Monthly Archives: August 2013

Casus Belli, Syria & Chemical Weapons

url  Our international system rests on two pillars: states are sovereign, and they shall not, for the most part, attack each other.  Both of these are reflected in the U.N. charter which recognizes two exceptions: an attack in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolution or in defense of one’s self or collective.  The U.S. is now faced with either abiding by these laws or abandoning them for a possible unlawful intervention in Syria.  For all its disregard for law, including the recent use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime has not given up its own sovereignty.   As a matter of international law the conflict continues to be an internal despite the violent spill over into Turkey and Lebanon.

The first exception to the rule covers any intervention supported by the Security Council.  The U.S. had such a mandate in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and the most recent Gulf War.  Due to a likely veto from Russia and China that deals with any Syrian intervention there is little possibility for U.N. sanction.

The second exception applies to defense of self or the collective.  Under this ruling Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Iraq or Lebanon could respond as could their allies in NATO.  Legally this is a very grey area. Despite the occasional skirmish on Turkish or Israeli borders this may not have created a justification for war.

Some may argue that states have a right to self-defense in the form of a preemptive attack.  However, this theory has a troubled past not the least of which is due to the U.S. justification of the Iraq war, not to mention it relies heavily on proof of imminent threat and intent. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of intent from the Assad regime and these are historically hard to prove.

The U.S. will likely compile an argument based on the chemical weapons usage and horrors taken place within Syria, of which there are many, and argue the adverse impacts on the region.  As in the case of Kosovo, this argument produces a war that is unlawful, but justifiable nonetheless.  This argument is made even more murky by the fact that Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and thus may not be held to a law they never signed.

The Obama administration must also wrestle with U.S. law as well as international.  The Constitution divides power between the Executive and the Congress which has the ability to declare war, raise taxes to support war and set the rules for war.  The Justice Department decided in 2011 that the President could launch attacks into Libya as long as “such use of force was in national interest” and the duration “would not trigger Congressional approval.” The argument that Syria now threatens regional stability is certainly plausible but may not be enough to sway Congress.

When we feel passionate about a conflict it is easy to dismiss these laws as unnecessary constraints on American power.  However, international law has a value more than its codification of normative values.  The slope between war and peace can be very slippery and the treaties, laws and institutions act as road signs and brakes on that slope allowing us weigh the enormous costs of war.  By following international law we could slow the slide to war and build a legal, moral and truly international force.


Microfinance: The Good, The Bad, The Macro

microfinance_image   Microcredit is money lending reinvented for a social purpose, and it has taken the development world by storm. People praise it for being able to keep interest rates low and by removing some unsavory elements of traditional lending such as India’s use of hooligans to collect payments or the multiplier effect which negatively impacts both lender and borrower. It has certainly had some success but how much and its overall impact is the subject of some debate.

Typically micro-loans involve loans to a group of borrowers who are liable for each other’s loans and hence have a reason to make sure each other pay.  Some organizations expect borrowers to know each other when they come to pay, others hold weekly meetings.  The very act of bringing the borrowers together helps to build a group mentality and makes them more willing to help out a group member who faces difficulty. Unlike traditional moneylenders their policy is to never use physical violence, but the power of shame seems powerful enough.

Where MFI differ from other loans is that they remove almost all flexibility. Moneylenders allow borrowers to decide how they repay their debt…some pay once a week, some twice a month some just pay the interest until the are able to put more money down.  MFI’s has to repay a fixed amount every week at a time and place designated by the group.  The biggest advantage to this is that the collector has a much easier time getting all his/her payments.  The loan officer simply has to look and see if they have enough from this particular group and then move on to the next.  This allows the loan officer to collect from 100 to 200 groups a day and not wait around to see if the might get paid.  Furthermore, the officer doesn’t need to be particularly educated or trained, both of which help keep costs down.  Keeping costs down reduces the risk of the multiplier effect and makes lending to the poor possible.

It’s a good plan but whether or not it works depends on your definition of “work.” Defenders of MFI say it transforms lives. The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), an organization that promotes micro-credit at the World Bank states, ” there is mounting evidence to show that MFI can help reach the MDG’s.”

