Category Archives: Conflict Analysis

Travel Ban Aftermath: A Challenge to the Foreign Policy Monopoly?

In case you lived under a rock for the few weeks, the media was dominated by President Trump’s executive order banning citizens from 7 predominantly Muslim countries (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) from entering into the United States regardless of status. This was followed by an overruling by a Federal district judge in Seattle and the confirmation by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. While opponents of the travel ban celebrated the courts’ decision and move on to other battle lines against the administration, an interesting aberration in government precedent has creaked open that can disrupt the Executive Branch’s long enjoyment of dominating foreign and national security policy.

American foreign policy and national security against foreign threats falls, by and large, under the purview of the executive branch. While Congress certainly has influence on major decision making (i.e. declaring war, finalizing trade agreements, and/or approving funding for major executive decision making), they for the most part act as an oversight committee on foreign policy and leave the direction and day-to-day decision making of American foreign policy and national security to the president. However, even then, that oversight is, by and large, not controlled by major mechanisms of the U.S. Constitution.

The precedent for this lies in a 1936 Supreme Court decision United States v. Curtis-Wright Export Corp. (1936), which largely stands unchallenged since. In a 7-1 ruling, the court explicitly defined which branch of government would by and large dictate foreign policy where it was once vague in the Constitution. Howard Zinn, in his book Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (p. 62-63), expands on the decision and analyzes it as doing two major things:

It declares that in foreign policy the government is not as limited by the Constitution as in domestic policy; it assigns enormous power to the President in the making of foreign policy…

Zinn then quotes the court’s majority opinion:

‘…The broad statement that the federal government can exercise no powers except those specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and such implied powers as are necessary and proper to carry into effect the enumerated powers, is categorically true only in respect of our internal affairs…’

And Zinn concludes:

The court spoke of ‘the very delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations–a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress.’ And when it adds that this power ‘of course, like every other governmental power, must be exercised in subordination to the application provisions of the Constitution[,]’ we must remember that the Court had just declared that in foreign affairs the government was not subject to the restrictions of the Constitution as in domestic affairs!

Since then, that decision has become a defining moment in legal precedent for allowing egregious violations of constitutional rights such as the internment of Japanese-Americans and the seizure of private property and businesses during “times of crisis” and/or war.  Therefore, the drumming up of fear and imminent threat has become the modus operendi of any and all president’s that have desired to push their policy and agenda with minimum legal opposition. In other words, it is like a first step in a Guide to Legally Establish Draconian/Dictatorial Laws in your Democracy flowchart.

As such, it should come to no surprise that the campaign rhetoric and policies coming out of the Trump administration fits the tried and true pattern. They were audacious enough to make such a broad and sweeping executive order. In fact, I would even speculate that they had their bases covered on being allowed to do so legally.

However, this time, with both Washington State and Minnesota suing the federal government on the grounds of economic damage and injury caused by the order in conjunction with an constitutionality argument, Judge Robart broke away from precedent. Judge Robart asked for evidence to support the executive order, which the Federal government could not supply. Instead, the Federal government challenged the authority of the Judicial Branch of the United States in reviewing decisions made by the Executive branch. Judge Robart quickly rebuffed such an argument.

The judge then concluded:

The work of the court is not to create policy or judge the wisdom of any particular policy promoted by the other two branches.That’s the work of the legislative and executive branches, while it’s the work of the judiciary to ensure laws and executive orders comport with the Constitution. The court concludes that the circumstances brought before it today are such that it must intervene to fulfill its constitutional role in our tripart government.

While the legal battle over the travel ban specifically is not close to over and will continue to work its way through the legal process up to the Supreme Court, there is a different subtext that can possibly play out where a possible avenue for challenging the Executive Branch’s near monopoly on determining foreign policy and national security can be formed. For the first time in a while, a case is being presented to the court that individual states are able to challenge a near century long precedent in American governance and legal ruling that gives the President sole power to dictate foreign policy. (The irony being that such a challenge started with the Republicans challenging Obama’s executive authority in a previous court case.)
It would be hyperbolic to claim that even the most favorable decision would reign in the President’s ability to dictate foreign policy, but it would creak open the door that was once shackled shut. That small creak could grow wider if individual states leverage the argument of economic damage and injury with evidence of US foreign policy causing direct economic damage that is amplified by globalization. It might be a bit of a long shot and likely would require juxtaposing an unconstitutionality argument, but the fact that a U.S. state is able to successfully sue the Executive Branch on a foreign policy and security decision (though it’s blurred as being also a domestic issue since it deals with immigration) might be able to pave the way of reigning in the monopoly on foreign affairs.
Another interesting detail is the close relationships that businesses and universities from these states (that make up the economic back bone of the state) worked closely with their local government to establish a strong legal case. The companies that overwhelmingly opposed the ban were from industrial sectors that rely on highly skilled and educated individuals, which have an over-represented Asian workforce that are directly affected by the ban (e.g. tech). While issues of diversity in the workforce (even in high-tech) is a problem and should be addressed, it should be noted that this may be an emerging area of influence in dictating policy, especially in booming sectors like tech and engineering that are starting to become more affluent in politics.
These increasing diversity factors (using a high-skill labor lens only, for now) can further solidify that bridge of foreign decision making to domestic repercussion streamline. As such, this may further embolden individual municipalities and states to keep challenging the President’s foreign policy that disrupts constitutional guarantees and could continue to chip away at his ability to roll out his policy.
If he continues to be disruptive, he could not only lose his own ability to establish his foreign policy agenda without aberration, but also for other presidents to come.
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Israel-Palestine: Throwing Clay Stones at Clouds

