Ryan J. Suto's Blog

14 November 2012

The Most Interesting Statistics and Points We Learned From Election 2012

This post was written for PolicyMic.com and can be found here.

As the election-related coverage dies down, what are the notable take-aways from election 2012? What trends, whether they be in the electoral process, voter turnout and campaigning, or voting technology and media, should we observe? Many signs point to the fact that more and more, politics is becoming a numbers game.
Here are five facts about the election you might have overlooked amidst all the punditry and politics.

1) The past three presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) have all won two elections each.
The last time this happened were presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Is this just an isolated occurrence, or an indication of an increased incumbency advantage for the president? Also noteworthy in this election is that little changed in the House or Senate with respect to balance of power. Does this foreshadow an increased incumbency advantage in Congress, too?
2) This race cost about $6 billion, a $700 million increase from 2008.
Beyond the narrow questions of Citizens United, a broad national discussion must be had regarding possible legal efforts toward capping campaign spending. Despite the exorbitant amounts of money, the candidates only campaigned in 10 states. We can share a sigh of relief that America didn’t experience another Florida circa 2000, but we need to have a serious discussion about our electoral system. It’s a horse-and-buggy system for an internet age.
3) The Obama campaign circa 2008 used innovative tools to identify and target potential voters, as it likely did in 2012.
Speaking of the internet, in 2008 the Obama campaign was able to collect vital information on thousands of potential voters, donors, and volunteers through complex, ground-breaking technology. The campaign was able to accurately identify how different groups of people communicated, being able to literally draw lines on the map and message groups specifically both on the internet and on foot. The campaign knew exactly how much money to spend in any given area and to what end that expenditure would lead. There’s no reason to think this year’s campaign was any less sophisticated.
4) On the prediction side, Nate Silver FiveThirtyEight.com and the New York Times missed only one state in 2008 and predicted each state accurately in 2012.
While I don't mean to suggest that Silver's methods are flawless, I do think that the accuracy with which we has been able to understand the past two elections has been impressive. The prospect that our preferences are predictable given certain inputs is important. Politics has been de-mystifying for decades now, and I think the past decade has seen rapid improvement in understand how we work. Politics is indeed becoming a science, not an art.
5) Our better technology and understanding of elections are wonderful.
They allows us to fundamentally understand how we as humans work in society — what drives us, what motivates us, what makes us change our  minds or dig in our heals. While we must remain humble and understand how much we don’t know, technology is improving our ability to understand humankind as the political animal that we are. What was above the doorway to the Oracle of Delphi? Know Thyself.
But what is occurring is that we are failing to change our laws to stay up to date with current realities and understandings. Our Constitutional system is designed to allow for patchwork problem-solving — lest we act too brashly. But this allows law to lag behind reality, which at times becomes problematic. The U.S. Constitution (and our election laws generally) is not a sacred. It was meant to be changed and altered.
In these endeavors, let us be measured, but let us be bold.

03 November 2012

Election 2012: Top 5 Middle East Challenges the Next President Will Face

I wrote a quick list of the top 5 challenges for the US in the Middle East. You can find my post on PolicyMic.com here.

