Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence

On the night of August 11th, white nationalists held a torch-lit pride parade through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They were met with counter-protests, and the demonstrations descended into a melee.

The next morning, these same organizers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park, centered on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had been scheduled for removal. Once again, battle lines were drawn, and a fight ensued. This time, the white nationalists were driven back by the counter-demonstrators and then dispersed by police.

While most of the others in the nationalist camp were retreating, one young man aligned with the movement rammed his car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators who were celebrating their victory—killing one and injuring dozens of others. Two state police officers assigned to help contain the unrest also perished en route when their helicopter crashed.

The method of violence deployed against the counter-protestors in Charlottesville seemed to draw inspiration from a string of ISIS-aligned attacks involving motor vehicles. In fact, ISIS claimed responsibility for an incident that occurred days later, when terrorists piloted a van into a pedestrian zone in Barcelona, Spain—killing 13 people and wounding more than 100. It is a common tactic of ISIS to try and “one-up” atrocities committed by others while frenzy about the initial attack is at its height, in order to divert the massive public attention and outrage towards their own cause instead.

In this instance, ISIS was unsuccessful because President Trump’s subsequent remarks–which seemed to praise many of the ethnic nationalist demonstrators as “very fine people,” and to place ethnic nationalists and those protesting against them on equivocal moral standing—generated immense blowback from across the political spectrum and seemed to suck the oxygen away from all other stories.

However, for social scientists symmetrical incidents such as those in Charlottesville and Barcelona can often serve as the basis for “natural experiments”—for instance, to explore whether public reaction to terrorist acts seems to vary in systematic ways when one key variable is changed, such as the ideology or cause of the perpetrator.

My extensive research on this question shows that progressives and conservatives tend to respond to terror attacks in sharply divergent ways—with the biggest contrast occurring when the attacker is either a Muslim or an ethnic nationalist. Continue reading “Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence”

Trump Will Probably Win a Second Term in 2020.

Everyone’s unhappy. Everyone’s ashamed.
We all just got caught looking at somebody else’s page.
Nothing every went quite exactly as we planned:
Our ideas held no water, but we used them like a dam Modest Mouse, 'Missed the Boat' (We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank)

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Nate Silver offered Trump a 29% chance of taking the White House–and was widely disparaged for being far too generous to Trump!

Obviously, the Donald won. So what should we make of all the professional prognosticators who incessantly and near-unanimously assured us that it was impossible (or perhaps just ‘totally implausible’ if they were feeling charitable) that this outcome could come about?

Perhaps we should cut them some slack? After all, sometimes things happen that are legitimately improbable. Indeed, events such as these are often key drivers of history (which, arguably, makes them all the more important to “get right.” But that’s another matter). There’s a case to be made that Trump’s election was just this sort of phenomenon.

I don’t buy it.

Some Black Swans are events for which there was truly very little warning, or involve forces which are so complex and ill-understood that reliable prediction is impossible. Other Black Swans are merely events that are inconceivable given a certain set of assumptions, references or manners of thought. Trump’s election falls into this latter category.

Most analysts and pundits were absolutely convinced all the way until that last moment that Trump would not be able to win the Republican nomination. After he won the nomination, there was a lot of talk about lessons learned. However, almost immediately after Clinton secured her nomination it was depicted as virtually inevitable that she would win the general election—probably in a landslide (here, here, here for example).

Yet there was ample reason to believe things would go the other way. This is not an incident of hindsight bias: I realized early on that that Trump would likely not only win the Republican nomination, but the presidency as well. I predicted that he would beat Hillary Clinton explicitly, unequivocally and “on the record” for the first time in March 2016, and spent much of the remaining year urging Trump’s opposition to take his candidacy seriously and to better understand and respond to the factors driving his success.  In vain.

After Trump won the general election, yet again there were avowals of lessons learned. But already narratives are emerging that 2018 and 2020 will be bloodbaths for the president and his party (if he even lasts that long in office). Rather than succumbing to this sort of wishful thinking, I decided to look for strong indicators as to how the race might go.

Polling this early in Trump’s administration seemed unlikely to be predictive—especially as the polls themselves proved somewhat unreliable in the 2016 cycle overall (particularly at the state level). Statistically speaking, it seemed the best way to start was to look at the base-rate for reelection in U.S. presidential races. Continue reading “Trump Will Probably Win a Second Term in 2020.”

