Jan 26

Back in 2008, Eric C and I used to use the phrase “Munich Moment” fondly. For us, a Munich moment was when Eric C managed to make out with two different girls on the same night.

Ah, Munich.

Unfortunately, our use of “Munich Moment” has been bastardized by our great country’s politicians. John Kerry, in a desperate bid to attempt every single rhetorical flourish possible in pursuit of a war with Syria, described America’s need to launch cruise missiles at Syria as America’s “Munich Moment”.

Obviously, comparing every single foreign policy crisis to Munich in 1938 doesn’t make sense. And don’t kid yourself: every single foreign policy crisis in my adult lifetime--stretching from Iraq to Egypt to Iran (here, here and here) to Ukraine (here and here) and to Syria--has had some political leader invoking this terrible analogy.

We aren’t the first writers to bemoan this overused phrase. Tom Schactman in Foreign Policy wrote an article asking to retire the phrase here. Elias Groll piled on here. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New Republic argued against it here. And others said it here, here and here.

In Syria’s case, the analogy--especially in hindsight--was particularly egregious. Unlike Hitler, Bashar al Assad hadn’t invaded a single one of his neighbors. Supporting the rebels would have probably (and ironically) strengthened ISIS. (As Fareed Zakaria pointed out--citing Marc Lynch--in civil wars, extremists tend to thrive, not moderates.) Since ISIS later expanded to Iraq, who they kind of invaded, in a way, fighting Bashar al Assad actually would have been like the U.S. siding with Germany in 1938.

So the question for today, and one we don’t have a great answer for, is how do we stop this analogy? Like HYDRA in a Captain America movie, every time we kill one head, two grow back. Here are some ideas:

1. Public shaming. It’s been tried.

2. One of those White House petitions saying President Obama should issue an executive order forbidding this analogy in his cabinet. That would be funny, but either unconstitutional or unproductive.

3. More data analysis on this term. I don’t need to repeat the arguments for why this comparison/analogy is beyond ludicrous. So instead we want to provide something new to the debate. What is the “Munich Moment’s” batting average? In other words, how often have critics who used this phrase been correct? (Probably once, with the original use of the term.)

4. Crush opponents with logic. Especially the growth of international institutions. The Munich conference existed in a world before the UN, NATO, the Arab League, the EU, the G-Anything and countless other international institutions. The world frankly uses diplomacy a lot more than it used to. What is particularly remarkable about all the accusations of “Munich Moments” is they don’t even occur during diplomatic meetings. These are countries with internal troubles, not great powers invading neighbors.

5. Call them real-life trolls? In the future, when anyone says, “Munich Moment” can we immediately say they just violated Godwin’s law, turn off their microphone (if they are on cable television), and move on?

6. Replace “Munich Moment” with “July Crisis” or “Gulf of Tonkin”. There are two other analogies out there. The first--”July Crisis”--is an analogy no one ever uses, but should. One hundred years ago last August, the leaders of Europe had a “July Crisis”, in which every diplomat utterly failed to prevent a senseless world war. The minor assassination of an archduke led to tens of millions of deaths. Instead of worrying about Munich Moments, we should be worried about a July Crisis. Gideon Rachman of FT made this argument pretty persuasively, when also pondering the centennial of World War I.

The second is more familiar in the U.S., but hasn’t been evoked since we invaded Iraq. In hindsight, the Johnson administration used faulty intelligence to escalate in Vietnam, and the quagmire cost 60,000 Americans their lives. Initial data points are often the worst excuses to go to war, not the best.

In short, we should worry about July Crises and Gulf of Tonkins, not fret about Munich moments.

Jan 23

(This is a continuation from Wednesday's post.)

Lesson #3: America needs to focus less on America

Focusing on Ebola in America may actually cause more deaths, because it focuses attention where it actually shouldn’t be (America) rather than where it should (West Africa). Radiolab recently updated one of my favorite episodes of the show, “Patient Zero”, with an update on Ebola. (If you don’t listen to Radiolab, you should.) This line stuck out to me [emphasis mine]:

“I think the most important thing we should be doing is not letting the public health vs. civil liberties issues in the US distract us from West Africa. As the case count gets higher, it has more chances to mutate and therefore, more opportunities to adapt. So we need to end this outbreak in west Africa before this virus learns too much about us.” David Quammen (Min. 52:45)

Ebola could become more dangerous if it, ironically, becomes less dangerous. If the disease mutates in a way that allows more victims to live and live longer, it could become a pandemic by not burning out too quickly. To mutate in this way--the worst case scenario--the virus needs to infect many, many hosts. This outbreak, which has been brewing since December of last year, could have been stopped early on. Since it hasn’t, Ebola has had more opportunities to become more dangerous.