No matter who wins the presidential election, there will be a whole slew of Middle East challenges for either Obama or Romney to face. Here are the top five challenges facing the President of the United States.
1. Political Islam
Presidents of both parties have spoken of democracy in the Middle East as an important goal of U.S. foreign policy. During the Bush years, the prospect of holding elections in Iraq and Gaza were met eagerly by the White House. However, for some reason the results were surprising to the administration: when a group of people who generally hold religion as very important in their lives and central to their identities vote, their votes are informed by religion. Who would’ve thought?
During the Arab Spring, oppressive leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh fell, and elections followed suit. The big winners have been groups like Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood — Islamist parties. While we should not be too optimistic about the prospects of democracy in all of these countries just yet, some news out of places like Tunisia and Egypt show that elected leaders are beginning to behave like democratic politicians by pandering to their constituencies.
Of course, these groups have made U.S. policymakers nervous in the past. But a functioning U.S. foreign policy will have to learn to be tolerant of these groups going forward. If the U.S. truly values the proliferation of democracy throughout the world, our foreign policy must be able to work with those officials who are popularly elected by their people.
2. Public Diplomacy
For more than 10 years now, Americans have been asking with respect to the Middle East , "why do they hate us? Have we listened to any of the answers? 
Public opinion in the Middle East toward the U.S. is important for U.S. interests both with regards to foreign policy and national security. First, terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda still exist in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Ill-informed U.S. foreign policy only adds fuel to the fire of these groups. Improving how the U.S. is viewed in the region is a proactive approach to the problem of terrorism. Second, for the foreseeable future, unfortunately, America will continue to run on fossil fuels. As long as the global price of oil is directly or indirectly controlled by many in the Middle East, we have an interest to have positive views of the U.S. predominate in the Middle East. Lastly, if democracy does take hold in the region, increasingly politicians will not be willing to work with the U.S. if doing so would be used against them in the next election. If the people do not like us, their leaders will not be able to afford to either. 
While many policy choices of the past cannot be undone (read: the war in Iraq), continuing and emerging issues must be handled with care; such as the continued use of drone strikes and the existence of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
3. Pull out of Afghanistan
It seems that the candidates agree that U.S. forces should exit Afghanistan as early as 2014. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to do so responsibly and without creating more problems than we solved by going into Afghanistan over a decade ago.
For example, there have been recent reports noting that Afghan security forces are not yet ready for a U.S. withdrawal. Also, remember that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is often an artificial line in the mountains for which many have little concern. Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda elements undoubtedly remain there. With Pakistan heading into elections in the coming months, we must work closely with Pakistan to try and create as stable an Afghanistan and Pakistan as possible before our troops leave the region.
Lessons must be learned from our drawdown from Iraq and U.S. national security and the security of the Afghan people must take priority over political capital. A quick aside: our veterans must be given better care and attention upon returning home — it’s quite literally the least we can do.
4. Iran
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no secret, and have led the U.S. to impose crushing sanctions on the country. President Ahmadinejad has been heavily criticized within Iran for allowing the economy to slip, causing him to limp to the end of his presidency in June 2013. While the next U.S. president will have a new Iranian president with whom to work, little will likely change as Ayatollah Khamenei holds the real power in Iran. 
While there are important and provocative arguments supporting a nuclear Iran, such a position would be political suicide for an American president. Based on Iranian rhetoric on the matter, a nuclear Iran presents too great a feeling of insecurity for the U.S. and U.S. interests in the region, and the U.S. must stand by principles of nuclear non-proliferation. Of course, Israel’s Netanyahu has not made anything easier, either. Apreemptive strike by Israel would be irresponsible and dangerous for the entire region. 
In sum, the next president must do what is possible to promote dialogue between the two countries. The guiding principles of policy toward Iran should be peace and nuclear non-proliferation.
5. Syria
Syria appears to be the last major armed conflict of the Arab Spring — a conflict in which over 20,000 people have died. On the one hand it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the international community continues to tolerate President Assad as the leader of Syria. On the other, the stubborn Assad has no incentive to step down or flea. If he does, or is overthrown, there lingers the risk of a sectarian struggle in which the minority Alawi (which includes the Assad family) would be in grave danger.
While many across the world have called for some form of humanitarian intervention (perhaps similar to Libya), Russia has continued to block any authorization to act in the Security Council. While most Americans want the U.S. to do something in Syria to stop the violence, few Americans would stomach sending American troops into harm’s way for the cause. Last month Syria and Turkey exchanged shots across the border, possibly relating to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in camps across the Turkish border. While unlikely, if Turkey were to invoke Article V of the NATO charter (used only once: in response to 9/11), the U.S. could get dragged into Syria regardless of the Security Council or U.S. public opinion.
Regardless of how the conflict ends, the real problems for the next president begin once the Assad regime falls. Syria is in possession of chemical and biological weapons, and if the government falls, those weapons could foreseeably fall into the wrong hands. A protracted, unstable Syria will put strain — in the form of refugees and border control — on countries like Lebanon and Iraq, countries that have enough problems of their own right now. Many of the issues discussed above, political Islam, regional stability, and weapons non-proliferation, all come to a head in how the next president must approach the evolving conflict in Syria.

Keep Tuesday, ver. 2

I re-tooled a blog post from earlier for PolicyMic.com about Election Day. You can find it here.

A big question in American electoral administration is to what extent voter turnout is affected by the day of the week on which we vote — Tuesday. As the U.S. faces low voter turnout, any administrative barriers to voting should be reformed. But the important question remains: would voter turnout increase with a move on the calendar? I’m not so sure.
First, it is important to know that Tuesday is not determined as the day for elections by the U.S. Constitution — it is determined by state and federal law, pursuant to (quite confusingly) Article I Section 4 and Article II Section 1 of the Constitution. Second, because voting depends on your state, concepts like ‘early voting,’ ‘advanced voting,’ and ‘absentee voting’ don’t necessarily exist throughout the country, and even so each state may have different requirements. This post is limited to the day on which most of us vote and the day after which the votes are counted: Election Day.
Our good friends at Why Tuesday? advocate changing the day on which we vote to a weekend. Unfortunately weekend voting in the U.S. has been poorly understudied. Recently, South Carolina has attempted to vote on Saturdays out of respect for the Jewish community in their state. That makes sense; while overall turnout may possibly increase, alienating an entire religious group is generally not advisable for democratic populism. Religious sensitivity could, therefore, take Friday, Saturday, and Sunday out of the Election Day race. But the bigger point about weekend voting is that Americans love their weekends. Wework a lot, and perish the thought of adding duties to our weekends. We have children to spend time with, projects to continue, football to watch, and many other things. Using about as much empirical evidence as anyone else on this topic, I would not favor a move of Election Day to the weekend.
However, the huge problem with voting during the work week is that many people, naturally, have to work. Many can’t afford to leave their jobs or children and go and vote. As such, whichever day we vote should be a federal holiday, with as many establishments closed as possible. But even so, which day should we vote on? The first logical answer may be Monday — we already have several holidays observed on Mondays. The problem is that creates a three-day weekend. Who’d want to lose a three-day weekend by staying home and voting, when that’s the perfect opportunity to take a small vacation? That’s what Americans do: the only things we love more than weekends are longer weekends!
I think you get the point. We’ve arrived at where we started. While the reasons for voting on Tuesday are horribly anachronistic, the real evil for voter turnout is that Election Day is not a federal holiday with most public and private establishments (including schools) having the day off. While Wednesday and Thursday are both still on the table, I don’t see an advantage to those days over Tuesday.
Voter turnout initiatives should be primarily concerned with equally increasing the number of people willing and able to vote. I think the best way to do this is to in fact keep elections on Tuesdays, and to make that day a less busy one by allowing working Americans across the board to commit to their civic duty. 

