Tag: color revolutions

Fortune-Tellers of Foreign Policy

 Congressional hand-wringing over America’s inability to forecast the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts is unsurprising given the foreign policy hubris that dominates in Washington today.  How can it be, the cry goes out, that America, was blindsided by these earthshaking events?  Doesn’t “exceptional” America see further and act more wisely than other nations? 

Sadly, that arrogant and delusional mindset is unlikely to be changed even by this latest “intelligence” failure.  Rather than questioning whether anyone could have predicted this kind of event—let alone whether we should be trying to control the future of other societies—the response is likely to be:  let’s throw more money at the problem! 
In fact, this “failure” is part of a broader, failed effort to know and control the foreign policy future, led by groups like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS).  As Noah Shachtman points out (h/t Dan Nexon), this project has gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars.   Yet its predictions are no better than those of a handful of area specialists—or, probably, a cup of tea leaves.
In that light, ICEWS and DARPA are useful primarily to keep Defense Department and “intelligence” budgets growing.  What better way to generate a constant flow of dollars than having not only trumped up “threats” like terrorism–but also ” crisis forecasts” that would require immediate, costly “readiness” efforts?
Consider, for instance, what might have happened if ICEWS had in fact foretold Mubarak’s resignation a year ago?  What could the U.S. have done with that information?

First of all, unless the system was 100% accurate, it would no doubt have been dangerous or at least unpredictable to do anything.  In any case, doing something would no doubt have screwed up the model itself.  But leave aside that trifling matter.  Better yet, invent a technological fix, a feedback factor!  If the seers of DARPA can predict the future, let’s also allow them to feed any reaction into their computers and predict how it would affect the model, again with 100% accuracy.  
A year ago, our good ally and Hillary Clinton’s dear friend, Hosni, seemed untouchable.  Autocratic “stability” reigned supreme in the Middle East–just as America has long preferred.  In that case, top U.S. officials, perhaps Hillary herself, would no doubt have tipped him off to his predicted end.  Yet I somehow doubt that Mubarak would have taken the news submissively, cowed by some pointy-headed modelers.  Rather, he would have unleashed a wave of additional repression against those he deemed likely to foment unrest. 
What if we’d kept the prediction to ourselves?  Would the U.S. have started quietly pulling diplomatic staff from Egypt, discreetly advising tourists to head to Cancun rather than Cairo, or at least tipping off the hotheads in Congress who are desperate to be ahead of the curve?  Perhaps. 
But one thing is certain:  There would have been a large uptick in defense department contingency planning and spending—justified by “science,” but to little useful purpose.
What about a seemingly beneficent example of forecasting the future—to take the most extreme one, predicting when genocide will occur with the idea of preventing it?  Certainly, that would be a wonderful thing and could save countless lives—if, again, it could be done with 100% accuracy. 
But, just as in the Egyptian revolt case, there are far too many unknowns to predict this kind of result far enough in advance to prevent it.  Certainly, there may be  “warning signs”—like a repressive government suddenly issuing cards identifying all members of a nation by ethnicity, or preparing a plan to systematically slaughter them.  But do we really need massive computer programs to pick these things up? 
Our tools for doing anything in the face of these signs are in any case crude—though peaceful conflict prevention measures would probably be worth trying in some cases.  But what about a massive military intervention before a genocide had started?  This seems infeasible—and in fact likely to trigger the very thing it is aimed to halt.  Milosevic’s reaction to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 after the Rambouillet ultimatum is a case in point—perhaps not genocide, per se, but certainly mass expulsions prompted by international actions against him.
Major events like the fall of a government or genocide are highly unpredictable beyond a very short time frame.  And, if one does not have 100% certainty, taking any action pre-emptively will often make matters worse. 
In short, programs like ICEWS are yet another case of spending huge amounts on efforts whose overt benefits are questionable—even if the covert benefits, for the government contractors and military, are huge.  Whether for good or ill, godlike efforts at predicting the future are sinkholes of squander.  Admittedly, they are small-scale in the deeply cratered landscape of wasteful defense department spending.  But wouldn’t it be refreshing if a few Congressional gadflies critiqued such programs not for their failures to predict the future–but for their very conception?
The underlying mindset is even riper for critique.  The self-styled deities of our foreign policy establishment do not rest content with predicting the future.  Their real intent is to play God—to control the future.  Consider just one irritating example, Aaron David Miller, on NPR yesterday morning.  (I do not know Miller and use him only as an example from among many possible figures who have made similar statements in recent weeks.)
In his view, the U.S. is “in the worst of all possible worlds with grand expectations and supporting very important values, but without the capacity and leverage to implement a preferred American outcome or even an outcome in Egypt that we can control.”  According to NPR, Miller believes this is a part of a long-term trend in which U.S. credibility is reaching all time lows. “We are neither admired, respected or feared to the degree that we need to be in order to protect our interests, and the reality is — and this is just another demonstration of it — everybody in this region says no to America without cost or consequences [Afghanistan’s] Hamid Karzai says no, [Iraq’s] Maliki on occasion says no, [Iran’s] Khamenei says no, [Israel’s] Netanyahu says no. Mubarak says no repeatedly.”
How shocking!  The leaders of independent states, even our own client states, say No to us!  Our vast “hard power” doesn’t put the “fear” of God into our enemies—or our friends.  The “very important values” we supposedly support don’t generate respect.  (Remind me by the way, what those values are, given likely extension of the Patriot Act, continuing detentions at Guantanamo Bay, rampant drone strikes, etc., etc.)  If only we had the right DARPA model!  Maybe then the people and the leaders of other countries would do our bidding.   
In fact, the idea that the Gods of Government can control the politics of other lands, when they can’t even control our own, would be laughable if it weren’t so costly in dollars and lives.  And that conceit, unfortunately extends well beyond the Beltway to the broader foreign policy “elite” in our country, as I’ve written about and critiqued before.
Don’t get me wrong.  As a social scientist, I think it makes sense to do research to understand and explain the world.  Public policy should be based on the best available information, and in some cases, it may be wise to make large public expenditures on the basis of predictions.  But controlling and even predicting human societies except in the broadest of generalities is a fool’s errand.
So, today, notwithstanding my happiness at Mubarak’s resignation and my admiration of the protesters, I can only hope–but certainly not predict–that Egypt will in fact develop a more democratic government in the future.  I can say that the Egyptian army, like militaries around the world including our own, is not exactly know for its democratic values.  I can say that “people power” may be able to keep the trend toward democratization going.  But in the end, the next stages of the Egyptian revolution are as unpredictable as any major social phenomenon–notwithstanding the fond dreams of the wannabe DARPA deities and their avaricious acolytes. 


