What Daenerys’ Error Teaches Us About American Tolerance for War Crimes

Alex Montgomery I have a new post up at Foreign Policy arguing that “The Bells” – and audience reactions to it – tell us something about American attitudes toward just war theory. A relevant topic with rising tensions w/ Iran, a debate over whether to pardon war criminals, and the stated willingness of our own rulers to violate war law.

The underlying reason for the outcry went unspoken: The deliberate targeting of civilians from the air, using incendiary weapons that are impossible to escape, is rightly recognized by Americans as a terrible crime—something good actors just don’t do. Our research confirms the evidence from reactions to the show’s finale. Americans would have wanted Daenerys to use air power but only against military targets such as the Iron Fleet. They would have wanted her to limit its use inside the city walls to avoid collateral damage. They would have wanted her to target the Red Keep, if needed, but not the streets of Flea Bottom. They would have chosen to let boots on the ground do the work of breaching the Red Keep and capturing Cersei Lannister and expected the Unsullied, Dothraki, and Northmen to fight soldiers rather than massacre civilians. All of these arguments show a clear and consistent understanding of, and sensitivity to, the international laws of war.

If public opinion can indeed constrain the executive – and there is evidence it can – this matters for foreign policy.

The article, I hope, does three other unstated things:

  1. Demonstrates the kind of analysis Paul Musgrave mentions IR scholars could and should be engaging in vis-a-vis pop-culture artifacts.
  2. Develops a testable hypothesis: that audience reception of pop culture artifacts could be as reliable a source of information on public opinion as fictionalized survey experiments, if only we start paying closer attention.
  3. Reminds us that American concern for the protection of civilians is a fragile thing, and not a historical inevitability.

Read the whole thing here.

Will the Dominos Fall in Westeros: When Secession Spreads (or Not)

Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments. Here’s my take on the secessionist element. Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments.  Here’s my take on the secessionist element.

From https://www.quora.com/Why-is-it-called-the-7-kingdoms-when-there-are-9-of-them
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What Game of Thrones Got Wrong About Firebombing

Much ink has been spilled since last Sunday about the massacre at King’s Landing. Why did Dany carpet-bomb a civilian population after a city had surrendered? Was this a sign of her growing madness? Or a rational strategy to cement the legitimacy of her claim? Why didn’t the showrunners build it up better? Did they compromise Dany’s story arc as a civilian-protection advocate or were her actions always foreshadowed by her worst “fire and blood” tantrums?

In the handwringing over what Daenerys did, scant analysis has focused on how she did it. This is important since audiences draw inferences from popular culture about causal effects in real world foreign policy scenarios – such as a looming conflict with Iran. Since dragons represent air power, we should understand the historical analogy for the firebombing of King’s Landing not as the sack of medieval cities in a feudal era, but rather the saturation bombings of World War II, where undefended cities were systematically incinerated from the air.

Viewed this way, “The Bells” badly missed the mark in accurately portraying the humanitarian, operational and strategic costs of such campaigns, which the US has used before and Republican politicians have threatened to use again. In so doing, the showrunners missed an opportunity to educate its audience on the true horror of firebombing, and the way in which political actors use it at their own peril.

Fire Is Not a Precision Weapon. When Drogon begins his assault on King’s Landing, he begins with military targets – the Greyjoy naval fleet. Conceivably, fire on the ocean could be contained from spread to the civilian population on land. But once the burning of the city perimeter from the interior begins, it already beggars belief that the city’s inhabitants could be protected from the fire’s spread. This is because fire is notoriously uncontrollable – one in a category of weapons banned under international law in the real world, when civilian populations are nearby, due to its ability to spread once deployed. In short, contrary to its portrayal in the episode, Dany’s use of dragonfire already threatened the civilian population even before she targeted them directly.

When Drogon began targeting the city inhabitants directly, the showrunners portrayed the fires burning where they were ignited: in city streets, largely contained by the surrounding structures. But in reality, fire engulfs structures. Cities burn in sheets, not rivers. Fire eats air, creating windstorms, which feed and speed the fire. The Tokyo firebombing created walls of fire, ripping through closely packed, mostly wooden homes. In Dresden, a city where many of the buildings were reinforced with concrete, the Allied firestorm still destroyed over half the structures in the city with hurricane-speed winds.