So Israel and Palestine are at it. Again. I know this because Facebook told me. Perusing through various hashtags (#standwithIsrael, #prayforPalestine, and various other combinations of “slacktivism“) I came across an article regarding Ahmed al-Jabari, a senior commander of Hamas’ military wing. According to the article, Ahmed al-Jabari received a “draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel [and Hamas], when his car was blasted by the Israeli strike that killed him, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told Haaretz.”

That’s not weird. /sarcasm

It turns out that the strike on al-Jabari was the beginning of an Israeli offensive – dubbed Operation Pillar of Cloud – to respond to the escalation of rocket attacks being fired from Gaza into Israel over the last year. Let me repeat that more clearly. Israel killed a Hamas senior official with the potential of brokering a long-term peace treaty, had a draft of said treaty hours before the strike in his hand, and who actually had power to stop rockets being fired into Israel. They did this to…stop Hamas and various other Gazan factions from firing rockets into Israel. Let that logic roll around in the ol’ noodle.

Gershon Baskin – a co-chair of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information and chief negotiator of the secret back channel negotiations for Gilad Shalit‘s release – wrote a NYTimes Op-Ed piece regarding the assassination:

I believe that Israel made a grave and irresponsible strategic error by deciding to kill Mr. Jabari…Passing messages between the two sides, I was able to learn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-term cease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previous cease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency…On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt…

In the draft, which I understand Mr. Jabari saw hours before he was killed, it was proposed that Israeli intelligence information transmitted through the Egyptians would be delivered to Mr. Jabari so that he could take action aimed at preventing an attack against Israel. Mr. Jabari and his forces would have had an opportunity to prove that they were serious when they told Egyptian intelligence officials that they were not interested in escalation. If Mr. Jabari had agreed to the draft, then we could have prevented this new round of violence; if he had refused, then Israel would have likely attacked in much the same way as it is now…

Instead, Mr. Jabari is dead — and with him died the possibility of a long-term cease-fire. Israel may have also compromised the ability of Egyptian intelligence officials to mediate a short-term cease-fire and placed Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt at risk.

This was not inevitable, and cooler heads could have prevailed. Mr. Jabari’s assassination removes one of the more practical actors on the Hamas side.

If that nugget does not blow your mind, here is something “better”: Ahmed al-Jabari – paranoid about his own security – rarely carried a cell phone with him or any other electronic device that was tracable and rarely made public appearances. So how was he found? According to George Joffé, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Israel used a combination of technology and informers in order zero-in on al-Jabari’s location. He also opines that it must have been months in the planning, which seems to be the case, especially with the heavy aerial assault that followed, which destroyed strategically important targets. Therefore, if months of planning, following, and intelligence gathering were being consolidated, surely al-Jabari’s secret dealings were also exposed? If they were (which seems to be the case as non-military, non-secret parties were privy to the dealings), wouldn’t Israel have welcomed such negotiations and agreements to take root?

Sadly, the timing, planning, and precision of his assassination, which subsequently launched a full scale escalation by Israel, seems to hint at a different agenda. An agenda that doesn’t fall solely at the footsteps of Israel for it also falls at the footsteps of some strange bedfellows.

Shlomi Eldar, a Gaza news correspondent for the Tel Aviv-based Maariv newspaper, argues al-Jabari’s assassination foreshadows the political discourse of radical groups. He contextualizes Hamas’ political evolution when it took over Gaza by saying:

“Once upon a time, there were the Gaza Hamas and the Damascus Hamas. In the lead at the time was the Damascus Hamas, while the Gaza Hamas was subordinate to the former. The hierarchy was quite clear and the leaders had faces and names. The spiritual, religious Hamas leadership had its headquarters in Gaza. Sheik Ahmed Yassin set the tone then. Everyone knew his place, and each one knew what he had to do. However, Yassin was killed, the Damascus Hamas disintegrated and a leadership vacuum was created, but not for long. In walked Ahmed Jabari. Under his command, the Hamas military wing took over, pushing aside the political wing, something that could not have happened under Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

The chaos in Hamas and the lack of leadership capable of making tough decisions have led to a crisis in the organization. Under these circumstances, in the absence of control, anarchy reigns. It’s every man for himself and each does as he sees fit. Every armed militant is a hero. Every operative launching a Qassam rocket is a king. The Islamic Jihad raises its head and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) follow suit. These are relatively small organizations; however, the damage they cause is not in proportion to their size.”

