since the conflict began in 2011, much has changed in Syria: The rebels’ Supreme Military Council and its political analog have virtually imploded even as transnational extremists increasingly flood the area. At the same time, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been gaining more ground. Almost as if these developments are irrelevant, the beltway pundits’ policy prescriptions have remained astonishingly the same:  the U.S. should provide better arms for the rebels or directly intervene on their behalf.

Rather than causing the situation to deteriorate further, these critics argue that facing a more capable opposition with more credible foreign backing, the Syrian government will simply capitulate to the demands of Western powers and their regional allies. Meanwhile, better-armed “good” rebels will make inroads against groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — and the Syrian people will embrace and entrust them to guide the country through a transition.

If this all sounds somewhat fanciful, consider the source: Continue reading “Fantasyland Syria and its Horrific Real-World Consequences”

“Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic

Underlying any interrogation technique are a number of assumptions about how people think and behave. Contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest rather robustly that the axioms which have historically lent credence to some of today’s most-popular interrogation techniques are more-or-less false.

For instance, investigators have long believed (and many continue to believe) that fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or indirectness in speech are signs of deception. It turns out, however, these may indicate little more than that the person being interrogated relies upon a different communication style than his interrogator. Many, perhaps most, feel generally uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, there is wide cultural variance on directness of communication, and reactions like fidgeting, increased heartbeat, and sweating are natural human responses to stressful situations (such as being interrogated by the authorities, regardless of one’s guilt or innocence)—and many people have a rather low threshold before these somatic reactions are triggered.

It is a very particular sort of person who is a direct communicator, enjoys eye contact, remains calm under pressure, etc. Incidentally, these are also the type of people who often become law-enforcement officers, or better-yet, interrogators. However, because these exemplars mistakenly feel as though their reactions and communication style are “normal” (a conviction reinforced by myriad daily interactions with their similarly-constituted colleagues), when confronted by indirect communicators, or those who do not handle stress as well, these variations are frequently interpreted as evidence of deceit—when in fact, a criminal of a similar constitution to the investigators would have no problem lying straight to an officer’s face, confabulating a coherent alibi, and giving off all of the “right” physical signs.

The supposed connection between somatic reactions and honesty have proven so unreliable that lie-detector tests are generally not admissible as evidence in contemporary courts. Nonetheless, many related dogmas persist (unfortunately, police officers tend not to keep current with the latest studies in cognitive science and clinical psychology). Unsurprisingly, the net-effect of relying on these tactics is a lot of bad intelligence—to include frequent false confessions. Continue reading ““Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic”

A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program

“Before we can talk about what is ‘effective’ we have to talk about what the goal is of using military force at all. Is it to make Americans safer? Is it to keep Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis safe? What’s the goal?  The question of being ‘effective’ – if you’re asking do drones work to kill people? Absolutely. Does that help anyone? That is a different question; we need to start with that.”
Phyllis Bennis, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies

 

“I’m really good at killing people.”
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Barack Hussein Obama, reflecting upon the U.S. drone program

 

Among critics of U.S. foreign policy, there is a particular fascination with Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. While primarily used in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has also deployed armed drones in the theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia—using them for surveillance  across much of the world, including within its own borders; America has been relying upon  unmanned systems since the Vietnam War, although their use and capabilities have increased exponentially under the Obama Administration.

Due to the secrecy of the programs, there has been little reliable data on the UAV campaigns until recently; this has not prevented many from airing bold and largely unsubstantiated claims regarding the program and its effectiveness. However, to their credit, largely as a result of these activists’ persistence some reliable data is beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, most criticism of the UAV campaigns remains ill-conceived and misplaced:

Continue reading “A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program”

Implications of America’s Evitable Decline

Generally speaking, change is inevitable—however, most specific transformations are not.

Virtually any prediction can be defied; in fact, most are. That people are pretty terrible at forecasting in most (especially sociological) domains does not inhibit many from making grandiose claims about the “inevitability” of American decadence—often relying upon ill-formed analogies with empires past. If only analysts dedicated more attention to the decline and fall of their own projections. Although the so-called “End of History” is little more than a neoconservative eschatological fantasy, the “American Empire” may well persist for some time… and that’s probably a good thing.