03 October 2012

Westboro Baptist Church and Innocence of Muslims: Why Even Offensive Speech Must Be Protected

This post on free speech was written for PolicMic.com and can be found here.

Last month’s violent reactions to the internet video Innocence of Muslims, created in the United States, should remind all Americans why we stand so firmly for free speech. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While we have certainly transgressed from our ideals, we must strive to remain faithful to the Constitution in times of national stress. We are a diverse people who only have our founding documents — documents of laws and ideals — bind us together.
This legal tradition is best understood through some exemplar U.S. Supreme Court cases:
In the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, the Court heard a defamation claim of a public individual regarding a public matter. Though the facts in question were indeed found to be false, Justice Brennan wrote, “Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
The plaintiff lost.
In the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohiothe Court was presented with a KKK member who, at a KKK rally, vowed that the organization would march on Congress and several cities in Florida and Mississippi. The Court held that the state cannot proscribe mere “advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Legally, ‘imminent’ means ‘right here, right now.'
In1992 (R.A.V. v. St. Paul) and 2003 (Virginia v. Black), the Court struck down statutes banning cross burning as a form of speech or expression.
Lastly, in 2011 the Court decided Snyder v. Phelps. Here, tort damages were sought against the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at a soldier's funeral, spouting hate speech at the burial itself as well as on the Internet. The religious extremists stood across the street from the cemetery, holding signs which accused the fallen soldier of supporting homosexuals and claiming that he was going to hell for his acts. 
In an 8-1 decision, the majority held that the First Amendment protects those who stage peaceful protests near the funeral of a military service member from tort liability. The Court stated, “speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
It is this legal tradition which clearly states that our government is not allowed to make judgments on religious truth or falsity. That belongs to individuals to decide. ‘The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same’ is how American law understands freedom. An insulting and hateful video made in Florida does not impede individuals in London, Benghazi, Mogadishu, or Tokyo from practicing their religion; nor does it stop them from peacefully showing their displeasure.
Despite this, Jacqueline O’Rourke in "Innocence of America: orientalism, hooligans and radicals" on OpenDemocracy.net implies that the video Innocence of Muslims constitutes hate speech, is indicative of a larger Islamophobia in the West, and as such should be regulated.
However, R.A.V. v. St. Paul and Virginia v. Black show that our lack of hate speech protection regarding the controversial video has nothing to do with Islam — it has to do with liberty. It is true that Islam is disproportionately a target of criticism in the U.S, and this must be combated with education and cultural and public diplomacy efforts. However, it is not true that Islam should be immune from the most “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp” criticisms. All ideas should equally be subject to that treatment. This is how thoughts are to be tested, in the hot crucible of the marketplace of ideas.
Ms. O’Rourke speaks of an international social contract. I do agree that the international community is becoming increasingly interconnected, and that no nation (nor person) is an island. And I agree that when the idea of a Chinese scientist or inventor is suppressed in China, those in Italy have been precluded from the benefit of those ideas or discoveries. As such, this only supports the need for a vibrant free speech paradigm: there are so many ideas, and all publics must debate which ones are good, which ones are bad, and why. This may offend many people, but violence is not an acceptable reaction.
Erik Bleich's article, "How much free speech do we need?" on Al Jazeera English asks the reader to reconsider America’s outlying protection of free speech. Mr. Bleich cites Beauharnais v. Illinois (1952, wherein the Court upheld a statute which criminalized racially hateful publication, as an example of American speech restraint. While never explicitly overturned, this case has been rendered completely marginalized by all the cases I mention above.
Mr. Bleich points out that even Europe has more moderate speech regulations, and that a majority of Americans in fact support less extreme speech protections than American law presently upholds. It is a nuance of American democracy, however, that allows for the protection of the minority, even if that minority is a hateful, fundamentalist religious group which protests the funerals of those who bravely served our own country. This is where populism must give way to human rights. Otherwise, I certainly would be fearful in a legal system in which public opinion was used to determine fundamental rights.
People are perfectly free to feel hurt and disrespected. But such emotions don’t validate violent reaction. The power to violently censor people is the exact power that people like Qaddafi or Mubarak had. So we must first think of how our actions might prohibit truthful or helpful speech in the future. Even if a majority of us don’t like it, we must recognize that religious and political speech is of the utmost importance to our national and international discussions on these issues. Countless court cases have held that even when Americans are deeply offended and disrespected, our laws protect the speaker. If for no other reason, how is the government to know what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ on in political or religious arguments? Government is not in the business of determining truth or falsity — and it would do poor a job it if was.
We must continue to allow uninhibited, robust, and wide-open public debate on important issues. At times such debate may include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp criticisms of ideas or people. It may stir people to action, move them to tears, or inflict great pain. Public criticisms may be true or may be false, but that is not for our law or government to decide. Free speech is not a negative right: the government should protect the speaker against the heckler’s veto.
For in each of us lies the capacity to discuss and debate publicly and peacefully to help answer the great questions of our time.

17 September 2012

America's Shi'a Problem

This post about the Shi'a Crescent was written for INSCT's blog and can be here.