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What to watch for

As the incredible events in Iran unfold–in the streets of Tehran and on Twitter–the obvious question is: is this the ‘Green Revolution’ or something else for which we don’t have a pre-fab category.

I would call your attention to two outstanding posts that give a very good insight into what to watch for. The unifying theme was perhaps best articulated by an anonymous Iranian commentator at Salon: “Legitimacy, much debated by social scientists, actually turns out to matter. It’s not just force that rules…” (h/t). In short, this is a moment of contentious politics* where the legitimacy of the Revolution, Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader and a few other major social institutions in Iran is in flux.

1. Rob Farley at LGM notes that the most important actors in the entire process aren’t the protesters, but the police. Farley’s review of the Tilly-esque story of the development of the state reminds us of the central function of the modern bureaucratic state is, as Weber noted so long ago, to maintain the legitimacy that allows rules to rule. States exercise the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. When the security forces no longer feel compelled by the erstwhile legitimacy of the state, the state ceases to exist as we currently understand it. If you see the police, revolutionary guards, and others standing by, or even supporting the resistance, the game is up.

Now, I’m not an Iran expert, and as Dan has noted, you should take all our analysis with that major caveat in mind. So, I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the institutional structure of the regime. That said, two points. First, the gangs of pro-regime thugs beating up protesters should not be seen to be the same as the State going after protesters. These groups may be encouraged by the ruling elite, but they are not the official actors of the state. They are thugs who wouldn’t be able to use force in normal times. Its those legitimated to use force who matter. Second, given the unique nature religion plays in the Islamic Republic, one might argue that some senior clerics might exercise the legitimate use of rhetorical force, so they bear watching as well.

2. orgtheory reminds us that revolutions are actually social movements that must have a social and organizational structure. These social resources–social networks, leadership, organizers, mobilizers, and experts–require time and effort to build and deploy. Its important to see if the protesters can wield any other levers of power against the regime beyond sheer numbers of people. It matters how many people come out– as Dan noted, thousands can be dealt with by the repressive institutions of the state, millions not so much. Its possible that the ability to conduct offensive cyber-war against the regime is a step in this direction. The potential for success comes when an alternative power structure emerges that could replace the existing regime in running the state. If the Supreme Leader falls, someone else needs to be ready to step in and take his (metaphorical) place.

More to the point, orgtheory offers a very powerful reminder:

I’ll be a bit incendiary to justify these questions by pointing toward the invasion of Iraq: The kind of thinking which suggests that a large, loud, outburst topples governments and then magically leads toward the emergence of a new order which “makes more sense” was, in the end, what undid our efforts in Iraq. It was naive – of us then and perhaps of protesters today – to think that opposition and even toppling a regime is enough. It’s what comes next—the alternative power structures and institutions that will step into the void—which require our attention now. Because it will be a power struggle–just as it became in Iraq. Educating ourselves on the underlying layers of Iranian society is vital because understanding this is how the US and supporters of Iranians’ freedom can best lend target support. Now is the time to educate ourselves.

Meaning, we need to be paying much more attention to what Gary Sick is saying, and not go overboard with the idea that we can fight the war with the right twitter-feed.

