Alex Thurston

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.


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”.

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”.

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”.

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.


Alex Thurston, teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. He work on a range of topics connected to Islam and politics.


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