Jan 25

With all my writing on emotions, gratitude theory and cultural understanding, I suppose I have been unclear about my thoughts on counter-insurgency. Here is all you need to know to beat an insurgency:

Don’t kill civilians. Killing civilians is the worst thing that can happen in an irregular war.

First, let’s tackle the counters to this thesis. The first comes from the “war-is-war”-iors who say, “when we go to war, we go to win and that means defeating the enemy’s will. If the population supports the enemy, than they are the enemy.” Rarely does a “war-is-war”-ior make this full statement. Instead, they generally let the second part fall as an unstated assumption. So they either actively support targeting civilians--any blog/forum that advocates nuking or carpet bombing Afghanistan falls in this category--or just don’t sympathize with a people who let “terrorists live within their ranks.” Wayne Resnick summed this up on a syndicated radio program last September, which we wrote about here.

The second counter is much more common and widespread, though equally damaging to a counter-insurgent, “Well, in war, civilians can expect to pay the price.” In other words, once a war starts, the military/invading army can’t be expected to keep civilians alive. This is more a resigned neglect; the “s*** happens” excuse if you will. I have seen this in two different comment threads, and this Lew Rockwell article describes people with this sentiment.
(The middle ground is: if you don’t want to be killed in a war, you shouldn’t allow insurgencies to happen in your country. This is vaguely the “you are with us or against, you’re either with those who love freedom, or those who hate innocent life.)

As I have written before, I completely disagree. As a counter-insurgent, or “foreign internal defender”, the U.S. military is naturally perceived as an outsider. Killing innocents, or perceived innocents, will only set back our efforts. There is a fine line between killing the bad guys to encourage them to switch sides, and killing innocents which discourages anyone from supporting the government. (More on this in our next round on “Gratitude Theory” and emotions in warfare.)

So, from the tactical perspective, killing civilians hinders the counter-insurgent. (I know that I ignored the ethics of killing civilians. As a “just war”-ior, I hold protecting non-combatants as the highest ideal. I just think I can make my argument in this case without resorting to ethics.)

As such, here are my recommendations to help our Army (and Marine Corps) wage counter-insurgencies better. They all center around the idea I put forward on Monday: the more accurate our forces are during offensive operations (“targeting”), the more likely they are to win.

1. Change the metrics to value accuracy, not totals. The most important number for a battalion should not be number of enemies killed or detained, but the accuracy of those targeting efforts. For instance, the JSOC “kill-capture” program often releases detainees within weeks of their initial detention. Senior commanders emphasize the total number of enemy captured, when they should measure the accuracy of our detentions and lethal operations. This report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network shows how commanders emphasize initial captures, and neglect to mention how many detainees get released.

2. Encourage the intelligence community to study law enforcement techniques. Studying law enforcement and the thoroughness they (mostly) use to put together cases should encourage intelligence professionals to do the same.

3. Start the position of “Devil’s Advocate”. I wrote about this when I explained “Why Intel Goes Bad: The Devil’s Advocate”. The military is a top-down organization, and a lot of commanders don’t want their opinions second-guessed. They should. An official “devil’s advocate” would help.

4. Vet potential targets with more than one source of intelligence. I’ll use The Wire, the best open source example of this. (I would use examples from my intelligence work in Iraq or infantry time in Afghanistan, but that comes dangerously close to revealing classified information.) On the show, the detectives used signal intelligence (the wire tap), human intelligence (confidential informants) and imagery intelligence (pictures from roof tops) to take down the biggest drug dealer in B-Mo. Way too many targeting efforts simply rely on a single source of intel to launch a mission in Afghanistan and Iraq (during the war). Of course, we are only as good as the intelligence we collect which leads to...

5. Get rid of all the analysts at higher headquarters. Every counter-insurgency guide says that higher headquarters should shrink in favor of bolstering lower headquarters. The U.S. military took a middle ground: it made headquarters bigger everywhere. So the division headquarters had literally hundreds of military intelligence analysts and intelligence contractors. JSOC--according to Top Secret America--runs a brigade-sized intelligence staff of 3,000 people. The battalions got some more, but still had less than ten people in an S2 shop. Yet, the battalions often produced better intelligence products for a variety of reasons, including location and ability to patrol. My advice is simple: get rid of gigantic division and corps staffs.

These ideas aren’t terribly original, and plenty of units do some or all of them as it is, but not all do, especially the more “special” people. Further, these ideas need to be enshrined in whatever doctrine emerges in the post FM 3-24 world. Like many things, I’m not optimistic.

Jan 23

(To read the entire “Intelligence is Evidence” series, click here.)

Last year, I devoted an entire month to the idea that “Intelligence is Evidence.” On the face of it, that statement seems like an “entirely uncontroversial banality”, as some would say. If it were, though, people probably wouldn’t screw up intelligence so often.

When people treat intelligence differently than evidence--primarily by relying on much less of it--human tragedies result, as I wrote about in Exhibits: Terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan. (Mistakes in using evidence lead to other human tragedies, as I wrote about here and here.)

