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Five Ways Not to Analyze War

The militarism of US foreign policy makes analyzing and understanding conflict an imperative part of any reform effort. But bad analysis is rampant. Here are some ways to recognize it.

Andy Armstrong

This blog originally appeared on Foreign Exchanges, which, like Discourse Blog, is a member of the Discontents media collective. Discourse Blog readers can save 25% on their first year at Foreign Exchanges by subscribing today at this link.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Whenever there is a flare up in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and this past week has certainly been no exception, it’s typical in some quarters for Middle East “specialists” to insist that non-specialists cannot and should not take a position with respect to Israeli state violence because the situation is “too complicated.” It occured to me that this piece could be understood as making a similar argument. It is not. I believe non-specialists can and should take a stance on any issue where they feel the moral stakes of the situation are clear. This column has to do, rather, with the choices that analysts make once they set out to analyze a conflict. Hopefully these cautions are helpful to non-analysts too, given that all of us receive a steady diet of simplistic conflict analysis from media, think tanks, and even academia. — Alex

EDITOR’S NOTE: I think the intent of Alex’s piece, to criticize shoddy “professional” conflict analysis, is pretty clear. Indeed I think you’ll find elements of the kinds of shoddy analysis he’s talking about—religious essentialism, the tendency to dismiss Hamas as fanatics and/or Iranian proxies, a loss of focus on genuine local grievances—peddled by many of the same people who want to tell you that what’s happening in Israel-Palestine is “too complicated” for the mere layperson to understand. But I did promise him I would let you all know that he sent me this piece prior to the events of the past week, so it’s absolutely not a commentary on those events. — Derek

Analyzing war is a crucial task for anyone interested in peace. Analysis is a particularly crucial task for the left, given that war and war-making have been central to imperialist foreign policy, the rise of the national security state, and the securitization of everyday life in the United States and many other countries around the world. Bad analysis of war abounds, with destructive consequences. This piece discusses five influential yet fundamentally flawed methods of analysis.


Much conflict analysis can be broadly categorized as essentialist, pinning responsibility for violence on some supposed deep-rooted characteristic of a people or a place. This kind of thinking—“they fight because they’re like that” or “that’s how they do things over there”—denies the full humanity of those involved in the conflict, and denies the roles that recent history and current politics invariably play in generating strife.

Lazy, essentialist analyses of conflict are not just a problem on the right, but are also frequently proffered by centrists. In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama’s reference to the Middle East’s “conflicts that date back millennia” evoked widespread and justified criticism. Such statements are inaccurate: much Sunni-Shiʿa tension, to take one of the more prominent “conflicts” to which Obama was referring, is ginned up by modern Middle Eastern states and politicians. It is not an immutable feature of a Middle East that’s somehow been frozen in time since the seventh century—which in any event is not “millennia” ago. Such statements enable a cynical pessimism, implying that the United States ultimately bears no responsibility for sparking or inflaming what we’re told are “ancient hatreds.”

Racism is rampant in journalism and in the foreign policy establishment. Sadly but unsurprisingly, Africa is often the jumping-off point for racist analysis. It is no accident that the infamous 1994 article “The Coming Anarchy,” published in The Atlantic by the neoconservative thinker Robert Kaplan, holds up West Africa as “the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real ‘strategic’ danger.” Again, however, such language is not limited to neocons or the right. For example, the New York Times’ longtime East Africa correspondent, Jeffrey Gettleman, wrote in a 2012 book review (where he barely discussed the book in question, which is in actuality an excellent study that does not bear out Gettleman’s claims) that Africa “is plagued by countless nasty little wars.” The tendency to paint entire regions and continents as lost to “thugs” is widespread. The racist analyst holds out essentialism as a shortcut for understanding geopolitics, individual conflicts, or both. But the result is both morally offensive and analytically bankrupt.

“Rational Actors”

One might think that the best alternative to essentialist analysis is to approach all wars through one dispassionate framework. Unfortunately, the dominant framework in political science—where the study of “civil wars” has become one of the key prestige topics over the past two decades or so—is exceedingly flat. What it promises in terms of breadth, in terms of comparing large data sets to extrapolate overarching patterns in war-making, it loses in terms of depth. This type of framework has become more sophisticated over time, but its foundational works, especially Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler’s “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” advance a cynical and ultimately implausible view of humanity. The “rational actor” here is a self-interested materialist who fights for money and power. All wars are the same, all “rebels” are the same, and so on. Whatever someone engaged in a particular conflict might say about the reasons why they’re fighting becomes, in this view, basically irrelevant to the analyst’s task.

