Sequence Deficit Disorder

Paul Pillar

Flickr/Velo Steve.A recurring difficulty in public recriminations about past actions and debate about ongoing problems is the absence of a sense of sequence—of an accurate understanding of what happened when, and in particular of whether certain things happened before or after certain other things. Many much-discussed events enter the recriminations and debates as individual points of controversy, detached from any time line or comprehensive narrative. They become like flashbacks in a creatively edited movie, in which the audience has to stay well engaged to keep track of what happened when. The film editor does not want to make the audience's task too hard, lest his product sink into incoherence. Outside the movies and in the real world, there often are people with an ax to grind who try to get us to fit the flashbacks into a preferred story, which may be inaccurate. Even without ax-grinders, our minds try to fit the detached events into a story that is easily comprehensible, even though again it may be inaccurate.

Such insensitivity to sequence may be found, for example, in recriminations over the George W. Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. The easily comprehensible story is that the decision was based on bum intelligence about unconventional weapons. But the intelligence estimate that became the subject of nearly all the after-the-fact criticism wasn't written—in fact, work on it hadn't even begun—until after the administration had not only made the decision to go to war but had already moved into high gear its campaign to sell the war to the public. (There still was a Congressional resolution to be voted on, but hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate.)

The political silliness over the lethal incident at Benghazi provides additional examples. The most glaring one came right at the outset, when Mitt Romney, seizing on the incident as a prop for his campaign, described as the Obama administration's first “response” to the incident a statement that the U.S. embassy actually had issued before the incident. Now we continue to hear endless professed outrage about what Susan Rice did or did not say, with her sayings thrown into public discussion alongside observations that have been made since then about what lay behind the attack on the U.S. facility. Lost again is any sense of sequence, and in this case any distinction between confusion and uncertainty in the early hours after the incident and understanding that has been acquired only later.

The Petraeus affair offers other recent examples, particularly in recriminations about how the FBI handled the case, how an able public servant has been lost because a private matter had become public, etc. Seemingly escaping notice is that the matter became public only when Petraeus himself announced his resignation and cited an extramarital affair as the reason. Neither the FBI nor anyone else had made anything public before that. If the whole business were to have ended differently, it would have had to have been in one of two ways. One would be that nobody says anything publicly (with or without an FBI investigation), in which case the security implications of potential for blackmail would be very much an issue. The other possibility is that Petraeus discloses the affair but says he is not resigning. We should give him enough credit for realizing that the image of an adulterer clinging to his job would have been inconsistent with both the values he propounded and his continued ability to lead his agency, and that the honorable thing for him to do was instead to resign.

Now there is the warfare in the Gaza Strip. I recalled the other day the sequence of events at the start of the current upsurge in violence. But the deficiency in temporal understanding is not just a matter of who started the newest round of fighting. Israeli demands that “the rockets must stop” before Israel ceases its lethal operations feed a general impression that the story is one of Hamas rockets first, and Israeli response afterward. This overlooks that most of the rockets fired from the Strip since Israel's Operation Cast Lead four years ago have come in these last few days—after, and in response to, Israel's newest operation. So we have not only a demand for a one-sided cease-fire but also a bizarre rationale in which the stated reason for the operation is to prevent the very response that the operation itself engenders.

Gregory Johnsen, who has done extensive field research in Yemen, raises what may be something similar in U.S. policy. Johnsen argues persuasively that lethal strikes from drone aircraft have enabled terrorist groups to win more recruits who are angered over the collateral damage from the strikes. He cites as evidence how the estimated strength of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen in correlation with the frequency of the drone strikes. Despite this indication of counterproductivity, do not be surprised to hear others argue that the increasing strength of Yemeni terrorist groups is all the more reason we need to pound them with Hellfire missiles.

