Let Zero Dark Thirty Be Multi-Faceted

Zero Dark Thirty is stuck in a proxy fight over torture. One’s view of the movie seems to be a referendum on whether you think the torture portrayed in the film was essential to the information that ultimately led to the raid in Abbottabad. But perhaps I’m naïve to think that a theme of the film is that people are people and violence is violence. (Bear with me, even as you say to yourself, tautology is tautology.)

The opening torture sequence is often lumped in with “24,” but I think it is different from similar scenes in that TV series for three reasons. First, the movie’s protagonist is deeply troubled by the torture, even as she continues her participation in it. Jack Bauer never doubted the necessity of his actions or showed any qualms. Maya (Jessica Chastain) does. Even her mentor, Dan (Jason Clark), seems wounded by his involvement in such acts as the movie progresses. Second, the tortured prisoner is not shown doing any concrete harm prior to the torture. Yes, the immediately prior scene involves 9/11, but the prisoner undergoing “enhanced interrogation” has a somewhat distant link to that trauma—a “money man,” related to a more important planner, not important in his own right. Third, and relatedly, Reda Ketab portrays the tortured prisoner with impressive humanity. Torture in movies sometimes feels like vengeance; here the audience’s sympathies lie with the tortured man. Why are the CIA agents doing this? Why do they continue? And the vindication of the torture is diffuse at best. It is unclear if the information was revealed because of the torture, or just because of the sleep deprivation. Ketab’s character, Ammar, does not reveal his information to avoid more pain or more simulated drowning. His revelation is disconnected physically and temporally from his pain. He is, in essence, tricked into revealing his information, and that information has no real effect on finding bin Laden until years later. At which point, numerous other individuals have separately provided that same information. It seems quite likely that the torture was unnecessary; the information would have come anyway. I can think of no episode of “24” with a similar equifinality with regard to torture.

Which brings me back to this theme of people being people and violence being violence. It seems a message of the movie is that 9/11 led the United States to do considerable harm in its efforts to both retaliate for the harm done and also prevent future harm. One might think the harm was justified, but it doesn’t erase pain inflicted by the United States. The film doesn’t shy away from demonstrating that U.S. efforts are not always “clean.” The movie shows that violence is still violence, and not pretty. While mentally I knew that there were others in the compound when the raid took place, it is different to know this than it is to see their deaths portrayed. There were wives and children in the compound. The movie goes out of its way to show that the children likely saw their parents being killed in front of them, and wives saw their husbands dying. The raiding team is shown as troubled by these aspects, even as they continue.

The conservative columnist George Will occasionally will argue that individuals have to make a determination for themselves as to whether it is possible to “economize violence,” to employ violence now in an effort to prevent greater violence in the future. But even if it is morally valid to employ violence for prevention or retribution, it doesn’t sanitize the violence. Violence damages people—both the victims and the perpetrators. I feel as if Zero Dark Thirty broadcasts that message, but no one is listening because they are too busy re-litigating torture controversies. The people killed and tortured in this movie are portrayed as people, even if their screen time is brief. The violence undertaken for U.S. interests is not elided or ignored by the director. Only bin Laden himself is never shown, and in a way denied personhood by Bigelow and Boal.

And how does the movie end? With a weeping Maya having accomplished her goal. She does not know what she is going to do or where she is supposed to go. The quest for bin Laden has destroyed her as a social creature, has taken her humanity. It is tough for me to square the images of Zero Dark Thirty with a conclusion that it glamorizes the hunt for bin Laden or vindicates decisions taken by the Bush administration. The movie shows U.S. choices as complicated and painful. By showing images of episodes too often described only as text in a CNN chyron, it forces us to “see” the choices our government makes. The next time you are reading of a drone strike in Pakistan or a raid in Yemen, visualize what the scene of violence actually looked like. The decision might still be morally valid, perhaps even morally praiseworthy, but the action almost certainly was not pretty or glamorous. People are people. Violence is violence.