The Arab Spring has been the dominant narrative about the Middle East since February 2011. However, a deeper current runs to which the US must pay attention. That is of the Shi’a Crescent. The Shi’a Crescent informally consists of all the states whose concentration of Shi’a Muslims is greater than the global percentage of Shi’a, about 15%: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
Many of these countries represent continuing and growing threats to regional stability. Most obvious at present is Syria. The country is engulfed in a civil war which has stalled the UN Security Council and has claimed thousands of deaths. While Assad is Allawite, a Shi’a sect, the Obama administration has shown support for the Syria opposition—consisting mostly of the majority Sunni population. This conflict has renewed tensions in Lebanon with conflict spill-over and floods of Syrian refugees. Part of that spill-over includes sectarian kidnappings which have been perpetrated by Shi’a in Lebanon this summer. These incidents still hold memories of Lebanon’s own civil war. In Lebanon many Shi’a still support Hezbollah and the Assad regime, as well. Spill-over from Syria—or an overthrow of Assad—could destabilize Iraq, as well.
While US combat troops have now withdrawn from Iraq, the sectarian stability and internal security of the state are far from reliable. This summer has been violent, with concerns that the al-Maliki government could fold under a joint Sunni Arab-Kurdish vote of no confidence.
US-Iran and Israel-Iran tensions continue to be high. The Iranian government has continually defied US-led sanctions. This past summer Iran threatened to close the strategically invaluable Strait of Hormuz in reaction to the sanctions. While this did not occur, the Persian Gulf remains tense. Bahrain had its own trouble last year: the US stood behind her interests and kept silent while the majority Shi’a population rallied against the Sunni King and his government. The Bahraini Shi’a with whom I spoke, felt that the US supports the Sunni-led government so as to prevent a successful Shi’a-led revolution in Bahrain.
Some commentators have predicted a clash of civilizations, evidence of which may be visible in Benghazi, Cairo, and Sana’a. However, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, exposed most dramatically by the Arab Spring, has lead to a clash within a civilization. In Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Bahrain the US is clearly situated in conflict with Shi’a (only in Iraq have our actions proved more favorable for them). For domestic viewers America’s actions—and inactions—toward Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Bahrain paint a picture of concern toward expanding Iranian influence. However to some Shi’a they paint a picture of anti-Shiism. Because of this, many Shi’a will likely continue to view the US as kingmaker, leading to more of the same resentment which has fueled terrorism over the past two decades.
When considering the views of the ‘Shi’a street’, it is in both America’s national security and public diplomacy interests to explicitly connect our foreign policy decisions with our powerful ideals of self determination and religious liberty. The next president must construct this preventative foreign policy, which is necessarily cognizant of this ancient fault line which has reawakened in the region.

15 September 2012

Student Loans: The Good and the Bad for Millennials

This post is about student loan debt and was written for PolicyMic.com. It can be found here.

Go to college and get a good job. That was the logical, two-step advice many working-class American parents gave to their children in the '80s and '90s. That’s what I was told growing up. The process seemed wholly uncomplicated: take out loans, get a degree, use the degree to get a job, use the job to pay off the loans.

But as you read this, many of us are a part of the new Lost Generation: college-educated, but drowning in student loan debt, often without a job at all, or with one which doesn’t take advantage of that increasingly expensive piece of paper on the wall. While I’m still in school, I count myself among those with a lot of money waiting to be paid after graduation.

On the other side of the world, things can work a bit differently. This summer, I had an internship (unpaid, of course) in Bahrain. There, similarly to the other Persian Gulf countries, a majority of the population consists of migrant workers, primarily from South and Southeast Asia. Most of these workers are men doing manual or unskilled jobs who send much of their already meager pay back home to support their families.

Speaking with many of these men, I heard a common lamentation: they were unable to afford higher education for their children.

According to them, there are no generally accessible programs in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India to help children from cash-strapped homes attend college. The sorrow and embarrassment in the eyes of these men — often able to see their families only once a year — was heartbreaking. They were doing the most they could to provide, yet it was not enough to secure a bright future for their children.

For these families, the gatekeeper of higher education is parental wealth. In the U.S., for many the gatekeeper is either parental wealth or the willingness to take on often substantial debt. (I realize I’m neglecting the few who earn significant scholarships or work hard to take out very little debt without parental assistance.)

Hence the double-edged sword of student loans: While they give students like me an opportunity to achieve high levels of education that I would not otherwise have, they often force us to accept high levels of debt and economic strife as well.

While we often justifiably point to other Western countries with reasonable (or no) education costs, we often forget how lucky we are to even have the opportunity to be shouldered with our debt. Many of us are still in the global 1%.

This is not to say there are no legitimate complaints about the American education system — there are. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect more from a generation which was given one of the greatest economies in history, who then turned around to give their children… this.

This is to say we must have perspective and resolve: the perspective to know where we stand in the world, and the resolve to make it better for our children. 

05 September 2012

Bahrain: Rule of Law in Post-Conflict Resolution

This post on Bahrain was written for Jurist.org and can be found here.

This was also re-post on the blog the Institute for National Security and Couter-Terrorism (INSCT) and can be found here.