As Wolfram Lacher comments in his recent book Libya’s Fragmentation, “Formal models based on such assumptions have the advantage of parsimony, but necessarily discount fundamental aspects of social reality, such as social structure, history and collective memory, ideology, legitimacy, as well as the social construction of threats.” Lacher adds that “such models…collapse under any careful empirical analysis of particular cases” (p. 146). Put differently, political scientists’ big data sets and carefully constructed models look impressive at first—but when you delve into any particular conflict, the “rational actor” approach doesn’t add up.

There’s also an ugly politics to much of this literature. In a devastating critique of Paul Collier’s work, David Keen of the London School of Economics argues that Collier’s arguments are “politically convenient” for the powerful. If rebels are just greedy thugs, then their violence is illegitimate—and thus Collier’s work proves useful both to “abusive states” and to a “neo-imperial zeitgeist” that endorses “western military intervention and occupation” (p. 758). Jacob Mundy, in his brilliant book on Algeria’s mass violence in the 1990s, makes a related argument—if we take politics out of the study of warfare, then warfare becomes merely a technical problem to solve. And the technocrats who claim they can solve wars often end up favoring highly interventionist frameworks such as “Responsibility to Protect.” Mundy calls this approach “managerialism,” and comments that “its putative successes often arise out of catastrophes it haphazardly helped to create” (p. 9). So much for a one-size-fits-all, coldly cynical approach to understanding war.


The “rational actor” approach is too cynical about human nature, and too convenient for powerful actors who wish to minimize the importance of specific grievances in provoking violence. Surely, then, we need to bring back in the question of conviction—many people, despite what some political scientists and economists would have us believe, fight because they believe in things, because they are outraged by things, because they want dignity. But we can overcorrect here if we attribute too much power to belief, to ideology.

Exaggerating ideology’s importance was a mistake (or, if one is jaded, an excuse) that US policymakers fell into during the Cold War, treating diverse struggles around the world—many of them anti-colonial projects of liberation—as part of a single Communist threat. And it’s a mistake woven through the “War on Terror.” In many accounts and in much policymaking, all violence carried out under the banner of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State is assumed to be ideological and/or fanatical in character. Analysts of jihadism routinely claim that the key source for understanding jihadist violence in Syria, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Nigeria, in Mozambique, and elsewhere is not the histories, conditions, and grievances of real human beings on the ground, but rather the splashy propaganda of jihadist videos, bulletins, and online forum posts. And Washington’s foreign policy elites routinely speak of jihadism as an evil monolith, where the statements of ideologues are assumed to reflect the attitudes of all foot-soldiers.

Attributing that kind of power to ideology ignores a mountain of evidence. For starters, people often join jihadist groups not first and foremost out of ideological extremism, but out of a desire for revenge, or for self-protection, or because they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Moreover, it is above all events, rather than ideological master plans, that drive the trajectories of different armed groups. In Iraq, for example, the combination of the US invasion, followed by the sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki’s government, cannot be ignored as crucial factors in shaping the various incarnations of what is now called the Islamic State.

Here, too, the politics of certain analytical approaches are worth noting, whether they go stated or unstated. If the “extremists” are all fanatics dedicated to their ideologies, then they cannot be reasoned with, they can only be killed. If what matters most in producing al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is “extremism,” then states (the United States, but also Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and many others) are off the hook in terms of specific policies and decisions that might deliberately or inadvertently add fuel to the fire of jihadism. And if the “extremists” can only be met with force, then there is little room to question why “counterterrorism” and “counterinsurgency” so often produce more “terrorists” and “insurgents” with each airstrike, with each raid, with each campaign.

Proxy War

The three previous frameworks are more or less silent on international complicity and responsibility. Even the term “civil wars” can be misleading, suggesting that conflicts are self-contained and even self-generated—that wars are the fault of the people who live “over there,” and have nothing to do with us “over here.”

Some of the most prominent “civil wars” of our time are far from self-contained. As political scientist Marc Lynch wrote of Syria in 2016, “Any advance by one side is quickly matched by external supporters of the other: Rebel advances invited Hezbollah’s, Iran’s, or Russia’s direct entry into the fray, while Assad’s advances invited increased flows of arms and aid to the various rebel groups.” It is crucial to acknowledge both the blatant and the subtle ways in which outside actors intervene in other countries’ civil wars. That kind of acknowledgment underlies a lot of the powerful activism around ending American support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in/on Yemen. Cut off international flows of money and weapons, and some of the worst conflicts in the world today would be rendered much less severe.