This week, I will finish the series by providing my recommendations for how to use intelligence better. I won’t really fix how we gather or analyze intelligence, but how leaders use intelligence to conduct counter-terrorism operations. Over the next few weeks, my solutions will eventually drift into the topic, “How Michael C would win the so-called ‘long war’”.

In six words, we should value accuracy over action. As a company commander once advised me, counter-terrorists need to develop their “tactical patience”. Intelligence is never perfect, but imperfection shouldn’t excuse sloppy or imprecise action. Targeting fewer terrorists more accurately will ultimately win the “long war”. Killing civilians in Pakistan or Yemen or other countries, detaining the wrong people or supporting the wrong, corrupt regimes will simply prolong the fight to stop extremists. Intelligence is evidence, and we should hold it to that standard.

This simple idea--accuracy over action--applies to every facet counter-terrorism. Tomorrow, I will describe how we can fight counter-insurgencies more effectively by using more precise intelligence. To end this week, I will explain how we can fight the war on terror more effectively, specifically developing a real, and different, “Obama Doctrine”. After a break next week, I will expand on my favorite idea that came from this series--the crux of intelligence is evidence.

Finally, I will explain why none of this will ever happen.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

If you’re a avid media watcher, then two things probably struck you about the Arab Spring. First, Al Jazeera helped the revolutions spread. Second, Twitter.

Yeah, I’m aware that last sentence is a fragment, but it describes the understanding most people have of social media’s new role in the world, which is that we really don’t know what that role is. We saw articles about “Tunisia’s Twitter revolution”, people tweeting from Tahrir square, then a book of tweets from Tahrir square, and even a new study saying that Twitter enabled the revolutions. Twitter, from basically everyone’s perspective, is changing the nature of news, making it faster, quicker and breaking-er.

If you’re a long time reader, you’ve probably read that we don’t like to “chase the news”. The day after Osama bin Laden was killed, we started a series on “Intelligence is Evidence”, and didn’t write in depth about his killing until almost two weeks later. We’ve never written about the death of Kim Jong il, or the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. We love writing about the defense budget, but hardly ever respond to a specific policy decision.
We developed this policy for two reasons. The first is that other people do it better. If you want instant news, go to NPR, CNN or the New York Times. When it comes to rounding up news stories, Starbuck, the SWJ, the EarlyBird or NightWatch do a better job than we can. If you want instant opinion, go to ForeignPolicy.com or our blog roll. When it comes to writing quick, clever and intelligent responses to major events, Andrew Exum, Thomas Ricks, Dan Drezner, etc, can do a way better job than we can. It isn’t our style, nor our forte.

Second, most news can benefit from a “wait and see” attitude, because when breaking news gets it wrong, it gets it really wrong. For example:

- The images of Iraqis pulling down Saddam’s statue seemed at the time an expression of wild support for the U.S. invasion. Later reporting revealed it to be anything but.    

- After Gabrielle Giffords was shot, early reports blamed a disgruntled veteran. Our favorite news/radio/podcast hub/stations (NPR) erroneously claimed Giffords was dead, when she wasn’t.

- The week after Osama bin Laden was killed involved more rampant speculation than any news event ever. Period. The one book written so far has been denounced as “utter fabrication” by the military.

- Initial reports on the Fort Hood shooting identified three coordinated shooters, one of whom was killed himself. It ended up that Major Nadal Hassan acted as a lone gunmen.

We’re excited that social media (might) aid democratic revolutions--hell, even On Violence has a Twitter feed and a Facebook page--but we just don’t see Twitter fundamentally changing good journalism.

The key word being “good”. Long form journalism will, for the foreseeable future, remain the core of good journalism. I’d rather read a 4,000 word New Yorker or Granta article on the events in Egypt or Libya than watch countless hours of cable television. The Frontline episode on Assar Bashad told me more about Syria than countless Google News articles. The Economist briefings on the Arab Spring provided more reflection, commentary and nuance--and better predictions--than instant opinings. In short, longer form articles inform better; instant news provides the instant, but often fails on the news.

Unfortunately, the trend for ever faster news is only picking up steam. The Arab Spring saw the rise of self-described “Twitter journalists” who simply monitored Twitter and re-tweeted everything they could, and called it “new journalism.” CNN is an addicted crack whore who thinks its next fix will be found by airing its viewers’ tweets. And we are in the midst of a presidential election, which means more predictions about the future than are found in the Magic 8 Ball factory.

All we can say is, slow down and wait.

Jan 19

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2010", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Imagine an Army private first class. He’s down on his luck, and, even worse, might have a history of mental illness. He loves his country, but he hates life in the Army. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army gave him a Top Secret security clearance when he joined. So he decides to steal as much digital information from the government’s classified computer systems as possible, just to see if he can. Surreptitiously, he downloads gigabytes of information and stores them at his home.