Despite their claims there’s actually very little evidence to support the impact of MFI’s largely due to their own reluctance to gather data.  Most of their data is anecdotal arguing, “as long as clients keep coming back, the loans must be helping them.” Maybe….but how much? 

Others argue that because MFI’s are financially sustainable evaluating them is unnecessary.  This disingenuous because most MFI’s are sponsored by donors and the generosity of their staff based on the idea that MFI’s are better than other ways to help the world’s poor.

So why haven’t micro-loans taken off? One possible reason is the inherent tension between entrepreneurship and the stringent rules of MFI’s.  While they can boast of a “zero-defaut” they may not be attracting the right people.  Small business owners are expected to take risks and sometimes fail, whereas MFI’s do not tolerate failure.  In short, micro-finance incentives playing it safe so it isn’t well suited to seek out those who thrive on risk seeking.

Why Egypt won’t be another Syria

imagesThe removal of the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters took a violent turn as security forces killed at least 525 people and injured almost 4,000 people nearly all of whom are Morsi supporters.  People who saw the assault have reported  bulldozers smashing camps and security forces opening fire on unarmed citizens.  One protestor is on record stating:

“Some onlookers were standing at the surrounding buildings, terrified by the unfolding deaths. Others smiled at the thought that the sit-in, which paralyzed their everyday lives for over a month, was coming to the end.”

Despite these last few tumultuous weeks and the “Day of Anger” scheduled today Egypt will mostly likely avoid spiraling into a civil war. First off, Egypt is held hostage to foreign influence such as aid from the U.S. and other Gulf States all of whom funnel billions of dollars into Egypt.  It’s unlikely that those external forces would allow one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East to fall into civil war.  Without that outside support its unclear if the military could sustain a civil war like the Assad government, which is propped up by military aid from Iran and Russia.  It’s true that arms have been smuggled into Egypt from Libya using Bedoin underground channels but these are mostly rifles and small arms, not the heavy artillery one would need to combat the Egyptian military for a prolonged length of time.

Second, up to now all signs point indicate that General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi has no interest in actually governing. Instead he is more concerned with the material perks of power, not the day-to-day running of a country such as the dispersal of public goods and managing a hard hit economy.

Lastly, Syria is run by a minority sect while Egypt is mostly Sunni and doesn’t have the deep Sunni/Shite tensions that plague other Middle East states such as Iraq and Syria.  Even the killings of Coptic Christians doesn’t seem to be stirring the embers that would ignite a full-blown civil war.

The conflict now is less of a civil war and more of a propaganda war where the Muslim Brotherhood has gained the world’s sympathy and the military might be pushed by public opinion to allow for more liberal forces to enter the political debate.  If the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain its non-violent stance then Abdul Fatah may back down thus ending one of the most violent crackdowns in history.  However the military must find a way to save face and realize that they cannot eradicate the Brotherhood with violence.

Benghazi and the Raven: America’s Policy Omen

Quoth_the_Raven22wDetail   One long and fateful night in a place few Americans could find on a map, four people were killed and ten others were injured.  While this could describe an attack anywhere from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, it happened in Benghazi.  Political hearings and investigations ran wild with conspiracy, but the attack does raise some interesting questions…why Benghazi and why do we seem so intrigued? Will this continue to haunt U.S. foreign policy like the Raven in Poe’s poem?

To the first question, we may never know exactly but the nature of Gaddafi’s overthrow and the state of Benghazi itself may offer some clues.  Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Libya’s Arab Spring took a violent turn as rebels and government forces battled for control. Upon his ouster several armed groups, that are mostly civilian led, with heavy artillery were left to control certain areas.  These groups include the Abu Ubaidah militia, who acted as police and military in Benghazi at the time of the attack.  It’s worth noting that Abu Ubaidah is a sub group of the larger Ansar al Sharia–a Salafist Jihadist organization. While Egypt was able to have a peaceful overthrow largely due to the military’s refusal to shoot its own people, Libya was thrown into violence and then flooded with weapons from the west. Certainly overthrowing Gaddafi was a worthwhile endeavor however flooding a country with weapons is tricky as you don’t control who gets them and in the chaos that follows and the strong often take control.