There is no known cure for sequence deficit disorder. We can perhaps ameliorate some of the consequences by demanding that anyone who starts making assertions about Y being a consequence of X should make explicit reference to chronologies or time lines to support the assertion.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionPsychologyPost-ConflictWMD RegionsIsraelIraqUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesYemen

Aid and Interest

The Buzz

Aid to Rwanda used to be uncontroversial, but in the past few years more have been questioning its merits. The United Kingdom’s campaign to help the genocide-torn statelet has turned into a distillation of the challenges and benefits of foreign-aid programs. President Paul Kagame has conducted a foreign policy so out of line with international norms that it sometimes seems to be inspired by Khomeini-era Iran. It targets dissidents abroad, harrasses foreign journalists, and sponsors resource-plundering guerilla movements in its neighbors. Yet while Iran became an international pariah, Rwanda has enjoyed relatively good relations with the West—and a healthy income from Western development agencies. There is cause for this beyond Western guilt over the events of 1994. With outside help, the Kagame government has substantially reduced poverty, and Rwanda has been one of the beneficiaries of a wave of sub-Saharan economic growth. Rwandans live seven years longer now than they did at the start of Kagame’s presidency.

Still, the British experience shows just how casually the Rwandan government can treat its donors. Britain’s foreign aid office, the Department for International Development (DFID), is legally barred from considering British national interests, so it continued to plunge tens of millions into Rwanda even as one of its own officials was attacked in Kigali and a plot to assassinate a British citizen in London came to light. A sharp column by the Economist’s Bagehot, a British citizen whose hotel room was once ransacked by Rwandan agents seeking to suppress evidence of war crimes, explores the mismanagement in the DFID and the dilemmas over its Rwanda aid.

Bagehot wisely notes that foreign aid can serve British interests—the faded empire can retain some of its international weight by leading development efforts. Rwandan lives have improved thanks to British aid. But states are not charitable trusts—they exist to serve their own citizens and residents. The designers of the DFID may have thought they were acting as a role model when they refused to link aid to interest, but if Britons and Rwandan exiles in London live in fear for their lives of a state they are taxed to fund, the tail is clearly wagging the dog—politically and morally. It is tragic that cutting British aid due to the actions of the Rwandan government will harm the Rwandan people, but Rwanda, like Britain, is responsible for its own—if it steers a course to international isolation, the guilty party for Rwandan suffering is in Kigali, not London.

TopicsEconomicsForeign Aid RegionsUnited KingdomRwanda

America's Flawed and Fragile Democracy

Paul Pillar

Before the 2012 election fades in our memories, displaced by sex scandals and other attention-getting news, Americans ought to reflect on what works well and—even more worthy of reflection—what works poorly in their representative democracy. I'm not talking about post-mortems concerning the specific electoral outcome and what led a particular party or candidate to win or lose. I instead am referring to serious deficiencies that ought to trouble any American, regardless of liking or disliking this month's election result, who values a healthy and fair political system that respects the will of the people.

Some of the most undemocratic aspects of what American electoral democracy has become were in display at least as much in this most recent electoral cycle as in any other. One concerns the role of money, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the ineffectiveness of the Federal Election Commission reaching new depths. Much commentary since the election has noted how little return some of the biggest campaign bankrollers received on their investment. But any single election result does not negate the outsize role that money has assumed in American elections and how much that role runs contrary to the principle that in a democracy elected representatives are supposed to represent people rather than dollars. The Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions of the early 1960s established the principle that elected representatives represent people rather than acres or trees. Now dollars have been given back some of the role that was taken away from the acres and the trees.

Then there is the unconscionable inconvenience that many citizens have to endure to exercise their right to vote. Long voter lines even led to a line in Barack Obama's victory speech. In the decentralized American system of administering elections, the problem is largely due to assorted inefficiency, incompetence and misplaced resources at the state and county level. The added twist—an even more alarming one, with regard to subversion of democratic principles—this year was the concerted effort by adherents of one party to make voting more difficult, in the belief that those who would be dissuaded or prevented from voting would mostly be supporters of the other party. The net effect of court actions on this subject was to mitigate this problem by striking down some of the voter suppression efforts. But the efforts were still an outrage; voting is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It also was an outrage that there were not more expressions of outrage—from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike—over the suppression efforts. Give credit for candor and honesty, however, to the Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania who spoke openly about how the suppression effort in that state “would allow Governor Romney to win.”

Dissuading the other side's supporters from voting is not uncommon in political systems in less developed countries—systems that we usually are apt to disparage. Ultimately the difference between the suppression efforts in the United States and, say, what Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union does to its political opponents is more a matter of degree (especially degree of physical brutality) than of kind.

