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Five Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

11 Jun

So I recently read Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series after being pleasantly surprised by the movie. I easily breezed through all three books on plane rides, on which I prefer reading fiction (yes, even teen fiction) rather than my typical literary fare.

Collins is no Steinbeck. Nonetheless, I (slightly hesitantly) confess that I was impressed with many of the underlying themes within the series—particularly with how well Collins seems to understand how people build and take power in oppressive systems. Besides the strong “shame on us for our oblivious, exploitative, violent consumerism…arise!” message of the series, here were my key takeaways from a conflict perspective. Spoiler alert, by the way.

1. All oppressive regimes end. Even totalitarian ones. In fact, the longer they endure, the more vulnerable they are to failure. Why? Because the more generations live under oppressive rule, the more likely they are to develop the skills they need to eventually undermine it. Katniss Everdeen develops survival skills—hunting to sell food on the black market, making tools out of basic objects, and knowing how to deprive the regime of what it really wants (her obedience)—that eventually help her to totally outsmart the Arena. The deprivations imposed on the districts of Panem turn out to give them the very tools that empower them to challenge the Capitol’s rule in the end.

2. Every oppressive regime has ambivalent insiders. All regimes are, in the end, totally dependent on the obedience of those who support it—economic, military, media, and civilian elites. When such insiders (Sinna, Plutarch, etc.) stop obeying the regime, and its pillars of support begin to crack, it’s the beginning of the end. Insiders, too, are often intimately familiar with the regime’s vulnerabilities and are therefore quite well-disposed to challenge it.

3. Power is essentially psychological. No regime can repress all of the people all of the time. So many regimes rely on terror to suppress dissent. And by and large, it works—until it doesn’t.

4. It’s all about exposing the lie. The psychological power of terror ends when people simply decide to stop being afraid. Then it’s all over. Like in the books when the Districts end up rebelling once they realize that 1) the Capitol is (and always has been) vulnerable to challenge; (2) all information coming out of the Capital is (and always was) lies; and (3) all they have to do (now and ever) is coordinate their uprisings. The people of the districts realized they had the power all the time. As soon as this “cognitive liberation” was achieved, it was all over for the Panem of the Hunger Games.

5. Girl power is real power. Of course a strong, smart, and independent female protagonist distinguishes the series from many others like it. This is a rather fantastical feature of the series—the apocalypse must have truly come and gone for such gender equity to be standard practice. In fact, many of the key political players in the story turn out to be female, with many of the male characters depicted as weak, passive, or possessing a level of self-doubt or naïve goodness that exasperates the heroine (um, role reversal!). Those female characters who are fairly weak and uninspired to action (e.g., Katniss’ widowed mother) are viewed with disdain by the stronger characters, but not because they are female–just because they are apathetic. But here’s the thing about girl power. I have a hunch (yet to be fully tested empirically) that in our contemporary, pre-apocalyptic earth times, when women are willing to mobilize against oppressive systems, their movements have far greater potential to win. Jay Ulfelder, Orion Lewis, and I recently looked at which factors are associated with the onset of major nonviolent popular uprisings and found that higher rates of female literacy (maybe a proxy for increased social engagement, economic influence, political power, or all of the above) are significantly associated with such onsets. When women join the fight, movements can become twice as large. Maybe women are more organized or more tactically disciplined (at least one colleague has mentioned this as a possibility). There are often taboos against public repression of women that can be used to the movement’s advantage. And women can deprive the regime of many things it wants—cultural, political, economic, and sexual obedience. In other words, I have a feeling that when men hit the streets, dictators shrug. But when women get fired up, dictators tremble.

–Reposted from The Duck of Minerva

Turkey’s Support of the Free Syrian Army May Be a Game-Changer

30 Oct

This is a cross-post from my original post on The Monkey Cage:

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This week, the New York Times reported that Turkey has begun to actively support the Free Syrian Army by providing territorial shelter in a guarded camp. From the Times:

Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

Two questions immediately emerge: 1) How will the provision of sanctuary affect the rebels’ chances of defeating Assad; and 2). What are the long-term regional consequences of providing sanctuary to a rebel organization? The answer to both questions: rebel group sanctuary can be a game-changer.