Rather than seeing civilians running away down streets and hiding around protected corners, audiences should have seen them facing ever-growing, shifting, enveloping tsunamis of fire once the first few streets were lit. Rather than Cersei watching ribbons of flame from the distance, she should have seen whole neighborhoods swallowed up progressively. The ignition of wildfire would have only exacerbated this trend.

For this reason alone, it seems incomprehensible that Dany would unleash this holocaust in an area where her own troops were present – or that her soldiers would have any chance at a protected route of retreat. Historically, the strategic bombing of civilians from the air is not a method used in areas where ground troops are already engaging the enemy on foot – for good reason. Dany’s willingness to sacrifice her own remaining men to an indiscriminate firestorm – not her willingness to punish civilians, an act often undertaken during the siege of medieval cities – is actually the best indicator that she was acting irrationally. That the showrunners allowed us to believe that a large portion of her military survived the siege only underscores the cinematic sleight of hand at play.

Fire Kills Loudly and Slowly. Through a number of cinematic choices, the creators of “The Bells” also led audiences to think that death by firebombing is quicker, less painful, less terrifying and less certain than it actually would be.

In real life, a city under incendiary siege is a noisy place. Survivors of the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo refer back above all to the screaming. Of course, there were panicked shouts and screams of fear in King’s Landing last week, but we did not hear the shrieks of the dying, as the showrunners chose to include in previous episodes.

Think of the screams of Mirri Maz Dur in Season One, or the cries of Shireen Barratheon in Season Five: the sounds of only one person at a time dying slowly by fire. When the Sept fell in Season Six, only a handful of political elites and surrounding civilians died in the resulting blaze, but their shrieks could be heard by King Tommen from his window at the Red Keep. Multiply that by tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians burning slowly to death in ongoing waves – what Cersei should have been listening to from the same window – and suddenly the episode we saw becomes eerily, unjustifiably quiet.

Visually, instead of choosing to portray fire’s lethal heat effects, and the full fury of their humanitarian consequences, the showrunners instead gave us primarily fast-killing blast effects. We see civilians overrun by bursts of flame and incinerated quickly and soundlessly – disappearing from sight into the flame, instead of convulsing before our eyes. We see civilians panicking and running from the fire, but we do not see mothers running away while listening as the babies on their backs actually catch fire and begin burning alive. We do not see people pile up in desperation at the end of city blocks as the flames overtake them.

To be fair, audiences were permitted to see the aftermath of death by fire: charred bodies appropriately reminiscent of images from the aftermath of Dresden, Tokyo and the countless other Asian and European cities targeted from the air in that period. But we are allow to imagine the inhabitants of King’s Landing died quickly, their corpses blackening in the aftermath. Just as we do not hear them, we do not see civilians slowly burning.

We also do not see civilians suffocate. In real firebombing campaigns of the 1940s, many civilians took shelter in cellars or other structures. But the heat of an inferno sucks away oxygen, dooming even those who escape the flames. In World War II, families were found huddled in blast shelters after suffocating together – a lingering death which can take up to three minutes.

Instead of capturing this reality, “The Bells” portrays interiors as vulnerable primarily to demolition and explosive violence. Civilians are seen sheltering inside buildings from the flames and melee. Cersei and Jaime find temporary respite in the catacombs. When Arya encourages a group to flee instead of sheltering in place, they are quickly killed, suggesting they would have been safer inside. In reality, they would likely have traded one death for another. The Lannister twins would likely have asphyxiated long before being buried alive. 

As Tyrion says, “I do not want to hear the sound of children screaming as they burn alive.” Perhaps, the showrunners decided, audiences would also not wish to hear that sound. It is, as Qyburn reminds us, “not pleasant.” Yet by sanitizing the sound of the siege, by sanitizing the sight of it, by limiting its complexity, the showrunners dulled audiences’ senses to the reality of firebombing. By making the intolerable slightly more tolerable, they deadened our understanding of what massacre by air truly entails.

Firebombing Civilians is Strategically Ineffective. Though Dany may yet atone for her sins, by all appearances thus far the following episode depicts a successful claim to the throne, her army victorious, the remaining inhabitants (and her own people) cowed. Yet in the real world, there is no instance where a firebombing campaign yielded the result sought by its perpetrator – and often, it has yielded retaliation in kind. 