An Emerging Democratic Majority? Don’t Count on It.

 
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 politics as we know it. 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 charismatic and successful 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, such optimism would be ill-advised–the electoral trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. Continue reading “An Emerging Democratic Majority? Don’t Count on It.”

Trump’s Victory Should Not Have Been Surprising

As an epistemologist, I generally avoid predictions in favor of trying to determine what is known and how to build upon or utilize knowledge. But when I do feel compelled to go on record with predictions, it is generally with a sense of urgency–to draw public attention to an approaching black swan.

Black swans are phenomena which seem inconceivable relative to prevailing assumptions and beliefs. Black swan events arise when our conception of the world becomes untethered from events “on the ground.”

In this election cycle, the broad consensus was that Trump was an amusing epiphenomenon with little staying power and few prospects. By contrast, since the declaration of her candidacy, there was a pervasive assumption that Hillary Clinton would coast to victory. This cycle seemed to turn conventional wisdom on its head at every turn, but nonetheless, as Americans went to cast their ballots even the most rigorous and gutsy of poll analysts predicted less than a 30% chance for a Clinton loss (and even this was viewed by many as being far too generous to Trump).

To be sure, prediction is a perilous game. But one of the biggest problems in the way we rely on predictions in our public discourse is that pundits are rarely held to account for their reliability. And even in those rare instances where someone actually issues a mea culpa for grievous errors, little seems to be learned in terms of how to approach subsequent developments.

For instance, “no one” saw it as possible that Trump would win the Republican nomination—even down to the final moments. When he did win, there was a lot of handwringing about humility and lessons learned—but then almost immediately the same narrative emerged again: Trump stood no chance at winning the general election. And not just he, the Republican Party was finished, perhaps for generations, as a result of his candidacy. Things look very different today, with the Democrats standing on the brink of irrelevance, while the signature accomplishments of their most charismatic and transformation leader in generations seem set to be erased.

The centerpiece of the Democrats’ (over)confidence was their supposed “electoral firewall”—a safeguard they were so sure of that they scarcely even bothered to reach out to these constituents who were supposed to serve as their last line of defense against Trump (ensuring that even in the unlikely event that they lost the popular vote, they would win the Electoral College). How’d that turn out? Clinton is shaping up to lose the Electoral College by a larger margin than those who were defeated in 1996, 2000 or 2004.

How could this happen?” was the refrain on November 9th. Here’s how: Continue reading “Trump’s Victory Should Not Have Been Surprising”

Why 2016 May Be Donald Trump’s Race to Lose

As the 2016 presidential primaries got underway, there seemed to be a couple incontrovertible truths: Hillary Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, and Trump stood no chance (it was going to be Jeb or Rubio). Yet, here we are six months before the election, and Trump has seized the Republican nomination while Clinton is still working to box out Bernie Sanders’ insurgency (without losing his voters, who it turns out, may be ripe for Trump to peel off after all).

Nonetheless, the prevailing narrative is that while there is now a chance that Trump could actually win in November, it’s basically Hillary Clinton’s election to lose. Pundits focus on “fundamentals,” like Hillary’s superior fundraising, analytics, or ground game; however, these haven’t proven terribly predictive this cycle. And by focusing on conventional elements, analysts seem to be overlooking novel dynamics which are likely more important—specifically, the public’s persistent and negative perception of Hillary Clinton, the incumbency handicap, and a phenomenon I call “negative intersectionality.”

  Continue reading “Why 2016 May Be Donald Trump’s Race to Lose”

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Conservativism

What do conservatives stand for?

One popular narrative is that conservatives cling to tradition and resist change. There is an element of truth to this description in that conservatives do value tradition–albeit not for its own sake. Rather, out of the conviction that systems and institutions which have proven themselves over the course of generations should not be hastily cast aside in favor of the untested (and typically ill-fated) vogue. But ultimately, this is a feature of conservativism rather than its essence.

Conservativism is a response to progressivism. The point of divergence between them relates to the (im)perfectability of man–a centuries-long debate with theological origins but profound political implications:

Progressives tend to view history in a more-or-less linear fashion. It is held that as a result of mankind’s essential goodness (or rationality), or else as a result of immutable suprahuman forces, humanity is on a trajectory towards some “end of history” (the notion of progress is incomprehensible absent an end-state. For instance, what would constitute “progress” on an infinite line?).

