Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Skip this one

Steven Leblanc, in his book Constant Battles, argues that all human conflict can be traced back to a contest for scarce resources. “There is plenty of resource-competition warfare today, especially in Africa, but other areas of the world have wars that we presume to be driven by ideology rather than a lack of resources. Yet many of these places have very long histories of degraded or depleted natural resources. Ideologies that promote a ‘them versus us’ attitude are much more likely to take hold in regions where there has been a long history of ecological stress and degradation.” (Leblanc, p212) Leblanc goes on to cite the Middle East, the Balkans, southern Mexico and highland Peru as places that have been degraded by centuries of over-farming. Not coincidentally, these places have also bred extremists and extremist ideologies.

Professor Ram provided an overview of the causes of conflict that included historic, psychological, anthropological, economic, Marxist and sociological reasons. All these causes can be reduced, as Leblanc notes, to resource competition. Even the “cause” that seems to be outside of resource competition, “information” really is about miscalculation about the risks of war for additional resources. Saddam attacked Kuwait in 1990 and Kim attacked South Korean in 1950 because they mistakenly believed that the US would not contest their expansions. Leblanc amplifies his point: “In today’s societies, competition over lack of resources translates into despair and a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality. It should be no surprise that guerrilla warfare and terrorism find support in regions where poverty is prevalent and warfare and conflict common.” (Leblanc, p212)

A primary example of resource scarcity driving conflict can be found in the Darfur region. That conflict began when cattle herders disregarded long-standing transhumance lanes toward water sources, and began trampling the crops of sedentary farmers to get their livestock to what remained of the water. Farmers began to resist this invasion, and Darfur became a modern day replay of the Range Wars from the American West. The two sides are engaged in a struggle for dominance in the region that is likely to end with one side being run off. The fact that the farmers and the herders are of different ethnicities makes it easy to see the conflict in ethnic terms, but the underlying cause is economic. That being said, the actually combatants are starting to display a murderous nihilism that may represent a new cause of conflict in the world. There will be more on that observation below.

Samuel Huntington argues that “world politics is entering a new phase” and that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” (Huntington handout pg 1) While Huntington wrote his essay prior to Darfur emerging as a problem area, his observations would still pertain to that conflict. Huntington sees ethnic conflicts in a particular location as the conflict between different civilizations on a smaller scale. “On the Eurasian continent, however, the proliferation of ethnic conflict, epitomized at the extreme in "ethnic cleansing," has not been totally random. It has been most frequent and most violent between groups belonging to different civilizations.” (Huntington handout pg8) So even though Leblanc argues that all conflict is rooted in the competition for resources, Huntington sees that the world has moved beyond so simple an explanation as resource competition to the theory that conflicts are based on differences in ideology. Huntington’s point is bolstered by the relative affluence of the 19 hijackers on 9/11. They all had middle class backgrounds, and had the opportunity to live in the West for years. The hijackers and their families personally did not want for anything. Yet, they still felt strongly enough in their beliefs to attack the West. Leblanc would say they held on to their “them vs us” mentality based on their culture facing centuries of subsistence existence, but this seems like a tenuous link to resource deprivation as the root cause for conflict. It seems more likely that the root cause of their grievance was less important that the proximate “clash of civilizations” and fealty to their particular ethnic or religious demagogue.

Benjamin Reilly, in his article Ethnic Fragmentation and Internal Conflict argues that these ethnic differences need not necessarily result in conflict. Reilly sees the benefits of democracy as ameliorating the conflicts that would otherwise occur between ethnic groups. Further, he argues that societies that seem like they are fractured by ethnic differences that result in war are actually more homogenous than is apparent. Any assumptions that we make about ethnic divisions are based on old, unreliable data. Reilly also makes the argument that when conflicts do arise based on ethnic division, the conflict was actually stoked by political opportunists looking for a way to grab power. Reilly cites Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth Shepsle from their book Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability who argue that “would-be political leaders typically find the rewards of ‘outbidding’ on ethnic issues--moving toward increasingly extremist rhetoric and policy positions--greater than those of moderation.” (Reilly handout pg 2)

