The Mess Over There

**I wrote this a few days before the UK, US, and French joint operation targeting chemical weapons facilities in Damascus. Right now, these strikes do not seem to have inflicted civilian casualties, for which I am grateful. It is unclear whether the targets were of any value to the Syrian regime, and indeed whether the attack will do anything to prevent future chemical attacks. I stand by the premise of this article: if the US or any other country can do something to stop the Syrian use of chemical weapons, they should.**


What is there to do about Syria? The civil proxy war in this tiny Biblical nation—sharing a border with America’s closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel, as well as NATO ally Turkey and still semi-occupied Iraq—may well be remembered as the defining event of the early 21st century. By this I do not mean to predict that the civil war currently raging in the country will grow to worldwide proportions, as some fear, nor do I mean to minimize other events from this century (the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the Iraq War, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, North Korea’s successful nuclear program, the rise of China etc). What I mean is this: while there were important events in the ten years between 2001 and the start of the Syrian Civil War in Spring of 2011, seven years ago, no single event has revealed more about the shape of the world at the start of this new century than Syria has. The world’s only superpower grapples with its conflicting beliefs in human rights, and its unwillingness to become entangled in another mid-east conflict. A large group of previously silent isolationists are ascendant. All the major players in the region lay their cards on the table. Iran, Turkey, Russia, Iraq and Israel choose to champion different players in the conflict in pursuit of their own goals. There’s open resistance to the post-cold war idea that America’s hegemony is unquestionable. Russian troops are being killed by US airstrikes—something which did not even happen at the height of the cold war. Meanwhile, the refugees fleeing Syria are prompting a resurgence of the nationalistic European rightwing. Whatever possible conclusion becomes actuality, whether it be a broader war, a silent American retreat and return to autocratic normalcy, or something else entirely, future historians will consider the period between 2011 and 2020 a key timeframe for understanding 21st century world power dynamics.

For America, the September 11th attacks were met with the same response as was the Lockerbie bombing years earlier: immediate and through retaliation. The country was shocked, a lot changed in the cultural, in government, yes. But it was essentially a moment of reaffirmation: the devastating attack did not demoralize America, it invigorated its resolve. The same can be said about the Iraq war, at least at the start. The idea of removing Saddam Hussein dated back to Bush I. It was carried on through the Clinton administration who bombed and starved the Iraqi people to no avail. The Bush II invasion was not iconoclastic in any sense. Nor was the policy behind it new or unique to Iraq. Since the end of the Second World War, America has—to varying degrees—stood behind the idea state sovereignty is not a license to practice ethnic cleansing, war crimes, etc. Yes, sometimes we have been impotent to do anything about it (see the horrors of the North Korean slave state), and sometimes we have given it a pass—in retrospect wrongly given it a pass—when it benefitted the realpolitik agenda of America’s global Cold War (see Operation Condor). But, the idea persists. Critics claim that America has no moral right to criticize human rights abuses in other countries. America is not perfect, but compared to the other forces acting in Syria (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Turkey, and Israel), America comes off looking better than most. If the standard for action is moral perfection, the action will be taken by those who are morally despicable instead of those who are merely morally decent.

When I predict that the Syrian Civl War will define the rest of the century, what I mean is that the world’s response will forebear the moral landscape of this century like World War Two did for the 20th century. If the regime of tiny, morale-weary, non-nuclear Syria can use chemical weapons on its own women and children with no response from America or “the West,” then the moral landscape of the world has fundamentally shifted. Before the nineteen forties, the attitude in the US was that other countries’ affairs were their affairs. That changed when millions of our soldiers were dragged into a war most people hadn’t wanted before the Japanese attack on Hawaii. These men encountered all the normal chaos of war they trained for, but they also encountered something new: the mechanized, scientific, culling of millions and millions of people in specially designed camps in China, Germany, and Poland. The systematic extermination of human beings, live vivisections, scientific murder. After the war, the world powers together decided to hang the perpetrators. After that, the excesses of Stalinism were the basis for America’s entire foreign policy; the purges, the gulags, the censorship; these were—often overzealously—held up as the very antithesis of America values and, therefore, a justification to act as we wished to make sure no new country had to live through these horrors.