I said imagine, because my scenario isn’t real. Here is how it finishes:

As misfortune would have it, he’s stationed in South Korea. A Chinese human intelligence collector--read “spy”--spots this private first class, and develops a friendship. He eventually convinces the private--using bribery, intimidation, blackmail and the other tricks of the trade--to hand over the digital information. Unlike Wikileaks, this disclosure includes thousands of Top Secret documents as well.

More importantly, and again unlike Wikileaks, the vast majority of the U.S. government would never find out about this infiltration. Neither would the American public. Unless counter-intelligence agents discovered the theft, and conducted an investigation thorough enough to lead to prosecution, this massive intelligence leak would remain hidden.

As we wrote in our “Most Thought Provoking Event of 2010”, in some ways, Wikileaks did America a favor, because Wikileaks told everyone pretty much what they knew. If a foreign intelligence service had infiltrated our systems, they wouldn’t publicize it. The violated agency wouldn’t either, for fear of embarrassment.

When we wrote about Wikileaks last year, I told almost the exact story from above, but by asking rhetorical questions. I called it my view as a Military Intelligence Officer and I said I believe the U.S. intelligence community didn’t learn anything from Wikileaks. So, here is an update to my thoughts on Wikileaks, again from several perspectives.

Historian - Useful. Since the initial batch of Wikileaks, a group of newspapers published a series of in-depth studies on the detainees at Guantanamo. Those reports showed how little intelligence was used to hold detainees. We used it as the basis for this post.

Former Military Intelligence Officer - Still terrified. None of the problems that enabled the first Wikileaks to occur have been solved. As an intelligence officer, I was trained to try to think like the enemy. If I am thinking like a Chinese or Israeli or Russian intelligence officer, I would be thinking, “How can we do Wikileaks again?” (60 Minutes had an article a few years back on the Chinese doing this exact thing. )

Libertarian - More disappointment. Legislation to protect whistle blowers has repeatedly failed to pass congress, and the Obama administration ultimately pursued a fruitless investigation against Thomas Drake. President Obama promised more transparency, and less classification, but unfortunately the bureaucracies have slowed that implementation way down.

Military Officer - I did get out. Wikileaks didn’t cause this, but the general system did. The failure to hold senior leaders responsible tells me that the Pentagon and the Army love to preach a system of leadership about values and holding people responsible, then fails to ever do so with its general officers. I cannot think of a single officer relieved because of Wikileaks. If Wikileaks was the unimaginable tragedy the Pentagon described it as, why is a single private first class the only one held responsible? Where is the accountability that is stressed to junior officers that we are “responsible for everything our unit does or fails to do”?

Wikileaks should have been a watershed moment for intelligence professionals. The community should have embraced disclosure over secrecy--the less secrets one holds, the easier to protect them.

Jan 17

With all our talk last week of the Arab Spring, and all our talk six months ago about Greg Mortenson, we ignored the single biggest news story in the blurry world of national security/foreign affairs: the Osama bin Laden raid. In levels of volume, it was one of the most covered story of 2011; in terms of global importance, it was probably tied with the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, we don’t really care about tactics, secret helicopters, or “special” operations, so it didn’t qualify as our most thought provoking event of the year.

The most interesting aspect, in our opinions, was that we heard about the raid at all.


Yes, we heard all about the raid, from secret helicopters, to computer simulations of the raid, and a detailed article in the New Yorker describing the CIA techniques used to build the case. All four networks, every newspaper and most blogs, reacted to the killing--we did here and here--but most news networks quickly wanted to answer the question, “How did this go down?” As a result, the American public heard all about the bin Laden raid, including dozens of secrets and top secrets. Apparently those leaks weren’t vital to national security.

Double huh?

Last year, I argued that the problem with secrecy isn’t that secrets get out. The problem is that secrets that make an Administration/Department/Agency/Government/Corporation look bad don’t get out. This isn’t part of some “vast government conspiracy”; it is just how organizations act. Chris Matthews on Meet The Press back in November said this about Herman Cain, “I have a basic rule about politics. If it's better than it looks, they'll tell you. And if it's worse than it looks, they won't.” Organizations, like people, publicize their successes and ignore/hide their failures.

Unfortunately, that’s not why we have classification. The government classifies information because the release of said information would cause “grave harm to the national security interests” of the country. Therefore, corruption, poor performance, or in general “bad news” doesn’t warrant classification unless its release would damage our national security. Anything classified secret must remain secret or top secret until it is clearly vetted through the declassification process. Even good news.

Yet, within hours of the Osama bin Laden raid, apparently anyone who knew anything was telling any reporter who would listen. Despite years of stone walling for the slightest insight into how JSOC conducts kill-capture raids in Iraq and Afghanistan--especially by FRONTLINE and the Afghanistan Analyst’s Network about civilian casualties--within days the media started publishing in-depth articles singing the praises of JSOC, the CIA and the administration’s bold action.