On February 14, 2011, Bahrain joined the Arab Spring when thousands of protesters filled the streets, demanding economic reforms from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the government. Over the course of a month the scene worsened, as violence and police responses escalated. As the protests continued, a sectarian element became apparent: while the government is headed by the Sunni al-Khalifa family, a majority of protesters were Shia. A contention of the opposition is that the ruling Sunni elite is responsible for politically and economically disenfranchising the kingdom's Shia majority.
Some officials have described the government response as panicked, as many protesters were jailed and quickly convicted of crimes. The world watched the events unfold, as many human rights observers denouncedthe Bahraini government's handling of uprisings and protests. While smaller protests and incidents in Bahrain littered the international news, the most extensive police crackdowns subsided.
In July 2011, the king ordered the beginning of the National Dialogue, a forum consisting of 300 seats filled with individuals and organizational representatives chosen by the government. While the Dialogue had a promising beginning, al Wefaq, the major opposition party in parliament, pulled out of the talks because the group felt they were numerically unrepresented. Al Wefaq held 18 out of 40 seats in the lower elected house of parliament but only five seats out of about 300 in the National Dialogue. Because of this, despite producing a wealth of information regarding the concerns of Bahrainis, the National Dialogue is largely viewed as a failure.
Earlier in June of that year the king ordered the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), chaired by Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, as an independent investigative commission. The BICI was tasked to independently analyze and evaluate the actions of the government of Bahrain during the protests and to make recommendations regarding future government actions.
On November 22, 2011, that body produced a report [PDF] which criticized many government actions and made concrete recommendations on government reform regarding human rights. Possibly due to this criticism, all major stakeholders in Bahrain have viewed the BICI as truly independent and have accepted the resulting report, which made recommendations such as:
  • • The creation of independent bodies to investigate claims of human rights violations;
  • • The compensation of victims of human rights violations and their families;
  • • The review of convictions and sentences of individuals detained during the unrest;
  • • Changes to the training of security forces and legal personnel to promote and protect human rights;
  • • Increased human rights and diversity education; and
  • • The restoration of destroyed Shia mosques.
In late May 2012, Bahrain underwent its second Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Councilwherein calls to implement the BICI recommendations were ubiquitous. It is clear that the BICI report focused on institutional failings of the government branches involved with quelling the protests, as well as functioning of the judicial system. Notably, the document did not address why individuals and groups were protesting in the first place, made no political recommendations regarding the structure of parliament or the status of Bahrain as a kingdom, had little to say in the way of programs for national reconciliation nor discussed the station of foreign workers in Bahrain, who make up 54 percent of the nation's population. Moreover, while the catalyst for the BICI was only in early 2011, sectarian clashes are not foreign to Bahrain. As such, many of the issues brought to the fore of national consciousness laid dormant in the minds of Bahrainis for decades.
After the recommendations were accepted by the government of Bahrain, a follow-up committee was createdto track the implementation of the BICI recommendations. That body released its first report on March 20, 2012. Any honest assessment of the government's response to the BICI recommendations will show that the response has been slow and steady. The follow-up committee has stated that Bahrain has made, inter alia, the following efforts:
  • • All criminal charges related to the protests have been reviewed by civilian courts and cameras have been installed in order to record any custodial investigations;
  • • A vast majority of employees dismissed for absenteeism during the protests have been reinstated;
  • • Five mosques are nearly rebuilt, work continues on nine others and eight more are slated to begin; and
  • • The government has engaged in efforts to compensate victims' families and victims of torture.
While the government of Bahrain cannot be comprehensively viewed as a single bloc (an important divide exists between hardliners and softliners), actions toward the implementation of the BICI recommendations have lagged behind international criticism — it is as if the government acts only to alleviate pressure from important external actors. Regardless of the reasons, many of the government responses are real and can be seen throughout the small kingdom.
While the BICI and its implementation are both far from perfect, the format itself is promising. The creation of the BICI by the Bahraini government and the acceptance of its findings by both the government and major opposition groups have created a common ground upon which any national reconciliation or dialogue may stand. Indeed, one can argue that a flaw of the National Dialogue effort in July 2011 was that it preceded the findings of the BICI. This is because the report includes a narrative which gives Bahrainis a common and objective account of the events following February 14, 2011, as well as recognizing that wrongs have been committed. This is a crucial step as the BICI has placed a mirror in front of Bahrain, allowing the government to honestly reflect and to make possibly fundamental changes. However, as of now the government has only reflected when its eyes have been held open by the scrutiny of the international community.
Presently, the international reconciliation toolkit includes truth commissions (The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa), indigenous conceptions of justice (Gacaca courts in Rwanda) and political process (Loya Jirga in Afghanistan), consociational democracy (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iraq), constitutional development (Nepal) and civil society stewardship (Northern Ireland). While not all of these examples are viewed as successes, each offers a lesson for future reconciliation efforts. Bahrain now offers another alternative: the independent commission. After a conflict, an independent commission, such as the BICI, can create an objective narrative of the events of the conflict, assess causes and offer solutions. While the BICI itself neglected causes and narrowly focused on institutional reforms within the structure of the government, it can be taken as a precedent for future independent commissions with more expansive mandates. Thus an independent commission, along with other post-conflict reconciliation policies, can point the way toward transitional justice and institutional capacity building.
Unfortunately for Bahrain, due to the restraint of the report itself even full implementation of the BICI recommendations cannot complete their national reconciliation needs. Deep and serious questions remain unanswered in Bahrain such as what constitutes an acceptable level of economic and political inequality. What form of governance do Bahrainis want? What does it mean to be Bahraini? These questions will need to be addressed both within Bahraini society and the Bahraini government's treatment of those residing within the kingdom's physical boundaries. While Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa represents a moderate force within the government which is most able to navigate compromises between the hardliners and the opposition, he and his faction have soured with respect to reconciliation efforts due to early drawbacks. Without his leadership and major concessions from either the opposition forces or the hardliners, reconciliation prospects remain bleak in Bahrain.

31 August 2012

Bahrain: A Simple Kind of Story

This post on Bahrain was written for the Exchange and can be found here

 This summer I have been in Bahrain as an intern with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) country office there. I was there to assist the office with its projects in the realm of democratic governance. As a self-proclaimed student of the Arab Spring, I kept abreast of the goings on in Bahrain. Yet pre-departure my conception of what was occurring on the ground was strikingly different than what was to be my experience over the next 11 weeks. Standing at the finish line of my experience, I struggle to sum the whole thing up succinctly. I can’t claim that I am in possession of any objective truth toward Bahrain, nor can I paint a complete picture of Bahrain’s present. A much longer stay is needed for this. So let’s talk about what I know.