Eldar goes on to articulate Hamas’ difficulty in keeping the smaller political groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in check and dealing with its own political vacuum and restructuring, which made it difficult for Hamas to impose to establish order in Gaza. This came to a head when the Secretary-General of the PRC was assassinated in March 2012, when Hamas’ muted reaction was seen as weakness to the PRC and Islamic Jihad’s “uncompromising ideal for armed struggle against Israel.” Eldar concludes that if Hamas do not re-radicalize, they risk being sidelined to the more radical groups or simply never being able to control Gaza, but:

“Under the current circumstances, disarming the militants and restoring law and order are far more difficult tasks than they were several years ago. And as matters now stand, there does not seem to be anyone in Hamas who can or wants to take such a brave step. There is no strong enough figure in Hamas these days endowed with genuine leadership skills and enjoying the unprecedentedly wide support required to make such a move. There is no one in Hamas today who is ready to pay the price of what is bound to be branded by the other organizations in Gaza as no less than infidelity and betrayal.”

Enter conflict analysis theory. In his book, The Functions of Social Conflict, Lewis Coser argues that in times of weak internal solidarity, despotism rises in order to meet the demand of war or external threat. By facing an external enemy, internal cohesion increases and through the reinforcement of ideals and norms and the purging of deviant ideals and members, control is established over the group. With these axioms in mind, I take Eldar’s conclusions a bit further and argue that certain political factions within Hamas desired to reestablish themselves as the very banner of Palestinian resistance (especially under an Islamic flag). In order to do so, they hung al-Jabari out to dry to purge any remnants of looking soft, gained a martyr in the process, and used al-Jabari’s death as a symbol that Israel has no intention of negotiating by killing Hamas’ chief negotiator between Israel and Gaza.

In other words, Hamas leaked that information intentionally to Israel, and Israel bit. But why would Israel comply in striking such a target and starting a major offensive? It’s argued that it’s an election year in Israel, and Netanyahu wants to show that he will not be idle as Hamas fires rockets into Israel’s south. He had been criticised for being a lame duck, but it seems for political points he has chosen to launch an offensive. However, it still doesn’t explain al-Jabari as a target even if Israel wanted to launch an offensive. His killing has no impact other than putting a halt to a peace treaty, and knowing that may put everything into perspective. Quite frankly, the evidence seems to support that factions at the top of Israel do not want to see this conflict to end for similar reasons as Hamas. They can maintain their stranglehold on power by scaring up votes when their national security is at risk. And so, Israel selectively targets those who are willing to broker a treaty (al-Jabari’s case) or cause harm and pain that will reinforce their enemy to continue to hate them, thus maintaining the cycle.

Hours after al-Jabari was killed, his deputy, Marwan Issa, was appointed as a successor; Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Prime Minister, has come out and established himself as radical hawk; Fatah has voiced solidarity with Hamas, despite their history (Coser being correct again); it opens up the door for Iran to be courted once again, as Iran has become more closely tied to Islamic Jihad than Hamas in the last year; and Hamas launched a counter-offensive dubbed Operation Stones of Baked Clay, which is a reference to the Surah (105:4), “And He sent against them Flights of Birds, Striking them with stones of baked clay.” All of these things are seemingly advantageous to Hamas’ political future, but simply reinforces and entrenches the conflict for the next generation to inherit. In the end, there’s nothing to be accomplished by throwing clay at clouds…

…and clay washes away when it rains.

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Damascus is Burning


Click here for more pictures of the Syrian Civil War. Warning: Graphic.

About a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet former CNN reporter Rudi Bakhtiar. She had returned from the Syrian-Turkish border region doing an investigation on the Syrian Civil War’s effect on Syrian children. She happened to be already speaking to my cousin when I had arrived, and when I came to introduce myself, my cousin casually mentioned my background in conflict analysis and resolution. She asked me what I thought about the civil war and what could be done about. I replied, “Nothing,” which seemed to startle the group that was presently speaking with her.

She responded, “Why?”

I answered, “It’s an election year.”

She smiled her million-dollar smile and she agreed, “Precisely.”

While the cute little exchange holds truth, it is only one factor that contributed (temporarily) to the U.S. government doing “little” to actively stop the conflict. Even with the elections out of the way, the United States is (and will be) quite hesitant in raising the Syrian government as a top foreign policy issue. Why? Because Syria isn’t Libya and, more importantly, al-Assad isn’t Ghaddafi.

