How Soccer Determines the Choices We Should Make in Libya and Explains the Deaths in Mazir-e-Sharif

Pastor Terry Jones’ desecration of a holy text and the violent reaction it spawned are but some of the long series of acts of violence and hatred which have been acted out worldwide. The recent history of US military and diplomatic choices in the past twenty years have in no way accomplished any purpose but has ensured that the incidence of violence worldwide will continue to rise for at least twenty more years, and more likely thirty or forty, and quite possibly indefinitely.

With our voluntary involvement in the internal affairs of Libya, it is time to take note of the consequences of our decisions and our actions. To bring them right to the front of the discussion. Indeed, from my perspective, continuing along our current trajectory while knowing what we now know is as criminal as any outrages committed by any authoritarian ruler.

The time to choose a different road is now.

Just to make myself clear, I’m going to refrain from getting into a “who started it” discussion and won’t acknowledge comments attempting to make this kind of point. With the stakes being what they are, I think we all need to restrain ourselves from assigning guilt and seeking retribution.

All that is moot at this point.

For the last twenty years, considerable attention has been paid to the causes of violent conflict in an attempt to make more than a theoretical stab at coming up with an answer. Political science has attempted to quantify exactly which factors influence the tendency to view violent measures as an acceptable means of political activism.

  • The World Values Survey tries to capture this attitude in its question: “Using violence to pursue political goals is never justified.” and responders are asked to answer that (1) “Agree strongly” (2) “Agree” (3) “Disagree” and (4) “Disagree strongly.” A higher score denotes a greater comfort level with the idea of political violence.
  • The Centre for the Study of Civil War has also performed enough study that a tentative (and what scientific conclusion in any field is never tentative?) theory of civil war, measuring degrees of motive, ability, and opportunity.

And there’s more. It seems that the study of conflict is one of the most active areas explored by political scientists.

From what I can see, the thrust these past few decades has been toward a more rigorous, quantitative approach to defining the factors which might predict the probability of violent conflict, and various variables are introduced into these equations: state power, political institutions, religion, economic development, societal fractionalization (think “ethnic” or “religious” uniformity or lack thereof), the presence of Resource Curse abundance of one or more natural resources, population density, region, ability to organize, opportunity, motive and violent history.

Since we’re talking about the Muslim world so much these days, and with so much angst surrounding violence and instability in the region all the rage, I would like to take this opportunity of presenting the findings of Mirian E. Sorli, Nils Peter Gleditcsch and Havaard Strand from a paper asking, Why Is There So Much Conflict in the Middle East? (pdf). Well as it turns out, there isn’t. They find that violence is actually greater in Africa and Asia than in the Middle East since about 1997, and that levels of violence have declined steadily since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 (measured by numbers of conflicts with more than 25 combatant deaths – The PRIO/Uppsala Dataset).

Please take good note of the dynamic my last statement implies: the propensity for violence drops the longer peace can be maintained. It sounds self-fulfilling when put that way, but it’s more than that, because violence can be measured at many levels of society. It’s also seems a good argument for policy measures designed to enhance stability at the expense of political freedom, but that doesn’t seem to be quite true either. We would also have to abandon the global market and development assistance. Modern civil war theory describes a dynamic involving those variables I touch on above, and some I haven’t listed. Like I said, there’s lots of literature on this, and I haven’t absorbed all of it yet. It would be the subject of another diary entirely, anyways.

What the Middle East has going against it is that it is the most heavily militarized region in the world on a Military Expenditure/GNP basis. (cited from Sorli et al, who cite findings of the Bureau of Verification and Compliance, 2000). It’s a bad sign, but a revealing indicator, and the findings of another study Civil War Exposure and Violence (Edward Miguel, Sebastean M. Saiegh and Shankar Satyanth, 2009) point to one indicator which seems to outweigh all others.

“Our innovation is to move beyond the survey methodology that is widespread in this literature to analyze the actual behavior of individuals with varying degrees of exposure to civil war in a common institutional setting. We exploit the thousands of international soccer (football) players with different exposures to civil conflict in the European professional leagues, and find a strong relationship between the extent of civil conflict in a player’s home country and his propensity to behave violently on the soccer field, as measured by yellow and red cards.”

Now that is what I call thinking outside the box.

The findings are startling. No matter what the characteristics of the player’s country are, the strongest correlation is whether civil strife had ever occurred in that country during the player’s lifetime. They find that a civil war which occurred before the player’s birth has no such correlation. I love it that they checked for this.

“This link is robust to region fixed effects, country characteristics (e.g., rule of law, per capita income), player characteristics (e.g.: age, field position, quality), outliers, and team fixed effects. Reinforcing our claim that we isolate the effect of civil war exposure rather than simple rule-breaking or something else entirely, there is no meaningful correlation between our measure of exposure to civil war and soccer performance that is not related to violent conflict”

This should have been a no-brainer. The axiom that violence begets violence has been around for ages. It’s in the Bible in some forms:

“And unto him that smiteth thee on the [one] cheek offer also the other” Luke 6:29

(My preferred Bible is and always will be the King James. I desire vernacular not.)

So let’s review. Current civil war theory says that motive, ability and opportunity drive the decision to begin civil strife, and social and economic conditions play a part in influencing the particular balance of drives. For instance, we find that civil wars more often occur in societies under positive development. This tends to enhance the ability of those who would take up arms to get the necessary resources and to organize, as well as creating motive drivers which unequal development tends to produce. This has been observed by more than social scientists:

“It is, of course, its essentially schizophrenic outlook on society that makes the middle class such a peculiar mixture of yeast and dough. We tend nowadays to forget that it has always been the great revolutionary class; we see much more the doughy aspect, the bourgeoisie as the heartland of reaction, the universal insult, for ever selfish and conforming”
—John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Ok, I got off topic there for a second, but to finish the review, the probability of prolonged civil strife is increased by the present violence more than by any other factor. Not only is this described in the soccer study, but these findings are implied through survey analysis elsewhere.

