Archive for the ‘Objectivity’ Category
Iraq, whether justified or not, is only the latest in a long line of ill-considered and ill-planned U.S. military adventures. Time and again in recent decades the United States has made military commitments after little real debate, with hazy goals and no appetite for the inevitable setbacks… Too often our leaders have entered wars with unclear and unfixed aims, tossing away American lives, power and credibility before figuring out what they were doing and what could be done…. It would restore the Framers’ intent by requiring a congressional declaration of war in advance of any commitment of troops that promises sustained combat.
If we get a resolution, we should work with the Arab League to assemble an international coalition to impose the no-flight zone. If the Security Council fails to act, then we should recognize the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate government, as France has done, and work with the Arab League to give the council any assistance it requests. Any use of force must be carefully and fully debated, but that debate has now been had. It’s been raging for a week, during which almost every Arab country has come on board calling for a no-flight zone and Colonel Qaddafi continues to gain ground. It is time to act.
Needless to say, Ms. Slaughter did not fulfill her own minimum standards for sending U.S. troops into combat—including mentioning Congressional approval even once. So, the big question for a scholar and practitioner of such stature is: what the hell happened to all of her principles?
In January, I had a brief—and very enlighteningᾹexchange with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross about “jihadi ideology” and what it means, and how we analyze it, and so on.
Something leapt out at me, namely how we “measure” the ways in which people can become radicalized. I understand there is some psychological process, and it’s related to social and physical environment, and so on. But when we look back on someone who’s been arrested, or who just committed (or tried to commit) some heinous act like blowing up an air plane, we usually cannot point the exact moment where that person changed from “normal” to “radicalized.” It’s like describing someone as rich, or some visual work as pornography: you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it, and there are extremes at which you can meaningfully distinguish the two.
The difficulty in pointing to the exact process and stepping stones toward radicalization is, of course, very important for Central Asia. Even ignoring the whole Afghanistan thing (something I wish I could do, given my mental exhaustion on the topic, but which I apparently cannot given my continuing obsession about the war), we’re left with two broad genres of “Jihad in Central Asia”: the Uzbeks Are Scary school, and the Central Asians Will Radicalize & Destroy Us All movement. There is, of course, overlap between the two.
But what strikes me is how, in general, the sourcingᾹthe evidence—for arguing the presence or increase or danger posed by radicalization is incredibly difficult to come by. You can discuss speeches and Mosque sermons, for however influential they may be. You can talk about things on the internet, though we don’t know what role they really play in radicalizing people. We can even, if we’re lucky enough to have keen investigators, discuss communications between the target of radicalization and the radicalizer, though this, too, falls into the trap of maybe meaning nothing.
At the end of the day, people talk, they brag, and they bluster. In my personal life, I know I do—I think most people do, it’s normal. But when it comes to Islam, we seem to have a difficult time distinguishing between bluster and explicit plans for action. Not an impossible time, mind you, but a difficult one.
Which brings me to this post by our friends at neweurasia.net about Islamists in Turkmenistan. Try as I might, their argument amounts to “some guys on the internet talk about stuff.” The evidence for this actually being an Islamist Movement, like Hizb-ut Tahrir actually setting up shop and working a branch in Ashgabat or something, is really thin.
None of that means that there is no Islamist movement in Turkmenistan. But before we fly off talking about conspiracies within conspiracies, I think we owe it to ourselves to be very explicit about what we’re seeing, and not seeing, and fairly analyzing.
I have a new article up at PBS Need to Know, discussing how we can really know what’s going on in Marjah, Helmand:
ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.
In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes. But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.
That’s really the gist of it. In brief, public data say one thing, while officials say another. How do you de-conflict them? I don’t have a meaningful answer to that just yet. But what we do need is a consensus about what deserves measurement, what the changes in those measurements mean, and what our reactions to those changes will be. That has never taken place in Afghanistan, and I suspect that is why our policy remains the same regardless of what specific bits of news emerge from the war.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when analyzing political events. In the Middle East, it’s been clear that the utopian statements of many of the reporters covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are based more on the euphoria of watching dramatic history unfold in real time than any sober consideration of the consequences these uprisings will have.
