There is a wealth of information, printed and electronic, now available on just about every conflict, trouble spot, and threat matrix around the world. Much of this flood of information can lead to a vetting problem; there is always something taken out of context or twisted to fit an agenda.
The other problem, when doing research on threats and longstanding conflicts, is that some writers, due to their specialization, become so focused on their chosen area of study that other factors, sometimes very important factors, can be left out of their analysis. This absolutely requires that anyone interested in learning more about what is going on in any conflict zone read extensively, across multiple sources and disciplines, in order to begin to build that “big picture.”
Here are a few examples: Misha Glenny’s book “McMafia” is an extensive look at the world of organized crime, especially in light of the globalization that has occurred since 1991. He explores not only the local and transnational organized crime networks around the world, but also many of the direct links these networks have with state governments, particularly in the former Soviet Union. He delves into the corruption and, in some cases, “state capture” that enables these networks, particularly when narcotics traffickers are involved.
But when reading the section on Nigeria, something stood out amid his discussion of the Nigerian 419 scam networks and their reputed non-violence: He mentioned the three-way ethnic and linguistic breakdown of the country, and briefly touched on the Biafran War. What doesn’t come out in his repeated stress on the non-violence of Nigerians as evidenced by their predominant use of email scams as a revenue producer, is that he skims over the horrific violence of the Biafran War. These supposedly nonviolent Nigerians slaughtered each other to the tune of over a million dead in four years, with 30,000 being killed in the opening days, mostly with clubs and machetes.
But war isn’t Glenny’s specialty, organized crime is. So he concentrates on what he knows. There is still a wealth of information in his book, it’s just incomplete. This isn’t necessarily Glenny’s fault, but it does illustrate a problem that we all face when analyzing these very complex situations.
When examining war, terrorism, politics, or crime, we tend to want to categorize things. “This person is a terrorist, this person is a guerrilla, this person is a criminal.” But in the real world, they can often all be the same person, one who might also be an elected member of a democratic government. Real life, real crime, and real war is messy, particularly as the proliferation of guerrilla warfare and terrorism further blurs the lines. The “terrorism vs. crime” debate is emblematic of this, as it is often a false dichotomy. “The purpose of terror is to terrorize,” as Lenin said. But why is terror being employed? Is it for political purposes, to intimidate a rival, to warn off a state security apparatus, or even to sow chaos in order to destabilize a rival or neighboring country? Or can it even be some combination of all of the above? Marking strict delineations often blinds an analyst to the reality of the situation in all its complexity.
Specialization can also lead to focusing on the object of one’s specialization to the point of ignoring entire factions. In his book “Shadow World,” Robert Chandler goes to great lengths to outline the resurgence of Russia as well as the threat of Salafist Islam. But in most of the book, China is almost completely left out. It is mentioned, but only as a Russian proxy. Chandler was a Cold Warrior; his concentration on Russia doesn’t invalidate what he writes, but it is not necessarily an exhaustive analysis of the entire strategic landscape.
In the other direction, H. John Poole’s works have concentrated a great deal on China’s unconventional moves into Asia and Latin America, particularly in “Dragon Days” and “Tequila Junction.” Yet, for all his insight, he essentially discounts Russia altogether, at one point even stating that he believes Russia to be too weak after the ’90s to have much clout internationally. Recent events have proven that assessment false.
Multiple sources must be consulted to understand not only individual events, but also the wider picture of the situation one is examining. There is always a web of history, interests, and outside players that might not be entirely evident at first glance. Don’t let the specialization of trusted sources turn into blinders that keep the big picture from coming fully to light.
(Featured image courtesy of integrity-apps.com)