And our influence on these events is seemingly without effect to effect a change in the type of regime post-intervention:

Initial regime type Regime type after intervention
  Autocracy Semi-democracy Democracy Total
Autocracy 403 (94.16%) 21 (4.91%) 4 (0.93%) 428 (100%)
Semi-democracy 18 (5.86%) 278 (90.55%) 11 (3.58%) 307 (100%)
Democracy 2 (0.77%) 4 (1.54%) 254 (97.69%) 260 (100%)
Total 423 (42.51%) 303 (30.45%) 269 (27.04%) 995 (100%)

(Source: “Democratic Jihad? Military Intervention and Democracy” Nils Petter Gleditsch, Lene Siljeholm Christiansen and Harvaard Hegre. The data set includes interventions in the period from 1960 to 1996, by my quick check. There has been a lot of intervention in my lifetime.)

So while we contemplate what’s going on in the world right now, today, we need to remember that we, as interveners, have next to no ability to effect a transition to a more democractic form. That seems to be determined by internal conditions within those countries (and will be the subject of more research on my part). There is one thing I would like us all to think hard about: Violent means beget more violence, more than any other quantified variable. It’s almost inevitable. Which is why I have never been thrilled by the Libyan revolt and why I see it as a tragically lost cause, while I marvel at those wonderful protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, who did the thing right.

In Libya, I do not believe we can reasonably begin to think that any form of self-directed governance is likely to come out of the current situation. I’ve been maintaining all along that the instant the protesters turned into fighters the prospects for a good outcome diminished greatly, and it doesn’t matter who we support after Gadhafi’s gone, that person or council, apart from having their legitimacy compromised by our support, will likely find the country ungovernable. And there’s nothing, nothing we can do to alleviate this. Aid won’t work, a military occupation won’t work, political and economic measures, including partition, won’t work. Gadhafi’s success in remaining in power won’t work.

The goal we should be pursuing is also the most humanitarian. Do what we can to keep the sides apart, and to minimize the trauma of violence of the residents in Libya’s embattled cities. That means maintaining airstrikes on units on either side engaged in attacks on cities, because they are perpetuating the circle of conflict. Especially this means ending all military support to the rebels, which also implies abandoning the regime-change agenda in all its forms. The only humane course is to prevent as much violence as possible. The payoff from this is a quicker return to stability and an enhanced prospect for democratic development in the distant future.

So making Gadhafi the issue is more than unhelpful. It will tend to prolong the willingness in the region to consider violence an acceptable form of political activism and hinder the development of the institutions of civil society. For the Libyan people, too much is at stake for us to indulge ourselves in the impulse for retribution.

So back to Mazir-e-Sharif. The violent reaction to Terry Jones’ aggressive provocation was inevitable. Not only did he insult their cultural identity and religion, the fact that it happened in a country which has seen practically nothing but civil war since 1979 gave it almost a metaphysical certainty of some sort of violent response.

It may not be the last. It may not be the only location such acts take place.

I thought for awhile that in one respect, Terry Jones was just another victim in this vicious circle of violence, but I cannot think of any outbreaks of warfare in Gainesville, Florida. If Jones is unduly traumatized by the events of 9/11, so were we all. However, most everyone besides of Jones and his congregation seem able to refrain from these kinds acts of aggression. He is therefore just a sick, criminally irresponsible man who knew exactly what he was doing and deliberately and knowingly attempted to incite a violent response. He went down this road before, and was informed of what the possible probable consequences might be, so there’s no possible excuse for his actions.

We should, in our words and actions, strive to avoid measures which tend ignore the effects that Terry Jones deliberately wanted to incite.

We have found our American Taliban. I don’t feel he’s as atypical a representative of the political culture we live in as we’d like to believe, and we can all judge for ourselves the trajectory our positions, acts and rhetoric have taken over the last few decades: Iraq, Afghanistan (2002 invasion), Afghanistan (cruise missile strikes ordered by Bill Clinton), Grenada, Beirut, and more, so many more:

Intervener # of Interventions
USA 63
UN 45
France 41
Russia 27
UK 25

(Source: “Democratic Jihad? Military Intervention and Democracy” Nils Petter Gleditsch, Lene Siljeholm Christiansen and Harvaard Hegre)

Further reading:

I won’t include a formal bibliography here. This ain’t peer reviewed work here. But these sources here are available if you have Jstore access. Some require a subscription but some are freely available for download. Google is your friend.

  • “Clans, Authoritarian Rulers, and Parliaments in Central Asia” by S. Frederick Starr of the Central Asia/Caucasus Institute
  • “Is Ethnic Conflict Inevitable?” James Habayarimana et al. Foreign Affairs July/August 2008
  • “Democratic Jihad? Military Intervention and Democracy” Nils Petter Gleditsch, Lene Siljeholm Christiansen and Harvaard Hegre
  • “Civil War Exposure and Violence” (The soccer study) Edward Miguel, Sebastian M. Saiegh and Shankar Satyanath
  • “Why Is There So Much Conflict in the Middle East?” Miriam E. Sorli, Nils Petter Gleditsch, Havard Strand

There’s lots more literature on these topics. Tons more.

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