Tag: Civil War

Immigration and Civil War - Should You Be Worried?

Some modern immigration restrictionists are arguing that immigration will cause a civil war in the United States or other countries unless it is curtailed or radically altered. Reihan Salam’s recent book Melting Pot or Civil War? is the most glaring example. In addition to the title, he points to immigration being a problem in and of itself that also increases the severity of other issues dividing American society. The result could be a civil war. Salam writes that “[t]he divisions that define this moment in American history are not yet as worrisome as those that led to the Civil War or the bloody battles putting workers against industrialists at the dawn of the last century … [n]evertheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that our luck might soon run out.”  

David Frum hints at the possibility of a racialized civil war by arguing that young white voters are also worried about immigrants bringing demographic changes, leading to the rise (again) of nationalist political parties in Europe that are running on platforms to restrict immigration. The problems of immigration are apparently so well-known that even countries that are not the destinations for immigrants, such as Hungary and Poland, are turning to nationalist politicians – sometimes. The notion of a racialized civil war caused by immigrants or as a reaction to them has even entered popular culture. Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which is about a Muslim political party winning a presidential election in France in the near future and pursuing policies to turn that nation into an Islamic theocracy, includes conversations between characters about a civil war in France. 

But could immigration cause a civil war? Since it’s been raised so often, I think it’s an important issue to address. Much of my research over the last several years is about how immigrants affect the economic and political institutions of the countries where they settle, finding positive or null effects. But if immigrants did cause civil wars, which are usually the deadliest types of wars, then that would be a very large cost that we’d need to consider. 

Fortunately, there is a large set of peer-reviewed literature on the causes of civil wars that should diminish the fears of immigration restrictionists who think the United States or other Western countries could sink into racialized civil wars due to immigration. According to a wonderful review in the Journal of Economic Literature by Christopher Blattman and Edward Miguel, civil wars are more likely to occur in countries that are poor, are subject to negative income shocks, have weak state institutions, have sparsely populated peripheral regions, and possess mountains. Modern developed countries do not possess most of those features. 

Civil wars likely have causes on both the micro level and on the macro level. On the micro level, a theoretical multiplayer game model developed by Joan Esteban and Debraj Ray where each player has imperfect information about the costs of conflict shows that Pareto-improving social decision making becomes impossible and conflict is certain to ensue with four or more players. Based on additional research by Ray (cited here), conflict may be unavoidable even with enforceable contracts between coalitions. Thus, in a situation where society divides along multiple lines – by geography, religion, race, ethnicity, or economic class – it may be impossible for the government to arrange a set of transfers or policies that prevent conflicts among all divisions simultaneously. If immigration increases the number of divisions in society, then it is theoretically possible that it would increase the chance of civil war according to these models.

On the macro level, a country’s degree of ethnic fractionalization reduces the chance of civil war, income inequality has no effect, and democratic government is not a significant predictor of conflict risk conditional on the existence of poverty, negative income shocks, weak state institutions, sparsely populated peripheral regions, or mountains. The finding that more ethnic fractionalization does not lead to civil war seems counter-intuitive, but that’s due to observer bias.  Economist Paul Collier observed that “[c]onflicts in ethnically diverse countries may be ethnically patterned without being ethnically caused. International media coverage of civil wars often focuses on history and ethnicity because rebel leaders adopt this sort of discourse.  Grievances are to a rebel organization what image is to a business. The rebel group needs to stimulate a sense of collective grievance to build cohesion in its army and to attract funding from its diaspora living in rich countries.” 

Furthermore, republican institutions reduce the chance of civil war as they help to enforce intertemporal commitments and lower transaction costs. As a result, immigrants would be more likely to cause a civil war if they weakened republican political institutions, but there is no evidence of that, no evidence that democratic political institutions attract immigrants (independent of other factors), and plenty of evidence that immigrants move between countries with similar levels of democracy.