Another undemocratic contrivance—undemocratic because in a democracy voters are supposed to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters—is gerrymandering. It has become more of a science than an art in recent years thanks to more sophisticated and extensive polling data and computer software that can take advantage of the data. Both parties practice it when they have a chance. Democrats in Maryland perpetrated one of the most egregious recent examples. But because Republicans have majority control in more state governments than the Democrats do, the net effect nationally has been to help Republicans. Republicans retained a solid majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year even though Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republicans. The natural concentration of Democratic strength in urban areas has something to do with this anomaly, but so does the gerrymandering.

Each of the aforementioned flaws has a self-perpetuating quality, and encourages perpetuation in power of whoever happens to be in power now. State legislators who have a majority set the voting rules and draw the legislative districts (for their own seats, not just for Congress) to increase the chance of their own party retaining control. The role of big money in the post-Citizens United era increases the chance of electing presidents who appoint the sort of Supreme Court justices who hand down decisions such as Citizens United. And so on. The self-perpetuation is not as strong and irretrievable as in a non-democratic system such as the one controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But there are closer parallels with, for example, Iran, which has a freely elected president and parliament but in which self-perpetuation is facilitated by the role of the supreme leader and by interlocking relationships among bodies such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary.

Some of the most worrisome current threats to the health of American democracy come not from matters involving elections specifically but instead from the attitudes and habits of mind—i.e., the political culture—that are at least as important for the health of any democracy as elections. We saw one such threat when leaders of the party in control of one of the houses of Congress, when they had not won enough political power in the government overall to get their way on budgetary matters, tried to get their way anyhow by threatening to make the nation default on its debt. In other words, they abandoned democracy for extortion.

Another threat was succinctly expressed in a comment from the minority leader of the U.S. Senate that was as candid and as appalling as the comment from the legislative leader in Pennsylvania. He said that his party's top priority in Congress was for “President Obama to be a one-term president.” The comment was quite honest, as borne out by his party's behavior during the subsequent Congressional term. Making the toppling of a political opponent more important than anything else, including legislating in the national interest, is just the sort of dysfunctional political culture that tears democracies apart. There are parallels to this overseas, too. Bangladesh comes to mind as a good comparison.

For a democracy to work well and to stay healthy, the political players in it must have respect for the interests of the nation as a whole that overrides preference for any one electoral outcome or hatred for any one political leader. They also need to respect political outcomes that shape policy and not resort to non-democratic threats of harm to the national interest. What we have seen in recent years are disturbing lapses from both those requirements.

One conclusion is that there may not be as wide a gap as generally supposed between democracy in America and democracies elsewhere that Americans may be quick to disdain. A second conclusion is that bearing the first conclusion in mind adds useful perspective in evaluating and responding to political processes in other countries. The most important conclusion is that American democracy is more fragile, and its health more precarious, than most Americans like to think. Americans ought to be alert to what threatens their democracy from within and to punish—democratically of course, at the polls—those who would undermine it.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsBangladeshIranUnited StatesZimbabwe

DARPA's Amateur Astronomers

The Buzz

The U.S. military's research wing, DARPA, is the latest agency to jump on the public-crowdsourcing bandwagon with the launch of SpaceView this week. This space-observation project enables astronomy enthusiasts to gather data for the U.S. Air Force's Space Surveillance Network. With the network's current professionals at capacity tracking just six percent of potentially destructive space debris, these amateurs can potentially make a big difference in helping protect American satellites that provide cable and the internet.

The project certainly appears to be a creative leap of faith. How successful SpaceView will be in safeguarding orbital assets remains another question, as it seems to differ significantly from most established crowdsourcing efforts that offer prizes or rewards in order to solve a problem. One hopes that trained astronomers aren't being asked to spend too much time recruiting amateurs instead of monitoring the small slice of the sky we do have under control.