I am not pro-war. I think that Iraq was bungled as badly as a conflict that lopsided can be bungled. There are many criticisms I could lay against Bush II and those others involved with the decade long misadventure: the shortsightedness of purging the Iraqi army of Baathists (who would, now unemployed but with families to feed, bring their experience to al-Qaeda and ISIS), backing an ineffective and corrupt Prime Minister, ignoring the sectarian nature of Iraqi society, downplaying diplomatic resolutions, falsely claiming Iraq had nuclear weapons, falsely linking Saddam to 9/11, etc, I will never criticize the idea that Saddam should in an ideal world, have been brought to some sort of justice. We should never have accepted him as a legitimate leader, prolific torturer that he was, mastermind of an ethnic cleaning that he was, war criminal that he was. Perhaps we should have removed him after we liberated Kuwait from Iraqi troops, as some wanted to do. Perhaps we should have exerted more diplomatic pressure to remove him in the years leading up to 2003, perhaps we should have used military force, but just been smarter about it. I do not know. We must accept there are things about the world which we can’t change, sometimes because any attempt to change things would cause circumstances to become worse. However, we cannot go back to thinking that those things are none of our business, regardless if we can do anything about it. Crimes against humanity are called that because they are not just crimes against the individual victims, but against the whole of human civilization. Dictators and warlords may get away with crimes because they are powerful, but they should never get away with crimes simply because the global community is apathetic. The first eventuality I can live with, the second I cannot.

I do not know what “regime change” in Syria would look like. I don’t know if it would be as easy as it was in Iraq, or whether Russia is serious when it says it would fight American troops to keep the Syrian despot in power. If Vladimir Putin believed America had the stomach for another war, I do not believe Russia would have gone all in on Syria. Perhaps, then, just the appearance of moral fortitude would have been enough, in a different world, to wrap the conflict up years ago. Perhaps if the Syrian regime believed there would be serious consequences for gassing civilians, torturing prisoners and dissidents, using live ammunition on peaceful demonstrators, or dropping barrel bombs on apartment buildings, they would not have done these things. It is possible, likely even, that a US attack on Syria would have disastrous consequences. Maybe Syria would become a failed state like Libya, or a terrorist breeding ground like Iraq. Discounting the fact that it is functionally already both of those things, we must weigh the consequences of attacking against those of standing by and watching. Those consequences might be harder to trace back to the source, but they are just as important to evaluate. What will the world look like if we collectively give up on human rights? On justice? If we give tacit permission to dictators to act as they please as long as they leave us alone, the 21st century might look a lot more like the first half of the 20th when the world chose to ignore the Ottoman genocide of Armenians than it will like the second half, when international criminal courts were created to punish perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

Voting: A Better Alternative to First Past the Post?

This is part one in an ongoing series on voting in America. This article focuses on First past the Post voting; later articles will focus on gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, the electoral college, and voter participation. Stay tuned. 

In some countries, most notably the United States, Canada, the UK, elected representatives are chosen in a winner take all voting process called “First past the Post” (FPTP). When ballots are counted for a given race, the candidate at the end of the night with the most ballots in their box wins. This is a simple enough idea, but in recent years many constituencies have been pushing for a reformation. Most notably, the current Labour party of Canada ran on a platform of voting reform which swept them to victory in 2015. What are the problems with FPTP, and is there really a more fair way of holding elections?

Elections in the US are weird. Presidential elections are not won based on number of votes, but rather on winning individual states’ electoral votes. This system should not be confused with First past the Post; indeed, the Electoral College tends to favor candidates who receive fewer votes but who are broadly popular in less populous states. Elections are run by the individual states. While the winner of the presidential race might not be the candidate with the most overall votes country wide, he has to get the most votes in enough states to capture the majority of electoral votes.

To see FPTP in action, let’s examine the famous results of the presidential race in Florida in the 2000 election cycle including the top four candidates.

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Under the First past the Post system, George Bush, the winner of the most votes was declared winner of the State of Florida.

Critics of FPTP say that this result does not correctly represent the will of the people. One reason is vote splitting. In the example above, “conservative” candidates (Bush and Buchanan) represent 49.14% of the total votes, while “liberal” candidates (Gore and Nader) represent 50.48%. This implies that the state of Florida would prefer a liberal candidate overall, but because the liberal vote was split more than the conservative vote, a conservative won.

This leads to the second problem many people see with FPTP: it encourages tactical voting. It is likely that many voters would actually prefer Nader or Buchanan to Bush or Gore, but because those candidates were expected to receive a low vote share, many voters decided to vote for one of the two candidates who were likely to win.

There are certainly other critiques of First past the Post, but for now, I am only going to discuss these two issues. The question for today is, are vote splitting and tactical voting easily solvable problems like some anti-FPTP activists claim, or would any solution create a bigger problem?

Vote Splitting

Vote splitting comes in two forms. First, as in the Florida example, there are so called “spoiler candidates,” people who eek out just enough votes to deny a victory to an ideologically similar (enough) candidate. Second, there are cases where two or more viable parties compete for the same pool of voters allowing a third party, while less popular than the first two combined, to win because their vote is not split. An imperfect example can be seen in the 2006 Canadian federal elections where the conservative party, led by Stephen Harper, won control of parliament  by winning roughly 40% of seat races compared with 60% split between three center-left or left wing parties. Based on these results, one would expect Canada to have a left leaning government, but instead a conservative government was formed due to vote splitting.