But the news media is focused on Ebola in America rather than helping people in Africa, where the real threat of a pandemic looms. (Though again, I’m not afraid.)

Lesson #4: We shouldn’t use the military.

Of course, when the U.S. finally did decided to respond to West Africa, who did we send? The military! With tents! While we appreciate a U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, it boggles our minds that the U.S. never has a non-military option. USAID couldn’t have supported this mission? Or someone else in the State Department? And of course, the Pentagon put the price tag at a starting point of $750 million dollars.

America consistently believes that the military can solve all the world’s problems, so we fund the Pentagon to the near exclusion of any other department. This means, in times of crisis, we only have the military. This is probably the wrong response to many problems and it is exacerbated by the worst problem...

Lesson #5: We really, really, really need to start investing in countries in the long term.

What do we mean? Many politicians--let’s be honest, Republicans--are really concerned about Ebola. Despite the warnings of professional medical workers, they wanted to shut down travel from Africa and institute incredibly draconian measures to stop the spread of Ebola to the U.S.

You know what would have been more effective? Spending money (like that $750 million from above) a decade ago (when the economy was strong) to help countries face Ebola now. We should have spent money on foreign aid to develop the medical infrastructure in these countries so they’d have been equipped to handle this outbreak.

You know who hates foreign aid? Oh right, the same people who are afraid of Ebola.

We fight terrorism the same way. We wait until a crisis bubbles up--like ISIS, Boko Haram or Syria--then we lose our minds. Instead of helping these nations build their economies that repel terrorist groups naturally, we wait until a crisis happens, and then overreact.

Jan 21

I know what you’re thinking. “Ebola is a disease; how can it be violent?” Fair point. It’s tough to assign agency to a disease. But the Ebola “crisis” in America (and those quotation marks are firmly planted around “crisis”) shows how poorly America--if not the whole world--handles crises.

Unfortunately, America’s focus on Ebola mirrors our focus on terrorism in all the wrong ways. But if America can learn the lessons for either terrorism or Ebola, we have a chance to fundamentally improve our foreign policy.

Lesson #1: Misusing Statistics

This exchange from the cold open on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, mocking the new “Ebola czar”, illustrates how people don’t understand statistics:

Ebola Czar: If anything, we should be more afraid of the flu. It kills way many more people every year.

Reporter: But .01% of people with the flu die from it. And with Ebola it’s 50%.

Ebola Czar: We could all go throwing statistics around.

Reporter: Such as?

Challenge accepted, fake reporter from a sketch comedy show who, strangely enough, actually described how most Americans feel about Ebola.

As of right now, four Americans have tested positive for Ebola in America. All of the cases came from people who went to Africa or cared for a person who’d been in Africa. Only one person died.

How many people will die from the flu? “...according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average annual death toll from influenza between 1976 and 2007 was more than twenty-three thousand,” as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker. So...we’ll need approximately 46,000 more people to contract Ebola to make it deadlier than the flu.

Oh, and the flu may be deadlier this year than in years past.

Unlike Ebola, the average person can actually do something about the flu: get a flu shot. The more people that get the flu shot, the better America’s overall herd immunity against the disease. (The CDC no longer recommends just the sick and elderly get the flu shot; everyone should.) Which means if we all work together, as a country, we can save ten of thousands lives. (In fairness, early reports indicate this year’s flu vaccine may not be a good match for this year’s flu, but the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot.)

Will we? No, because people don’t understand statistics. Even our comedy shows, instead of parodying America's misguided fear of Ebola, are actually making us more afraid.

Lesson #2: We overhype the threat.