To riff on a quote behaving well, all classified documents are secret, but some are more secret than others. In this case, the extreme good news events--like the killings of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al Allaki or any “number three” in Al Qaeda--get press releases; same with in depth pieces that make the CIA or Pentagon look good, like this one. Misfires don’t. Trying to find out about bad news primarily means running into a brick wall of FOIA requests and blacked out text.

Which brings us back to what we said about Wikileaks last year. This is about hypocrisy. The leaks after the Osama bin Laden raid even got under the skin of Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen. Yet, though investigations could have easily revealed who talked to reporters, no officials went to prison. It’s unclear if anyone launched a single investigation concerning those leaks.

To be clear, I am not condoning what Private First Class Bradley Manning allegedly did. If the facts support the government’s assertions--that he downloaded classified materials to non-classified systems and delivered those knowingly to people without clearance--then he should go to jail for the amount of time specified by federal law. That is the agreement you accept when you get a security clearance, and it is the law.

On the other, darker side, if an administration official told a reporter what happened in the raid--in other words, delivered classified materials knowingly to people without clearances--then that official broke the same law as Pfc. Bradley Manning allegedly did. Secrets--be they one secret or thousands--are still protected by the same standard. Either the government prosecutes people who willfully release government secrets--as they did to Bradley Manning and the Bush administration did before the war in Iraq--or it shouldn’t prosecute anyone.

Anything else is hypocrisy.

Jan 12

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

“If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing.”

This line comes from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Answer: thee), an underrated, under studied novel about a group of insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. (Yes, it is about insurgents and their mindset, based on Hemingway’s real life war experience in Spain, but how many soldiers or marines have read it?)

As the line above reveals, the Spanish Civil War started as a revolution. As we said two days ago, revolutions are violent. Revolutions often can be war at its worst.

Pablo--fighting for the republicans; ironically, the anti-loyalist/fascist, pro-communist side--leads a coup against the fascists in his town. In the morning, the revolutionaries blow up the local garrison and kill the soldiers inside.

This scene takes place in the town square, which abuts a cliff with a 300 foot drop into a river, where Pablo prepares the the people of the town to kill the fascists. With the entire town gathered around, Pablo holds his fascists prisoners in their club, called the “Ayuntamiento”.

“He [Pablo] placed them in two lines as you would place men for a rope pulling contest, or as they stand in a city to watch the ending of a bicycle road race with just room for the cyclists to pass between, or as men stood to allow the passage of a holy image in a procession. Two meters was left between the lines and they extended from the door of the Ayuntamiento clear across the plaza to the edge of the cliff. So that, from the doorway of the Ayuntamiento, looking across the plaza, one coming out would see two solid lines of people waiting...

“They were armed with flails such as are used to beat out the grain and they were a good flail’s length apart. All did not have flails, as enough flails could not be obtained. But most had flails obtained from the store of Don Guillermo Martin, who was a fascist and sold all sorts of agricultural implements. And those who did not have flails had heavy herdsman’s clubs, or ox-goads, and some had wooden pitchforks; those with wooden tines that are used to fork the chaff and straw into the air after the flailing. Some had sickles and reaping hooks but these Pablo placed at the far end where the lines reached the edge of the cliff...”

After much time, the first victim emerges from the Ayuntamiento. The crowd of revolutionaries does not yet have the stomach for violence.

“‘Here comes the first one,’ and it was Don Benito Garcia, the Mayor, and he came our bareheaded walking slowly from the door and down the porch and nothing happened; and he walked between the line of men with the flails and nothing happened. He passed two men, four men, eight men, ten men and nothing happened and he was walking between that line of men, his head up, his fat face gray, his eyes looking ahead and then flicking from side to side steadily. And nothing happened.

“From a balcony some one cried out, ‘Que pasa, cobardes? What is the matter cowards?’ and still Don Benito walked along between the men and nothing happened. Then I saw a man three men down from where I was standing and his face was working and he was biting his lips and his hands were white on his flail. I saw him looking toward Don Benito, watching him come on. And still nothing happened. Then, just before Don Benito came abreast of this man, the man raised his flail high so that it struck the man beside him and smashed a blow at Don Benito that hit him on the side of the head and Don Benito looked at him and the man struck again and shouted, ‘That for you, Cabron,’ and the blow hit Don Benito in the face and he raised his hand to his face and they beat him until he fell and the man who had stuck him first called to others to help him and he pulled on the collar of Don Benito’s shirt and others took hold of his arms and with his face in the dust of the plaza, they dragged him over the walk to the edge of the cliff and threw him over and into the river...

After some more anti-climactic killing, the mood of the crowd begins to wane. Moreover, the fascists refuse to leave the Ayuntamiento, and stay in prayer. Then comes Don Ricardo.

"Don Ricardo was a short man with gray hair and a thick neck and he had a shirt on with no collar. He was bow-legged from much horseback riding. ‘Good-by,’ he said to all those who were kneeling. ‘Don’t be sad. To die is nothing. The only bad thing is to die at the hands of this canalla...