The exception to this is that refugee flows increase the chance of civil wars under very specific circumstances that do not exist in developed countries. From 1951 through 2001, Salehyan and Gleditsch found that the baseline chance of a country fighting a civil war if there were no refugees present and no civil war in a neighboring country was about 3.5 percent per year. That percentage rose to 4.5 percent per year if the ratio of refugees to the population goes up to the global average. A similar increase in refugees combined with a civil war in a neighboring country further increased the annual chance of having a civil war to 6.2 percent. From zero refugees and no neighboring civil war to an average number of refugees and a neighboring civil war, the chance of having a civil war increased by 2.7 percentage points or 77 percent. Stronger democratic governments and more interregional trade diminish the chance of civil war even in the presence of civil war in a neighboring country and refugee flows who are members of cross-border ethnic groupsAll of the civil wars during the 1951 through 2001 period that Salehyan and Gledistch considered occurred in poor countries with weak governing institutions. 

Since a civil war has never been caused by immigrants in a developed country and refugee flows only increase the chance of civil war under very specific circumstances in developing countries from 1951 through 2001, immigration restrictionists should feel relieved. On the other hand, the extreme downside risk of electing nationalist governments in the developed world is very high. The extreme downside risk of civil war caused by refugee or immigrant inflows into a developed country has historically been zero. Both or either of these findings could change in the future and there is a possibility that immigration could lead to the election of nationalists, but nationalism is the far greater threat for those concerned about civil war or other radical shifts that could damage our civilization.  In either case, managing the nationalist reaction or immigration seems easier and more likely to succeed than acceding to their policy demands before they are elected.

Arms Sales: Pouring Gas on the Fires of Conflict

Do arms sales cause war? Or do wars cause arms sales? Critics of arms sales often argue that selling weapons abroad fuels conflict. And indeed, one can point to one or more sides using American weapons in many recent conflicts including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Skeptics argue, on the other hand, that weapons don’t start the fire and that conflicts would arise whether or arms exporters like the United States sell weapons abroad.

The debate has important implications for foreign policy. If selling or transferring weapons abroad makes conflict more likely, or intensifies conflicts already in process, then the United States should rethink its long-held policy of selling weapons to pretty much any nation that wants them. If, on the other hand, arms sales have no impact on conflict or make conflict less likely, then the Trump administration’s intention of expanding arms sales should be seen as a positive move. 

As it turns out, several academic studies have looked at this question. The primary conclusion of these works is that although arms sales do not create conflicts out of thin air, they do make conflict more likely when the conditions for conflict are already present.

The basic logic behind this conclusion is fairly straightforward and has been noted in the academic literature for some time. In a 1998 article, “Arms Transfer Dependence and Foreign Policy Conflict,” David Kinsella argues that states that enjoy a steady flow of arms – especially from multiple countries – tend to pursue more aggressive foreign policies. The increase in the recipient’s military capability makes victory in a potential conflict more likely, which in turn raises the likelihood that the state will start disputes, demand concessions from its neighbors in those disputes, and to escalate to conflict if negotiations fail to produce the desired outcome. Using case studies from Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Somalia Kinsella finds that, when a country has more than one weapons supplier, arms sales drastically increase the chances of conflict.

In their 2002 article, “The Arms Trade and the Incidence of Political Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1967-97,” Cassady Craft and Joseph Smaldone identify another mechanism by which arms sales can fuel conflict. They find that autocratic governments importing weapons are more likely to use those weapons to oppress/mistreat/kill their own citizens since they now have a greater coercive capability.

But despite the straightforward logic behind the arms sales/conflict connection, most work on the topic to date has relied on case studies, which are wonderful for highlighting potential causal mechanisms but not much use for establishing whether those mechanisms hold across the time and space. Until recently there had not been any work using statistical methods that would allow scholars to state with confidence which direction the causal mechanism actually flows – that is, do arms sales precede conflict or do impending conflicts lead to increased arms sales? Happily, the most recent article on arms sales by Oliver Pamp and his colleagues in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Peace Research entitled, “The Build-Up of Coercive Capacities: Arms Imports and the Outbreak of Violent Intrastate Conflict,” uses a simultaneous equations model to overcome this problem. Looking at the relationship between arms sales and the outbreak of civil conflicts, the authors confirm the general thrust of previous research, concluding that:

“…while arms imports are not a genuine cause of intrastate conflicts, they significantly increase the probability of an onset in countries where conditions are notoriously conducive to conflict. In such situations, arms are not an effective deterrent but rather spark conflict escalation.”