Ebola, it turns out, doesn’t pose much of a threat to cause a global pandemic. It “burns too hot”, meaning the disease replicates faster than the host can communicate it. In other words, it kills its victims too quickly. (It poses especially little danger to Western nations, since we don’t clean our own dead like they do in West Africa.)

And Ebola is unlikely to go airborne, as David Quammen told RadioLab, “To get to that point, would require a number of mutations that are infinitesimally unlikely...it would be like mutations that would allow a giraffe to fly.” (Min 52:00)

(Look for Pt. 2 of this post tomorrow.)

Jan 12

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Whatever it is about the Middle East, it causes staunch, free-market-loving Republicans to forget their economics. Mention Obamacare, government regulation, the minimum wage or any other social issue, and free-market, libertarian-esque Republicans will extol the virtues of economics. Yet as soon as they begin talking about Iraq or Syria, these lessons disappear. Specifically, these Republicans (and all policy makers in Washington, really) refuse to acknowledge the costs associated with foreign policy.

Specifically, the opportunity costs. (Which we’ve been writing about since I went to business school.)

As we reflect on the reemergence of a civil war in Iraq, it seems appropriate to see how well the U.S.--led by the Bush administration--acknowledged the opportunity costs of the first war in Iraq.

Let’s spell this out with a hypothetical example. You own a pizza shop. (In business school, I swear all the business examples involve restaurants, even though most MBAs work in consultancies or investment banks. Curious.) You have ten stores, each doing incredible business. I mean, you’re slinging pizzas to every wahoo on the block. Obviously, you want to expand. You have about a million in cash, and it costs about a million dollars to open a new restaurant. You have narrowed down your options to three different cities.

So what do you do?

If you are in charge of American foreign policy, you open up a restaurant in every single city and go into massive debt.

But wait, that doesn’t make any sense! You don’t have the cash or resources to do that. You would likely fail at every new city--because you can’t devote the time, energy, manpower and resources to each one--and could cost yourself your entire franchise. (This isn’t purely hypothetical. Many restaurants have over-expanded to ill outcome.)

This is what happened in Iraq in 2003. Despite fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan and a new “war on terror” (which sucked up huge amounts of capital to build a massive new intelligence and domestic security apparatus) President Bush, Vice President Cheney and all their diplomatic, military and intelligence advisers told America that we had the resources (in business terms, capital) to invade another country.

Except we (America) didn’t.

The business metaphor also shows the incredibly poor return on investment of invading Iraq. As Dexter Filkins recently covered, we basically deposed a Sunni despot for a Shia despot, while radicalizing a population of Sunni Muslims. (Though, Dexter Filkins illustrated in this podcast a fantastic ability to cling to “sunk costs”.) In terms of “what did we get for what we spent”, we blew it.

The biggest opportunity cost is spending what you could call “war capital”, the support needed to wage wars. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spent most of America’s “war capital”, and spent it poorly. It also meant we ignored the war in Afghanistan for far too long, wasting support for that fight. So when it comes to other possible American wars like...

Enforcing President Obama’s redline in Syria? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of messy civil wars.

Bombing Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of mission creep.

Intervening in Ukraine? Can’t because Americans don’t want another war (and Russia has nuclear weapons).

Do something more in Libya, Egypt, Yemen or wherever else Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol wants? Can’t because Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

Most Americans, who live outside the confines of Washington D.C., understand that we don’t have the military capital to start another war in those places because we spent that capital (poorly) on Iraq. Nevertheless, despite widespread opposition, America started bombing Iraq anew and even put boots on the ground. Are there opportunity costs to that? You betcha, and we’ll discuss that on Thursday.

Dec 17

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

We grew up in a decade when foreign policy didn’t matter...at least it didn’t based on news coverage. The Berlin Wall fell--and the Cold War symbolically ended--when we were six; the twin towers fell twelve years later--kicking starting the “war on terror”--the year we graduated we high school. In between, America didn’t really have an enemy to face other than a running back who murdered his wife and white, Christian, anti-government terrorism.

Yes, our generation’s existential crisis was terrorism, perpetrated by non-state actors hiding in caves and deserts. We never got to square off against thousands of armed nuclear war heads. That’s a real enemy.

But good news: The Cold War is back! Russia invaded the Ukraine!

(Unless, once again, their economy finishes them off first.)