“He looked at the double line of peasants and he spat on the ground. He could spit actual saliva which, in such a circumstance, as you should know, Ingles, is very rare and he said, “Arriba Espana! Down with the miscalled Republic and I obscenity in the milk of your fathers.’

“So they clubbed him to death very quickly because of the insult, beating him as soon as he reached the first of the men, beating him as he tried to walk with his head up, beating him until he fell and chopping at him with reaping hooks and the sickles and many men bore him to the edge of the cliff to throw him over and there was blood now on their hands and on their clothing, and now began to be the feeling that these who came out were truly enemies and should be killed.

“Until Don Ricardo came out with that fierceness and calling those insults, many in the line would have given much, I am sure, never to have been in the line. And if any one had shouted from the line, “Come, let us pardon the rest of them. Now they have had their lesson,’ I am sure most would have agree.

“But Don Ricardo with all his bravery did a great disservice to the others. For he aroused the men in the line and where, before they were performing a duty and with no great taste for it, now they were angry, and the difference was apparent.

In this state, Pablo delivered the next victim.

“The man who was being pushed out by Pablo and Cuatro Dedos was Don Anastasio Rivas, who was an undoubted fascist and the fattest man in the town. He was a grain buyer and the agent for several insurance companies and he also loaned money at high rates of interest. Standing on the chair, I saw him walk down the steps and toward the lines, his fat neck bulging over the back of the collar band of his shirt, and his bald head shining in the sun, but he never entered them because there was a shout, not as of different men shouting, but of all of them. It was an ugly noise and was the cry of the drunken lines all yelling together and the lines broke with the rush of men toward him and I saw Don Anastasio throw himself down with his hands over his head and then you could not see him for the men piled on top of him. And when the men got up from him, Don Anastasio was dead from his head being beaten against the stone flags of the paving of the arcade and there were no more lines but only a mob.”

Pablo, sensing the mood of the mob no longer wants to wait for its victims one at a time, delivers the fascists.

The mob crushes the front of the Ayuntamiento holding the rest of the fascists. Eventually Pablo tosses the key to the locked door to a guard, who opens it. The narrator Pilar loses sight of the action, but regains it to see this:

“And in that moment, looking through the bars, I saw the hall full of men flailing away with clubs and striking with flails, and poking and striking and pushing and heaving against people with white wooden pitchforks that now were red and with their tines broken, and this was going on all over the room while Pablo sat in the big chair with his shotgun on his knees, watching, and they were shouting and clubbing and stabbing and men were screaming as horses scream in a fire. And I saw the priest with his skirts tucked up scrambling over a bench and those after him were chopping at him with the sickles and the reaping hooks and then some one had hold of his robe and there was another scream and another scream and I saw two men chopping into his back with sickles while a third man held the skirt of his robe and the priest’s arms were up and he was clinging to the back of a chair and then the chair I was standing on broke...”

I fear that the excerpts don’t do the entire gripping fifteen pages justice. We’ve featured Hemingway before in “War at its Worst,” and for a reason: he can evoke the true terror and horror of war...and revolution.

Jan 10

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

A long time back, on one of our regular trips home from college, Michael C and I gave a ride home to one of my fellow environmental activists. Somehow, we got on the subject of revolutions, and why we should start one at UCSB. Michael asked my friend, “And what do you expect to happen when the bloodshed starts?”

Michael was arguing a point that we haven’t argued enough on this website: revolutions are violent.

Which may seem obvious. Except that extremists from both sides of the political spectrum casually endorse revolutions, like my liberal activist friend endorsing a revolution--a revolution, it is safe to say, the vast majority of the population didn’t endorse--to solve the environmental crisis. Like Occupy Protesters who just love revolutions, idealized, romanticized and fantasized through Che Guevara T-shirts, Youtube videos of street protests, and Guy Fawkes masks. Like Tea partiers make a point of bringing guns to political rallies, in case they need to overthrow the government. Both sides casually endorse violence, from Tea Party candidates to Occupy speakers.

(We should make it clear that by “revolutions”, we mean revolutions that overthrow the existing power structure, not social or technological revolutions like the industrial revolution, the digital boom or the green revolution.)

The Arab Spring, as our most thought provoking event of 2011, should remind would-be-American-revolutionaries what a revolution really is: the break down of society and order, a revolution in power, which (mostly) results in violence. In this pan-Arab/north African revolution we have seen a few civil wars (Yemen, Syria and Libya), a military invasion (Saudi Arabia into Qatar), authoritarian crackdowns with unlawful arrests (Qatar, Eqypt, Syria and Yemen) and protesters generally arrested or attacked throughout. It is safe to say, to those who advocated revolution, violence followed.

This completely fits into the larger narratives of the history of revolutions. The American Revolution (Historians debate over whether this qualifies, I believe it does; it threw out the entire power structure.) cost one in every hundred males his life. The American Revolution is the second deadliest conflict in American history, percentage wise, with only the Civil War beating it, itself its own kind of revolution.

