Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rethinking Democracy Assistance

Yesterday I went to an event at GW on "Democracy Promotion in the Middle East." The three speakers,  Steven Heydemann, Eva Bellin and Ellen Lust, have all been writing about the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East for years. And unfortunately, they focused mainly on that question as opposed to pivoting to the supposed topic of the day: how the US can help more effectively support democratic reform in the region.

Nonetheless, their talks reflect the importance of understanding what's happening in the region as a prerequisite for formulating effective policy. While they did not explicitly address democracy promotion, their analyses imply certain policies, some of which would be quite unorthodox.

For example, Heydemann emphasized that it's not just the opposition that learns how to better agitate for their rights, but regimes also learn how to better repress their citizens. He calls this "upgrading authoritarianism," in which regimes can become "stronger, more flexible, and more resilient" over time. Specifically in the past few months, the leaders of countries like Yemen and Syria have seen the way Ben Ali and Mubarak have been treated and learned that: 1) more violence is needed 2) if I step down, I might end up in jail or worse.

Based on Heydemann's anlaysis, democracy promotion policy should look closely at the strategic calculus of these leaders to learn how to best coax them to implement actual reforms, or when necessary, step down. This means ICC investigations of Qaddafi are counterproductive. Promises of immunity are untrustworthy. And safety in exile becomes paramount. Enhancing programs like the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which grants former African leaders a nice stipend for transferring power peacefully, would make sense. As unsavory as it sounds, offering President Saleh a mansion in the Hamptons might be more effective use of democracy promotion money than funding civil society programs.

Eva Bellin focused her analysis on the decision of the security apparatus to repress its citizens. For Bellin, so long as the military is capable and willing of shooting civilians, authoritarian regimes will survive. She provided three variables to determine willingness to shoot: the size of the protests, the nature of the protests (peaceful or violent), and finally the professionalism of the military.

This analysis suggests that US assistance to foreign militaries could actually have a democratizing effect. While such assistance undoubtedly increases the capacity to repress, if it is executed in a manner that professionalizes the military (instills institutional pride, builds national identity, weakens patrimonial ties, etc), then the military will be less willing to sacrifice its self interests by shooting civilians in revolutionary moments. Coincidentally, we are working hard to professionalize militaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon. This policy prescription is quite counterintuitive, as military assistance is usually considered an example of propping up authoritarian regimes.

Finally, among other topics, Lust identified the importance of considering the variable of time. Combined with Heydemann and Bellin's emphasis on the robustness of authoritarianism, we should consider the difference between promoting democratic evolution versus democratic revolution. Currently, we hope that minor changes over time will accrue and eventually lead to democratic systems. But if authoritarian regimes are in fact so adaptive and coercive, then maybe only revolutions can bring democracy in the Middle East. In that case, why waste resources on policies designed for evolutionary change?

Now I'm not saying these policy prescriptions are what Heydemann, Bellin and Lust would prescribe. Nor am I saying I think they are correct. In fact, I think some are flat wrong, and they are wrong because they are based on flawed understandings of why the Middle East is undemocratic. But that just proves the more general point: we need to understand the region before we understand how to democratize that region. So even though this event largely ignored policy prescriptions, it still was quite useful in learning how we might formulate policy in the future.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Propaganda of Birthright Israel

Several times this week, I've stumbled into a discussion about Birthright Israel and propaganda. According to Taglit Birthright's website, it strives to:
diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
Despite this mission statement, some argue that Birthright's true mission is to strengthen a particularly hawkish construction of Israeli identity amongst American Jews. For these critics, Birthright is a summer training camp for the dreaded "Israel Lobby."

The truth lies somewhere between. To explain why, we need to look at the difference between propaganda of commission and propaganda of omission.

To illustrate the difference, let's take the less controversial example of propaganda in Vietnam. While backpacking through the country a few years ago, I visited two memorable sites of anti-American propaganda: the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum (formerly the American and Chinese War Atrocities Museum).

The Cu Chi Tunnels is a museum where tourists can experience life as a Viet Cong fighter, crawling through Labyrinthine subterranean tunnel networks and fighting the American imperialists. Before the tour, everyone watches an introduction movie that lauds one VC who earned the "American Killer Hero Medal" for holding off a dozen "American aggressors" with only a pistol, a grenade, and the courageous determination of the Communist cause. This is propaganda of commission: weaving a narrative that glorifies your cause and demonizes your enemies. Exaggeration and distortion are welcome.

