What We’re Reading

  • One of the most high-profile and devastating attacks by Indian Maoists occurred on the 25th of May, killing and injuring many Congress leaders, including the founder of Salwa Judum, a pro-government paramilitary force that fast gained notoriety for its abuses against civilians. Tusha Mittal at Tehelka highlights the ruthlessness of this militia after her trek into Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the states which contain the heartland of the insurgency.
  • A Pakistani version of TV series Glee will hit local TV channels in the fall. “Like its smash hit forerunner, ‘Taan’ follows the lives and loves of a group of young people who regularly burst into song. But this time they attend a music academy in Lahore, instead of an American high school.” Plotlines include “love affairs between two men and between a Taliban extremist and a beautiful Christian girl.”
  • There’s a lot of work on unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. Probably less work on wife-swapping and combat effectiveness. Some in the Indian Navy may be exploring the topic.
  • Poverty ex machina? “A typical poor person is poor not because he is irresponsible, but because he was born in Africa.”
  • And, on the same topic, Matt Yglesias details the results of an experiment run by Chris Blattman, Nathan Fiala and Sebastian Martinez in Uganda. “Money with no strings attached not only directly raises the living standards of those who receive it, but it also increases hours worked and labor productivity, seemingly laying the groundwork for growth to come.”
  • Cass Sunstein describes the biggest Supreme Court decision you haven’t heard of, which increases executive power and the power and strength of Obamacare.
  • Is the Syrian Civil War the Spanish Civil War of our time? Harvey Morris examines the historical dangers of intervention and non-intervention in civil wars. The critical part of the analogy is whether the non-influence of Western democracies opens up room for the influence of other parties. It remains to be seen whether anyone is as interested in Syria as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were in Spain but some elements, namely Iran’s continued support of the Assad regime and Turkish and Saudi support of more extreme parts of the opposition, demand at least some consideration for the analogy. In any case, I doubt J.K. Rowling will be going to fight against tyranny in Syria.

Naming and Faming: Forbes’ Power Women

Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women for this year is out and Angela Merkel has come out on top again, for the 7th time in the last 8 years. I was struck by the number of American women on the list simply by glancing at it. When I went through the entire list of 100 women, I realized that an astounding 58 were American. Does this mean that other countries are not producing ‘powerful women’?

Well, let’s look at how Forbes decides who is a powerful woman. According to the magazine, 250 candidates are picked each year, out of which 100 are picked across 7 fields – billionaires, business, lifestyle (entertainment and fashion), media, nonprofits and NGOs, politics and technology. Three variables are then used to decide one’s overall rank as well the rank within the category to which she belongs: money, media presence and impact. While money and media presence are calculated using fairly standard metrics (see here), ‘impact’ is measured by the “extent of their reach across industries, cultures and countries, numbers of spheres of influence and people they affect, and how actively they wield their power.” The extremely poor operationalization (if one can even call it that) of this third crucial variable ‘impact’ might be the reason why the list is so US-centric. Or maybe I have some idealistic conception of what ‘impact’ means in that it should affect the lives of people around the world, especially women, positively. Otherwise, I’d be hard pressed to believe that someone like Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, or Jenna Lyons, Creative Director of J. Crew, is actually influencing a wide spectrum of society in any manner, let alone positive.

What We’re Reading

In this new (regular) feature, we will be providing a round-up of what we at The Smoke-Filled Room have been reading that seems interesting and especially germane to the problems of contemporary political science. We’ve noticed that other blogs regularly include links to interesting content they’ve found on the web, and we’ve decided to shamelessly follow that example. Like good academics avoiding our own work, we have eclectic reading habits, as you will no doubt come to see. So, what we’re reading this week:

  • Albert Hirschman lived a more interesting life than most social scientists. “In dealing with events during the difficult period between 1935 and 1938, Hirschman… decided to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco with the very first Italian and German volunteers, some of whom were killed on the battlefield. For the rest of his life, Hirschman remained entirely silent about this experience, even with his wife, though ‘the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.’ Returning from the war, he worked closely with the anti-Fascist Italian underground, carrying secret letters and documents back and forth from Paris.”
  • Patrick Cockburn provides an excellent account of the war in Syria, which “no one” is winning, in the London Review of Books.
  • Jeffrey Lewis decides to pivot from a technical topic, the overhyped threat of electromagnetic pulses, to questions of threat inflation and isolationism. “One of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s preemptive doctrine was its ‘unilateralism.’ Well, unilateralism is just isolationism on steroids.”
  • Jane Mayer, Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton and Ross Douthat offer their thoughts on President Obama’s National Defense University speech.
  • Check out the funky cover art on this old CIA study of the 1962 China-India War.
  • Boiling over: Sweden finally has to deal with two decades’ worth of inadequate immigrant integration policies. Colin Freeman with a nice take in The Telegraph.
  • Shikha Dalmia blames the harassment faced by women in India (“eve teasing”) on “free-floating male libido with no socially acceptable outlet.”
  • On the naming of American bases: “Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills…[yet] he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo.”
  • Turkey’s Parliament is debating a bill to restrict the selling of alcohol. Domestic critics have suggested that the bill’s supporters are pushing an Islamist agenda. However, as Marya Hannun points out, this is not dissimilar to alcohol sale restrictions in Texas. As some of the supporters of the bill point out, it is also not dissimilar to alcohol sale restrictions in Sweden. Coincidentally, Swedish restrictions, which have progressively loosened over time, are directly related to the strong influence of religious temperance movements upon the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which  dominated Swedish politics for most of the 20th century. So perhaps the Sweden comparison is not one Turkish pro-restriction politicians should make.

Why Do We Hate Drones?

Whether it was democratization or WMDs, Iraq was the “pick a reason, love the policy” war. Conversely, drone strikes have become the “pick a reason, hate the policy” war. A consensus appears to be emerging against drone strikes. Even the Obama administration seems to share this assessment to some degree. But why? Drones are considered effective at weakening al-Qaeda networks not only within policy circles but also academia as well.  In a recent working paper, Patrick Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi suggest that “by enabling both intelligence collection through overhead surveillance and direct targeting of suspected terrorists, drones reduce militant violence by increasing  the costs of militant activities and creating an incentive for militants to lie low to avoid being targeted.” Christine Fair argues that not only are drones the best possible option to deal with militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan but that the degree to which they foster anti-Americanism may be exaggerated.  President Barack Obama drove this point home in his speech at the National Defense University yesterday afternoon:

Our actions are effective.  Don’t take my word for it.  In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes.  We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.”  Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well.  Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield.  Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan.  Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.

However, Americans have still grown increasingly disenchanted with drones. I believe that this is due to five main reasons. As with support for the war in Iraq, not all Americans “hate” drones for the same reason or reasons. Ultimately, however, it appears that public opinion has begun to crystallize against drones due to some combination of the following reasons.

It’s a video game technology. The argument here is that drones are taking the humanity out of warfighting, which, in turn, makes policymakers more likely to use them. In conjunction, if you believe that drones make conflict and death more likely in the long run, it is easy to see why you would also worry about the implications of these new technological innovations. This is likely not a large driver of public opposition to drones for three reasons.

First, there is always a bit of shock and confusion when a new technology of war emerges but, ultimately, public opinion returns to equilibrium. I would hate to be a part of the generation that had to face the sudden emergence of air power, nuclear weapons, or tanks. Drones pale in comparison. Second, drones are actually not that new. The United States has been using drones since the First Gulf War and continued to do so throughout the 90s. Increased use notwithstanding, never before has there been such public outcry against drones. Third, it seems strange that the American public, which is notoriously casualty-averse, would be opposed to the use of weapons that minimizes American casualties. Indeed, military officials attribute the execution of Operation Allied Force in Kosovo without any combat deaths in part to the use of drones. President Obama emphasized this final point in his speech yesterday:

So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world.  The results would be more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.

It goes against international law. It is not clear to me that U.S. public cares all that much about international law, especially if ignoring it helps protect the homeland from terrorist attacks. Assuming that they do care, however, are drone strikes in accordance with international law? I am not a lawyer and do not wish to pretend that I am. Fortunately, our President is! He spoke directly about this concern yesterday:

America’s actions are legal.  We were attacked on 9/11.  Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force.  Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.  We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first.  So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.