Meanwhile, France’s revolution is symbolized by the guillotine, an industrial means of execution. The Russian Revolution lead to the deaths of literally millions of people. The revolutions that wracked Europe throughout the nineteenth century always included violence and death. When I studied Latin America history in high school, my notes read, “Colonialism. Revolution. Dictator. Revolution.” It applied to every country.

Violence always coincides with the outbreak of revolutions, for a few reasons:

First, instability. Inherently, revolutions are unstable, by definition an overthrow of the existing power structures. When this happens, chaos ensues. Food shortages, lack of security, a breakdown of the social order. The best explanation for this is our blog’s namesake, On Violence, by Hannah Arendt, that argued that violence and power are opposites. Thus, when the power structure disappears--as in France or Russia or Libya--violence fills the gaps.

Second, vengeance. Most revolutions have a very legitimate basis: people feel discriminated against, or suffer from severe economic inequality, or chafe under colonial rule. When the masses revolt, they take their vengeance against their previous oppressors. Look at what happened in the French revolution. Or what happened to Moammar Ghaddafi. Or Saddam Hussein.

Third, civil wars. They happen when revolutionaries disagree, or the over-thrown don’t want to leave so easily. Take the above groups advocating revolution, the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers. They don’t agree on anything. So if one side starts a revolution, they’ll basically have to go to war with the other side. Boom, you’ve got a civil war. This is what is happening in Syria.

Are there counter-examples? Sure. The Revolutions of 1989 were relatively peaceful. So was the later Orange Revolution. But the idea of “peaceful revolutions” is a relatively new one; clearly it isn’t at work in north Africa.

The point of this post, the “So what?” if you will, is that revolutions often end in severe, uncontrollable violence. And often then transition to authoritarianism. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum in America casually throw around the Jefferson quotation (behaving properly) that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” without really understanding what this means or implies.

Jan 09

(To ring in the New Year, the Small Wars Journal editors put up a survey with a few questions for Small War-riors to answer. This post can be considered my thoughts (Michael C) on questions 1 and 3.)
To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

On an interview with The Daily Show a while back, Condoleeza Rice said, “It turns out authoritarianism is unstable...Every man, woman, and child should live in freedom.”

Though I don’t think she intended it, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in two sentences, summed up the liberal position on foreign relations. In short, that stance is: democracies are the preferred form of government, and democratic countries tend not to fight each other. (By liberal we mean “liberalism in international relations” as defined broadly by this Wikipedia article. And yes, to make this post readable, we are simplifying broad swaths of this complex theory, and leaving out some key components. We’re Gladwellian popularizers after all.)

Condoleeza Rice wasn’t talking about why the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein; she meant the Arab Spring sweeping across north Africa and the falls of Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Moammar Qaddafi. Later in the interview, she held up Iraq as a model for democracies around the Middle East, linking that war with the current unrest. In one fell rhetorical swoop, she connected her administration’s actions to the spread of democracy around the globe, basically saying, “See, we were right!”

If only the Bush administration had acted so forthrightly to advocate the spread of democracy around the world. And I’ll add, if only President Obama hadn’t continued the same policies as President Bush.

Usually when some blogger bemoans the gap between American ideals and American foreign policy, they go down a crazy liberal/libertarian conspiracy theory rabbit hole to say that America is dominated by elites who craft our foreign policy simply to entrench moneyed interests. Or something about American elites spreading empire around the globe or something. My thesis is much more simple: presidents--be they liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican--care about one thing and one thing alone: getting reelected. As a result, our foreign policy tends to favor short terms gains over accomplishing long term goals.

(And this would, roughly, be described as the “realist” school of international relations.)

This is the fundamental principle of American international relations: do whatever you can to prevent a foreign affairs disaster from harming your reelection chances, even if it hurts America in the long run. The Cold War defined this practice. From Egypt to Vietnam to Chile, America supported and funded anti-Communist governments, be they democratic or autocratic. It even overthrew regimes which it didn’t like, like Iran. (This SWJ post pretty much describes how the failure of Iran is one of constant short term priorities replacing a long term goal mindset. ) America fought the Cold War as if it would never end. When it did, plenty of people around the world didn’t like America, or at least they felt America might be a hypocrite.

Then 9/11 happened. Had it happened on President Clinton’s watch, our response might have been subtly nuanced with post-Cold War thinking. Since it was President Bush’s team of all former Cold War-riors, the response was straight out of the “stop the USSR” playbook. First, the CIA found all its old autocratic friends in north Africa like Egypt, Algeria and Yemen who could hold terrorism suspects indefinitely, while possibly torturing them, and letting the CIA listen in. Then we launched two wars, one of which made sense, the second of which did not, to stop “state sponsored” terrorism. Then the Department of Defense started launching attacks into other countries where we could not put troops, like Pakistan and Yemen.