I know that during the month after the February 14, 2011 protests the government of Bahrain failed its duty to protect the rights of its own people and used levels of violence, torture, and a suspension of due process which is intolerable. Governments have a greater responsibility to rise above the actions of protesters and hold themselves to greater standards of human rights—lest the authority of the state lead to abuse. Violence from both sides has continued. Since my arrival, the episodes of protest and tire burning that can be tracked via Twitter and watched on YouTube have occurred on a weekly basis. The ‘good news’ here is that there is a rather small population of Bahrainis that support these actions and they often occur in sparsely-populated regions of Bahrain. The corresponding ‘bad news’ is that while the complaints of these protesters and tire-burners are legitimate and their marginalization real and important, their actions and plight have become a part of life in Bahrain. No longer do these protests prompt a re-evaluation of national values—instead they prompt a re-evaluation of which sheesha place to patron that night.

I know that there are two major factions in the government: the hardliners and the softliners. The hardliners, embodied by the Prime Minister, generally oppose governance reforms, have little interest in human rights or combating corruption, and view the protesters as criminals who have little respect for the rule of law or institutionalized channels of political grievance. The softliners, embodied by the Crown Prince, at times agree with the complaints of the opposition groups and seek a slow, methodical reformation process which internalizes human rights and international standards as necessary steps toward economic and political stability. The opposition is splintered, from groups who wish to maintain and reform the monarchy to groups that wish to topple the royal family and seek full democracy right now. Their language used by the opposition ranges from the secular Tweets of Nabeel Rajab to the Friday sermons of al Wefaq. While generalizations are part of human nature, to view the government and the oppositions as unitary forces which are politically and religiously directly opposed to each other shows a lack of comprehension.

I know that there are serious human rights violations. Let’s go beyond the assessment of Bahrain’s human rights situation by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain in May. As of this writing http://www.bahrainrights.org/ remains blocked in Bahrain, as is content which is deemed pornographic in nature. I have discovered that occasionally news sources are blocked, as well. The domestic general-circulation newspapers are shamelessly biased toward the royal family and explicit and implicit censorship occurs regularly in Bahrain. This is perhaps the very reason why social media are so popular in Bahrain: they present real information. Especially considering the arrest of Nabeel Rajab for his tweets, I did not feel comfortable publishing anything about the royal family while in Bahrain. On the other hand, the freedom of verbal communication is strong. Many Bahrainis feel open to express their views on the government, the opposition, and the faults of either side. Many times during my stay I have been in a group of Bahrainis whom would openly speak against the actions of the government, and no one is visibly shocked by this. Moreover the King himself commissioned the BICI report and the government institutions have made a number of honest attempts at addressing all the recommendations of that document. The rule of law is maintained in Bahrain, and many people in Bahrain are able to live their lives with little thought given toward government powers.

I know that the untold story of those reading about Bahrain’s civil unrest is that of transmigrant workers, or expats as they are called in Bahrain. Foreign workers, who originate mostly from India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia, constitute a majority of the population of Bahrain. Despite the presence of expats in Bahrain for most of the country’s history and their literal building of modern Bahrain, expats have historically been subjected to inhumane living and working conditions. Recent efforts have made strides to alleviate these issues, but expats remain separate and distinct from citizens, and rarely do these groups interact socially or as peers in the workplace. I know that generally Bahrainis desire government jobs, and that Sunnis are generally more successful at obtaining them—no small coincidence being that the royal family is Sunni, as well. Shia are generally worse-off than Sunni, and a definite stratification exists between the groups. Combining the clashes and economic differences between Sunni and Shia and the station of expats in Bahrain and the question of what does it mean to be Bahraini? becomes important and must be answered by Bahrainis in order to go forward as a unified society.

Simplistic media headlines and talking points from all sides of the issue try to paint Bahrain as a simple kind of story: an autocratic Sunni Muslim minority regime is repressing a democracy-loving Shia Muslim majority population which has lashed out as part of the Arab Spring. Alternatively, that the Shia protesters were being materially supported by Iran and the government was militarily supported by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—making Bahrain a stage for a Middle East cold war. Unfortunately for those who love sound bites, these oversimplifications lose much of the nuance I’ve tried to hint at above—without going into an extensive analysis of all the relevant groups and issues in Bahrain as I have come to understand them. Like other political issues throughout the world, neither the opposition nor the government in Bahrain can be viewed as singular actors with coherent goals which are wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some organizations and individuals in both groups have turned to violence while others have made honest efforts toward solving the current issues in Bahrain.

At the simplest, in Bahrain there are issues of economic inequality for Shia Bahrainis and expats. There are human rights issues with respect to media law, expat wages, and protesters. There are political issues of gerrymandering, a King-appointed upper house in parliament, the status of political parties, and corruption. There are legal due process issues of the treatment of protesters. There are social questions of reconciliation and inclusion. There are forces on both sides of all of these issues in Bahrain. All of these issues are relevant in Bahrain, but they are simply too complicated for most commentators and observers. That’s simply the story of Bahrain.

17 July 2012

The Social Contract Revisited

Hello! By using America’s services, protections and opportunities, you agree to the following rights and obligations, and any policies, laws or amendments thereto that may be agreed upon through explicit legal processes. Provisions are made for updates in the future, and you will be able to find the most current version of this agreement in state and federal law.