*h/t PTJ who said this to me earlier today.

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Elite cohesion faltering in Iran.. or just kubuki theater?

Today Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered an investigation into allegations of vote fraud in the presidential election as “tens of thousands” of pro-Mousavi protesters took to the streets in a so-far peaceful march. The march suggests that despite the government’s extensive attempts to disrupt counter-regime mobilization, opposition leaders and ordinary people are making headway in coordinating their activities.

I still believe that events in Iran throw cold-water on network-mobilization optimism, insofar as they demonstrate that governments still enjoy, ceteris paribus, fundamental advantages over social movements, and that these advantages will often carry the day if the government chooses to put them into practice.

But the latter is the key issue. If Khamenei’s decision reflects an growing increasingly intense rupture among various power-holders and power-centers in the Iranian regime, then the opposition has real cause for optimism. But if this is just kabuki theater, designed to de-mobilize the opposition and reinforce the legitimacy of the election among those loyal to Ahmadinejad, then it is far from clear whether that will ultimately take the wind out of the oppositions sails, or embolden them by showing the they’ve managed to scare the regime. It’s also far from clear whether a certification of the election results by the Guardian Council will help push any fence-sitters away from the opposition or, instead, further undermine the legitimacy of another part of the establishment. And this decision is sure to play into speculation that Ahmadinejad and his allies are attempting to carry out a shadow coup against the old guard, including Khamenei.

Unfortunately, I’m not an Iran expert, so I really have no idea. But that also reflects the underlying unpredictability of revolutionary processes. More on that theme, if time permits, later.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I think the way I wrote this may be a bit misleading. In many respects, what’s happening in Iran is an inter-elite squabble; the issue is whether the various power-centers in the regime completely fracture or enough of them hold the line to, among other things, ensure Ahmadinejad holds onto the Presidency.

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Regime adaptation and anti-regime collective action

Mark Beissinger, in a fantastic article entitled “Structure and Example in Modular Political Phenomena: The Diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip Revolutions” (abstract), develops an account of what he terms “modular revolutions”:

In the study of collective action, the notion of modularity has often been applied to the borrowing of mobilizational frames, repertoires, or modes of contention across cases. The revolutions that have materialized among the post-communist states since 2000 are examples of a modular phenomenon in this sense, with prior successful examples affecting the materialization of subsequent cases. Each successful democratic revolution has produced an experience that has been consciously borrowed by others, spread by NGOs, and emulated by local social movements, forming the contours of a model. With each iteration the model has altered somewhat as it confronts the reality of local circumstances. But its basic elements have revolved around six features:

1) the use of stolen elections as the occasion for massive mobilizations against pseudo-democratic regimes;
2) foreign support for the development of local democratic movements;
3) the organization of radical youth movements using unconventional protest tactics prior to the election in order to undermine the regime’s popularity and will to repress and to prepare for a final showdown;
4) a united opposition established in part through foreign prodding;
5) external diplomatic pressure and unusually large electoral monitoring; and
6) massive mobilization upon the announcement of fraudulent electoral results and the use of non-violent resistance tactics taken directly from the work of Gene Sharp, the guru of non-violent resistance in the West.

Beissinger also contends that not only do anti-regime movements learn–and derive inspiration–from past revolutions, but that regimes learn as well; in fact, they take proactive steps to disrupt the processes that lead to successful “color revolutions.”

Regimes have adapted by preventing adequate election monitoring, particularly by western organizations such as the OECD; in consequence, there’s no independent authority around to declare elections fraudulent. They’ve gone after independent media and otherwise attempted to limit the ability of regime opponents to coordinate with one another or get their message to the broader public. And so on and so forth. (We’ve even blogged about this kind of thing a bit in the context of Russia’s last national election).

Beissinger’s conclusion on this front is pessimistic for the success of future “color revolutions.” Regime adaptation, he argues, will outpace the strategies and tactics of democratic (or, at least, anti-regime) movements.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because we’re seeing a stunning example of such adaptation in Iran: access cut to social networking technology and websites (including, possibly, Tehran Bureau), cutting cell phone communications, as well as a media blackout that extends, apparently, to jamming BBC reports, shutting down foreign media bureaus, and throwing out foreign journalists. They’ve deployed a massive presence in Tehran (and presumably in other major cities); some of their security forces as roving the streets on motorcycles in an attempt to quickly, and brutally, crack down on unrest.

In at least one respect, the true facts about the Iranian election–which we are unlikely to ever know–are secondary to a basic fact: we’re seeing a vivid example not only of regime adaptation to a particular “revolutionary” process, but also strong evidence–at least so far–that modern communications technologies have failed to tip the balance when it comes to “networks” against “the state” to the degree that many, many scholars, pundits, and social theorists have claimed.

Which, oddly enough, is what my recent book concludes is a “lesson” of the Reformations Era for the present period.

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