The United States appears to be on tenuous legal ground here. The entire claim rests on whether the U.S. can be at “war” with non-state actors. The entire premise of international law relies on mutual contracts between leaders of state actors. As such, the United States cannot technically be at war with a non-state actor and, as such, violates international law when it enters Pakistani territory without the permission of its leaders. A more plausible claim for legality, it seems, would be that the U.S. is actually acting with the permission, whether implicit or explicit, of Pakistani authorities. One would hope that increased transparency in the process would allow American officials to restate their claim for legality in these terms.

It is unconstitutional to target an American citizen without due process. As much as they do not care about international law, Americans certainly care about domestic law. Since I still remain not a lawyer, I will again lean on our President for a response:

I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process, nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.

But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.

At first blush, this is a persuasive argument. Ultimately, however, the President is relying on the same preventive action/imminent threat logic that President Bush used in favor of invading Iraq. Problematically, unlike the sniper, the hypothetical target of the drone strike has not committed a lethal crime yet. Moreover, even if he has, he would be entitled to due process rather than a public execution. In his response to the speech, Senator Rand Paul immediately picked up on this thread:

I’m glad the President finally acknowledged that American citizens deserve some form of due process. But I still have concerns over whether flash cards and PowerPoint presentations represent due process; my preference would be to try accused U.S. citizens for treason in a court of law.

I don’t agree with many (any?) of Paul’s other positions but he’s right on here and I doubt this objection goes away. if the administration is serious about curbing public opposition to drone strikes and due process, it must do better.

Too many civilian casualties. When it is said that the American public is casualty-averse, it is in reference to American casualties abroad. Deaths in Syria have reached nearly 100,000 but intervention in Syria, risking American lives, remains even less popular than drones. Civilian deaths in Iraq over the past decade have topped that. When publics are asked to weigh the costs and benefits of a national security abroad, they will tolerate a large number of non-American deaths in exchange for protection from a large number of American deaths. President Obama spoke about this tough choice at length yesterday:

[As] Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.  To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold.  Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.  So doing nothing is not an option.

More conventional military options, while possibly as effective, are less precise and more destructive; they would only generate more collateral damage and American losses (remember this mess?). As long as the American public believes that military action abroad is needed to protect the homeland, drones will be the weapon of choice.

Drone strikes create more terrorists in the long run.  As I suggested above, the evidence seems to indicate that drone strikes have been fairly effective at attacking militants hostile to U.S. interests in the short-term. What about in the long run? As the logic goes, drone strikes reduce militant numbers today but create more anti-American militants tomorrow. Given the rise in anti-Americanism since 9/11, the public is likely to be  fairly receptive to this logic (even if they do not care what other countries think of the United States).

Whether this argument holds is unclear. A majority of Pakistani society opposes the drone strikes. However, as Fair and her co-authors suggest, we simply do not know what Pakistanis in the tribal areas, that cradle of terrorism, believe. Some evidence suggests that Pakistanis might support drones since there is little to no actual law enforcement in the area. It might also be the case that Pakistanis in these areas might simply not be aware of the origins or nature of the strikes on the militants. I am not expert on Pakistani (or Yemeni) society and, as such, do not want to make assumptions about something of which I know little. However, it does seems like using drones so heavily in Pakistan (and Yemen) commits exactly this type of error. Why continue a policy–and to such a large degree–the consequences of which are so poorly understood?

Concerns about the long-term implications of drones will remain as long as this uncertainty lingers. Policymakers have political and electoral incentives to make short-term policy decisions, with less consideration for the long-term implications of their policies. If public opposition rises in spite of the apparent short-term effectiveness due to the perceived dangers of continuing the policy in the long run, then it is likely that the majority of policymakers, including the President, will reverse course. Unless the happens, however, it seems unlikely that we will see an end to drones any time soon. If President Obama’s speech is any indication, it is far more likely that drones will be coupled with more active, non-military engagement abroad:

I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy — because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.  We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism — from North Africa to South Asia.  As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking.  We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred.  Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better.  But our security and our values demand that we make the effort.

This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya — because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists.  We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements — because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism.  We are actively working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians — because it is right and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region.  And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship — because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with people’s hopes, and not simply their fears.