Insofar as this (implicit or explicit) climax is viewed as utopian in nature (as is usually the case), progressives believe it is their responsibility to hasten this outcome, or even instantiate their ideal in the here-and-now. They typically view governments as a means to achieve these ends, appealing to some conception of the Good which the state is supposed to realize, often by means of some presumed universally-superior mode of societal arrangement. It is this impulse which undergirded the Enlightenment, Marxism, and myriad other revolutionary movements—and its negation forms the basis for conservativism.

 

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Conservativism”

Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, and he will have the Democratic National Committee to thank for it. Much has been made of the “math” of the Democratic nomination, and how it favors Hillary Clinton—in large part due to her huge lead in unpledged “superdelegates” (whose decision will determine the election, given that neither candidate is likely to reach the requisite number of delegates to win outright). But for a moment, let’s set aside the math of the Democratic primary, and look at the big picture: What matters for the general election is who can win swing states and ensure high voter turnout and enthusiasm in solidly blue states. In this regard, Bernie Sanders is clearly the more electable candidate.

Swing States, Blue States

The 10 closest races in 2012 were in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Six of these have voted so far in primary contests. Of these, Sanders decisively won 3 (New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota), and they virtually tied in 2 others (Sanders narrowly losing Nevada and Iowa). So in terms of swing states, the edge appears to be with Sanders.

As for solidly-blue states, only a handful have voted so far, but the outcome is clear: Bernie Sanders decisively won Vermont and Maine, pulled a huge upset in Michigan, and virtually tied Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts. Clinton has not decisively won even one single solidly-blue state. Instead, virtually all of her pledged delegate lead comes from handily winning in solidly red states which she (or any Democrat) would be highly-unlikely to win in a general election.

Nonetheless, the constant presentation of these numbers (superdelegate votes almost always included in media analyses of the race) reinforces the notion that Clinton is the more electable candidate, and pushes many into her camp as the best choice against the Republicans; this further expands her lead and reifies the perceived electability disparity, ad nauseam. Hence the narrative that Bernie Sanders is the ideological candidate who inspires, and Hillary the pragmatist who can win. In reality, Bernie is both. However, barring a major grassroots revolt, Hillary Clinton will seize the nomination. And she will lose to Donald Trump.

Continue reading “Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton”

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”

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”

If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change

In the Comedy Central television series South Park, the boys discover a cartel of gnomes who steal people’s underwear. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that these seizures are part of their business plan which goes:

 

Step 1: Collect Underpants Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

 

The punchline, of course, is that the underpants gnomes have set up this elaborate enterprise for stealing and stockpiling people’s unmentionables, but none of them have any idea how to leverage these resources in order to reach their aspiration (profits).

It is immediately obvious that step 2 may be the most important part of the entire plan: it tells you if there is a viable path from step 1 to step 3. If there isn’t, step 3 is irrelevant and step 1 is (at best) a waste of time and resources.

But Step 2 happens to be the least exciting part of the process, and the most difficult, complex, contentious—which explains why so many attempt to circumvent it. Instead they just keep repeating step one, at an ever-increasing scale, hoping that step 3 will somehow magically materialize in the process.

So it goes.

While this particular episode was meant to lampoon many aspects of the business world, it unfortunately seems just as reflective of U.S. national security policy. Consider:

 

Step 1: Sanctions Step 2: ? Step 3: regime change or substantial revision of regime policies

Step 1: Overthrow “rogue” government Step 2: ? Step 3: a democratic, secular and/or liberal state emerges in its stead (see: Iraq, Libya, and coming soon, Syria).

Step 1: Arm sub-state or non-state proxies Step 2: ? Step 3: American strategic interests successfully realized in the region

Step 1: Support dictators Step 2: ? Step 3: long-term stability in the Middle East; containment of radical ideologies antithetical to the prevailing order (see: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and coming soon, Libya).

Step 1: Bomb “militants” with drones or airstrikes Step 2: ? Step 3: Transnational/ supranational jihadist groups are defeated

Continue reading “If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change”

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””

Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap

Just prior to the U.S.-led anti-Daish (ISIS) campaign into Syria, the group released a highly-polished 55-minute documentary, “Flames of War,” in which they challenged the United States to heavily mobilize in Iraq and Syria. They have made similar taunts when they executed Western hostages, seized American weapons, or co-opted the rebels trained to fight against them.