This new confidence in the arms sales/conflict connection should compel serious revision to American arms sales policies. Since 2002 the United States has sold over $286 billion dollars of weapons to 167 countries. These exports have gone to numerous countries where the conditions were or remain ripe for conflict. U.S. arms transfers to an unstable Iraq preceded the emergence of the Islamic State, but wound up helping amplify the Islamic State’s military capability when it took vast quantities of American weapons from defeated Iraqi army units. U.S. arms sales over the past decade also helped prepare Saudi Arabia to launch its disastrous intervention in Yemen and enabled the Nigerian government to unleash more effective violence on its own citizens, just to list a few examples.

Academic research often gets a bad rap in policy making circles. In the case of arms sales and arms transfers, however, the scholarly literature has correctly pointed out the serious risks involved. If the United States is serious about preventing conflict and managing regional stability in trouble spots around the globe, it would do well to stop pouring gas on the fire.

This blog post was written with help from Jordan Cohen, a Ph.D. student in political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States Have Accepted Many Syrians

Many more Syrians are living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States than at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.  The World Bank reports that 1,000,000 Syrians resided in Saudi Arabia in 2013, a whopping 795 percent increase over 2010.  There were 1,375,064 Syrian migrants living in the Gulf States in 2013, a 470 percent increase over 2010.  Excluding Oman, the 2013 Syrian population in every Gulf State has increased dramatically since right before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. 

Syrian Population Residing in Each Country

  2010 2013 Increase Since 2010
Saudi Arabia

111,764

1,000,000

794.75%

UAE

0

60,926

 
Kuwait

122,878

142,000

15.56%

Bahrain

1,254

5,614

347.87%

Qatar

0

12,320

 
Oman

0

0

 
Iraq

5,228

154,204

2849.58%

All Gulf

241,123

1,375,064

470.27%

Source: World Bank Bilateral Migration Indices, 2010 and 2013

These Syrians are technically not “refugees” because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 UNHCR convention that created the modern international refugee system. 

NGOs that work in the region are harshly critical of the Gulf States’ response to the Syrian crisis.  Gulf State spokesmen also haven’t gotten their stories or numbers straight when explaining their policies.  Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf States at the UNHCR, said Saudi Arabia has accepted 500,000 Syrian refugees but called them “Arab brothers and sisters in distress.”  Kuwait extended the residency permits for Syrians stranded there.  Spokesmen for the Gulf States have issued other statements claiming that they have accepted many Syrian refugees.  

Most likely, Syrians living in the Gulf States are largely workers and some could be related to the Syrian communities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that existed before the civil war.  Legal conventions, treaties, and the technical definition of the word “refugee” aside, there are many more Syrian migrants living in every Gulf State (except Oman) in 2013 than in 2010.  Every additional Syrian migrant living in the Gulf States is one fewer potential refugee elsewhere. Many immigrant groups in the 19th and 20th centuries were also refugees even though there was no legal category for them at the time.          

Some Americans and Arab critics argue that the Gulf States should accept more refugees. They should, but that shouldn’t blind us to the large number of Syrians who have settled there since the outbreak of the civil war. Gulf State intentions aside, allowing Syrians to live in their territory has helped relieve the humanitarian crisis somewhat.      

A note on the numbers and quotes here:  The World Bank data may be limited, omit some return flow numbers, be inaccurate in other ways, or/and updated spreadsheets may show a completely different situation.  I cannot verify the statements from the Gulf State countries because their publicly available government documents are in Arabic.  

More Terrorism Isn’t Necessarily More Danger

Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich) made news Sunday when they both insisted on CNN that the terrorist threat to Americans has grown in the last couple of years. Feinstein’s evidence: “The statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up.” Rogers agrees and argues that al Qaeda has been “metastasizing” into more groups that engage in smaller attacks.

It’s true that global terror attacks and fatalities increased in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. And, several new jihadist groups have emerged of late. But, as Marian Tupy showed here Monday, the fact remains that terrorism has for decades been becoming less deadly.

We should also be skeptical that the recent increase in terrorism means more danger for Americans. The cause of terrorism’s recent increase is civil wars and political unrest in Africa, the Middle-East and South Asia, where the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks have occurred.

Meanwhile, terrorists killed fifteen, seventeen, and ten private U.S. citizens (that is, non-military) in 2010, 2011, 2012, respectively. That means the danger to Americans either did not grow or that they mostly avoided it.