Me at Cu Chi Tunnels
The experience at the War Remnants Museum is quite different. The exhibits, with decent accuracy, simply describe what Americans did in Vietnam during the war. Agent Orange. My Lai massacre. Torture chambers. These actions speak for themselves and therefore the exaggeration and distortion of propaganda by commission is not needed.

War Remnants Museum - Use of Water Torture

War Remnants Museum - Replica of S. Vietnamese Prison

But the War Remnants Museum is propaganda nonetheless - propaganda by omission. By only telling one side of the story without context, it ignored not only all the positive aspects of American intervention but also all the horrific crimes and atrocities committed by the Communists. There was no mention of the massacres at Hue, the summary executions of government collaborators, the reeducation camps, the torture and murder of POWs, etc.

The subtlety of propaganda by omission makes it more effective than propaganda by commission. I didn't need to know anything about Vietnam to recognize Cu Chi as propaganda. But recognizing the propaganda at the War Remnants Museum requires a foundation of pre-existing knowledge. It'd be very easy to leave that museum and not realize how it insidiously inculcated in me a narrative that, while not detached from reality, certainly distorts the actual historical record.

Birthright exercises propaganda by omission. The program takes young Jews and lets them experience all the great things about Israel - and there are a lot of great things to experience. But it does not let them experience all the bad things about life as a Palestinian in Israel - and there are a lot of bad things to experience.

Just as with the War Remnants Museum, it's very easy to participate in Birthright and not realize how the experience subtly influences your opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Importantly, this propaganda is at work whether Birthright intends it or not.

It may not sound like it, but I'm actually quite sympathetic towards Birthright. I'm generally tired of this tit-for-tat mindset that everything about Israel and Palestine must be framed within the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that carefully balances the conflicting narratives in an even-handed manner. There's an Israel beyond the IP Conflict, just as there's a Palestine beyond the IP Conflict.

I therefore see nothing wrong with Jews experiencing all the best Israel has to offer. But I also would urge Birthright participants to fulfill a personal obligation to study the conflict on their own time, to understand that there's more to the Holy Land than what Birthright shows, and thereby to be able to identify propaganda by omission when they encounter it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ice Cream and Defending Human Rights

Since our military intervention in Libya, I've heard a lot of people complaining about American inconsistency. The usual argument goes something like: Why Libya and  not Bahrain or Syria? Shouldn't we support democratic protesters everywhere?

I think this argument is misguided. For one, it's not clear why inconsistency is an argument against supporting human rights in a particular case. As Nick Kristof put it, "Isn't it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?"

Moreover, while our actions are certainly inconsistent, it's not so clear that we arbitrarily uphold our principles.

To explain, take my unflagging craving for ice cream. I buy it whenever I can afford it. But what happens if the price of ice cream is too high? I go without. In other words, costs mediate my insatiable hunger for ice cream. When my wallet allows, I buy ice cream. When it doesn't, I don't. If someone only looks at how consistently I eat ice cream without reference to its cost and my bank account, it'll look as if I inconsistently crave ice cream. In fact, I only inconsistently purchase it.

As Joshua Foust tweeted today, there's a difference between consistency of action and consistency of principle. I agree with him that the latter is more important than the former (though he uses this distinction to still argue against the Libya intervention).

Just because we do not always intervene to protect human rights, that does not necessarily mean we do not have a consistent preference for human rights. Just as when I buy ice cream, we have to look at the costs (economic, political and military) of intervention and our ability to afford those costs.

In the case of Libya, given the domestic and international support for intervention and the impotency of Qaddafi's air defenses, military intervention was relatively inexpensive. In comparison, intervention in Syria or Bahrain would be far more expensive. Therefore, even if we consistently prefer to support democracy in both countries, there's no fault in inconsistently acting upon those preferences given the divergent costs.

That's why Denis McDonough recently explained, "We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region." In other words, McDonough has no problem that our consistent pursuit of our interests will result in inconsistent actions. Nor do I.

Of course, this discussion of costs ignores two other important questions. One, even if we can afford intervention, will it be effective? And two, do we currently conceive our interests to include the democratization of the Middle East?

I would answer intervention can sometimes be effective and we should conceive democratization as our national interest. But that's clearly up to debate.