Assessing the Effect of Gender Quotas on Politics

Last week, Natalia Bueno drew our attention to gender quotas in politics, pointing out that while the number of women candidates in elections to the local and federal chambers in Brazil was increasing, the proportion of women actually getting elected was not witnessing a commensurate increase; in fact, it was mostly stable over time. Regardless of whether a quota is for a certain percentage of women that must contest elections, or for a certain percentage of women that must actually hold legislative seats, Natalia raises an important question at the end of her post – is such affirmative action even effective? Like Brazil, India has also been struggling to implement reforms that encourage representation of women in government. While a 1992 amendment to the Indian constitution made it mandatory for 33% of elected seats at the local level (village panchayats) to be filled with women, the bill for implementing this reform at the national level has still not been passed. In light of the debate on women’s issues that has been sparked off by the recent gang-rape in Delhi, a number of proposals are now back into consideration, including the Women’s Reservation Bill, which mandates that 33% of all seats in the lower house of the Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies be reserved for women. But does guaranteeing a certain number of elected seats for women yield their group any benefits?

Government Participation by Women (womenstats.org)

In terms of effectiveness of gender quotas and representation, what exactly are we aiming for? Observers draw a distinction between descriptive representation,  the similarity between the representative and the represented in terms of race/ethnicity/gender, symbolic representation, the subjective feeling of “fair” represented, and substantive representation. This third kind is particularly important as it implies that the legislators actually enact policy which reflects the concerns of the constituents.

Looking at the effects of descriptive representation, Barnes and Burchard, using the Afro-Barometer survey for 20 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, show that increased representation of women in the political sphere is positively related the political engagement of women at the mass level. Political engagement here is measured in a variety of ways – talking about politics, participating in demonstrations, interest in politics, contacting a member of Parliament and contacting a party leader. More importantly, they argue that true gender parity in representation is not even necessary to achieve a commensurate parity in political engagement – as the percentage of women in the legislature increases from 25 to 35%, the difference between male and female turnout in voting during elections virtually disappears.

However, such descriptive representation does not necessarily translate into symbolic or substantive representation. This is a concern in many developing countries such as India and Brazil, where women candidates may often be wives or relatives of male candidates in politics and, therefore, may do little to advance the interests of the constituents who they are supposed to represent.  Evidence of symbolic representation however, can also be found in some contexts. Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova have found that increased representation of women in local councils in India has gradually contributed to an increased reporting of crime against women. In substantive terms, Chattopadhyay and Duflo using the reservation rule mentioned above, find that female leaders invest money in public goods considered more important to women than men, which in this case were drinking water and roads.

The above examples show us that the effectiveness of gender quotas is conditional on many factors and the kind of representation that we choose to focus on. Besides examining the effects of these gender quotas, it would also be interesting to analyze if exposure to power and the formal workings of politics builds capabilities for these female leaders. In other words, what are the effects of these quotas on its direct beneficiaries?

Re-Reading Juan Linz at the Fiscal Cliff, Contd.

I just saw that another person–in addition to Matt Yglesias and me–thinks Juan Linz’s old writing on the crisis-prone nature of presidential systems is increasingly applicable to the United States, despite the United States being a notable outlier in the original analysis. His name is Juan Linz.

(Democratic) Peace in the Middle East?

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Michael Poznansky, Ph.D. Student in Foreign Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, University of Virginia

The Middle East is in trouble. If the ongoing civil war in Syria, fears of nuclear proliferation in Iran, and a tenuous cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas were not enough, Egypt has recently passed a constitution instantiating the precepts of Islamism. In a recent article in the New York Times, John Owen suggests that proponents of Islamism—a brand of political Islam forged by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s—are thriving in the new Middle East, espousing an alternative to the secular tradition of Western liberal democracy. In this post, I explore the future of Egypt’s regime and its impact on any potential democratic peace with the U.S. In the remaining space, I address three issues: (1) the state of the Egyptian regime and its implications for democratic peace; (2) what history and theory can tell us about analogous situations; and (3) how these lessons inform the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