Regarding the first question, a number of scholars have previously found that external sanctuary is associated with insurgent success. Jeffrey Record, for instance, reviewed a number of insurgencies and found that rebel groups that secured sanctuary abroad were likelier to succeed. Dan Byman, Peter Chalk, et al also identified sanctuary as the most important type of support an insurgent group can receive, as it allows rebels to move and organize freely, to import weapons, and to train for operations. However, they write,

Foreign assistance in the form of international sanctuaries, while often extremely useful to guerrillas, can also have a negative impact. In moving abroad, insurgents risk cutting themselves off from their base of popular support. Resting and recuperating across a border, while providing obvious benefits, also carries the danger of operational isolation from potentially lucrative political and military targets.

This seems particularly true in the Syrian case, where the Free Syrian Army’s contact with local activists and rebels is contested. From the Times:

Though many analysts contend that defectors’ attacks in Syria appear uncoordinated and local, Colonel As’aad claimed to be in full operational control. He said that he was in charge of planning “full military operations” while leaving smaller clashes and day-to-day decisions up to commanders in the field. Nevertheless, he is in daily contact with the commanders of each battalion, he said, spending hours a day checking e-mail on a laptop connected to one of four telephones — including a satellite phone — provided to him by Syrian expatriates living in the United States, Europe and the Persian Gulf.

In sum, sanctuary can help an armed insurgency, but it certainly carries a number of risks and does not guarantee success by any means.

So how will these developments affect the conflict in the longer term? Recent research is pessimistic. According to Idean Salehyan, providing sanctuary to a rebel group makes a conflict more likely to escalate to civil war—and one that lasts longer than the average civil war. Moreover, providing sanctuary increases the chances that the civil conflict will escalate into an inter-state one (in this case, between Turkey and Syria) or perhaps even wider.

Now, this research assumes that the rebel group is viable and not just a small and disorganized group. We don’t really know whether the Free Syrian Army is the real deal yet. Rebel groups have massive incentives to over-represent their size and strength in such situations. As the Times reports, the movement’s claims that it consists of thousands of followers and dozens of battalions have not yet been verified. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe the group is coalescing. Recent attacks against government troops within Syria suggest that there is at least some coordinated contact among operatives on the inside. Apparently the Syrian Free Army is actively recruiting new members on a regular basis. With the accumulation of weapons, the ability to organize freely, and the fact that many previously nonviolent Syrian activists are now openly calling for armed uprising against the increasingly brutal state, the Free Syrian Army has considerable sympathy and support within the country. And Turkey’s decision to support the group is also telling: in a new paper, Salehyan, David Cunningham, and Kristian Gleditsch argue that states are more likely to support rebel groups when they gauge the groups to be moderately strong. This suggests that Turkey, at least, may view the Free Syrian Army as a viable entity.

Ultimately, research tells us that if the Free Syrian Army is the real deal, then Turkey’s provision of sanctuary heightens the risk of protracted civil war breaking out in Syria. Before this development, civil war was already a risk. But now the risk is much higher. Before territorial protection, the group was no more than a radical flank accompanying a nonviolent campaign. But their new sanctuary will certainly help them build their strength, if not their operational effectiveness, to become a full-blown insurgency.

The good news is that there is still a committed civilian-led uprising occurring in Syria, and although the regime’s extreme violence has dealt some severe setbacks to this movement, it is still quite active and disruptive. This is good news is because recent research shows that civil resistance activities—even when conducted in the context of armed conflict—can enhance the possibilities of more durable civil peace and democracy after the conflict ends. In other words, although some people may choose to use violence to confront the regime, the conflict does not have to devolve into a purely violent one. And if civilian-led nonviolent resistance does remain the centerpiece of the anti-Assad campaign, we can be much more optimistic about the outcome and aftermath of the conflict.

Armed Wing in Syria: To What Effect?

10 Oct

Anthony Shadid writes in the New York Times:

The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.