Why are these extremists so eager to lure America into the theater?

Because while al-Daish has unrivaled wealth from multiple channels, a vast array of arms, and commands tens-of-thousands of soldiers– the one thing they seem to lack is popular legitimacy among the local populations. This is a big problem for a group that aspires to statehood. However, the recently-expanded intervention will likely help al-Daish mitigate this challenge by galvanizing the public against a greater enemy (the U.S.-led coalition)—with ISIL portraying themselves as the only force capable of repelling these malignant invaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be drawn ever deeper into a war of attrition in which its non-state interlocutors have little exposure and everything to gain.  Continue reading “Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap”

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”

Arming the Syrian Rebels is Counterproductive: Here’s Why…

A critique circulating by many foreign policy hawks is that the Obama Administration was far too concerned about delineating the “moderates” from the “extremists” of Syria’s rebellion, and only providing support to the former. They speculate that if the United States had provided more aid early on, extremists like the Islamic State would have never risen to prominence.

Despite its ubiquity, this narrative rests uneasily atop a gross neglect and misreading of recent history. Hillary Clinton, in particular, should take note:

Continue reading “Arming the Syrian Rebels is Counterproductive: Here’s Why…”

The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast

Earlier this month, the White House unveiled its new foreign policy credo: “Don’t do stupid shit.” While many lamented the modesty of this approach, acting with restraint in order to limit iatrogenesis is certainly a worthy goal—and an approach with wide and enduring popular support—in fact, this is the vision most of Obama’s voters endorsed they elected him (twice).

Despite the past several years of a foreign policy which uncomfortably mirrors that of his predecessor, there have been faint glimmers of hope, such as when the Administration took the long-overdue measure of shuttering many of the State Department’s semi-clandestine “democracy promotion” programs, or its gesturing towards reconciliation with Iran. But these moments of sanity have been far too few and far between. And it didn’t take long for this new commitment to run off the rails, despite its humble aspirations. In fact, it was dead on arrival: Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast”

A Primer on Social Epistemology

Much of what we believe is poorly-justified or believed in the total absence of evidence, or even in defiance of abundant counterevidence. So many cherished axioms are problematic or outright false—or else vague, inconsistent, or of an otherwise indeterminable truth-value (in part because the world cannot be cleanly reduced into language at all).

And you know what? Generally, this is not a big problem. In most circumstances, the truth is not particularly important. Nailing down more accurate information (when possible) can be a costly distraction. In fact, in many situations, untrue beliefs can even be helpful. Of course, there are also a number of circumstances in which false beliefs are extremely pernicious; the important thing is to identify the sorts of situations in which information quantity and quality is particularly important (as opposed to the overwhelming majority of conditions in which adequacy trumps accuracy). Continue reading “A Primer on Social Epistemology”

Rethinking Rationality

In previous analyses, I have demonstrated that while the Enlightenment-era axioms which undergird contemporary liberalism (and its relatives) have long been presumed as facts about “the way the world works,” they are easily demonstrable as mere sociocultural artifacts of a particular phase of history of particular peoples. Accordingly, attempting to instantiate these ideologies and systems in exogenous contexts is likely to foster instability and blowback rather than ushering in a state of universal peace and prosperity.

Instead, people around the world must be given the freedom to derive their own systems of organization, building on their indigenous frames of reference, history, and cultures in order to confront the unique challenges facing their societies.

Of course, there will be overlap and resonance—despite the rhetoric about the “globalized” nature of the “modern world,” as a point of fact the history of virtually any longstanding cultural artifact will be syncretic. Our languages (which frame our communication and conscious thinking) fit things into neat categories like “Western,” “Islamic,” “Shia,” “Sudanese,” “human,” etc.—however, reality is much more complex and messy, and what’s more, it always has been.

Sorry, modernists.

Continue reading “Rethinking Rationality”

The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny

Summary of a revolution: people making drastic and weighty decisions, rapidly and spontaneously, in a highly emotional state–often under the sway of some charismatic leader.

Question: Are these the sorts of actions we tend to retrospectively endorse or regret?