At the same time, it’s possible to go too far in labeling conflicts proxy wars. If we say that a conflict is fundamentally a proxy war, we make the people on the ground into puppets. This is dangerous when it comes to groups like the “Iran-backed Houthis,” whose Iranian support is but one facet of a movement whose history and support base is primarily local. Moreover, as analyst Jalel Harchaoui has pointed out in the case of Libya, when international actors crowd into a conflict, they unwittingly give options to the “proxies”: “Almost every meaningful politician or armed actor in Libya has been courted by more than one external sponsor. That makes Libyan leaders notoriously capricious and hard to dominate as proxies.” Analysts need to understand the interactions between local and foreign interests in shaping conflict, without minimizing or erasing local decision-making.

There are political consequences, too, for distilling complex local conflicts down to mere “proxy wars.” After all, it’s only ever “they” who have proxies—“we” invariably have allies. Talk of proxy war can reinforce militarism—if the Houthis are just Iranian proxies, then their local political weight can be dismissed. These dynamics speak to a broader pattern in Washington where policymakers and analysts often purport to be identifying the will of the people of a particular place, but then unjustifiably exclude major actors and factions from consideration as part of “the people.” Governments can be dismissed as predatory and unnatural, lacking in any support, or rebels can be dismissed as outsiders and troublemakers.

Analysis needs to grapple with the realities of external support for malign regimes such as Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria without ignoring that such regimes generally do have a local base of support, both active and passive. Too many foreign policy fantasies have been built on the idea that such-and-such government, or such-and-such faction, has no actual local support, and will thus fall with a feather’s touch. And a left American presidential administration, should one ever come to power, will have to find a framework for peacemaking that acknowledges the United States’ own responsibility in escalating many conflicts while also thinking through how to limit other countries’ interventions without making conflicts worse.

Conspiracy Theory

The final framework I want to criticize is conspiracy theory. Many of the world’s conflicts are so complicated and so seemingly intractable that it’s tempting to lapse into the idea that shadowy interests are the sole explanation one requires. The lure of conspiracy theory often intersects with parts of the “proxy war” framework—some outside actor can be blamed as the “real culprit” for the violence in a particular place. Conspiracy theory, too, can treat the people on the ground as mere puppets.

There’s a fine line to walk here. Governments lie. Rebels lie. Forces that are enemies in public turn out to be colluding behind the scenes. Intelligence services deliberately mislead publics and cause confusion. What counts as a “conspiracy theory” is determined in part by power—dismissing something as “conspiracy theory” can be a tactic for fighting information wars, and what seems like a “conspiracy theory” at one moment may turn out later to be backed by powerful evidence. For example, how many governments, such as Yemen’s under Ali Abdullah Saleh, are now widely acknowledged to have colluded on and off with elements of al-Qaeda?

The analytical solution, I think, is to beware of any explanation that’s too neat and tidy. In a sense, that’s the theme of this whole post: conflict and war are messy. Any analytical tool that promises a way to cut through that complexity in a flash is not really a tool at all, but a crutch. As left foreign policy analysis and prescription becomes more muscular, we need to avoid oversimplification. With the example above, claims about a relationship between Saleh and al-Qaeda are plausible precisely because they are so messy.

Wrapping Up

The only way to analyze wars, I think, is by humanizing them. There’s no trick that can cut through the need to study history, memory, geography, politics, religion, ideology, ethnicity, etc.—in other words, to understand the people participating in the conflict.

For a rising left cadre of foreign policy thinkers and analysts, one of the first necessary steps is to scrutinize and challenge lazy, reductive analysis and journalism, and not to perpetuate lazy analysis of our own. Another crucial step is to challenge the essentialist underpinnings of much policy, as well as the weird combinations of cynicism and moralism that lead Washington to treat some conflicts as implacable acts of God while treating others as morality tales where Washington acts on behalf of “the people” and casts every opposing actor as an evil meddler. Moving beyond simplistic analyses of conflict will help flesh out an emerging left foreign policy that is neither isolationist nor interventionist, but rather that seeks to minimize the harm America does in the world while maximizing its potential role as peacemaker.