You can watch DARPA’s promo video for SpaceView here:

TopicsTechnology RegionsUnited States

The Symmetry and Asymmetry of Violence in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Flickr/ they go again—another tragic upsurge in the violent tit-for-tat between Israel and Hamas. As with most tit-for-tat contests, at each stage each side can point to what the other side just did as an action that warrants retaliation. Often the story that reaches American ears is instead more lopsided: a story of Hamas firing rockets and Israel responding with armed force. But the actual process is very much two-way, with Hamas responding to Israeli violence at least as much as the other way around.

Hamas had endeavored to maintain a cease-fire—despite difficulty in controlling the actions of smaller, more militant groups that have a presence in the Gaza Strip—most of the time since Operation Cast Lead, the brutal Israeli invasion of the Strip almost four years ago. That war resulted in 1400 Palestinian deaths, probably over half of whom were noncombatants. (Israeli deaths in the war totaled three noncombatants and ten soldiers, four of whom were killed by friendly fire.) But Hamas, as the only government the residents of the Gaza Strip have to turn to for security, came under increasing pressure from those residents to respond forcefully to Israeli actions that continued to claim Palestinian victims.

As Phyllis Bennis points out, who appears to be retaliating against whom depends on when you start the clock. Most American media accounts have begun coverage of the latest rounds of violence with a Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers on November 8. Less noticed in the coverage was that the soldiers were part of an element of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including four tanks and an armored bulldozer, that was operating inside the Gaza Strip at the time. Exactly what those operations included is still unclear, but the IDF did later say it was “investigating” the death of an 11-year-old boy that day. Within the next three days the Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented the deaths of five more Palestinian civilians, including three children, with 52 other civilians wounded. Most of the casualties were incurred in a single Israeli attack on a playground soccer field. The ensuing two-way violence continued until Egypt was able to mediate a short-lived cease-fire, broken when Israel launched this Wednesday a substantial aerial attack, including the assassination of a senior Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari.

Israel, of course, has far greater and more sophisticated means (much of it U.S.-supplied) of inflicting death and destruction than does Hamas. The different means tend to carry different labels: ground-launched rockets are called terrorism, while the operations of attack aircraft are called a nation defending its borders. That difference in capability also helps to explain why Israel is the side that perpetrates the most marked escalations in this violent dialogue. If Hamas had anything approaching Israel's capabilities, it probably would feel obliged to respond right now to Israel's actions with much more deadly operations than anything it has been able to muster so far. But then again, it it did have such capabilities, there would be a major element of deterrence that would almost certainly dissuade Israeli leaders from perpetrating anything like the violence they have in fact inflicted.

The United States has no national interest in taking sides in any of this lethal tit-for-tat. And yet, to its own disadvantage and discredit, it does take sides. The statement the State Department issued on Wednesday “strongly condemns” rocket fire coming out of Gaza, says there is “no justification” for the “cowardly acts” of “Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” talks about Hamas attacking Israel “on a near daily basis” and supports “Israel's right to defend itself.” The closest the statement comes to even a pretense of recognition of the—substantially greater—pain and destruction being inflicted in the other direction is to “regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians” and to “encourage Israel to continue [sic] to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

This posture is especially discouraging as one of the administration's first official statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since President Obama's re-election. Scott Wilson writes in the Washington Post about how at the president's press conference this week “the customarily cautious Obama spoke like a politician with nothing to lose after winning the last race of his life” and exuded “confidence and ease.” If the lifting of the burden of re-election is going to enable the administration to formulate a more effective and more just policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the State Department's statement showed no sign of it happening yet.

A better statement would have begun something like this:

The United States deplores the latest upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. This tragic conflict is causing unnecessary suffering among innocent people on both sides. The United States calls on both sides to pull back from what has become a seemingly endless cycle of destruction. None of the acts of violence committed by either side does anything to advance a goal that the United States shares and that should be shared by all the people of the region: a resolution of differences that will enable Israelis and Palestinians alike to live side-by-side in peace and security.

That's just the start. The United States should address the long-term consequences of what is taking place, and specifically the consequences of the futile Israeli reliance on escalation and destruction. It might borrow the words of Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who was trying earlier this week to mediate a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas; his principal Hamas contact was Jabari, the military leader whom Israel killed by obliterating his car with an airstrike. “I tell myself,” says Baskin, "that with every person who is killed we are engendering the next generation of haters and terrorists.”

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited StatesPalestinian territories