That seems like a no-brainer, but it is significant in how the international community can approach in dealing with the situation. It only helps the international community to intervene with prejudice if you’re a touch like Dr. Evil. When Ghaddafi’s son,  threatened “rivers of blood would flow with ‘thousands’ of deaths if the uprising does not stop,” — along with Ghaddafi going on Libya’s state television and exclaiming he will hunt down the “rats and cockroaches” (referring to the Libyan rebels) “to purify Libya inch by inch, house by house…street by street, person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and impurities,” — it evoked memories of Bosnia and Kosovo in the international community to what they perceived would be a certain genocide.

This is politically significant because the fallout from Bosnia and Kosovo changed the UN Charter to include a “Right to Protect” (R2P) clause. The clause states:

“[W]e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a  case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

 The evening of Ghaddafi’s speech, the Arab League suspended Libya’s delegation and called for a no-fly zone to be put in place a few weeks later, which gave the ratification at the UN a significant boost a week later. So significant were these formal announcements of spilling blood that it even caused Russia and China from using their veto (both countries abstained). Russia and China didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history if another Bosnia were to have happened had they vetoed a no-fly zone. This is how Ghaddafi found himself in the firing line of Tomahawk missiles.

The Syrian case is quite different. Assad has a lot of friends. Most notably Iran and Russia. While Iran and Assad’s regime are religiously similar (though not the same), their friendship runs deeper. Most significantly is Syria’s support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by both countries’ involvement in Lebanon. This is why it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Iran provides not only weapons and supplies, but actual troops in the form of the Revolutionary Guard for Assad’s use. Russian-Syrian relations revolve around long-standing military cooperation and Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet bloc, the Tartus naval base located in Tartus, Syria. The latter most likely assures that a no-fly zone would be vetoed if it were to ever reach a vote at the UN. Besides friends, Assad mutes any sort of sabre-rattling from his speeches when it comes to the opposition. Even in the context of the Houla massacre, Assad uses political language to mitigate an international backlash.

A game changer is whether (or when) the Syrian government will use chemical weapons in its civil war. Syria sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons that has many in the international community very concerned. President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons is the “red line” Assad cannot cross with France and the UK following suit. The Assad government has announced that it will not use chemical weapons in its civil war, but recent events such as chemical weapons testing in August and a defected general having “high-level” discussions on the use of chemical weapons on the rebels prior to his defection have the world on high alert. If the Syrian army decides to use the weapons, it would certainly estrange Russia and China from supporting Assad, and would likely catalyze an R2P intervention.

Another game changer would be whether the Syrian military can keep the weapons secure or if the Assad government is overthrown, what kind of government would take its place. If an unstable or radical government were to take over, the seizure of the weapons can prove to be particularly destabilizing without outside intervention. It is hard to imagine the U.S., Israel, or Russia for that matter not intervening and destroying the weapons in a military strike.

So what will happen or what can be done? It is difficult to say. Syria’s opposition is a far cry from uniformity in comparison to Libya’s opposition, which is an egregiously low standard in and of itself. The U.S. and various Arab nations have just put together a new opposition bloc that they hope can recognized and legitimized by all the different Syrian opposition groups. They have already been recognized by the Arab League, but it remains to be seen if they can get all parties to work with them. If they can secure a majority of oppositional political and paramilitary parties then perhaps they stand a chance at entering negotiations with the Syrian government. However, what unites them is at odds with a segment of the international community. The fundamental question revolves on whether Assad should step down from power. For Russia and Iran, this is a no. For the West and the Syrian opposition, this is a yes.

In the meantime, R2P remains dormant due to Russia, while lives continue to be lost as Syria’s Civil War continues its slow burn.

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Of Deficits and Hurricanes

There’s nothing like a natural disaster to remind us of our (in)famous institutions that snap into action in providing disaster relief–especially in an election year. The blogosphere and web-pundits stormed in (pun intended) on each candidate’s record and positions on disaster relief and found the Romney/Ryan ticket having proposed 80% cuts in disaster relief funding. As online pundits argue over the pros and cons of such cuts, it touches upon one of the centerpieces of the election debate: Excessive spending and what to do about it.

The United States is in a deep hole, $1.1 trillion federal deficit and $16 trillion dollar national debt to be exact, and both president and nominee have different approaches as to how they will close that gap–supposedly (I will get to that later). During the debates President Obama talked about raising taxes for high income households and allowing certain business and household tax cuts to expire in order to close the gap. Mitt Romney’s plan is to cut taxes even further, adding $456 billion hole to the already enormous debt, but has claimed he will make up the lost revenue with “economic growth” and spending cuts. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t quite add up for Romney’s plan. As Bill Gale, from the independent Tax Policy Center, critiques Romney’s debt solution:

“Even if all the available tax expenditures were closed in the most progressive manner possible, it would not raise enough revenue among high-income households to offset the tax cuts they would receive. This was true even when we adjusted the revenue estimates to allow for the impact of potential economic growth, and even when we gave the campaign a trillion-dollar mulligan by ignoring the cost of the corporate tax cuts.

