Is Syria’s Civil War A Result of Too Little ‘Bandwidth’ in Washington?

A commonly heard refrain about why the Obama administration has not done X or Y in [insert global troublespot name here] is that there is just not enough bandwidth. Richard Haass, discussing how Iraq distracted us from other more pressing priorities with Diane Rehm, said, “Presidents only have so much bandwidth.” 

The administration’s mouthpieces are also fond of the web 2.0 metaphors in discussing U.S. relations with the world. Benjamin Rhodes on Africa: “[There’s bandwidth in] the relationship for a lot of cooperation, even when we have difference, and even within the Syria issue, there’s that bandwidth. And that’s the message that the leaders wanted to send.” Even Obama himself has employed the notion of freeing up “national-security bandwidth.”
Huh? I understand that there are only so many hours in the day. Bandwidth is treated by its users as a finite and depletable resource, like political capital or canola oil, that should be used prudently. But part of me feels this “bandwidth” metaphor is a cop-out. When are presidents’ in-boxes ever empty? Juggling the breakup of the USSR, Tiananmen Square massacres, South Africa overturning apartheid, an invasion of Iraq, a follow-up no-fly zone in that country’s north, and an economy crumbling around him, George Bush Sr. still found time to send U.S. forces into Somalia to save lives in a place barely anybody at the time had heard of and which was of zero strategic interest.
All of which is to ask: Have scholars ever tried to code “bandwidth” in any systematic fashion? In other words, is it possible to examine the number of other pressing issues (e.g. immigration reform, healthcare, SARS outbreak, etc.) an administration is juggling at the same time? If there are more than, say, a dozen, that might cause the system to short-circuit and lead to paralysis. Do we intervene less overseas or lean more isolationist when bandwidth is low? Discuss.

What We’re Reading

Who is protesting in Brazil?

The current developments in Brazil have caught all by surprise. Yearly increases in bus fares, notoriously bad public transportation, inflation and slow economic growth (weirdly combined with low unemployment rates) have been looming for some time now. The Free Fare Movement (MPL) has been actively voicing its demands for better public transportation since at least 2006 and other similar organizations and movements have also been mobilizing for better public services. In this context, therefore, it would not be accurate to state that the “the Giant is awake” on the streets (“o Gigante acordou”). Yet, it would also be cynical to say that the current mobilization is not unprecedented – at least since redemocratization.

The nature of the unfolding events, affected by almost daily incidents and bipolar swings in public opinion and in an editorialized media, makes it hard for most of us to answer simple questions: Who are these protesters? What do they want? Social media outlets, in particular Facebook, have been primary sources of information for protesters over the past few weeks. However, social media also works to bias our opinions on the basis of our own personal experiences and social groups: after all, birds of a feather tend to flock together, as research on social network has shown (McPherson, et. al, 2001).  In summary, it has been difficult to see the forest for the trees.

On Sunday, June 23rd, Ibope, a well-know survey company in Brazil, released the first (to my knowledge) systematic collection of data on the characteristics of the protesters. This data is illuminating and, importantly, allows us to answer further questions: how different are these protesters from the “average” Brazilian? Are these protesters different than those individuals who usually engage in politics?

The plots below show a comparison of the demographic profile of protesters and the broader Brazilian population. Protesters are much younger, and, as expected, students are over-represented compared to the population. Also, those who mobilize are clearly better off compared to the rest of the population: the discrepancies between income and education distributions of the protesters and the population are remarkable. For instance, about 10% of the population has a higher education degree, whereas about 43% of the protesters have at least a college degree.

age education



These differences might be due in part to the sampling process: Ibope surveyed protesters on Thursday, June 20th, a point at which the protests had already started to encompass a wider swath of society, distinct from the left-leaning individuals that mobilized early (who would be, presumably, less well-off than the protesters on June 20th).

There are other possible explanations: it is not uncommon for those who engage in political activity, in particular mass-based political action, to be better off than those who do not. This hypothesis has taken many shapes and forms and it is commonly referred to in political science literature as the socioeconomic status (SES) model and there has been systematic evidence supporting it in various places, including Brazil (Verba, 1995; Norris, 2002; Reis, 2000).  This model is known for not taking into account variation in mobilization over time, events that trigger mobilization, and the power of organizations, which are patently important in times of nation-wide mobilizations, but, despite all these pitfalls, it is interesting to see the predictions made by the SES model supported by these simple analyses.

However, support for this stripped-down version of SES model receives only very modest support even if one turns a blind eye to all methodological issues underlying this quick-and-dirty analysis of the Ibope data. According to the SES model, individual who engage in political activity also tend to be more active in “non-political” organizations. This does not seem to be the case among the protesters surveyed on June 20th in 7 cities in Brazil – they are no more likely to be engaged in non-political associations.