In Tunisia, the uprising happened in a dramatic, and tragic way. After his vegetable cart was stolen by a policewoman Last December, Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to get help or even recognition of his plight from the authorities, doused himself with petrol and lit himself on fire (he died January 4). The shocking suicide attempt sent ripples through Tunisian society, and his cause became a rallying cry for a series of protests that led, later in January, to the sudden resignation of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. It was a delirious moment, the first time in decades that a massive protest led to the downfall of an Arab autocrat. Now, so the conventional wisdom went, Tunisia can have freedom and democracy.
If only Tunisians felt the same optimism. The revolt and soft coup has led to a wave of emigration. The flood of refugees into Italy, for example, is so great it’s sparking a mini-crisis with the EU. The tourism industry, which is a major contributor to Tunisia’s economy, has been at a standstill for months. Even more importantly, they still don’t have a government, and people remain unsure of how to proceed with crafting a future for themselves.
Egypt faces a similar dilemma: yes, it was exhilarating to watch teeming crowds of people eventually force Hosni Mubarak to resign the presidency in some way. Yet all the protests have done so far is to replace a hated tyrant with a small cabal of Army officers. Rather than proceeding immediately to democracy, the military is instead threatening the protesters in an effort to dissolve the mass movement. As the protests change from anti-Mubarak to anti-military, it is not at all clear that Egypt will see a happy end to its revolt.
Both outcomes could have been foreseen (and were by the more cynical among us). Leaderless movements can be effective means of bringing down governments, but they are terrible at creating replacement governments—to do that requires leadership, coherent ideas (and even ideology, though not necessarily), and a plan for transitioning society from now to the future. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia have that in any great abundance.
So what about Yemen? There the situation has been different from Egypt and Tunisia: by and large, the protests have been carefully planned and proceeded relatively peacefully. One observer wryly noted after witnessing the protests, “By 3pm, traditionally Qat chewing time in Yemen, everyone had packed up and gone home.”
The main reason the protests have proceeded as they have in Yemen is because the opposition movement, while fractured and beset with in-fighting over specific issues, is still relatively organized. They have limited goals for their large protests (a reform of electoral laws allowing them a fair chance in the next election is at the top of their list), and adhere, with very few exceptions, to non-violence. This week, a smaller crowd of young protestersᾹthe New York Times says hundreds while the BBC says a thousand while the AFP says three thousand—marched at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, angrily demanding the ouster of President Saleh. They were beaten back with sticks and rocks, and there are rumors that several were beaten with batons and arrested.
Still, this is far less violence, on a far smaller scale, than either Tunisia or Egypt saw (in both of those countries, hundreds of protesters have been killed by the government). And just as importantly, the major opposition groups have not participated in these smaller, more militant protests. They are not, in other words, in the mainstream of Yemen’s opposition movement.
This is important when pondering the importance of these protests to Yemen’s political environment. In the United States and Britain, protests of under a thousand people are so common as to be not worth reporting in any real sense—even when the demands are crazy, and the crowds far larger, there’s no speculation about the “stability” of the government or its ability to remain in control of itself. Yet, in Yemen, when vanishingly small numbers of people try to make a statement and get beaten back, it’s reported as if it’s on par with the millions of people who camped in the streets of Cairo for over two weeks to force out their dictator.
It is truly exciting to see people take to the streets in protest. In fact, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the emotions of the movement, even if you don’t really have a stake in them. But this tendency, which happens even among the very educated, of assigning huge importance to very small, routine events like a few hundred people at a protest march in Yemen, can obscure our ability to think clearly about these sorts of events. We can do with a little more sobriety.