Strategic bombing proponents in World War II believed terrorizing civilians from the air would induce surrender. But even the most oft-cited argument – that the atomic bomb forced a Japanese surrender – is historically disputed. The Hiroshima bombing took place on August 6th, 1945, but for three days the Japanese continued to refuse surrender and did not even meet to discuss the bombing. What convinced Japan to surrender was a different event occurring days later: Stalin entered the war, invading Japan from the north. Burning civilians with nuclear fire was little more effective than using regular incendiary bombs.

Which is to say, ineffective: there is no case in history where conventional firebombing produced the desired effect. When Nazi Germany tried it against Britain between 1941-1940, hoping to shock British civilians into demanding surrender, the Blitz only galvanized Brits and made them blood-hungry. Yet the British firebombing of German cities was equally counter-productive: German industrial production went up the more ordnance Britain dropped, and the age range for men and boys enlisting in the Wehrmacht expanded. Firebombing civilians has domestic blowback effects as well. In Vietnam, the use of napalm and carpet-bombing galvanized the peace movement at home and delegitimized the war. Recent use in Syria has led to renewed international efforts to more comprehensively outlaw incendiary weapons.

If the Game of Thrones finale is at all true to life, history will punish Dany for her crimes. Yet just as the show produced a devastatingly sanitized depiction of incendiary warfare, it is equally plausible that tonight’s finale will portray saturation bombing as an effective way to bolster a ruler’s legitimate claim to the throne. This would be a dangerously unrealistic portrayal of the political consequences of indiscriminate air power.

Why It Matters. It is now well known by social scientists that pop culture influences attitudes about real-world events. Audiences easily learn false lessons about history and causation through narrative storytelling loosely based on historical analogy. Depictions of political violence can sensitize or desensitize. They can influence political beliefs and public opinion. The messages audiences take from a show like Game of Thrones have political consequences.

While fans were obsessing over whether Dany had gone mad or whether Arya’s horse symbolized death or peace, the Trump Administration quietly began inching closer toward war with Iran. US public opinion polls have already been fielded testing American support for a saturation bombing strike on an Iranian civilian city in the event that the US finds itself in an intractable ground war unable to induce a surrender.

Pop culture can convey cautionary tales, and Game of Thrones has often done so. But the most popular show in history, known for its soberingly grisly portrayals of political violence, just whitewashed the implications of firebombing a civilian population. In so doing, it missed its chance to show American how terrible such an act would be for civilians on the other side and – if the enemy retaliated in kind – here at home.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Appetite for Self Destruction, or three suicides and a funeral*

Here’s my argument: Late 80s/early 90s Soviet Union. The United Kingdom in 2016. The United States 2016 to now. Three contemporary examples of international suicide that conventional IR neither predicted nor can account.

Ok, so perhaps suicide is too hyperbolic a concept and we should go with appetite for self-destruction . Certainly in the case of the Soviet Union any agential claim regarding the state is overdrawn. But either way I think there is a point here. All three states, and particularly the last two, undertook an internally driven diminution of international standing and capacity—dare I say, power.

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Plato and teaching Foreign Policy

I assigned Plato’s Theaetetus this semester in my foreign policy class. It was the very first thing we read in a course that included more standard text’s like Walter Russel Mead’s Special Providence, Tom Schelling’s Arms and Influence, and selections from Andrew Bacevich’s edited volume of primary sources, Ideas and American Foreign Policy. On first glance, reading a work of political philosophy—and one which is widely considered one of the more difficult texts in the Western canon—might seem like a poor fit. But, my experiment paid off and I may continue assigning the Theaetetus or similar texts in my courses on foreign policy in the future. Its theme is epistemology, knowledge, and specifically it challenges the idea that humans can actually know anything. I have plans to write something up for a journal, but in this piece, I want to explore how it might be used in the classroom should anyone feel ambitious enough to replicate.

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A Holiday “With Tears in Your Eyes”

One thing that Trump hasn’t done today yet (which he should have if he wants to stay in Putin’s good graces) was to congratulate Russians with Victory day. It’s an incredibly important holiday in contemporary Russia and its commemoration dynamic can help understand a large chunk of Russian foreign policy.

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Need some evidence of America’s waning influence?

