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.

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.

Wanted: A Few Good Experts on African ‘Chaos’

Experts on North and West Africa are hard to find. When Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire squared off over the presidency in 2011, for example, the coverage of the conflict was found lacking. Previously in 2005 there was a coup in Mauritania, and I remember being at my old job at the Council on Foreign Relations, scrambling to find a Mauritania expert. Now that Mali has heated up, I did a quick Lexis-Nexis scan of a few bylines who have written recently on the uprising there. Virtually none of them has published a thing on Mali in the past few years, either because of out-to-lunch editors or because their expertise is a chameleon-like thing that gravitates toward conflict (A welcome exception is Mike McGovern, whose work on West Africa is exemplary). Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations even singled out the Sahel as evidence that ungoverned territories do not brew terrorism. Consider this gem from 2010:

For years, observers warned that Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad were gravely at risk. And yet the extreme ideology of al-Qaeda has failed to resonate with the region’s population, most of whom practice a relatively moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Despite weak institutions, vast un-policed territories, and porous frontiers, the region has failed to emerge as “the next Afghanistan.”

Oops (In fairness, Patrick’s overall point is something I largely agree with – that we often overreact to ungoverned spaces). The trouble, as I see it, is that chaos tends to breed not just extremism but also bad commentary – Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy is 224 pages of evidence of this annoying trend. In the early 1990s Richard Holbrooke described the emerging chaos in Somalia as “Vietmalia.” In the 2000s, Niall Ferguson called the chaotic and increasingly symbiotic relationship between Beijing and Washington “Chimerica.” Now we are being told that Mali is descending into what The Economist has termed “Afrighanistan” (Et tu, Economist?)

Notice a pattern? The world’s most prized minds on geopolitics have reduced the world’s problems into poppy headline-friendly phrases that launched a thousand think-tank brownbags. To be sure, the world looks increasingly complex – um, Tourags are whom again? Assyrians are not the same thing as Syrians? – and so these handy phrases can help explain difficult policy conundrums to a lay audience. They also dovetail with a larger trend in our pop culture of slapping two words together – “Ginormous,” “frenemy,” etc. – which is not all that atypical in world history textbooks – after all, “Eurasia” is a real part of the globe.

The trend of slapping two countries’ names together and calling it a clever solution comes from several forces. First, the pressure-cooker environment among experts and authors to coin new phrases, to sell books, and to be invited on the speaking circuit. “Offshore Balancing Against China’s Emergent Regional Hegemony in the South China Sea” is a less sexy title and less likely to get you a TED invitation than calling the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia our “Japanamericapinestralia”. Our Americas policy increasingly resembles a case of “Cubexazuela” (our primary interests are Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela). Trans-Atlantic relations can best be defined as Frermanitain (the club of France, Germany and Great Britain). And our approach toward Africa resembles a “Malgerisomaliopiabokoharamakenyongod’ivoire.” (I know it rolls off the tongue.)

Such neologisms are distracting and dumb down the debate of such areas of the world. Not only are they distortion of the reality on the ground, but they insult our intelligence by oversimplifying complex events. Which may explain why they are met with scorn generally from insiders (see “AfPak,” which was not only confusing but also probably should have been inverted), and even full-fledged rejection by the authors themselves (Ferguson even distanced himself a few years later from his “Chimerica” phrase and predicted an “amicable divorce” between China and America). The trend shows the utter lack of imagination among practitioners and academics in the field. There hasn’t been a good catchy “End of History” or “Clash of Civilizations” phrase to define our current era. So foreign policy wonks throw everything they can up against a wall and see what sticks. Hence, Afrighanistan.

I shutter to think what will happen the next time a civil war pops up in some forgotten corner of the globe. Expect more lazy comparisons to Afghanistan.