Shadid’s headline overstates the degree to which Syria’s unarmed revolution is “spiraling” into civil war. The armed “wing” of the uprising is largely comprised of military defectors in Homs, who took their guns with them as they sought haven in civilian homes. In my estimation, Syria will not “spiral” into violence, as most people on the ground have little opportunity to take up arms against Assad’s regime; neither are they interested in taking up arms against Assad’s regime. I base this impression on discussions with some Syrian activists on the ground, as well as reports that nonviolent mass mobilization continues in many cities with no hint of civilian-initiated violence on the horizon—all this despite continual massacres by the regime against unarmed civilians.

However, it is important to know how the armed wing may affect the strategic dynamics between the popular, civilian-led nonviolent movement and the regime. Kurt Schock and I have done some research on how violent radical flanks have influenced the outcomes of primarily nonviolent campaigns. Using a data set of 108 nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, we looked at how many of these campaigns were accompanied by contemporaneous violent movements, and whether the presence of these violent movements affected the success and failure rates of nonviolent campaigns.

The following figure is a bivariate cross-tabulation of the relationship between nonviolent campaign outcomes and the presence or absence of a violent radical flank.

What is evident here is that having an armed wing has a slight negative effect on the probability of success. However, this effect is not statistically significant—a finding that is confirmed in other statistical tests. There is definitely no evidence to support the notion that armed groups will help a nonviolent campaign. The bottom line: there is a slight tendency for armed wings to reduce the success rates of nonviolent campaigns, but this reduction is not common enough for there to be a real pattern from which to draw inferences.

Of course the most troubling possibility is that the armed wing will reduce the movement’s chances of success. Why might an armed wing reduce the probability of success for an unarmed movement? There are a few reasons. First, and most important, is that the emergence of an armed wing can reduce popular participation in a nonviolent campaign. See the following figure:

This figure shows that nonviolent movements without armed or “radical” flanks are much more likely to boast large numbers of members than campaigns with radical flanks. And as Maria Stephan and I show in our book Why Civil Resistance Works, participation is absolutely critical in the success of nonviolent campaigns.

Second, developing an armed wing can give the regime the pretext it needs to escalate widespread repression against all opponents—nonviolent and violent. Part of Assad’s propaganda has focused on how the uprising is comprised of armed gangs seeking to disrupt public order and destroy Syrian society. Such propaganda has heretofore seemed totally ridiculous, even among many security forces who have chosen to defect to the movement’s side. For a regime where loyalty within the security forces is crumbling, adopting armed struggle or an armed defense wing can actually reverse these trends in shifting loyalties. Security forces generally don’t surrender themselves to armed “traitors,” and Assad’s rhetoric may seem less crazy to the security forces when they suddenly find themselves under attack by their former comrades.

B. H. Liddel-Hart, who interviewed Nazi generals responsible for the German occupations throughout Eastern and Western Europe, observed the following:

[The Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them—and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time. [1]

The armed wing in Syria will probably not be the deciding factor in whether the revolution succeeds or fails. If Assad falls, it will be because hundreds of thousands of unarmed protestors have withdrawn their cooperation from the regime; because security forces refuse to obey orders to crack down on unarmed protesters; and because business elites within the country will pressure Assad to abandon his post. It would help if a prominent member of the Alawite community would come forward and denounce the violence that Assad has perpetrated against peaceful demonstrators. It might also help if the international community figured out a way to give Assad a golden parachute out of the situation.

In sum, having an armed wing is risky, but not necessarily decisive. The armed wing won’t help the nonviolent movement in Syria. However, as long as the movement remains mainly nonviolent in nature, the campaign may succeed regardless.

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[1] B. H. Liddel-Hart, “Lessons from Resistance Movements: Guerrilla and Nonviolent,” in Adam Roberts, ed., Civilian Resistance as a National Defence (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1968), p. 205.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Govt Reactions in the Arab Spring

18 Sep

The Middle East Institute published a report on this topic, the second volume in a series on the Arab Spring. You can download it here. Yours truly authored one of the essays.

 

Yemeni Woman Faces Down Gunfire

16 Sep

Remember Yemen? Yes, it’s still on:

h/t/ to Peter Rutland.

Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

How Do People Learn to Resist?

29 Aug

Here’s one way (h/t to Peter Rutland):

 

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