The real problem then is not al Qaeda, but the fractured political order in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria and the like. Feinstein is conflating those problems to frighten us. As John Mueller notes:

When terrorism becomes really extensive, we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war. But people are mainly concerned about random terror, not sustained warfare.

Rogers’ claim that the al Qaeda threat is “metastasizing” into smaller, deadlier cells resembles old arguments that al Qaeda was a hierarchical organization that cleverly decentralized when the gig was up in Afghanistan. But as I explained at greater length here, even in its 1990s heyday, al Qaeda was a fragmented and unmanageable movement.

Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. Its “affiliates” are either bunches of guys with little capability or Islamist insurgents trading on the name’s cachet to organize their corner of a rebellion. Most of those insurgents target local enemies, not Americans. Those tragic struggles do not necessarily threaten U.S. security.

The fact that the jihadists that do target Americans are now focused on small-scale attacks is a consequence of their limited ability to pull off complex plots. And even the simpler sorts have mostly failed. Given the devastation our leaders tell us to expect from al Qaeda, what Rogers calls metastasis seems like good news.

On Syria, Attention Shifts to Congress

President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek authorization from Congress before ordering attacks on Syria has elicited speculation about what motivated this apparent change of heart. After all, the president didn’t seek Congress’s approval before ordering attacks against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya in March 2011. Back then, members of the administration claimederroneously, as Louis Fisher points out here (.pdf)that they had all the authority they needed from UN Security Council resolution 1973It was a very thin reed on which to build a case for war, but administration officials teamed up with hawks on both the left and right to turn aside the objections of dovish Democrats and “Kucinich Republicans,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editors called them.

Obama couldn’t shelter behind the UN this time around, and Congressional opposition arose much faster and stronger than I anticipated as recently as last week. Even some Democrats, most notably Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine, voiced concern about the president’s apparent intention to circumvent the people’s elected representatives. The British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for air strikes was a further blow, both in that it denied the United States a credible ally (only France remains), and highlighted the uncomfortable fact that most democracies have a debate before going to war. 

So now the attention turns to Congress, with many members still on recess, but a number returning early to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings. Those handicapping the sentiment in Congress claim that the president lacks the votes today to secure a victory, but he has a full week to change minds and twist arms. Some of the 190+ members who signed at least one of two letters, or issued a statement, calling on the president to go to Congress before launching an attack will be satisfied to have been included in the process. Sen. Kaine expressed this sentiment today. Party leaders may not whip the vote, but Obama will be assisted by the pro-intervention chorus, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and by the signatories to this letter issued last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative. The pro-Obama team will include an unlikely ally: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who declared last night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that a vote against Obama would be effectively a vote for Assad. There will be more of this in the week ahead.

It will be hard for the opponents of intervention in Syria to prevail given that many Democrats can be expected to side with the president, and a number of Republicans still prefer the interventionists’ talking points, even if they know they are unpopular back home. 

Resisting the Calls for Action in Syria

After months of hand-wringing, the Obama administration appears poised to intervene militarily in Syria. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry cited clear evidence of chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and pledged that the United States would hold Assad accountable for a “moral obscenity.” Others have chimed in this morning in agreement. The editorial writers at USA Today declare that Assad’s action “demands” a “precise strike” in response.

As I explain in an “opposing view”:

The desire to “do something” in Syria is understandable. The gut-wrenching images of the dead, including the young, have rocketed around the world. To casual observers, it seems obvious that a country as rich and militarily powerful as the United States must be able to stop the violence.

But the truth is that not even the United States can solve Syria’s problems.

The American public remains strongly opposed to military intervention of any type, and the people’s representatives in Congress generally reflect these sentiments. Unfortunately, presidents can, and usually do, ignore the public’s wishes. President Obama, following the example of his predecessors, has undertaken numerous military operations without securing congressional approval, and he has done so even in the face of clear and bipartisan opposition. (Libya, for example).

A few on Capitol Hill will occasionally complain, as some did yesterday, but a groundswell among members of Congress to affirm their constitutional responsibilities is unlikely, and certainly won’t happen quickly enough to halt what appears to be imminent military action.

But the strongest reason why President Obama should ignore the voices calling for military action is because such intervention is unlikely to achieve anything constructive, and may well do great harm. While the president has the ability to launch air attacks, he is unable to affect the political realities on the ground in Syria that have sustained a brutal and bloody civil war for nearly two and a half years.

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.