One of the (many) concerns about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is the impact it will have on US influence around the world. Will Trump’s rhetoric and actions restore US dominance in the international system, or will they aggravate the world, leading them to look elsewhere for leadership? We can find some answers in the reports that Trump is considering branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Most debating US influence under Trump think it’s waning. Dan Drezner has pointed to public opinion polling suggesting a turn away from the United States. The UN Secretary General agrees. And others have suggested America start learning lessons in hegemonic decline from Great Britain.

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Ukraine’s New PreZE!dent

“Servant of the People” The history of the Next President

Cue in the Twitter hot-takes in which Ukrainians elected themselves “a TV show star” with “no political experience”. Relax, not all TV stars are racist ignoramuses who want wall and try to spoon state flags. Despite winning the elections with a whopping 73% (and beating his own onscreen presidential score in his hit TV show), this one is different.

If you grew up in post-Soviet Russia you already know Ukraine’s incoming president – Volodymir Zelensky. He was a regular on the Soviet Union’s stand-up comedy show KVN (Club of Funny and Quick-witted), which propelled him to Russian-speaking international fame back in the 90s. His skit of a “person born in dance” made him one of the most recognizable KVN members, most of whom still represent the backbone of the Russian-speaking comedy industry in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. New generations might be more familiar with his later work in “Servant of the People” (also the name of his newly formed party) – a TV show about a history teacher who accidentally won the presidential elections in Ukraine, – as well as a host of other comedy shows and movies. The incumbent Poroshenko called Zelensky “a bright candy wrapper” (and that’s something coming from a chocolate candy king of the Post-Soviet space) that conceals a bunch of external interests and “fifth column”, even going as far as plastering Ukraine with election posters that showed Poroshenko against Putin, alluding to the fact that Zelensky is supposedly the latter one’s puppet.
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Understanding Israel

This is a guest post from Brent Sasley, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He tweets at @besasley.

Israel holds a prominent place in the American popular imagination. It’s a major source of news reports, as well as an increasingly partisan issue in American electoral politics. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that American journalists and western journalists more generally seek out American and western analysts and academics for commentary on Israeli politics, such as the recent election.

On Twitter I suggested that western journalists look beyond western academics and analysts for insight into the Israeli election results, and in particular toward women, Arab, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian specialists. Someone then suggested that I compile a list for journalists to access, since most of these scholars and analysts are not likely to be known to western reporters. Below is a list I’ve put together that I hope can be useful. It is surely not a complete list, and the boundaries between the categories are not hard and fast; an analyst of Palestinian-Israeli politics can of course provide effective commentary on Israeli politics more broadly.

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Game of Thrones and Alliance Politics

I saw this tweet and could not help but respond:

Given that I have written about both Game of Thrones and alliance politics, I have to enter this discussion.  Spoilers dwell below as we get into this:

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Clarifying Classic Confusions for IR students

An amazing series of tweets must be re-posted here so that IR profs everywhere can use them for syllabi and for the first day of class.  A grateful nation owes Herb Carmen, former naval aviator, a tremendous debt.
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Editors, we need to talk about robustness checks

It’s happened to all of us (or least those of us who do quantitative work). You get back a manuscript from a journal and it’s an R&R. Your excitement quickly fades when you start reading the comments. One reviewer gives a grocery list of additional tests they’d like to see: alternate control variables, different estimators, excluded observations. Another complains about the long list of robustness checks already in the manuscript, as it obscures the important findings. Sometimes both of these reviewers are the same person.

And it gets even more complicated if the article ends up rejected and you send it to another journal. Now that list of robustness checks–some of which were of questionable value–expands under a new set of reviewers’ comments. And those reviewers irritated by voluminous appendices get even more annoyed by all the tests included with little clear justification (“another reviewer told me to add this” not being an acceptable footnote).

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Winners of the 2019 Duckies!

This is a guest post from William Kindred Winecoff, Incoming Chair

and Brent E. Sasley, Outgoing Chair of the Online Media Caucus

The Online Media Caucus’s 2019 Duckies have come and gone. The reception celebrating Online Achievement in International Studies, generously sponsored by SAGE Publishing, included three fascinating Ignite speakers and the presentation of five awards to very deserving scholars.

Ignite speakers:

Meg Guliford, PhD candidate at Tufts University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, spoke about “Operation Hedge of Protection,” which contains her strategies for dealing with trolls on Twitter.

Naazneen Barma, Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and Co-Director of Bridging the Gap, presented some ideas for thinking about best practices in online activity.

Paul Poast, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago, explained how and why he created a Twyllabus for his Introduction to IR course.