As a result, we concluded that if Romney did not impose new taxes on savings and investments, the only way to finance his tax cut proposals and reach revenue neutrality was to raise taxes on households with income below $200,000.”

This difference excites left-leaning pundits. Some so much so they’re calling it a “New”, New Deal. However, it may be a bit premature, if not totally off-base, to give Obama’s plan such a title. The fact remains, both are unwilling to cut the enormous defense budget and discussion of the bad American subsidy burden policy is non-existent (if you are to click on any one of my links, this is the one you should click on for sure). These two (especially the latter) causes a considerable amount of fiscal waste and only large corporations benefit from the industries these policies support. In fact, according to Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost, “10% of the recipients of farm subsidies collect 73% of the subsidies.” As a result, small-scale farmers can’t compete with large agriculture corporations because their bottom-line is leveraged far more than a competing small-scale farm. And yet, nobody talks about this.

I am not arguing that subsidies are all bad. Subsidies are an important tool for governments to support a nascent industrial sector so that it can grow and compete in the global market. For example, subsidies for green energy are an important piece of legislation that can help jumpstart a viable green industry sector. The problem becomes when to take the training wheels off. Subsidies artificially lower prices (as already noted in a previous link) and inhibits the free market to push-pull industrial sectors into other areas when they become less viable in one location and more viable in another. As a result, this creates a bubble and wastes an enormous amount of tax payer dollars, which increases the debt/deficit. It’s simply common sense that the oil/fossil fuel industry doesn’t really need subsidies to support their business because it’s already a proven commodity. Yet, we still pump $1 trillion in subsidies globally to get cheap gas and eliminate green energy competition.

At this point, it might seem clear that subsidies have to go, but here lies the conflict. Unfortunately, neither president nor nominee can simply slash subsidies completely tomorrow. There are many businesses, small to large, that are tied up in government subsidies and not allowing them time to transition their business models to seek revenue away from subsidies would cause a whole lot of people to lose their jobs and prices on food and fuel to skyrocket. In essence, it would be like implementing Iranian policies on the United States–not very smart.

The solution would be a long-term plan that must be designed to withstand successive presidents. It would have to be strategic in addressing concerns of rising costs that could be associated with subsidy cuts, which is usually addressed by lowering tariffs for cheaper imports. The money saved by subsidies can be reinvested in burgeoning sectors such as green technologies, high-tech services, and education to create a workforce that can support the demand for such positions.

Such a policy creates jobs, creates the workforce to perform those jobs, and saves the government a lot of money on waste. Cutting subsidy expenditures also allows proposals for tax cuts to actually be feasible by offseting the lost revenue caused by said tax cuts.

Unfortunately, that’s perhaps political suicide for both candidates as their campaigns rely on the contributions of those who benefit from subsidies. In other words, our tax dollars go to companies that pay candidates money to never address this problem. This hits on another issue of campaign finance reform, but that might be addressed in a different blog or you can read Lessig’s book (highly recommended).

In the meantime, we’re left with two politicians that blow harder than Sandy ever could.

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It Gets Emotional

During the election hubub that has gripped the attention of the American people, a few stories have emerged in the DC area in the last couple weeks that have stayed with me. The first story is the posting of anti-Muslim ads on DC Metrorail systems that have sparked an outcry from civil and religious groups about it promoting hate speech. However, there’s little debate that it shouldn’t be protected and rightfully so, for while it does foment hate, it clearly falls within the guidelines of the First Amendment. Therefore, a concurrent ad campaign has been waged by various Jewish and Christian organizations that either condemn the hate-speech ads or promote inclusivity.

As I have followed the story through listening to NPR, one particular segment (regarding the issue) caught my attention. NPR was interviewing a Jewish Rabbi that had condemned the anti-Muslim ads and had contributed to the ad campaign against bigotry when a woman intervened (or interjected) during the interview. A debate ensued between the two with the woman arguing that people of the Muslim world do not respect the same “values and freedoms” as those in the West and, as a result, should not be respected or tolerated. After the Rabbi made his rebuttal that her beliefs are not grou, the woman brought up the story about the 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. She made the argument, how can one say that the Muslim world holds the same values of human rights and respect if they get up-in-arms regarding charicatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but not the horrible incident that almost took this little girl’s life?

I was taken aback, for that resonated with me. I did not hear of any protests condemning the attack on this young girl. Especially not from the Muslim world.

I got emotional.

I was upset with Muslim peoples committing acts of violence because someone drew Muhammad, but barely cried out against the violence toward this young girl (and all other girls who desire education). I had not heard of any protests against the Taliban on my regular news outlets – CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, NPR, Times, Newsweek, Guardian, or any other English language news outlet – so what the woman was saying must have been true. I wanted to lambast my Muslim friends for being part of a religion that allowed such hypocrisy to exist. I saw some political cartoons that satirized the situation of the Taliban fearing little girls getting educated, and felt that it embodied the true nature of patriarchical Islam.