 

Followers of my work will know that I have been highly critical of virtually all of the revolutionary movements in the MENA region—particularly those in Libya, Syria and Egypt.  It would not be a stretch to say that my default disposition is anti-revolution, although from the response to my work in many  quarters, there does not seem to be a robust understanding of why. So rather than writing yet another expose, this time on the pop-media misinformation and problematic framing of the recent protests in Ukraine, it may be more fruitful to explain just why these movements are so troubling:

Continue reading “The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny”

Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition

The Syria National Coalition (SNC), much like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, has never enjoyed much legitimacy or influence within Syria. Their only meaningful link to events on the ground has been the Supreme Military Council (SMC), headed up by the military defectors who initially called themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ostensibly reports to the Coalition as its civilian leadership. Unfortunately, the SMC has not enjoyed much more credibility than its “government-in-exile:”

Many of the most significant rebel militias have explicitly and unequivocally rejected the legitimacy of both the SNC and the SMC, decrying them as exogenous tools (despite the massive and growing role of foreign money, supplies and fighters these very groups also rely on)—forming the so-called “Islamic Front” as an alternative umbrella group.  Since then, relations between various armed factions have devolved into an open civil war (within the larger civil war) for Northern Syria.

Dr. Salim Idriss has gone so far as referring to the idea of a unified Free National Army as a “pipe dream”—words which seem prescient in light of the most recent developments:

Following the close of the second round of Geneva II talks, the SNC made the surprise announcement that it was relieving Dr. Idriss from his duties as the SMC’s Chief of Staff, replacing him with Brigadier General Abdullah al-Bashir—thereafter making renewed calls for sophisticated weaponry. It appears as though these efforts will bear fruit, despite the SMC’s proven inability to control the resources already being provided.

Dr. Idriss has refused to recognize this decision on the part of the government-in-exile—and actually now refuses to recognize said government at all, severing all ties with the SNC and those forces which remain loyal to it. And he is not alone in going rogue: a number of the key SMC commanders have joined with him. In essence, there are now two Supreme Military Councils, each of whom refuses to recognize or coordinate with the other, and neither of whom exert much leverage on the ground.

One critical effect of this development is that the already-marginal influence of the SNC within Syria (via the SMC) has been dramatically reduced. This has important implications: Continue reading “Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition”

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”

The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.

In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the White House’s case for intervention in Syria.

It stinks of Karl “Turdblossom” Rove, who once said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The Obama Administration had been intending to use the Ghouta incident as a pretext for changing the balance of power “on the ground” in Syria. They were prevented from direct military action as a result of the deft maneuvering of Syria and Russia, so they have instead ramped up the delivery of arms to the rebels, and stand poised to shift the training of said rebels from a small CIA operation into a much larger Pentagon-run operation.  Simultaneously, the State Department has began sending the rebels vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment, advanced combat medical kits, and other gear–collectively, these actions amount to a “major escalation” of U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Moreover, the White House continues to make its case for strikes, despite the deal which was recently achieved with Russia and the al-Asad government.  There are bills being floated in the Senate which would empower the President to “punish” Syria if the Administration deems the regime’s progress “unsatisfactory,” even in the absence of U.N. agreement. If the history of Iraq is any indication, we can rest assured that the progress will be deemed insufficient regardless of how well the Syrian government complies, providing ever-new pretexts to increase “allied” involvement.  The opposition is already calling for further military restrictions on the Syrian government.

That is, while the recent developments were inconvenient for the Administration, the plans to depose al-Asad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily. Sanity may have prevailed in this particular battle, but the war rages on. What follows is the most direct and systematic refutation of the Administration’s case for military intervention in Syria—deconstructing their justifications one by one.

Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.”

Game Theory v. Reality in Syria

Despite the overwhelming skepticism of the international community, the Obama Administration recently changed its evaluation of the ‘evidence’  of chemical weapons use in Syria. By its own admission, this was to serve as a pretext for their previously-rendered and domestically unpopular decision to deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict in an attempt to offset the Syrian army’s momentum in recent months. Simultaneously, the Administration deployed a number of U.S. assets to Jordan and delayed the scheduled Geneva II summit on Syria in the hopes that the rebels could gain ground in the interim. According to Washington policymakers, this should put the regime in a weaker negotiating position going into the talks, making it increasingly likely that Bashar al-Asad will be willing to step down, or offer greater concessions to Western powers.