Rather, it was found that protesters are less likely to identify with a political party and less likely to be affiliated with a political party than the population overall. This is not surprising given the likely effect of social desirability bias when answering these questions in protests that block streets to make their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs heard – whatever this dissatisfaction means in more specific terms is still to be determined.

union party

In summary, students and young people do seem be the largest groups out on the streets, and those who are mobilizing have attended school for longer, and have higher incomes than most of the population. Also, they seem to feel less represented by a political party than most of the population – even though this is a tough comparison given the unstable nature of party “sympathy” in times like these.  Despite this interesting protester profile, however, we still do not have answers to all of our questions.

Are these protesters very different from the early joiners whose protests mostly focused on reducing bus fares? It is hard to say, even though the type of demand and the way in which they mobilized (mostly through civil society organizations) seems to indicate as much.

Protests continue to shake the country: mayors from all over the country have backed down on the increase of bus fares and are starting to rethink their public transportation contracts and policies, governors have started to become less supportive of police repression (at least publically), the federal government is starting to play a more active role in pushing laws and reforms, and the Congress is rushing to discuss and vote on some of the issues raised by protesters (such as committing all oil royalties to spending on education and health and repelling a controversial constitutional amendment on the investigative powers of the Public Ministry). Protesters are still shaking the trees, but the characteristics of the protesters will help determine on which side the fruit will fall.

[I used data from PNAD 2011 to make the plots about the demographic characteristics of the Brazilian population and I used the population from the states in which Ibope surveyed protesters. For the plots about questions on representation and population, I used data from ESEB 2010. Both of these datasets can be found in Centro de Estudos da Metrópole and Consórcio de Informações Sociais.]

Exploring Patterns of Human Rights Funding

Who are the main donors for the global human rights movement? What kind of causes is this funding devoted to? Does the allocated funding reflect the salience of various human rights causes? The Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group recently released a report Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking, outlining quantitative data about the scale of response to human rights violations. The reports finds that $1.2 billion in grants were given out for various human rights causes in 2010, with the following organizations being the main donors for human rights causes worldwide.


fundingareaThough this report is a good start for analyzing global funding patterns for human rights, a caveat is in order. First, the methodology followed to produce this report reflects a bias in favor of US and European donors because of the relatively easy accessibility of grants data for organizations based in these regions. More precisely, the report looks at funding practices of donors affiliated with the Foundation Center, Ariadne/European Human Rights Funders Network and the International Network of Women’s Funds. A number of organizations across Asia and Africa may not be affiliated with these centers, leading to their absence from the report.

Nevertheless, since most of the biggest donors are American and European and are accounted for in this report, this data helps us identify issues where the scope of the problem may not align with the scale of the response.  For instance, there is a startlingly low amount of funding given to address gender-based violence, with only $5.3 million directed to the issue of domestic violence and another $8.6 million to the issue of gender or identity-based violence in 2010. Combined, these account for only about 1 percent of all of the $1.2 billion in grants included in the study. However, non-alignment between the scope of the problem and scale of the funding is more than just an issue of donor preferences. In many countries such as Egypt, India and Russia, foreign donors are often regarded with suspicion, preventing the channeling of funds to donors’ intended targets. A next step thus should be to look at indigenous philanthropy, how its volume varies across regions due to intimidation from domestic authorities, and whether funding from local sources can increase the legitimacy of particular agendas and strategies.

For more on funding patterns of human rights debates, stay tuned for the debate on Open Global Rights over at OpenDemocracy.

Snowden and Rawls

Edward Snowden continues his journey down the Freedom House ladder. He left the United States (56 on on Freedom House’s 60-point civil liberties scale) for Hong Kong (51) then on to Moscow (19). In the last 24 hours, rumors have had him going to Venezuela (24) or Cuba (10), though the present top contendor is Ecuador (36), a middling protector of civil liberties. If he does make it eventually to Uruguay (58) or Iceland (60), then his earlier talk of Hong Kong’s  “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” will seem less instrumental than it currently appears. 

Setting aside Snowden’s current excursions along the despotism trail, I wanted to reflect briefly on whether it is possible to think through the ethical obligations of being a whistleblower. We live in a democratic society where we have decided to allow our representative institutions to make certain decisions on our behalf. Those institutions have decided certain aspects of governmental functioning can be secret. Secrecy is inherently in tension with representative government because the content of the secrets might inform the representation we choose. Recognizing that there is a tension, however, does not allow us to relieve that tension through unlimited whistleblowing.

The U.S. system has accommodated whistleblowing by accepting two channels in addition to the formal chain of command: the inspector generals at various executive departments and the U.S. Congress. All indications are that the Select Committees on Intelligence in both the House and the Senate were informed of the program, though Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s statements in unclassified sessions are understandably worrisome. In a March hearing of the Senate Intelligence committee, Clapper responded to Sen. Wyden’s question of whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” by saying “no” and then adding “not wittingly.” Clapper has subsequently clarified his answer as the “most truthful” or “least untruthful” answer possible. All indications suggest that Wyden had been informed of the scope of the program in classified briefings, even if Clapper’s response in the March unclassified session is dubious.

The fact that two Senators—Udall and Wyden—were concerned about the program is not proof that the program should have been unclassified or eliminated. Wyden and Udall had both appropriations and legislative mechanisms they could have availed themselves of if they wanted to force greater disclosure of executive activity or restrict it, and if they were able to convince their colleagues of the validity of their concerns. They were unable to do so.