I was being swayed to loathe Islam and Muslim peoples.

And as suddenly as I started to embrace bigotry a certain switch got flipped within me. I thought to myself, there must be more to this story. Did Muslims actually not protest? I sat down in front of my computer and did a simple google search. Lo and behold, I was proven wrong from just 5 minutes of searching. Thousands came out to protest against the attack with the Pakistani people demanding the government to take action. Vigils not only took place in Pakistan, but in neighboring Afghanistan and India as well.

It should come to no surprise that U.S./English-speaking-media did not cover such protests, but I still remain dumbfounded. Even the google search yielded a handful of articles on the protests versus the thousands upon thousands that covered the Taliban shooting little Malala. It makes one wonder whether media outlets actively refuse to cover such events or they simply find it unimportant to the American people.

Whatever the case, this woman in the NPR story and I share a bond. We are both individuals who feel outraged that a girl is shot for wanting an education. Such outrage is noble. But our nobility is quickly corrupted because we’re not given the whole story. Therefore, with the whole truth and little effort being made to cover (or active effort is made not to cover) the fallout, our outrage – unchecked – leads us down a dark, angry path. That path leads us to lash out with bigoted ads and/or actual physical violence on those we deem guilty by association. We add to the divide and contribute to the conflict. The cycle continues.

In the end, I was almost brainwashed with hatred. Thank goodness it was “almost”.

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The Leaderless Need Leaders, and Leaders Need the Leaderless

What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.

What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.

Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information.  The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.

Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.

What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.

I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.

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Digital Governance

On a june weekend I took part in a class workshop lead by TechChange, an organization that is dedicated to utilizing information and communication technology for positive social change. The workshop familiarized students, including myself, with various technological tools that are currently being used to support various weakened institutions around the world, such as crisis response & management, health response, education, and governance to name a few.

Two technological tools that we got to acquire hands on experience was FrontlineSMS and CrowdMap, which helped facilitate communication and information during election monitoring and medical emergency simulations. The tools utilize SMS (text messaging) – the predominant source of communication in even the most remote and/or underdeveloped regions of the world – and leveraging them to aid in some kind of monitoring or crisis management capacity.

Aside from monitoring tools, new innovative uses of ICT technology are helping to leverage and/or support governance in regions where it has been primarily absent. Tools like FrontlineSMS:Legal and the Internet Bar Organization’s Internet Silk Road Initiative help extend the reach of formal state legal institutions to the remotest of areas. This is particularly useful in places like the remote mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan’s northwest frontier where formal state penetration is limited. When disputes arise, citizens residing in these areas can call or text their dispute to a legal authority connected to this “mlegal” technology, which can help facilitate various legal needs such as discovery, facilitation, or representation just to name a few. Furthermore, these projects can also work with informal justice systems that may have greater legitimacy in a region. In the case of Afghanistan, working with Jirgas can provide greater legitimacy, collaboration, and enforcement on legal decisions made by formal and informal judges and juries.

However, questions do arise on how one monitors and maintains the enforcement of decisions made on legal disputes. In remote regions, monitoring is very difficult and having adequate witnesses may pose a problem in remote locations. In the case of Afghanistan, if state institutions are so remote, enforcement will require greater cooperation from jirgas – a community of tribal elders that specifically addresses disputes in the community. This can pose a problem as jirgas are not monitored and may become privy to dubious dealings. In other words, there is no regulatory system or body to help maintain the jirgas honesty.

Also, the technologies that were supposed to aid and support governance seemed limited to institutions. While institutions are important, they cannot function correctly without having a strong civil society. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha presents an excellent case on the role of civil society and how it promotes “good governance like transparency, effectiveness, openness,
responsiveness, and accountability.” (page 3) Therefore, it would be very interesting to see how technology can aid in the strengthening of civil society and create better relations and cooperation between civil society and formal state institutions.

The overall experience of being part of the TechChange workshop was quite eye-opening. It brought me face-to-face to many technologies that are simply daring to create change. Obviously, technology is not the answer to social woes and the organization makes no case that it does. However, they do argue that technology can certainly help and that it is simply daring to create positive social change as best it can through feedback and trial and error.

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“The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”

As Ben Ali and Mubarak eventually conceded to “their people” with reverberations being felt in other Arab countries, Iran swelled with courage and excitement to join in the democratic wave after its own momentum had abated since a year and a half ago. Pro-Democracy Iranians took to the streets to co-opt the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution to make their grievances heard. The diaspora flooded the various waves of technology to show support and make viral the pictures and videos that document the oppression and injustice the Iranian people are subjected to. However, while I do not like to be a “debbie downer”, the Iranian people do not face an oppressor like the one’s found in Tunisia, Egypt, or many other Arab countries in upheaval. They face something worse.