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The Liberal Case against Chuck Hagel

Much metaphorical ink has been spilt writing about President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. In this climate, I was initially a bit skeptical of adding my voice to what is increasingly becoming a tired cacophony. However, a vast majority of what has been written has been either in firm support or in firm opposition of Hagel’s nomination. While those in favor have offered well-developed arguments (a prominent example), skeptics have presented mostly incoherent attacks centered either on Hagel’s supposedly dovish views, particular in regards to Iran, or Hagel’s less-than-complete commitment to Israel. Opposition from the left, usually reduced to Hagel’s comments about openly gay former ambassador James Hormel, has become lost in the oft-hyperbolic opposition from the right.  This is unfortunate. As Hagel attempts to reassure Senators, especially Democratic ones, before and during the confirmation hearings, I suggest that there remain some key issues surrounding Hagel of which foreign policy-minded liberals should be aware.

Barack Obama and the nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel

Undeniably, there are obvious reasons to support Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense. His clear stance on Israel and the two-state solution marks a refreshing shift in the establishment foreign policy discourse about Israel-Palestine. Moreover, his steadfast opposition to hasty military action against Iran suggests that the Pentagon might offer an important veto should relations break down to the point that the White House would consider a strike. However, these are two big picture issues over which Hagel is likely to have little influence if Congress and the President are already determined to pursue a certain policy. Rather, Hagel as Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, like Robert Gates and Leon Panetta before him, is much more likely to affect relatively minor policy issues and day-to-day Pentagon operations. Since these decisions will probably include key civil rights, civil liberties, humanitarian, and legal (domestic and international) issues on which Hagel has a less-than-stellar record, progressives should, at the very least, be wary of Hagel’s nomination. While I don’t think outright opposition is appropriate, I also do not think full-fledged liberal support is warranted without addressing these key concerns first.

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The Rise of the Israeli Right: An International Politics Explanation

It is undeniable that since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 Israeli politics has undergone a dramatic shift to the right, manifested by disappearing support for the peace process, an expansion of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, and a more antagonistic policy towards Israel’s Western allies. Populist politics has become a winning strategy and the Israeli center-left of Rabin has been decimated while the religious and nationalist right have enjoyed unprecedented electoral success. The Peace Process is dead and it’s not just the Palestinians’ fault. A recent alteration to the ruling party’s platform has removed even the token nod to a two state solution. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed (see articles here, here, and here). However, existing explanations tend to focus on electoral fortunes of right-wing parties. Of course, electoral outcomes are exactly that, outcomes, and do not explain the rise of the right and Israel’s increasingly aggressive policies; they are merely its political manifestation. In order to truly understand the rise of the right, we must turn to theory. As it turns out, we do not need to search very far, but theories of domestic politics do not get us quite as far as theories of international politics. Changing conditions in the international system, combined with an appeal to theories of rational choice, do an excellent job explaining why the Israeli right has enjoyed such a meteoric rise (for example, see Gourevitch’s Second Image Reversed or Putnam’s Two Level Games). A severe and growing imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians combined with Israel’s successful escape from the consequences of an anarchic international system characterized by the self-help imperative suffices to explain the changing shape of Israel’s domestic political landscape. Continue reading

The Spiral Model and an India-Pakistan Border Clash

Beheadings get people’s attention. This week, the India-Pakistan ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir broke down in dramatic fashion. The Line of Control serves as the de facto boundary between India and Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir, the product of the first India-Pakistan war of 1947-1948 with a few adjustments in the 1972 Simla accord. Despite a ceasefire since 2003, small skirmishes have been fairly common in the last decade and, while this one was more gruesome than most, I would not be surprised if the ceasefire is restored in the coming days or weeks with no long-term consequences. But the episode does appear to illustrate Robert Jervis’s spiral model fairly well. So before getting into the more grisly elements of the episode, let’s review theory and then turn to its application.