This strategy is informed by Game Theory, popular among the sociologists, political scientists and economists who advise Washington policymakers–reaching its current level of popularity largely as a result of prominent intellectuals at the University of Chicago, from whence the president hails.

Game Theory models “rational” choices in competitive situations—where “rationality” is defined in terms of risks v. payoffs / costs v. benefits calculations, typically relative to some material outcome. Of course, the dirty little secret of Game Theory is that whenever its experiments are run with actual subjects (as opposed to the typical method of running simulations with idealized agents), people are found to be robustly irrational—this is actually a good thing, as a game-theoretic “perfectly rational” agent would essentially be a psychopath/sociopath.

Considering that most people are not psychopaths, it should not be surprising to find out that practitioners reliant upon game theory generally have terrible predictive success rates (exacerbated by the “Black Swan” problem). The supposed credibility of the method is derived almost entirely from post-hoc analyses of historical events—analyses which can be conveniently spun regardless of what course of events ultimately occurs; accordingly, Game Theory serves mostly to “explain” the status quo rather than to provide insight into fluid  situations. For these reasons, even prominent game-theorists have come to admit that the method has negligible “real-world” utility, and that reliance upon the method for making predictions about actual situations is likely to do more harm than good (insofar as it obscures more effective analytic frameworks or is used to lend credibility to terrible policies); apparently Washington hasn’t received the memo. Continue reading “Game Theory v. Reality in Syria”

Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests

In recent weeks there has been a deluge of coverage and analysis of Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests. These events have typically been framed as another case of a popular and peaceful youth movement being crushed by an authoritarian dictator; often pundits have gone so far as to label these protests as the beginning of a “Turkish Spring,” drawing on the same utterly false frameworks which have dominated the public discourse throughout the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. However, this caricature of the current (and probably future) struggle in Istanbul ignores a number of inconvenient facts:

First, the protests were not as peaceful as the narrative suggests. While the media has given a good deal of coverage of  riot police deploying tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades  and batons on the crowds, from the beginning of the protests there have been contingents who fought with and taunted the police, to include launching stones, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at the authorities. In fact, by some accounts the water cannons and tear gas were deployed in response to this initiation of violence by the protestors.  Either way, once that door gets opened, it is easy for the innocent to be punished along with the guilty. This is indeed, what some of the provocateurs may have been seeking: it is a common tactic in protest movements for activists to goad the authorities into an overly-forceful response in an attempt to build international sympathy for their cause and grow their numbers domestically.

However, when incendiary devices are being deployed in the heart of major metropolitan areas at the height of tourist season, when there are incidences of vandalism, arson, and looting—once certain lines are crossed, the state has an authentic responsibility to bring an end to these behaviors for the sake of public safety. There are certainly some among the protestors who went way too far in their attempts at instigation—and the Turkish authorities were all too eager to take the bait—and the entire (mostly peaceful) movement paid the price for this game.

Second, the protests were not popular. While it is true that tens-of-thousands took to the streets of Istanbul, this number does not seem as impressive when one considers that we are discussing a city populated by 14 million (similarly, it is important to note the distinction between “diversely-comprised” and “popular.” Many erroneously conflate the former with the latter). There is no reason to believe that the protests represent the popular will; in fact, as we will see, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this.

Erdogan is not a dictator—he is a democratically elected Prime Minister serving his third and final term, following the AKP’s decisive victory in the 2011 elections—his party’s electoral success has been unprecedented, and has been growing with each election. There should be little doubt that if it came to a referendum, the AKP and Erdogan would maintain their impressive majorities (conveniently, the media failed to cover the large counter-rallies in support of the prime minister). In fact, the narrative of “Islamist tyranny” is ironic in this context: Continue reading “Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests”

Rejoinder to “Order, Freedom and Chaos: Sovereignties in Syria”

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game,” demonstrated that contrary to the popular narratives, most Syrians seem to support President al-Asad over the armed rebels. Moreover, it was argued that most of the casualties from the conflict were combatants, that the regime probably controlled more territory than the narrative suggested, that the dynamics of the conflict seem to favor the regime in the medium-to-long term (a bold claim at the time), and that the influence of foreign jihadists was far greater than their numbers may suggest—influence which would only grow over time.