This might seem to be a “duh” thing to say, but what I want to point out is that the Iranian people are fighting a very, very different beast. Iranians face an oppressor on two fronts. One front includes the formal institutions of the Islamic Republic that include the President, the Majlis (Parliament), the Velayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Leader), Guardian Council, you know what, just see this picture here. The other front is the zealots, which include the Basij whom blend in with the general Iranian society and “tip off” authorities on opposition members and use indiscriminate violence to keep the Iranian people “in check”.

Unlike Iran, the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak (and most of the other Arab countries) ruled their countries through a strong, organized, and vicious security apparatus. The strength of its power relied upon a swift cracking down upon dissidents and relied very little on having “popular support”. Sure it has the well-to-do, and they put up a fight as the pro-Mubarak forces did alongside the military, but they were egregiously outnumbered and have a lot more to lose should they get injured—most pro-Mubarak demonstrators/supporters hail from the upper classes of Egyptian society. Therefore, in every sense of the phrase, they did not have popular support.

Iran on the other hand has one too many experiences with “revolution”. In fact, you could say that the current Iranian regime wrote the handbook on modern revolutions. The key players that brought the Islamic government into power knew all too well that if they wanted to dethrone the more financially and militarily powerful Shah, they would need every man, even the most mendicant. Not to say that joining forces with the poor was a novel idea, as the French have immortalized, but Islam being built on the foundation of helping the poor, encouraging an austere lifestyle, and equality before God regardless of class produced a much greater symbiotic relationship that the poor could rally behind.

This relationship not only brought the Islamic government into power, but it has maintained their power through the Basij–a volunteer paramilitary organization used to intimidate, abuse, and rape dissidents, with their downtime hobbies including study of the Qur’an and various recreational activities like soccer, cards, and slapping each other in the face.

The Basij are primarily comprised of the poorer demographics of Iranian society, where many of them receive financial support and health services through membership (akin to how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt operates). I want to clarify by saying that all those who are poor are NOT Basij, for many who are poor are on the side of the opposition. Instead, those who are members and receive benefits from the system find they have a lot to lose if the Islamic regime were to go. Their very identity lies with the organization, the Islamic Republic, which results in them laying their lives down for the Supreme Leader.

This is not to say that the Iranian people don’t stand a chance. They will emancipate themselves for the regime cannot sustain its current discourse not only politically and socially, but also economically. Yet, I believe that “emancipation” will come at the heavy price of going through years of protracted conflict. While the demonstrations after the 2009 presidential election were nonviolent and peaceful (on the opposition’s side of course), this time around the opposition is fighting back. As the government further cracks down on the opposition, it systematically radicalizes the opposition to take more extreme and potentially violent means in acquiring their rights. You add that to the resolve of the Iranian regime and the Basij who readily accept martyrdom, the conflict can escalate into something that would make Francisco Franco nostalgic.

Hero

A couple weekends ago, I attended a workshop and discussion on citizen activism by David LaMotte. David, a musician and humanitarian activist, began the workshop with the story of Rosa Parks. He quickly went over the fateful day that made Rosa Parks an icon for the civil rights movement, but this is not the story that was important to him. It was the timeline before and after the snapshot in history that he found most intriguing. Before: Rosa Parks was a twelve year member and secretary of the NAACP. Prior to her joining the NAACP, she was married to Raymond Parks–a long-time member of the NAACP. Prior to Rosa and Raymond dating, someone introduced Raymond to the NAACP. The individual who introduced Raymond to the NAACP is, unfortunately, lost in history, but as LaMotte unfolded the timeline, everyone in the workshop silently agreed this unknown figure – active in the NAACP and brought his or her activism to Raymond – changed the world.

Equally important are the events that followed Rosa Parks’ flashpoint in history. The day after Rosa Parks’ arrest, 51 ministers came together in a Montgomery, Alabama church basement to discuss how they should proceed in regards to  Parks’ arrest. After intense deliberation, the group of ministers decided that they would pursue Parks stance against injustice, which sparked America’s Civil Rights Movement. The individual whom the ministers agreed should take the lead and be the face of this movement because he was a newcomer to the city, was Martin Luther King, Jr. The deliberation and consensual agreement of these 51 mostly unknown ministers, in essence, catapulted the career and heroism of one the world’s greatest historical icons.

The conclusion I drew from LaMotte’s vignette was the enormous power individual’s have when they engage in activism, sparking participation, unabashed story telling, and/or following a purpose they believe in. However, many pull back from “being active”. Since acknowledgement is rarely immediate or beyond the patience of most people (if acknowledgement is even given within one’s lifetime, which is not always the case), it does not fulfill their “heroic mythologies”. Therefore, such pursuits are deemed naive and dismissed as “too ideological”, which LaMotte points out is an irony, for any goal in any business, operation, venture is an ideal that one attempts to strive to.