And since Russia is back in the news, we thought we’d debunk some of the myths we’ve heard about our former enemy and current rival (going back decades).

Before we start, let’s clarify something: we’re not pro-Russia, pro-communist, or, more accurately, pro-dictatorship. Obviously, Stalin’s Russia was a terrible place, perhaps the most evil country in the history of the Earth. (Yes, our World War II ally was probably “eviler” than Hitler. Nuance!) But lies or myths about that country don’t help the debate.

Endless Clapping

This first anecdote, endlessly repeated, is like the Ur-myth of dictatorship. In short, at the end of a local district conference, there’s a tribute to Stalin and everyone begins applauding for their leader. They keep clapping. And clapping. Eventually, after clapping for much, much too long, one man finally sits down. The next day, the man disappears, presumably sent to the gulag for disobedience or showing initiative.

We first heard this tale in high school in AP European History. It’s origin is pretty clear. It comes from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

On an emotional, communism-is-the-end-of-the-free-world level, this story works perfectly. It’s the ultimate example of bureaucracy and the end of free will. It begs the question: who would want to live in a dictatorship like this?

Except, on a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem that every time a rally or conference was held in Stalin’s Russia, someone else would head to the gulag. Eventually there would be no one left in the state who wasn’t in the gulag. Or meetings would consist of hours or days of clapping until people fell over from exhaustion.

Of course life couldn’t go on like this. The Russian state would have had to develop a solution to this problem.

Turns out, they did: a bell. When it rang, you could sit down. So yes, this story is based on the idea that Russians clapped for long periods of time in honor of Stalin. And people feared being the first to stop clapping. But it’s also not as fatalistic or absurd as the anecdote. More to the point, why didn’t Solzhenitsyn mention the bell? Because it would that have made the anecdote less effective.

Standing in Line for No Reason…

A long time ago, I heard an urban myth that Russia had so many lines that if Russians saw a line form, they would just start standing in it. This interview summarizes it pretty succinctly, “A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. ‘People would just stand in line hoping for something.’”

Again, logically, this anecdote doesn’t make any sense. If you probe slightly, you realize, no one has ever done this. How long would you wait in a line like this? Ten minutes? An hour? Ten hours? What if the line wasn’t moving? More importantly, why wouldn’t you just ask what the line was for?

Like the first myth, there’s probably a basis in reality for this. Lines would probably form quickly when a new product went on sale; shortages were a problem in Russia. And I’m sure some people hopped in line without knowing what was for sale. (But I’m sure they asked what was for sale very quickly.) The exaggeration comes from people just staying in line, waiting, without knowing. That makes no sense.

Strong Leaders

In America’s over-reaction to Putin--the On V position is that invading neighboring countries is one of the largest threats to international order, so America and Europe rightfully imposed sanctions on Russia. But taking control of Crimea is a far cry from Putin planning to invade all of Europe--he was often praised for his strength/dictatorial cunning.

This brought up an old explanation of Putin/Russia: since the time of the Tsars, Russians have simply preferred “strong leaders”. This Slate article from 2006 sums it up nicely:

“Whether it's single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians' long-festering desire for a "strong hand."

Interestingly, “strong leaders” can be code for dictators, tsars or just a really authoritarian president. In any meaning, it makes no sense at all. How can an entire culture simply prefer dictators to democracy? And could you make the same argument for America? Since the Civil War, virtually every president has expanded the power of the executive branch. And for a long time, you could have made the case that Britain and France and Germany and Japan and America needed/wanted/loved strong leaders. Even now you could make the case that certain politicians and people prefer a dictator to messy democracy, and those are developed countries.

Dec 01

(To read the entire "Getting Orwellian” series, please click here.)

To stand out in the crowded field of foreign policy sites, the editors of War on the Rocks, when launching their new website, promised to approach all topics from the perspective of “international relations realism”. I wish them well. Though I tend to come from the other side of the international relations theory spectrum, I find parts of realist theory fantastically useful, particularly the blogging of Stephen Walt.

Part of me also sighed. Seeing the word “realism” reminded me how much I hate that term in national security debates. I wish I had the power to rename that entire branch of international relations theory.