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Climate Change as Anarchy: The Need for A New Structural Theory of IR

I arrived in Toronto for ISA on Thursday and went straight to the annual luncheon hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, which featured some of my favorite policy oriented scholars, Kori Schake, Dan Drezner, Charles Kupchan, and Barry Posen. It was a lively discussion about the rise of illiberal nationalism and what it means for world order.

Someone from the audience asked about climate change, and the topic got lost in the shuffle. The last questioner, an older guy in a brilliant purple shirt, asked again about climate change and whether the international community was up to the challenge. Drezner said he wasn’t all that optimistic, though the U.S. military is a bright spot given the impacts on bases and its relatively consistent concern. And then it was over.

As we got up to leave and say hello to familiar faces, I thought that the field has to have more to say about the importance of climate change. In a 2017 TRIPS survey, IR scholars ranked climate change as the most important threat foreign policy issue facing the United States over the next 10 years, and yet, we have not had a reckoning for how climate will change both the reality of international relations and the study of it.

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Failed National Military Strategy Analogies

by Anonymous US National Security expert, as part of a new series of posts providing insights into the policy-making process

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Does IR really have a “culture problem?”

Is it a mistake to push back on a senior scholar (whose work you admire) right before ISA? Maybe. Is it overkill to post twice in one week? Probably (sorry Duck superiors). But I had to say something about this Christian Reus-Smit piece in Foreign Policy–based on his new bookclaiming IR doesn’t understand culture. It’s an example of the sort of well-meaning critique that fails to really engage with work being done in IR, which can divide and undermine scholars who should be working together.

Reus-Smit argues IR sees culture in an outdated manner, approaching cultures “as tightly integrated, neatly bounded, and clearly differentiated” entities that are “causally powerful.” He argues this misrepresents reality, ignores advances in other fields, and is a common failing across realist, rationalist and constructivist theories.

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Citation Conversation Continued

My post on citation got far more engagement than nearly all of the things I have posted over the years, so I thought I would return to the scene of the crime/post.  While many academics agreed whole heartily with my take, more than a few did not including folks I respect a great deal.  What were their perspectives?

  1. Citations are a lousy measure, one with much bias, of academic relevance/achievement, etc.
  2. People would rather be contacted so that they can provide the latest version of the paper, rather than something that might be half-baked, wrong, or incomplete.
  3. People worry about being scooped or plagiarized.
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The slow death of realism in IR

It seems like good times have come around again for realists. After decades in the theoretical and empirical doldrums (getting end of Cold War wrong, opposition to war in Iraq, terrorism and COIN) realism is back. The most recent U.S. National Defense Strategy renews a focus on great power competition, specifically with China and Russia. The Pentagon has offloaded MRAPs and is stocking up on boost phase interceptors, hypersonics, and other weapons platforms not all that useful against insurgents but great for peer competitors. Oh, happy days for the balance of power!

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Is religious freedom just for the faithful?

Yesterday, Michelle Kosinki of CNN reported via Twitter that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was holding a special briefing for “faith-based media” only. She later relayed that the State Department was refusing to release the list of invited media or a transcript of the event. And we’ve now learned that the topic of the briefing was the state of religious freedom around the world. This creates a dangerous precedent and raises some serious issues about the manner in which conservatives define religious freedom. It also highlights why progressives need to engage with, rather than write off, religious freedom.

As anyone who’s read my posts here, on Medium or on Huffington Post back in the day, knows, international religious freedom (IRF) is an issue I follow closely. I ran the Pew Research Center’s work on religious freedom, and also wrote reports on this topic for Georgetown’s Berkley Center and the Center for American Progress. Unlike many who work on this issue, I come at it from a liberal perspective. I’ve tried to convince fellow liberals that this cause can be nonpartisan while also nudging international religious freedom advocates to live up to their claims of an ecumenical and bipartisan movement.

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How Not to Get Cited

by Steve Saideman

Put “do not cite, do not circulate” on your paper.  I received a paper for the upcoming ISA which had that instruction on it.  I yelled at (ok, I mocked) my students last week for doing the same thing.  In the olden days, folks would put “do not cite” on their papers because they wanted to polish them before submitting, that they didn’t want to have errant results widely circulated.  Perhaps there is a fear that if a paper is circulated, it might get scooped.

But  NO!!!!

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