Marc Lynch

What does the political science literature on civil wars really say about Iraq?

 The most interesting panel which I attended at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Toronto was on the state of the field of the study of civil wars and genocide. A diverse group of top scholars in the field — Scott Straus, Ben Valentino, Elizabeth Wood, Barbara Walter, and Stathis Kalyvas — offered ...

 The most interesting panel which I attended at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Toronto was on the state of the field of the study of civil wars and genocide. A diverse group of top scholars in the field — Scott Straus, Ben Valentino, Elizabeth Wood, Barbara Walter, and Stathis Kalyvas — offered an overview of the evolution of the field which demonstrates how much rich, useful knowledge has been produced over the last decade. But what most caught my attention — and led me to join the discussion from the floor — was a discussion of the applicability of the literature to Iraq sparked by Barbara Walter’s presentation. 

 The issues came to a head when Walter recounted her engagement with the question of Iraq.  Asked to offer guidance to policy-makers about the likely consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Walter explained how she went to the “data” and concluded that the civil wars literature predicted a very high likelihood of a resurgence of violence if the U.S. withdraws (a version of this argument appeared in the Los Angeles Times).  Only an outside peacekeeper, she argued, could prevent a relapse into sectarian civil war.   Her presentation had an impact;  in his recent essay warning of the risks of withdrawal, Ken Pollack noted that a presentation of the consensus of the field of political science at the U.S. government’s annual conference on Iraq policy had most impressed him. 

 But did Walter’s presentation in fact represent the consensus of the literature on civil wars?  By one measure, yes.  She  presented findings rooted in the strategic choice framework in the civil wars literature, with data drawn from large-n quantitative studies of the various data-sets on civil wars.  Those who share her analytical assumptions would find her presentation logical, coherent, and powerful.  But the roundtable where she presented her findings suggested that her approach was far indeed from representing a "consensus" of the political science literature on civil wars.  It left out the entire body of work which is not derived from large-n comparative analysis, and which does not rest on a rationalist logic – research rooted in constructivist notions of discourse, in political economy analysis, in historical particularities, in micro-level networks, in local knowledge. And here, we see methodological and theoretical differences which potentially make a difference. 

 Since some of the best of those alternative approaches were represented on the panel, I asked the panelists to consider how they might respond to Walter’s claims from the perspective of their own methodological commitments and experience – and whether any such unified answer about the field’s findings was possible. Walter unfortunately did not engage with the question, but Straus and Wood each offered a few thoughts suggesting that their own approaches would produce very different conclusions. 

 The best answer by far came from Kalyvas.  Walter presented the problem as one of strategic commitment problems faced by three monolithic communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – struggling for control of the state under conditions of uncertainity about the credibility of commitments.  Her presentation did not betray deep familiarity with the actors in question or the nature of the political contestation.   Kalyvas responded by insisting on the need to understand the motivations, capabilities, and complex local relationships among the actors in questions.  He reeled off a list of conflicts rather than a single civil war among unified communities:  local struggles for power, intra-communal struggles for power, struggles among economic competitors, patronage and rent-seeking, institutional variables to do with the capability of state and civil society institutions, and the local security problems among fragmented and competitive armed groups.  These different dynamics might very well push in different directions than the logic of the first-order strategic interaction among groups – — and thus no obvious, single conclusion could possibly be offered about the implications of a U.S. withdrawal without understanding these local specificities. 

 I found the brief comments by Kalyvas far more compelling than Walter’s birds-eye view, and far more in line with the dynamics I’ve traced out in Iraq over the last few years.  This doesn’t mean that Walter’s approach lacks merit. It is certainly useful to apply comparative analysis, and to observe the operation of significant mechanisms such as strategic commitment problems.   But alone it simply isn’t enough.  A deeper knowledge of the nature of the local conflicts and power struggles, the motivations of the relevant actors and the nature of their fears and aspirations, the impact of history and the legacies of past memories — these seem necessary to offer useful policy advice or reliable analytical judgements.    

 In the end, Walter be right about the strategic consequences of U.S. withdrawal, and her presentation of the situation based on one set of analytical commitments makes good sense.  But the panel made clear, at least to me, that presenting those findings as representing the consensus of the civil wars literature is deeply misleading.  The urgent question is whether the other analytical approaches would lead to Iraq’s playing out differently from the predictions generated by the rationalist literature. When does each apply? How would we know?   And what can we do with that information?  Food for thought. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

Tag: War