Why? Because “realism” means so much more than just one branch of IR theory. Since I don’t want to take us down an uber-wonky rabbit hole, I want to quickly define realism. Fortunately, War on the Rocks does a good job of that in a post explaining their site:

[realism] is a broad term that encompasses people of many opinions with a variety of party affiliations but all of whom believe in the centrality of fear, honor, and interest as drivers of inter-state affairs. Politics is power. À la Morgenthau, we understand power as “anything that establishes and maintains the power of man over man …. from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”

See that definition? It isn’t bad and (according to the wisdom of crowds) it defines the discipline fairly accurately.

Except War on the Rocks then precedes to confuse their IR realism with being realistic:

“Our realism is not merely theoretical, but is rather a perspective earned through experience and reasoning. We are not reasoning backwards from a blind ideological position.”

This is the part of the phrase “realism” I hate: some Realists use the name of their sub-discipline like a club on international relations liberalists (like myself), pacifists (like Eric C), Democrats (by Republicans), people who oppose increasing defense spending (by lobbyists or mouthpieces of lobbyists), or the proponents of the hypothesis that the world is increasingly violent.

International relations realists--or anyone using the term “realist” in a foreign policy debate--benefit from the convenient fact that their sub-discipline of international relations happens to share the same etymology as another word, “realistic”. In debate, international relations realists and neo-conservatives both use the phrase “realism” to mean, “grounded in reality” interchangeably with “analysis using power politics as the base”. They take advantage of a rhetorical quirk: in foreign policy terms, the opposite of realism is liberalism; linguistically, the opposite of realistic is naivete (at best) or unrealistic (at worst).

And honestly, “realism” is better than “idealism” in colloquial English. A realist accepts the world for what it is; an idealist aspires to a different world. Idealists are dreamers; realists are men of action. Foreign policy tends towards the latter; the American voting public favors the latter as well.

But that isn’t what “international relations realism” is. Realist IR theory sees the world and nation states in a balance of power struggle...and generally conduct their analysis through that lens. As smart theorists--like my aforementioned favorite Stephen Walt--have written, neither side has won the intellectual war. If they had, there wouldn’t be a debate. Instead, each side has its own data, arguments and intellectual foundations.

But that won’t stop a pernicious breed of IR theorist--and opportunistic politicians and pundits--from claiming the “realism high ground”. To differentiate them, I call them “real-world-ists”. These pundits and politicians love to insist their viewpoints come from “the real world”, especially as opposed to isolated “ivy tower academics”. Bad “realists” mix up their philosophy of IR theory with phrases like, “realist”, “reality” and “realistic”, while criticizing their opponents as “naive”, “unrealistic”, “idealistic” and “head in the sand types”.

I can’t fix this problem, but I can point it out. Embracing one branch of the ideological spectrum of IR theory doesn’t make your beliefs more accurate or descriptive of the real world. Even if your theory is named, “realism”.

Nov 21

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

Last January, knee deep in Google traffic from people searching for the facts about Lone Survivor, some readers started sending us scoops. (Most of which we didn’t have the time to investigate.) One of those scoops came from a soldier who served in Bowe Bergdahl's unit, asking us to spread the word about Bergdahl’s desertion.

We didn’t investigate the matter any further, because Michael Hastings nailed it in a story for Rolling Stone on Bergdahl. (Though Hastings used Bergdahl’s desertion as a platform to criticize the war in Afghanistan in general, which felt out of place.)

It didn’t matter, though, because a few months later, President Obama arranged a prisoner swap with the Taliban for Bergdahl. Surprisingly for myself (Eric C), an avowed liberal, I ended up agreeing with Fox News, spending a week thinking that President Obama really screwed up.

Bergdahl deserted his unit; you just can’t do that. And for Obama to host a Rose Garden ceremony announcing his release, that’s just bad politics. I was actually pretty excited; I don’t find myself agreeing with the far right all that often, so I prided myself on my lack of bias. And as the right worked itself into a lather, I joined them, asking all the tough questions, like…

- Why would we free five prisoners for just one of ours?

- Why send hardened terrorists back to the battle field?

- We negotiated with terrorists?

- Can the President release Taliban/Al Qaeda prisoners?

- Six to eight soldiers died looking for Bergdahl?