In addition to legislative oversight and inspector generals within the executive, there is an additional check on classified activities in this area: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which provides legal authorization for certain types of intelligence gathering activities, and was created by the eponymous Act. The consensus view in the media about the FISA court suggests it is an inadequate oversight body, largely because it rejects very, very few requests. I say suggests because there may be an important selection bias if reports are true that the FISA court often asks the government to modify or withdraw unsatisfactory requests. We do not have data on modification or withdrawals of FISA warrants, and if the FISA court routinely informs executive officials that a warrant will not be viewed favorably, it would be no surprise if the formal rejections are scant.

But, let’s imagine that one buys the argument that U.S. inspector generals, and the U.S. Congress, and the FISA court are all insufficient checks on the executive. Is there a right to whistleblowing other than through the channels established by law? I’m not certain. But to the extent that there is, it seems as if it must occur after established channels have been attempted. Why? I think whistleblowing only makes sense morally if is viewed as a type of civil disobedience.

I’m not a political theorist, so I go back to major works when I’m trying to think through something. And John Rawls has a long section on civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice. Rawls frames the issue: “At what point does the duty to comply with laws enacted by a legislative majority (or with executive acts supported by such a majority) cease to be binding in view of the right to defend one’s liberties and the duties to oppose injustice.” He defines civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.”

So, sounds like whistleblowing. But are they the same? And does Snowden meet the definition? Rawls lays out several requirements, but two are especially germane to the Snowden case. The first is “that normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith and that they have failed. The legal means of redress have proved of no avail.” It’s unclear in Rawls whether this is an individual or general requirement. Could Snowden, perhaps seeing the Wyden-Clapper interaction, determine normal appeals have failed, even if Snowden himself never pursued “the legal means of redress”? I’m dubious that Snowden met this requirement, but I can at least see what the argument on the other side looks like.

The other requirement is civility, met through publicity and nonviolence. Rawls is reasonably explicit on these requirements, and he goes further: civil disobedience expresses “disobedience to the law within the limits of fidelity to the law, although it is at the outer edge thereof. The law is broken, but fidelity to the law is expressed by the public and nonviolent nature of the act, by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of the act.” (Emphasis added.) Rawls goes on at some length, but the basic mechanism he outlines is that by accepting the legal consequences, it forces society to reflect on the rules it has enacted. If the society, even upon the reflection engendered by the act of civil disobedience, proceeds with the punishment, this suggests the convictions of the political community differed from the dissident, which happens in democratic countries. In Rawls’s words: “We must pay a certain price to convince others that our actions have, in our carefully considered view, a sufficient moral basis in the political convictions of the community.” Otherwise, individual’s nullification of rules they deemed unjust would lead to considerable social instability, even in a “nearly just” society. We would permit an individual to arrogate to himself governing authorities that were not vested in him.

I find exile, Snowden’s apparent choice, to be insufficiently similar to the requirement of acceptance of legal consequences, and hence the act is not civil disobedience by definition. It does not meet Rawls’s requirements of publicity, since it was only public after Snowden had escaped legal consequences. Even if I were to view Snowden’s actions as civil disobedience, it is still possible for me to view it as something that deserves punishment. By accepting punishment, the civil disobedient only forces us to face society’s rules squarely. The civil disobedient is not always right and so hence the civil disobedient should not always go unpunished. 

I do think this opens up interesting questions of whether an individual can ethically “shoot and scoot,” via civil disobedience followed by pursuit of political asylum elsewhere. By no means would these requirements prohibit asylum more generally. Snowden could have sought political asylum if he would have been badly treated in the United States for his political opinions. This is not what occurred. Snowden poor treatment  is a result of his violation of a non-disclosure agreement. His political opinions could have been expressed vocally without consequences, as is evidenced by his contributions to the 2012 Ron Paul campaign.

At the outset, I said secrecy is special because it is in tension with representative institutions. But it is special in another way, that complicates the acceptability of civil disobedience in such cases. Secrets once revealed cannot be un-revealed. They are forever public in a society free of censorship. I am troubled by this lack of reversibility. A “sit-in” or an unauthorized protest march does not permanently alter a social situation in ways that unified social action cannot fairly quickly repair. An individual that leaks state secrets—particularly in large quantity—might do lasting damage, something I think insufficiently considered in Rawls’s treatment several decades ago.

What We’re Reading

We’re One Year Old!

A little over a year ago, on June 16th, 2012, we created The Smoke-Filled Room, a graduate student political science blog. We hoped to give graduate students a voice on the internet, a chance to express our thoughts on politics and to put to practical use what we were learning in the classroom. We learned very quickly that maintaining an active blog wasn’t easy, but were helped in the task by an excellent group of political science PhD students from around the country. We were flattered to be selected as one of the finalists in The Duck of Minerva’s annual blogging awards, in the Most Promising New Blog category (we’ll get you next year, Political Violence @ a Glance). We look forward to another exciting year of blogging and hope you’ll keep reading.