Listening to LaMotte convey his series of vignettes and discuss the very idea of “activism”, I began reflecting upon my intentions of joining a program like conflict analysis and resolution. Reflecting honestly, I realized that I truly do have an honest motivation in helping others, but I also do want to be lauded for my work. I am not the only one, otherwise Mary Shelley would not have written the dreaming Henry Clerval the way she did. Yet, for the last year and half of being in the program, I was upset in myself for feeling the way I did. I cannot help but dream of ideals and ideas of what I want to do and where I want to be. However, if there is anything that I learned from the field of conflict analysis and resolution, is that the thoughts, intentions, and actions of men and women are very complex. My intentions are not purely selfish, nor are they purely altruistic. They are somewhere in between and this is what makes me human. LaMotte’s talk helped me come to terms with this, but I also must be willing to be honest and critical about myself. However, criticism has its limits as well if it is going to shackle my potential to act or be creative.

The world needs heroes. They serve a purpose in inspiring people. However, we must remain cognizant that they are human, just like you, me, Raymond Parks, and the 51 ministers that change(d) history. Therefore, being active and pursuing things like peace, resolution, or reconciliation are all laudable, realistic goals, for it takes regular people – who are one in same as heroes – to pursue them. No one else can.

The Spark

I begin with Thanksgiving 2010.

I was invited by a good friend of mine from my conflict resolution program to have Thanksgiving dinner with her and her family and friends. There was great food, great discussions, warm atmosphere, and laughter. At dinner, each person shared their interesting, eclectic life experiences and worldviews as so many dinners with newly acquainted friends do. When the conversation got to me, I attempted to articulate what I was studying and future plans I had in mind after I graduate. I failed miserably.

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Minutes of the dinner (and I paraphrase):

Bardia: “Based upon my experience and knowledge of conflict resolution so far, the majority of people in my field pursue a career in an NGO or government agency. These organizations, though beneficial, often lack the resources and synergy to create ‘real’ change in the world. Furthermore, people in my field often find working with private organizations as anathema to their ideals, as they are often the culprits of producing much of the systemic problems in the world. However, while many private firms have pursued wrong or illegal policies, many firms do not. Furthermore, greater public scrutiny and access to information has pushed many emerging firms to fall in line with “positive goals” for image is often key to a company’s success.

With the turn of the twenty-first century and the awareness of global climate and environmental problems, we see an emergence of companies pursuing “green” ventures and investors desiring to invest in “green” or socially constructive projects. Now more than ever good ideas are getting funded in order to pursue these problems.

Therefore, I desire to start a business that provides “green” and socially conscious solutions and services to the public. The main product would be green produces and solutions such as urban farming plans and green construction. It would be interconnected with local communities that work in these projects to help spark field education and experience, along with opportunities for entrepreneurship–creating a sustainable venture…”

Mom at table: “So what would your role be?”

Bardia: “Bring the necessary elements together to pursue such goals. Acquire engineers, business administrators, project managers, social workers…”

Mom at table: “So what is it that you offer at the table?”

Bardia: “Being able to see the intersection of problems that need to be addressed for positive social change.”

Mom at table: “Couldn’t you have done this with any other background or degree?”

Bardia: “Uhm…errr….uhhh…yea…no……….”

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Despite my excitement of having come to a relative conclusion of what I want to pursue in my life and how much it made sense to me in my head, I realized that my “elevator talk” has serious holes. Therefore, this blog – while not necessarily starting out with a bang – is to document my dilemmas, depressions, optimisms, and overall thoughts as I pursue a field that – to the perceptions of many (not necessarily the mom in my story, for she had very valid questions) – has no real distinctive value. I hope to change that perception/perspective by perfecting my “elevator speech” and improve my role in collaborating with others that might find insights and/or benefits from this blog.

Perhaps an adequate response:

“What does it take to create a good government or society? It takes a number of factors. Having functional and stable markets, law and order, education, political systems, defense, avenues in which people can improve their daily lives, etc. Who do we turn to for consulting in improving these systems for good governance and society? Academics and experts in economics, law, politics, military strategy, sociology, psychology, and the list goes on. However, why do we fail time and time again in addressing system domestic and global problems keeping over a billion people in penury and violence with another few billion on a shaky foundation? Because academics and experts in each field see the world in a unique way and speak a unique language that is dissonant with academics and experts in other fields. If these consultants and the public that attempts to understand them fail to understand each other – which their collaboration is a fundamental requirement for good governance and society to work – it creates conflict.

This crossroads in collaboration is where conflict analysts and resolvers can find themselves: by being the keystone that unites all the different fields, viewpoints, and language together. How? Because conflict analysis and resolution requires their students to learn as many different, complex fields as possible and find unique ways to bridge the conflict in language, viewpoints, and understanding. The curriculum includes economics, law, politics, international relations, sociology, psychology, and a multitude of other fields that require its students to decipher and make sense of this crossroads, or in other words, conflict.”

Perhaps this is what I could have said, and hopefully this makes more sense. I hope that somebody can poke holes in this conclusion to make my goals and ambitions clearer and better. All-in-all, this is an interesting journey in conflict analysis.

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