- His dad has a terrorist beard?

- Why would Obama call Bergdahl a “hero”?

But then the answers started coming...

Why would we free five prisoners for just one of ours?

Michael C corrected me on this point: I wasn’t looking at the issue from the right perspective. In numeric terms, the deal sucked. But percentage-wise, it’s a really good deal. America got 100% of its prisoners of war back in exchange for less than 1% of theirs.

If you look at it that way, this deal makes sense.

Why send hardened terrorists back to the battle field?

Oops! As Michael C covered yesterday, that just isn’t the case. And as the Afghan Analysts Network and the LA Times pretty clearly debunked, only one of the prisoners we exchanged for Bergdahl could be described as a hardened war criminal. The rest were bureaucrats.

To which you might say, “One war criminal is too many.” But that’s not what the media told us.

We negotiated with terrorists?

We didn’t negotiate with terrorists; we negotiated with an opposing army. We’re at war with the Taliban...of course we’d negotiate with the group we’re at war with.

Others have made this connection before. My connection would be to the larger, philosophical and lexicographical issues we’ve been writing about for months. If America is at war with terrorists--or savages or barbarians or primitives--then we can’t negotiate with them.

Which means these wars will never end.

Can the President release Taliban/Al Qaeda prisoners?

Well, President Bush did it as well. Hmm. Fox News didn’t really mention this. Legally, as Zach Beauchamp at Vox writes, the jury is out and may never come in.

Six to eight soldiers died looking for Bergdahl?

This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story. Even the Salon article I linked to earlier--which debunked myths about Bergdahl’s release--inaccurately claimed that six to eight soldiers died looking for him.

The New York Times debunks the story pretty handedly:

“But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive--even as critics of Sergeant Bergdahl contend that every American combat death in Paktika Province in the months after he disappeared, from July to September 2009, was his fault…

“Two soldiers died during the most intense period of the search after Sergeant Bergdahl’s June 30 disappearance. Both were inside an outpost that came under attack, not out patrolling and running checkpoints looking for him. The other six soldiers died in late August and early September.”

So let me restate that: the information about Bergdahl’s release was so bad that even articles debunking myths about his release contained myths about his release.

His dad has a terrorist beard?

I’m not even going to dignify this one with a response, but The Daily Show handled it pretty well. (Min. 3:00)

Why would Obama call Bergdahl a “hero”?

The myth that started it all and it isn’t even true. I really thought Obama had used those words, but check out the transcript of the event. It’s not there. (I only found this out trying to search for a quote to use against President Obama in the introduction of this post.)

How did I get this impression? Because news reports asked whether Bergdahl was a “hero” or a “traitor”, despite very few people outside of Bergdahl’s hometown using that word.

- The CNN article, “Fellow soldiers sall Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not hero” doesn’t have an example of someone calling him a hero.

- Howard Kurtz on (Where else?) Fox News, wrote “The president has also refused to walk back the initial casting of Bowe Bergdahl as a hero...” Except the President didn’t need to; he didn’t use that word.

- An NBC News’ headline asked, “Bowe Bergdahl: Is The Freed Soldier a Hero or Deserter?” despite the fact that only his hometown supporters claimed he was one.

- Time’s sub-headline asked, “What began as an uplifting tale of a rescued hero has become a political headache for President Obama. Did the White House oversell the controversial deal for Bowe Bergdahl?” And then didn’t use the word “hero” in the rest of the article.

So you’d be forgiven if you thought Democrats and President Obama were casting Bergdahl as a hero, even though they didn’t. (To be fair, Susan Rice said he served with honor and distinction, but that still mischaracterizes the issue.)

So, if you’re following the tone of this post, I’m no longer on the Fox News side of things on the Bergdahl swap. A Republican party that vehemently disagrees with the President saw an opportunity to score cheap political points, and did everything they could to drive the point home, including misusing and abusing the facts in the case.

Unfortunately, I have feeling the mistakes, distortions and lies will stick in the public’s mind, rather than the truth.

Nov 17

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

Earlier this year, the entire world became (rightfully) enraged when an obscure terrorist organization kidnapped approximately three hundred girls because they went to school.