Jervis sketched out the spiral model as one pathway to conflict, where insecurities feed on one another, generating conflict even when states are not inherently aggressive. Imagine a situation in which one state, let’s call it India, attempts to make itself more secure through an action that intentionally or unintentionally makes another state less secure. When faced with this circumstance, a second state, let’s call it Pakistan, makes a countermove to increase its security, which in turn makes the first state (India) even less secure. This basic security dilemma might be exacerbated by psychological tendencies. Decision-makers know that they are taking actions for good reasons, and do not understand that their actions might be viewed as dangerous by others. When the other state reacts, the initial state views its reaction as a sign of perfidy or aggression, rather than a product of its own initial moves.

Normally at this stage, hardliners in one or both of the states demand “firm” or “strong” retaliatory steps to demonstrate that unacceptable activity by the adversary will not be permitted. And now a tit-for-tat spiral is underway. And these spirals can be difficult to control even if there is just a little “noise” in the “signal.” What if states have imperfect information or if they sometimes take action out in their phalanges about which central leaders remain unaware? It becomes very difficult to modulate tit-for-tat responses. Almost thirty years ago, Downs, Rocke, and Siverson demonstrated that even a little misperception of the adversary’s action or a just a bit of incomplete control of one’s own actions can lead to very bad outcomes for actors that are just trying to pursue benign tit-for-tat strategies (by which I mean they will cooperate so long as the other side plays nice).

Ok, so that is what the theory tells us.

Last Sunday, January 6, the Pakistan military announced that one soldier was killed and another injured in what it described as an Indian raid on a Pakistani post along the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. The raid was followed by cross-border shelling by both states, a relatively frequent occurrence along the Line of Control despite the ceasefire. India, for its part, denied that a raid had occurred, though it had admitted to taking some undefined steps to respond to what it said was a Pakistani ceasefire violation prior to January 6. Pakistan, India claimed, had “initiated unprovoked firing” and whatever occurred on January 6 was just India responding to the Pakistani provocation. The Indian response had been calibrated, Indian spokespersons assured the Indian media. Then on Tuesday, January 8, the Indian Army reported that two of its soldiers were killed in an ambush on the Indian side of the Line of Control, and one of the soldiers was beheaded, and his head was apparently carried back by the Pakistani intruders. The Indian defense minister called the episode a “serious provocation” and “inhuman.” The opposition BJP party said the Pakistani attack was “an unprovoked act of aggression” and called upon the Indian government to respond “firmly.”

All of these occurrences took place along one stretch of the Line of Control. On Thursday, January 10, the Indian media provided an account of the whole episode that was much more complicated, with guilt dispersed across Indian and Pakistani actors. The reports suggest that the Indian military had become aware last fall of gaps in their ability to control movement along this portion of the Line of Control. They decided to construct new bunkers along the Line of Control that may have been in violation of the 2003 ceasefire. Pakistani troops protested the move—first verbally and then with harassing fire. The local Indian commander obtained permission to take action to try to stop the harassing fire. As one senior government official told Praveen Swami of the Hindu newspaper, “Let’s just put it this way. There was no formal permission to stage a cross-border raid to target [the Pakistani post]. However, in the heat of fighting, these things have been known to happen.” An Indian intelligence official similarly told Saikat Datt of Daily News and Analysis, “We believe that this was a local action purely in retaliation [for] the raid our troops carried out in the Uri sector.”

Obviously the decades-old spiral model is not the only theoretical tool that sheds light on this episode. The role played by media institutions in both countries, but particularly in the less institutionalized Pakistani democratic milieu, touches on a literature on nationalism, media, and mass opinion (see Van Evera 1994, Gagnon 1994-1995, Snyder and Ballentine 1996). The role of public pronouncements and opposition statements seems consistent with a literature on audience costs and the process by which democracies generate resolve (see Fearon 1994 and Schultz 1998). But those are other posts for another time.