Do you remember seeing that language at birth? No? What about at 18 years old, the age of adulthood in the US? No? That’s odd…

What is a contract?

Contracts wasn’t my favorite class in law school, to be honest. I claim no authority in the field. But a contract is really just the creation of one or more legal obligations between parties.

A common mistake is to assume that contracts require explicit consent. All product ‘terms and conditions’ are forms of contracts, and simply by using the product are you considered to assent to such terms and conditions. We all probably make hundreds of contracts each day. For example, let’s say you sit down at a buffet, the waitress brings you water, and then you begin to fill you plate. A bloated hour later you are full. How would it go over if you simply strolled out of the establishment without paying? Probably not well. A contract was formed through your actions and the tacit understanding that an exchange would occur: food for cash. You didn’t sign anything and the waitress didn’t make sure you explicitly understood that monetary compensation would be expected when you finally tapped-out.

In theory, the law would step in and require you to pay for the buffet if such a suit were brought to court. Why? Because you gained a benefit, conferred by another, without offering compensation in a circumstance when compensation was reasonably expected. In a term of art, you were unjustly enriched.

What is a state?

A state is a legal structure which has a population and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory. Why would anyone cede the ability to unquestioningly use force to some legal structure? Let’s ask the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

So people would theoretically enter into a state to secure life and liberty. And the state claims only power which comes from the people within it. That’s fine and dandy, but if a body is given power, it would likely abuse it in some way, wouldn’t it? It might even go so far as to disregard its original purpose. What do we do when this happens?

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

So when a government destroys liberty instead of securing it, the people have the right to change it or get rid of it all together. That unrelated concept of a contract is beginning to sounds familiar; rights, obligations, and remedies for breaches. But how do we know when a breach occurs, when to oust the state?

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

This is really just a recommendation and then a warning: Don't get rid of your government for stupid reasons, but to be honest people have a predisposition to tolerate a government that sucks rather than to get off the couch and change it.

OK, this state thing sounds like a contract, but I didn’t agree to it!

Oh, you did—you just don’t know it yet.

Just like at the buffet, a contract was formed through your actions and the tacit understanding that an exchange would occur. What actions? Voting, paying taxes, or benefitting from services paid for by taxes, etc. all indicate a use of the service provided for in the contract and tacit consent of the contract itself. By partaking in the state’s services, protections and opportunities you have been enriched at the cost of the other parties in the contract. It’s a quid pro quo, a reciprocating duty: you must uphold you end of the bargain. Elizabeth Warren put it nicely (paraphrased):

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

If you don’t like this contract, there are of course ways out. Otherwise, it would be coercive! First, the Declaration of Independence notes, supra, when you have the right to destroy the whole contract. Second, the Constitution explains the processes for changing the specific terms while maintaining the contact generally. Third, you can stop benefitting from the contract, and thus your reciprocal obligations would no longer be required. Yes, I’m suggesting moving out of the country.

Note: The Westphalian state/social contract paradigm has shifted since the time of the Declaration of Independence due to the philosophy embodied in the Responsibility to Protect. Previously the contractual relationship was only the business of the state and the people within its territory. But now the UN has asserted the right to be involved in this relationship. This is quite new, but we have seen a growing trend of humanitarian and military interventions in situations which ordinarily would have been viewed as wholly domestic issues. 

Some problems with social contract theory

First, no person has a choice as to what political system into which that person is born. Individuals become beneficiaries (or victims) of state probably immediately. Thus affirmative action must be taken to change the terms or change contracts. But how would we remedy this? The choices are limited: anarchy, governance with no claims of the consent of the governed, or to create a stateless land of wild children, who upon a certain age would be required to choose a state to enter. Antarctica is a bit too cold this time of year for that, I think.

Second, there are opportunity costs to leaving a given territory. Even if someone studied all the social contracts out there, and picked their favorite one, there are costs and hurdles to getting there. This is especially true for the economically disadvantaged, who are more ‘stuck’ with a state in which they often have decreasing voice. But relocation is pretty common. If nothing else, history is the story of human migration. If you’re an American, unless you're full Native or fully descended from those brought here unwillingly, your ancestors made this exact choice.

Third, at times it is effectively contract of adhesion. There are so many parties to the contract that any change requires a large number of parties to agree or any change. Each individual is only 1 in over 300,000,000 parties, and like most contracts, you can’t unilaterally change its terms.

Fourth, one might argue that a contract without explicit consent is in itself presumptuous or immoral. There is some ground here, but that would solve nothing. For each contract we presently enter unknowingly, there are almost just as many that we simply click through or sign on because they are too long or we aren’t interested. The social contract is no different.

There are probably others, too…


Even if you view the social contract as a noble lie, it at least serves as a useful understanding of why it is deplorable for individuals to choose to ignore the opportunities and advantages that have been provided to them with taxpayer money and try at every corner to get out of any reciprocating obligation.

I understand, and am sympathetic to, disagreeing with almost everything that a government does and feeling that government has not upheld the values in the founding documents. I often admire movements like the Tea Party and Occupy because they are actively trying to change the contract for those very reasons. Alternatively, with the services and opportunities provided in other countries, I completely understand leaving the US for greener pastures.