For more of his thoughts on drones, follow William on Twitter

The Best Piece on Academia and BDSM You Will Read Today

Camille Paglia has a very good review of recent academic works on BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism). I actually don’t care that much about the topic (this is an artist rendering of me). But I think it’s actually a very good critique of the excesses of ethnography and academic work’s tendency to drift into recursive self-reference rather than focusing on describing and understanding the phenomenon of interest. Three of my favorite quotes:

Weiss does not trust her own fascinating material to generate ideas. She detours so often into nervous quotation of fashionable academics that she short-shrifts her 61 interview subjects, who are barely glimpsed except in a list at the back.

All three books under review betray a dismaying lack of general cultural knowledge…. Today’s formalized scenarios of bondage and sadomasochism belong to a tradition, but poststructuralism, with its compulsive fragmentations and dematerializations, is incapable of recognizing cultural transmission over time.

[T]he most shocking omission of them all… [is] Robert Mapplethorpe, whose luminous homoerotic photos of the sadomasochistic underworld sparked a national crisis over arts funding in the 1980s. Yet our three authors and their army of advisers found plenty of time to parse the meanderings of every minor gender theorist who stirred in the past 20 years.

Read the whole thing. (h/t irredenta.)

Cell Phones and Conflict

Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach have a new paper (via the Monkey Cage) arguing that cell phone coverage makes collective action easier, and that includes making political violence easier. Good for them. A post-doc and a PhD candidate in the APSR looking at an interesting problem, relevant to the “Did Twitter cause the Arab Spring” question, and using novel data (particularly novel on the independent variable side and using the up-and-coming UCDP Georeferenced Event Dataset on the dependent variable side). Their study uses data from Africa, but its larger implications seem apparent.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether cell phone coverage makes it more likely that “an event” will be recorded in the dataset, a dataset derived from “print, radio, and television news reports from regional newswires, major and local newspapers, secondary sources, and expert knowledge….” If not, then data is missing in a biased way. The cell phones are not increasing violence through collective action but rather through greater reporting on violence that was happening irrespective of cell phones. Depending on the model specification, cell phones might be associated with a 50% increase in reports of a violent event (involving at least one death), from a baseline of about 1% to 1.5%. (Other models report larger effects.) That bump seems plausible to me from cell phone reporting alone, without any collective action effect. I do not know what the situation is like in Africa, but in India and Pakistan it is routine for political violence in the countryside to be under-reported. I assume the effect is multiplied when it is in the countryside, without cell phone coverage, and one has to walk 4 miles to make a phone call about it.

These researchers are aware of this problem and they try to control for it. You can read their discussion on page 6 (particularly footnote 13) and see if you think they resolve it. Also, they are aware that cell phones cover areas with more people and more people are likely to be associated with more violence. I’m a little more comfortable with their strategy for controlling for population (see page 8), though who knows if population’s effect on violence is linear? The fact that when they conduct a robustness check of using a logarithmic transformation of population it weakens their findings for the effect of cell phone coverage “somewhat” (p. 8, footnote 18) is worrisome to me.

On Kenneth Waltz

Ken Waltz, arguably the most influential scholar in International Relations of the past half-century, passed away last night. He was 88. It is tough to find anything to say that does not sound contrived. Instead, I wanted to share a lasting memory of mine from John Mearsheimer’s seminar on realism at the University of Chicago. We were reading Waltz’s Theory of International Politics and after a couple of hours of discussing the basics most  are familiar with (balancing, the benefits of bipolarity, etc.), we had gotten into some of the more obscure parts of Theory (there is a fascinating discussion of the meaning of power towards the end that is always worth a re-read). At the end of the latter discussion, John admitted that even though he had read the book countless times (and written insightful analyses of the work), the day’s seminar had brought out something new from the book for him. Years later, reading Theory for the nth for my comprehensive exam in IR, I finally understood what John meant. It’s amazing how much insight Waltz packed into one work. Every new reading truly produces something new for the reader. And this is true not only of Theory but also of much of his other work, including Man, the State, and War.

I met Waltz for the first and only time at a small conference at Yale last year. Not only was he incredibly nice to me and my fellow graduate students (always appreciated!) but tremendously incisive and sharp during the substantive portions of the conference. It was difficult not to be star-struck. Rest in peace, Professor Waltz: you will be missed by generations of students of international politics.