To the second question, the answer is largely partisanship. Simply put the Republicans need a foreign policy platform to run on and their recent contributions to the debate have been less than inspiring. But this doesn’t get to the bottom of the puzzle as CNN has reported that the CIA is trying to keep a lid on any of their secrets from ever leaking out.

Benghazi is the Raven of the post-Bush era counter-terrorism wars and continues to rap on the doors of foreign policy as symbol of dread.  It’s not a perfect analogy but much like the Raven in Poe’s poem it reminds us our past and present.  To understand why lets review the basic points of the Benghazi attack:

  • Predictions of stability in Libya now look more dubious as political turmoil rises not just in Libya but throughout much of Middle East
  • Libya remains unable to quell challenges to internal stability as the escape of 1,100 inmates  illustrates
  •  As Joshua Faust notes this wasn’t a diplomatic embassy that was attacked but a CIA outpost that was center to a heavily secretive CIA operation

Therein lies the omen of the Raven as this indirect “lead from behind” tactic has its own risks and flaws.  It should come as no surprise that the CIA was so heavily involved in Benghazi, after all this is post-Bush era strategy of fighting wars without a heavy “boots on the ground” presence. Instead of having a large military force the outpost was working with intellengence and building relationships on the ground, thus the use of the CIA. Stereotypes aside, CIA outposts are not heavily guarded, most having very light security; they rely more on obscurity than imposing military forces.  Once that obscurity is blown so too is there best and first line of defense and the risk of this tactic came rap rap rapping on their door.

In a fluid and strategic environment we have put many of our military and intelligence personnel into dangerous and often unstable parts of the world. Many of them serve in isolated posts similar to Benghazi but even well fortified bases are vulnerable to attack from an enemy with good intelligence, some basic weaponry and a willingness to wage a war of attrition. This was the tactic of another group, in another war.

Neither Benghazi nor the more recent events in Yemen are proof that the indirect approach is invalid, instead they point out the difficulties in shaping that strategy.  Adapting tactics and means to a rapidly changing political landscape can prove difficult and making one without a shared political vision is harder. To be sure, this approach still better than previous theories of war that proved to be temporary fixes with long, difficult commitments from which we tried to extract ourselves.

The “lead from behind” approach remains the better of the U.S.’s current alternatives, but that Raven will remain as reminder of the costs of its risks and possible failures.

Gender Violence in Armed Conflict: Where Have All the Men Gone?

soldiers_01 The United Nations argues in Women, War and Peace that while women remain a minority of combatants and perpetrators of war they increasingly suffer the greatest harm.  This myth about gender and armed conflict has taken on a life of its own both in academia and in policy areas while no resource offers the breakdown of victimhood by gender necessary to make that claim.

The idea of predominantly female victimhood seems to stem from the misunderstood number that 90% of all casualties in war are civilians mentioned in the article.  The author makes two assumptions with that quote. First, casualty does not necessarily mean fatality  and “civilian” is being used interchangeably with “women.”  Associating ‘gender’ with ‘women’ is a common mistake, one that I’ve dealt with in my own classes.

If the data is restricted to conflict related deaths or the intentional killing of civilians by a combatant than men become far more likely to be victims than women, approximately 10 times more likely.

If you expand the definition of victimhood to include sexual violence and other types of conflict related attacks, that may sway the data but men are not immune to sexual abuse.  When it comes to indirect violence such as disease and malnutrition a study by ICRC states that women may be disproportionately represented in refugee camps, however the American Political Science review states that within civil wars women are more likely to perish from indirect violence.  While these reports don’t contradict each other they demonstrate the divide in how to measure gender violence and the difficulties in gathering data on indirect violence.

The very term “gender violence” is often misused to mean ‘violence against women’ by policy agencies and academics.  This gender stereotype has deadly consequences for men as it equates a person’s sex with gender roles in battle.  If it is accepted that men are combatants, then they all become targets and a woman’s role in combatant is not questioned. This binary categorization of the genders in combat is resulting in men not being allowed civilian status and protection as is happening on the Syrian/Jordanian border.  

Why does any of this matter?  Changing the views of male victimhood may change the way we see larger societal gender roles.  The feminist movement has long used the woman warrior to challenge gender roles, its odd that male victims have not been used for the same goal.