But it is wholly unfair to continue to reap benefits provided through government services, then act as if you don’t—only to make yourself feel justified in trying to not pay your fair share back into the system. Don’t think what is presently asked is fair? You can work to change that, too—but keep in mind the costs of what you have gained a la the Warren quote above. While many states go so far as to require periods of national service, all I ask from Americans is to recognize benefits derived, to not be so bitter about reciprocating, and to please work to change the system for the better, should you choose to remain.

The current electoral and political system in the US is approaching, if not already in, a state of complete dysfunction. That is not to say it is irreparable, of course. But what we need, more than ever, is a citizenry who will roll up their sleeves and invest time and money into getting America back on course by either fixing our current institutions or abandoning them for wholly new ones. If you would rather leave, that’s fine. But we have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with individuals who wish to cheat the system by gaining from its outputs and yet have no desire or intent to pay back into the system their fair share.

22 May 2012

My American Values: True Mobility

The second installment of the My American Values series focuses on what can be called the ‘American Dream’. While my last post concentrated on American law, the values discussed herein cannot easily be found in our founding documents, but more in the national story that Americans tell themselves. Note again that is post is subjective and personal.

What is it?

First, the ‘American Dream’ must be defined. In 1931 James Adams wrote the following in The Epic of America:

[The American dream is] of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

This definition implies “better and richer and fuller” for each successive generation, evidenced by the later mention of such possibility existing “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”. Thus, there is a generationally progressive element to the Dream. The Dream is both collective and individual; we as a nation dream to be better off than our parents and each individual dreams to be better off than his/her parents.

Note that this Dream isn’t inherently zero-sum: the individual wants more pie (for example) than his/her parents, and the society wants to make available more pie for everyone—no one necessarily wants a larger percentage, or  slice, of the pie—just more in an absolute sense. Yet while it isn’t inherently zero-sum, it often does manifest as such—getting ahead mean more people ‘below’ you and fewer ‘above’ you. This is perhaps most interestingly aided by the American tradition of immigration; immigrants come to make up the ‘bottom’ which has been vacated by the newly mobile. Indeed, the zero-sum version of the American Dream requires immigration. Note that the Statue of Liberty states, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” not ‘give me your educated, your English-fluent, your elite’.

Is it a dream?

Yes, it is only a dream. For the American Dream to be a reality, there are a few necessary conditions.

First, the nation’s economy must grow—there must be more ‘pie’ to go around than the previous generation in order for more people to be better off than worse off. If the economy is stagnant, some people may trade places, but in the end each person’s gain is another’s loss. I hope I’m not the first to tell you that our GDP had negative growth in 2008 and 2009, and our growth rate hasn’t been over 4% since 2000.

Second, in order to satisfy the “opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” part of the Dream, there would need to exist an equal opportunity for each U.S. citizen to achieve a measure of success. I don’t feel I need to argue that a child born to a poor non-English speaking single parent, through no fault of his/her own, faces unequal opportunity for success than a child, through no virtue of his/her own, is born into an affluent family with a stay at home parent in suburbia. We have a long way to go here.

Third, each generation must give to their children a world capable of success. The American Dream requires parents to want better for their child; to actively equip them with better tools and lessons for life than available to themselves. Because when a generation is 20-30 years old, that generation can’t command the economy or government. Influential institutions in the U.S. are commanded by those in their 50s and 60s (and increasingly 70s, as well). That generation has failed their children. They have gifted us a world where jobs are less available than when they were our age and where education—even adjusted for inflation—is greatly more expensive then when they went to school. What’s worse is that the generation doing this to their children, the Baby Boomers, was given unprecedented opportunity and growth by their parents! What are their parents called? That’s right—The Greatest Generation. In short, the ‘Baby Boomer’s have given their children a world worse than their parents gave them. In American Dream parlance, they are failures.

Does it exist?

Perhaps. However, in order to be successful (defined in the standard education/profession/economic way), one must behave, dress, and sound a certain way. For example, you’ll find few political, media or business leaders without a strong (and unaccented) command of English, without wearing the typical Euro-centric ‘business’ outfit of a suit and tie, without Euro-American values, Judeo-Christian beliefs, hetero-normal identity, etc. Thus, social mobility is encouraged, but you have to look, sound, and act the part. It’s not only that you have to ‘Americanize’, but you have to ‘elitify’ (a term I have coined to mean ‘to become like the predominant elites’), as well.

Thus, we encourage low-income and low-class born and naturalized Americans and immigrants to work hard and get only at the cost of shedding their previous identities. The working class has put down the beer and pick up the wine. The urban and rural must either lose their respective accents or relegate themselves to a lifetime of code-switching. Immigrants must don suits and learn English quickly. All must learn to value capitalism, education, the institution-centric paradigm, etc. The present elite does not look much different than their parents’ elite—and I can tell you that tomorrow’s elite doesn’t look much different than today’s elite. Thus, to really grab the American Dream, one must give up who one’s parents were. One must elitify.

And it is this elitification process which bothers me the most. Without it, the American Dream would represent true mobility—but instead it is a farce. True mobility would mean being able to retain the values and identities of your parents while still being successful. American stories like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Nanny, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are so interesting because the main characters don’t go through this elitification process where everyone expects they would.

Thus, my American value is not the American Dream—but the value of true mobility. America is often called a melting pot, but we must be careful with this metaphor. Elitification is like a fondue—all sorts of cheeses are added but in the end they create one homogeneous flavor. True Mobility is like chili—many ingredients are added, but each retains its individual flavor and identity while still succeeding as part of the whole. This value is more American because it conforms better with the Declaration of Independence; that we are all equal and through liberty—not conformity—can we pursue our happiness.