These claims have been unanimously vindicated: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has actually changed their methodologies, now distinguishing more clearly between combatant and non-combatant civilians; while there is still much to critique about their specific numbers (and their ideological bias), they now acknowledge as well that most of the casualties have been combatants. The Arab League has recently stated that about 40% of Syria is outside of the government’s control, meaning the regime controls the majority of the country (contrary to previous rhetoric that the regime controlled less than a third of Syria). And as I argued in “The Numbers Game,” the parts of the country which are not being administered by the government are generally not being controlled by the rebels, either. Moreover, as projected, the regime has been making strides in retaking these ungoverned territories since December 2012—to include a number of rebel strongholds. Finally, rebel forces are increasingly reliant upon the weapons, training, and leadership of Jahbat al-Nusra and other transnational jihadist organizations—and are increasingly adopting their ideologies;  The New York Times has gone so far as to report that there was no evidence of a “secular” fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. Unspeakable crimes are committed daily by the rebels, to include instances of cannibalism.

Deploying the same methodologies from  “The Numbers Game,”  I subsequently demonstrated that despite the media fetish on regime airstrikes and calls for a no-fly zone in Syria—deaths from aerial bombardments amounted to less than 9% of the total casualties, most of which were likely combatants.  These numbers have since been echoed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Despite the apparent success of these analyses, in the most recent issue of Middle East Policy my friend and colleague George Abu Ahmad leveled a number of serious charges against me, attempting to undermine my conclusions and proposing an alternate method for understanding the conflict in Syria. I will briefly respond to these criticisms here:

Continue reading “Rejoinder to “Order, Freedom and Chaos: Sovereignties in Syria””

Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria

Jadaliyya “featured” my “Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game” in their 4/4/2013 Syria Media Roundup. In a transparent attempt to “poison the well” against my findings (and in contrast with the neutral-to-positive tone with which literally all of the other articles were described), my paper was summarized as follows:

“Musa al-Gharbi argues that we do not have a clear picture of facts on the ground, claims that might have been pertinent one year ago but that seem problematic today.”

Ignoring the fact that the article in question was drafted in January 2013 and explicitly makes use of contemporary data, such as the UN casualty report which came out a few months ago (i.e. far less than “one year ago”)—is it the case that the article’s claims are no longer pertinent? If so, it would presumably be because either:

  1. We now have a clear picture of the facts on the ground
  2. The dynamics of the conflict have radically shifted on one or more of my major points, or
  3. The “facts on the ground” are no longer terribly important.

The first option seems ridiculous. The article demonstrated fairly robustly how statistics are being misused and misunderstood in discussing the Syrian conflict—there has been no improvement in the public discourse in the interim. It remains difficult to get reliable information, and virtually all data related to the conflict is rather-immediately politicized. Accordingly, the same myths which were highlighted in the paper are still being perpetuated—they are no more true today than they were when the paper was published.

A charitable interpretation of their evaluation may appeal to the third option: perhaps given the way the conflict has escalated, the “facts on the ground” are no longer so important. As the situation spins out of control, there may be a worry that such analyses seem to trivialize the conflict—or turn into an abstract discussion a situation which is life-or-death for so many within and around Syria. While sensitive to this concern, the takeaway from the article should be that this is a situation which calls for much more attention,  much more care, much more engagement. The purpose of the article was to prompt the public to look more deeply and listen more closely when faced with rhetoric related to the conflict—and to pressure policymakers to do the same.

It may be asserted that the conflict has reached a point where these sorts of discussions are moot: the international community cannot wait around for perfect data to act. Such an argument seems perplexing: it is precisely the gravity of the situation and its likely repercussions which demands more care. While we must always make decisions under uncertainty, there is no excuse to ignore information that we actually already have. Although there are reasons to be skeptical of some of the proposed “facts” (such as the casualty statistics), our analysis largely took for granted that the popular data were correct; our aspiration was to examine more closely what that data tells us—that is, to challenge the ways the intelligence has been interpreted and manipulated. And what the data suggests is that the policies of the United States and its allies vis a vis Syria have been wrong-headed; indeed, as it has been in Syria, so it has been throughout the Arab Spring. I will now briefly explain the (continued) significance of my findings:

Continue reading “Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria”

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”