With the Arab Spring overthrowing some stalwart American terrorism fighting allies--Egypt and Tunisia--and threatening others--Qatar and Saudi Arabia--many Muslims across the Middle East have a choice: what type of government do I want? It turns out, they want democracies, and not American-style democracy. Those democracies will probably not be friendly to U.S. interests, either, because in their minds, America is linked to supporting military regimes like Pakistan, Egypt or Qatar, which had just been preventing those people from living in freedom.

In other words, our short term goals--fighting the Cold War or capturing terrorists--and our responses to those threats--overthrowing unfriendly regimes, torture, extraordinary renditions and supporting dictators--have hurt what should be America’s long term foreign policy goal: spreading democracy (and free markets) around the globe. It isn’t very hard for Islamic political parties to discredit so-called “universal” American values when they only apply to Americans in America, an un-universal caveat.

As we said last week, we believe the world is getting better. We believe democracy is spreading, and the world is getting less violent (in part because of democracy, and the spread of international institutions). If President Obama aligned our foreign policy more with our long terms goals, and worried less about preventing another terrorist attack, then democracy and peace would spread even faster.

That position is idealistic, but so are we.

Jan 05

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.

Also, though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.))

Since about July, Eric C and I have been debating with the question, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” Before that discussion started, we were already strong advocates of Stephen Pinker’s assertion--via TED lecture (this is probably our fifteenth link to it)--that humanity is getting less violent. (Follow up books by Pinker, John Horgan and Joshua S. Goldstein have only strengthened our belief in the idea. We have a much longer article coming.)

Then the Arab Spring happened.

For Yemen, this meant drone strikes, bombings and assassination attempts. For Egypt, this meant Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, then military trials, with torture, and eventually protests met by gun fire--including the beating of the girl in the blue bra. And in Syria, this has meant the killing of several thousand protesters as Bashar al-Assad clings to power.

Despite the Arab Spring, we believe the world is getting less violent. We believe this for two reasons:

1. Violence, in revolutions, has decreased, like it has in war.

In the Russian Revolution, millions died. The French Revolution saw hundreds of thousands killed in especially horrific fashion, and tens of thousands more killed in the the subsequent revolutions of 1830 and 1848. The American Revolution was the second bloodiest conflict in American history, measured in per capita terms. The American Civil War, a failed revolution, killed the most Americans in per capita and real terms.

In short, the outrage we feel over the deaths of a few hundred or few thousand protesters or insurgents is a good thing. The non-stop media coverage helps keep autocratic regimes from massacring their populations, and revolutionaries from killing the entire ruling class. That too is a good thing. If wars are getting less violent, and revolutions less violent, and crime is decreasing, that means things are generally getting better.

2. It’s hard to believe, after the events of the Arab Spring, that democracy isn’t inevitable, or at least the direction the world is heading in.

Look at the Economist’s list of countries holding elections in 2012. Sure some of the countries are hardly the exemplars of democracy and human rights--Russia and Venezuela--but it has to mean something that they still go through the charade. The Economist Intelligence Unit currently describes half the countries of the world as democracies or flawed democracies. Will the Arab Spring push make every Arab or north African state a democracy? No, but at least a few will become more democratic. Does this mean every country in the world eventually be democratic? Obviously not. Will most? At some point, especially if the world’s most populous country succumbs as its per capita income creeps up. (We’re aware this is a prediction, at least it is vague.)

A final caveat: this process isn’t linear. If another interstate war breaks out, and kills a million people with it, it will seem that violence is again on the march. If the civil war in Syria turns that country into a second Somalia, then violence could reach very high levels. And for every democracy being created (Tunisia) a military dictatorship will hold on (Egypt). Who knows how Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc. will turn out?

The point is the trend lines are for less violence, and more democracy. The big question is, how can the U.S. stay on the right side of history? That’s what will write about on Monday.

Jan 04

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Every year, The Economist publishes “The World in...”, an issue dedicated to the year ahead, discussing major events that will occur--like elections--and predicting outcomes--like who will win the elections--that may or may not occur, usually with plenty of hedging. In the introduction for The World in 2011, The Economist bragged about its track record:

“How accurate was our effort last time round?

“In the predictions game, inevitably, you win some and you lose some. The good news for The World in 2010 is that our wins outnumbered our losses. The bad news is that some of those losses were big. Our record on the British election, American politics and the global economy are three prime examples.”

In The Economist’sThe World in 2012” editor Daniel Franklin summed up the difficulty with making predictions as, “expect the unexpected.” He said this because less than a month after the “The World in 2011” hit news stands, the Arab Spring happened. And no one predicted that. (Despite this, The Economist’s “The World in...” is an annual must read.)

This is why we avoid making predictions at On Violence. If The Economist, a magazine staffed by full-time journalists and part-time academics, cannot accurately predict the future, how can we? Thrice before we have bemoaned our own prediction making, at the same time acknowledging our unhealthy addiction to opining about the future. (Michael C is still predicting the Lakers will get Chris Paul this season.)