Since we avoid “chasing the news”, we haven’t written about Boko Haram yet. But this story perfectly connects to many of the things we’ve been writing about recently. Without further ado, six (hopefully unique) thoughts:

1. The world is getting safer...because of technology. In other words, Genghis Khan would not like Twitter.

How many women did Genghis Khan and his army rape and kidnap? I’d guess it was over 300. But without a modern media/social media apparatus and travel technology, his crimes went unrevenged by Europe.

I tend to question most assertions about how the modern world is different than the world of the past, specifically generational biases. The exception to this rule is technology, which can create lasting change. And this crisis, like many others, proves that our interconnected world--both through data and travel--makes getting away with dastardly acts of violence much, much harder. The whole world can observe, judge and, eventually, destroy you.

And that’s exactly what happened to Boko Haram. Even ten years ago, this focus and outrage would not have been possible. (Remember the Second Congo War? No seriously, do you remember the civil war in Congo, because no one does despite the deaths of millions.) Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls and did a pretty good job (with an assist from the Nigerian government) of keeping it quiet. Still the world found out. Then the world turned their attention to their misdeeds and debated how to respond. They even got Americans to care about something that happened in sub-Saharan Africa, a region America often ignores.

At least for a few weeks...

2. Damn, we just cannot keep up with areas of the world where America will go to war.

We’ve been writing about this a lot recently, but how many countries (or stateless terror groups) does America have to fight? In a weird, not really accurate way, we can connect Boko Haram to the Global War on Terror, even though they had nothing to do with 9/11.

But that’s just one incident of at least three this year. Russia invaded Crimea, And then Nigeria became the focus. And when we wrote the first draft of this post, Iraq hadn’t descended into chaos yet again.

So we were going/not going to war in Ukraine, then Nigeria, and now Iraq, in the space of three months, and I haven’t even mentioned the civil war in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program. It feels like a bit much. Does America’s military really have to play a role in each of these conflicts?

3. Does this attention actually help Boko Haram?

At first glance, no. They pissed off America, and America is the boss. The world’s super cop. It’s Superman. I tuned into an episode of PRI’s The World mid-segment discussing Boko Haram, and I heard this:

Marco Werman: Could you argue that this attention could ultimately weaken Boko Haram?

Zeynep Tufekci: The attention within Nigeria and the condemnation could definitely weaken Boko Haram.   

Great, I thought, this focus could take this group down, as I just argued above. But then I heard the next part:

“...could be countered if {Boko Haram] get a new unpopular enemy that they can pretend they're fighting against, or that they can create this 'Oh, look, we're fighting the Great Satan…”

So, ethically, one could make the argument that to save Eastern Ukrainians, innocent Syrians, the Kurds, the Shiites in Iraq, and Nigerian civilians, America’s military must intervene and go to war in Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Nigeria…

Except that every time we do, there are unexpected consequences. Like elevating a terror group to the level of “super terrorists”...

4. Or as Marc Lynch puts it, America shouldn’t give this group primacy.

By going after Boko Haram, we’re legitimizing them on the global stage. We’re giving fanatical young Muslims a new, hipper terrorist group to join. (Though ISIS pushed Boko Haram off the stage pretty quickly.)

The best analogy, to explain this process, comes from Marc Lynch. When The Game attacked Jay-Z (the most powerful rapper in the country, or rap’s “hegemonic” power) Lynch counseled Jay-Z to ignore the attacks. At its best, it would give The Game legitimacy and publicity. For the full take, read the original article and its follow ups, but this snippet summarizes the point:

“My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.”

Can you think of any country (**cough** America **cough**) that needs this advice?

6. Not a trend, just a singular data point.

Well, it depends where you are looking. In Nigeria, the kidnapped girls probably do represent an increase in kidnappings and violence. However, finding accurate data is difficult. FiveThirtyEight received a lot of blowback from their article using media reports of kidnappings to chart the rise, because it failed to account for the growth of media in the country.

On a larger level, it is hard to connect this kidnapping to a larger trend of increasing violence in the world or violence against women. I mean, the world now holds global conferences condemning sexual violence in war, and it has even tried a war criminal (unsuccessfully) for allowing rape by his units. This kidnapping doesn’t represent a growing trend, just a single data point.