John Mueller calls these “outbidders” who stir up ethnic resentments “demagogic politicians.” Classic examples of these outbidders include Milosevic in Serbia, Chavez in Venezuela and Osama bin Laden. These leaders talk much about ethnic or religious grievances, but build personal militias who will enforce their bids for power. However, Mueller argues that appeals to ethnicity and religion are camouflage for the leader’s actual goal of gaining political power. Mueller flatly states that supposedly “ethnic” conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda were not spawned by demagogues whipping up passions, but instead were essentially brought about by these politicians cloaked in ethnicity who control brutal gangs. These criminals force “ordinary people [to] unwillingly and in considerable bewilderment come under the vicious and arbitrary control of small groups of armed thugs.” (Mueller handout, pg 1) Mueller goes on in his essay to make the case that “ethnic conflicts” are more about unscrupulous criminals grabbing power in a region and oppressing the local population than an actual expression of grievance and revenge. Mueller seems to be saying that absent these provocateurs, most people, even of different religions and ethnicities would be happy to get along as do the various tribes in Papua New Guinea. There is no clash of civilizations, merely a banal and opportunistic grab for cash and power.

The Mueller and Reilly thesis would seem to be supported by recent events in Anbar Province in Iraq. Conventional wisdom in April of 2007 was that Anbar was lost to al Qaeda. Marine Intelligence Analyst Colonel Pete Devlin said explicitly that “Anbar is lost politically.” Now, only a few months later, Marines changed tactics by deploying additional forces, and holding areas cleared of al Qaeda rabble. This improved security for the locals made them more likely to provide Marines with additional intelligence, leading to yet more victories over the terrorists. President Bush said during a visit to Anbar: “The military successes are paving the way for the political reconciliation and economic progress the Iraqis need to transform their country.” (Whitehouse.gov 3 Sep 07) The US military’s efforts in Anbar seem to be taken right from Mueller’s prescription for dealing with ethnic conflict. Mueller argues that the actual core of criminals needs to be dealt with, and the rest of the people will quickly revert to their desire for peaceful coexistence. “Further, the all-against-all image can discourage policing because it implies that the entire ethnic group--rather than just a small, opportunistic, and often cowardly subgroup--must be brought under control.” (Mueller handout pg 14) Marines have done much to bring the local al Qaeda criminals under control, and there seems to be less ethnic rivalry among the local Iraqis as a result.

There does seem to be a cause of conflict in the world that is divorced from the competition for resources. There is evidence that bands of young men on many continents are addicted to violence and oppression for its own sake. Their goals seemingly have less to do with acquiring territory or power and more to do with sadistic brutality for its own sake. Some of the gangs that arose out of the El Salvadoran civil war, offshoots of the Hamas in the Gaza Strip and various players in central Africa’s wars have grouped together to become scourges on their civilian populations. In the Congo for example, roving bands of men, reportedly Hutus from Rwanda, are raping and mutilating women without regard for ethnicity or age. According to the UN, these men are interested in little more than “freelance cruelty.” (New York Times, “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War” 7 Oct 07) There have always been sadists in any militia or army throughout history. What has changed is the size of the populations now. Prior to this century, the size of populations meant that individual aberrant personalities occurred infrequently. However, in today’s world, persons with social pathologies occur in the same proportion, but their numbers in absolute terms are much larger. Since there are more of these aberrant murderous personalities, and there are many opportunities to act without impediment in the world, these personalities are more likely to find each other in numbers large enough to have an impact on their surrounding civilian population. As Mueller points out, it does not take a lot of thugs to cow a much larger populace.

I would argue that most conflicts can be traced back to resource competition, in sort of a sequential Leblanc and Huntington analysis. Unfortunately, these conflicts over time can assume the characteristics of ethnic warfare. Once a conflict becomes a “clash of civilizations” it becomes virtually impossible to resolve just by increasing the standards of living of the sides. When resource competitions become ideological competitions, the fact that the conflict arose for economic reasons becomes an irrelevant historical note. Mueller and Reilly suggest strategies to deal with ethnic rivalries short of all-out wars of annihilation. Finally, in this post-modern, high-population world, there is evidence that some conflicts can arise or be sustained by the murderous psychopathy of some of the participants.