Contrary to the assertions of President Obama, the U.S. has long been a de facto imperial power–albeit one that has consistently refused to see itself for what it is. For this reason, the United States has often been unwilling or unable to design and implement its foreign (or domestic) policies with the vision or commitment of other historical empires—further hampered by America’s political system which often imposes government shifts in 2 to 4 year intervals, driving policymakers towards short-sighted and populist positions in the interim, even as it renders them beholden to competing constellations of lobbyists and special-interest groups in order to finance their ever-impending campaigns (increasingly resulting in total dysfunction).

And of course, America’s track record of promoting socio-economic justice, or the rights, freedoms and sovereignty of others across the globe has been inconsistent, to put it mildly—despite the incessant and lofty rhetoric of its leaders, and the U.S. public’s general lack of awareness of the scope and profundity of this dissonance. That said, critics of U.S. foreign policy have been, perhaps, too eager to celebrate the apparent decline of America’s unipolar order—in particular, they have not sufficiently reflected on what is likely to follow. Continue reading “Implications of America’s Evitable Decline”

An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt

A week after carrying out his ultimatum to depose President Mursi, General al-Sisi delivered a new 48-hour ultimatum to those alienated by his actions to end their protests against the military coup.  Even as the general demanded that the protesters end their demonstrations, he called upon his own supporters to take to the streets nationwide in order to give the army a “mandate” to confront its critics, whom he referred to as “terrorists.” This call to action was later parroted by Egypt’s interim president (a high-ranking member of the disgraced Mubarak regime, hand-picked by Gen. al-Sisi) and the tamarod “rebels.” Of course, this supposed license is ironic given that one of the common criticisms of President Mursi is that he overstepped his popular mandate—despite the overwhelming victory of his party in parliamentary elections, and its subsequent win in the presidential race. Apparently, while democratic elections do not empower their victors with a strong mandate, protests can give the SCAF legitimacy to do anything—first to commit a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term, and now it seems to restore the Mubarak-era police state.

Empowered by the opposition rallies (although apparently not disempowered by those who were protesting the coup), scores of peaceful protestors were killed in the streets, with Human Rights Watch reporting that the majority of victims were shot in the chest, neck, or head—indicating that the security forces were shooting to kill.  Later, these forces stormed and attempted to dismantle the protest camps. The interim government would go on to announce that the despised Mubarak-era “religion police” were to be re-activated, even as  al-Mansur gave the army renewed legal grounding to arrest civilians. It is likely that these will be just the first of many “necessary” authoritarian measures in Egypt’s new “War on Terror,” a campaign which will increasingly jump from propaganda into reality as a result of the SCAF’s actions:

Throughout the protest movement which preceded the military coup against Husni Mubarak, and in subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections, the Islamists were overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding participants in the democratic process—and they would prove to be its primary beneficiaries. However, the actions by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) throughout, culminating in the removal of President Mursi and the subsequent persecution of the Brotherhood—these sent the message to many Islamists that the democratic and legal process is a dead end: the deep-state and its international supporters have no respect for the popular will.The state’s institutions have continued to be dominated by the SCAF, the deep-state and the fulul (high-ranking members of the former regime who were ostensibly cast out of government when the dictator was deposed, but who were also given blanket-immunity from prosecution for the regime’s crimes and often retained significant wealth and influence). This corruption has been so long-standing, and runs so deep, that the state apparatus is incapable of being reformed; instead, by any means necessary, it must be uprooted in its entirety and replaced—and by something other than Western models of governance. Although not inevitable, extremism is certainly a natural response to these convictions.

The army claimed that the coup was necessary to prevent Egypt from descending into chaos—predictably, their intervention brought about the very outcomes it was supposed to prevent; however, by feeding into sectarianism and violence, elements from among the protesters are inadvertently supporting the SCAF’s narrative in the name of resistance.  Exploiting these developments, it is likely the army will continue to serve as a destabilizing force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future.  And while the army’s actions have been widely depicted as a forced response to extraordinary circumstances, this is actually the third major attempt by the SCAF to seize “legitimate” total control over the state since the military coup which deposed Mubarak. Accordingly, the notion that the SCAF is acting in the interests of democracy is absurd– and the belief they will transition real authority to a civilian government seems naïve at best:

Continue reading “An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt”

Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Originally published in Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Print version available here.

 

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Asad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue.

 

Continue reading “Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers”