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Democracy, Terrorism, Comic Books, and RAND

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TTLA's archival conversation with Dalia Dassa Kaye, associate director for RAND's Center for Middle East Public Policy.

More than a year ago, TTLA spent time in the office of RAND's Dalia Dassa Kaye. At the time, a book she'd co-authored, "More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World," had recently been published. That volume is available for sale and as a free-of-charge download here on RAND's site.

Since then, Kaye added a remarkable eight more titles to her bibliography. See the complete list here.

The research that went into one of those works in particular, "Barriers to the Broad Dissemination of Creative Works in the Arab World," will be discussed here next Wednesday, in the fourth and final segment of our conversation.

Kaye's lively remarks from last year, and her and her colleagues, "More Freedom, Less Terror?" remain as timely as ever. That's particularly given the content of President Obama's Afghanistan speech and the debate that counterinsurgency / surge / withdrawal strategy have fueled.

Starting today and continuing next week, then, at long last is our Q&A with the RAND expert. The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

TTLA: What's the main focus of your work?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: A lot of the work that I focus on here at RAND "? and many others in my area are really trying to do the same "? is to bring in some regional expertise and merge that with a broader social science background. So that when we're formulating policy in this region, we can give policy makers a good sense of what's actually happening on the ground, and not base policies on assumptions or expectations that might not really have a true grounding empirically.

For example in [a recent] study, one of the things we were looking at is this regional aftermath of the Iraq War. Everyone's focused internally what's going to happen with Iraq, but this is, "What has been the spillover to the broader region strategically?" And this does relate to the question of terrorism because one of the areas that we're looking at in that study is the spillover effect on jihadi tactics and procedures, and what kind of lessons are being learned in Iraq.

We're also looking at the broader landscape in terms of balance of power, how internal dynamics of states have been affected and the like. We do our field interviews in the region. Because we're a think tank, we can talk to people government officials can't always talk to. And so we try to bring in those unique perspectives. For this work we did that, we utilized that kind of fieldwork.

In, "More freedom, less terror?" I put a question mark there because what we were doing in that study, again using the same techniques, was trying to use our analytic framework and address important policy questions by actually going to the region and talk to people both in the government, but also in think tanks in the Middle East. And Islamic opposition party members. And non-governmental organization actors. We try to talk to a range of people and sometime our U.S. Embassy officials as well "? we do want to know what they're learning, although oftentimes they're finding a lot of useful information from our interviews.

We go and we try to figure out what are people in the region actually thinking. Not what they're saying rhetorically or publicly, but what they are actually thinking? What's motivating them? So in this study, "More Freedom, Less Terror?" we come in questioning this kind of assumption, stronger since 9/11, that democracy is an important element to countering extremism. Or, specifically, to countering terrorism.

This assumption has underlied a lot of our policies, with the so-called freedom agenda of the Bush administration. I want to say here, though, that the freedom agenda was a bipartisan consensus. It was a Bush administration initiative but there are many folks across the spectrum after 9/11 who said, "Look, let's get to the root causes of terrorism."

You know, these terrorists didn't just emerge overnight. Why are they attacking us here? What's going on? And so a lot of folks started to turn to this issue of democracy "? or more appropriately, a lack of democracy, because there are no fully functioning democracies in the Arab world. We in our study make that very clear. This is not a study about fully formed democracy and terrorism. It's a study about countries trying to engage in liberalization processes, democratization processes. And what affects that has.

TTLA: Your study focused on how many places?

DDK: We studied six countries. We wanted to test this assumption, is there something valid to this notion that democracies are a way to counter terrorism? And even though it's been an assumption of our policy, there hasn't been a lot of actual analysis looking at real cases to examine this question. A lot of the people who have looked at this have looked only at the Al Qaeda actor, the terrorist actor.

People who counter this argument, that democracy stops terrorism, point to groups like Al Qaeda and they say, "Why would democracy have anything to do with stopping Al Qaeda? This is a trans-national group. They have no interest in democracy. So why are you even bothering with this?" And what we do in this study is say, this is true. It could be that once there are groups like Al Qaeda, who have checked out of the system, democracy is not going to affect those actors.

But what we also say is that there are domestic contexts in the [Middle East] region, in which these actors are operating. And we actually find empirically that the majority of terrorism incidents in the world are still emanating from this region. Terrorists might carry out their atrocities across the globe. And in fact much analysis and quantitative studies have found that many terrorist incidents occur in democratic systems, just because it's easier to operate.

TTLA: What about the origins of these actors?

DDK: Where the terrorists are coming from doesn't matter. And what we find is that they often do come from very repressive societies. Now this doesn't mean that's the sole reason they're becoming terrorists, but that there is a context from which these terrorists are coming. So even if democracy can't stop Al Qaeda, what we do is we say, well, let's look more deeply at these domestic contexts. Let's look at actual Arab states and see how is it functioning. Does the promotion of political reforms and movement toward greater civil liberties "? and again, this is still very limited in this region "? have an effect positive or negative on folks who might think about joining Al Qaeda, who might be supporting it? Does it affect the population support of government policies to counter terrorism? There's the whole environmental context in which these terrorists operate. And so we ask those questions.

We looked at six Arab cases. We looked at cases that were not the obvious cases, in the sense of obvious cases being where there are ongoing hot wars. So Iraq and the Palestinian arena were not our cases, because there are so many other factors that can be explaining extremism and radicalism, how can you possibly determine whether democracy is part of the equation or not?

We think that you can tease out this variable of political reform much better in cases that are more "normal" in terms of not being engaged currently in ongoing conflict. So we tried to pick cases fitting those criteria throughout the Arab region, in the Gulf, in the Levant, in North Africa, in geographically different locations.

TTLA: So which were your six nations?

DDK: Morocco and Algeria were our North African cases. Jordan and Egypt, both very important countries from the U.S. security perspective. And Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Gulf countries that are also really important in terms of U.S. national security interests, beyond the terrorism question. So we tried to pick cases that matter to [the U.S.].

Coming Monday, Part 2: "Is Democracy Flowing?"

Photo Credit: "Dead Sea / Jordan, 16May09," The image accompanying this post was taken by Flickr user World Economic Forum. It was used under Creative Commons license.

From flickr: "Graphics captured during the Youth Role Model Studio Session at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East at the Dead Sea in Jordan, May 16, 2009. Copyright World Economic Forum

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