Predicting the future is impossible. Or nearly so. NPR’s On The Media, the Freakonomics podcast and FiveThirtyEight have all pointed out the dismal track record of pundits who make predictions. Outside of guessing whether the sun is going to rise tomorrow (On V says, “It will.”), there’s really no point.

Which brings us back to the Arab Spring, a case study in expecting the unexpected. No one predicted it, though some did point out the structural problems of many Middle East nations, like gross income inequality, bulging youth demographics, and lack of social mobility. No one, though, could say when or where or if these would ever boil over.

If someone does claim that they “predicted” the Arab Spring, it’s probably just flat dumb luck. For instance you could take this paragraph...

First, this is a perfect example of revolution in flat world. Other conflicts have occurred since Thomas Friedman first advanced his theory in The World is Flat, but none quite like this. In a state desperately trying to exercise control over the media--kicking out journalists, banning demonstrations--Twitter, Facebook, and cellphones broadcast the revolution to the world. Their revolution failed--we don’t doubt that--but this is the first sign of things to come.

...as a prediction by On Violence of the Arab Spring. But that’s applying 20/20 vision to the past; we were nowhere near predicting violent unrest spreading across the Middle East like a virus, killing old and decrepit dictatorships. And our prediction came almost two years early. Michael C personally thought it wouldn’t happen until after the U.S. left Iraq.

The solution to the problem of too many predictions? Self analysis. Some of our favorite columnists, reporters and pundits have started prediction audits, analyzing their predictions over the past year and seeing which ones came true. Some of the best prediction audits have come from Fareed Zakaria, David Weigel and FiveThirtyEight.

In that vein, in two weeks, Eric C and I will look back through our predictions in 2011 to see where we went right or wrong. We’ll also try to keep our blog on analysis and commentary, while trying to avoid the fool’s game of predicting the future.

Jan 03

(The rest of "On V's Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011" continues in:

- "Of Fortune Tellers and Political Pundits: Predictions are Tough"

- "Things Are Getting Better...Still"

- "The Biggest Problem with American Foreign Policy" 

- "Revolutions are Violent"

- "War at its Worst: For Whom the Bell Tolls"

        - "Twitter? I Just Met Her: The New Journalism and the Arab Spring")


“Above all, the Green Revolution shows us that Islam is still fighting for its soul and future. Secularism, fundamental Islam, the role of Islam in society, Westernism, the Great Satans (Great Britain and America)--every issue confronting Islamic culture today was present in Iran's almost revolution. The same motivation that pushes Al Qaeda to fight the West pushed Ayatollah Khameini to prematurely declare the election over.”

- On Violence, January, 2010

Today, as in 2010 and 2011, On Violence launches its “Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011” to look back at the last year and say, “What event inspired the most ideas?”

From the execution of Obama bin Laden to the death of Kim Jong-il to the final pull out of Iraq, this year had a host of qualified events. We had so many worthy candidates for event of the year that Eric and I had to implement an emergency series, “On Violence’s Most Intriguing Event of the Last Six Months”, in July to write about the year’s second most thought provoking event, the Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea fiasco.

However, all those events pale in comparison to the one event that never left the news: the Arab Spring, our most thought provoking event of 2011.

Unlike previous editions that tended to buck the larger trends, no one doubts that the Arab Spring is also the most important event of 2011. (For new readers, we define our “Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year” as roughly, “What do we have the most to talk about? What one event launched the most ideas into our heads?” This event doesn’t have to be the most important event, it just has to launch a discussion.) Is the Arab spring the most important military/foreign affairs/art event of 2011? Probably. Is it also the most interesting? Yes.

Which is partly why we opened this article with a quote from our blog from two years ago, regarding our most thought provoking event of the year of 2009, the failed Iranian Green Revolution. Replace green with jasmine, and Iran with Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and a host of other countries, and the above paragraph could describe the Arab Spring. Borrowing another sentiment from our 2009 summary, though Michael C deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and remains deeply fascinated by both, neither war (or ended war) intrigues us as much as multiple revolutions spanning the globe.

To be honest, we didn’t initially expect the Arab Spring to make the cut. An early outline had the title, “On V’s Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year: Not that interesting.” As we mulled it over, though, we realized the Arab Spring combines several of our themes into one neat little package:

- Predictions are tough.

- The world is getting better, but that process isn’t linear or easy.

- We--On Violence--don’t like writing about headline news. The Arab Spring shows why.

The Arab Spring also hit on some ideas we’ve wanted to cover more, like:

- Revolutions are violent.

- America’s foreign policy favors short term gains over long terms goals.

And that’s not even mentioning the irregular/political war that was Libya, what the Arab Spring means for counter-insurgency, the continuing drama in Syria, and the fact that oil rich countries generally survived and oil poor countries generally collapsed. The unrest in the Middle East and North Africa surprised almost everyone, defied most explanations, and continues to play out in unexpected ways. In other words, it is our most thought provoking event of the year.