To maintain clarity and continuity, I won’t be discussing election results on a country wide scale due to differing systems of governance (parliamentary vs federalist, etc), but rather on a race-specific basis. So, to illustrate vote splitting, imagine the Canadian result is played out in a single race. Candidate A receives 40%; B, 30%; C and D 15% each. B, C, and D are from different parties, but all are much more ideologically similar than any of them are to A. The spoiler situation will be as follows: A receives 49%; B, 48%; and C 3%. Again, B and C are of different parties but much more ideologically similar than either are to A.

The first way to solve this problem that has been proposed is a mandate that some candidate get 50% of the vote to win. One way to do this is call a runoff election between the top two candidates if nobody gets above 50% the first time. This would solve the spoiler candidate issue; the spoiler (Candidate C) would be eliminated and a new election would happen between A and B. Presumably B would win C’s voters, or at least they would stay home, and win a majority of votes.

This would also deal with the Contrived Canadian example I laid out above. C and D would be eliminated and their voters would presumably go to B. In these contrived cases, the result we would expect occurs. However, this system also delivers some strange results under different circumstances. If candidate B was, although ideologically similar to C and D, considered by everyone outside his 30% base of support to be eccentric and unfit for office, the results of the runoff might be that A would get 70% and B would get 30%. It might be that C or D would have won a runoff against A because they are better compromise candidates than B. In other words, if B’s voters would be fine with either C or D, but C and D’s voters would not be fine with B, maybe C or D should be chosen for the runoff instead of B.

Maybe a system of ranked choice could solve this problem. In the situation above, I can imagine ranked voting played out like this: A is ranked first by 40%, third by 30% and fourth by 30%. B is ranked first by 30% and fourth by 70%. C is ranked first by 16%, second by 60%, third by 25%. D is ranked first by 14%, second by 40%, third by 45%. In this case, it looks like the runoff should be between A and C, the consensus choice. Or maybe even between C and D, the only two candidates who over 50% consider to be either first or second. If we assign points to ranking, (let’s say three points for a first place choice, two for second, and one for third) and 100 voters, the point values look like this for the race:

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Indeed, on that scale, the runoff should be between C and D. That is a weird result though, because it totally excludes A, the candidate who differs most. Intuitively, it seems like the runoff should offer a more significant choice. And also intuitively, it seems like the runoff should not be between the candidates who were fewest people’s first choice.

Another way to do ranked voting is to eliminate the last place finisher and distribute their second place votes to the other candidates. How would this play out? D Gets eliminated and his 14% of voters get their votes distributes to their second choice. Everybody’s second choice was either C or D, so it follows that all D’s voters preferred C as their second choice. Now the numbers are as follows: A: 40%, B and C 30% each. Presumably, in a large election B and C would not actually tie, so one probably has a slight edge. If B is eliminated next, his votes go to C and C wins. If C is eliminated, her votes go to A and A wins. So, the widely unpopular B who has a strong base of support (a populist candidate) can’t win. This seems right. But, the winner will either be the one candidate most different from the majority opinion (A) or someone who was only 15% of people’s first choice. I will discuss these results after dealing with tactical voting.

Tactical Voting

Tactical voting is the strategy of voting for someone other than your ideal candidate in order to avoid a candidate you really dislike from winning. Let’s say there are three candidates: A, a left wing populist; B, a middle of the road establishment type; and C, a fiscal conservative. They are polling at 40%, 40%, and 20% respectively. If your main priority in voting is lowering the deficit, you should be in C’s camp. However, if A were to win it would be your nightmare. She would raise spending for all these new programs and blow up the deficit. So, seeing as A and B are so close in the polls, you decide to vote for B who isn’t really that bad.

This violates the idea that the candidate you vote for should be your favorite candidate. Ranked voting or a runoff system would deal with this issue. Nobody would get over 50% to start, and then C’s voters would all go to B, allowing him to win with 60%. C’s voters would still vote for their preference first. However, these systems still have issues with tactical voting in different circumstances.

In a system where the top two candidates have a runoff election (a system used in France as well as some US jurisdictions), voters who favor an unpopular candidate with a small base have an incentive to vote tactically. Let’s say there are three candidates in the first round of elections: A, who is a right wing populist; B, who is a conservative moderate; and C, a moderate liberal. They are polling at 35%, 25%, and 40%. A’s voters know their guy will never win a one-on-one election against the moderate liberal candidate, so they might decide to vote for B in round one so as to have a chance that someone they share some beliefs with will win the general.

Tactical voting occurs in ranked systems as well. In the above scenario, if ranked voting is used, B will be eliminated because he has the fewest first choice votes. His voters’ second choice is the moderate liberal who will then win. In this case, some of A’s voters might put B as their first choice so that A is eliminated first and B wins the election. In fact, this seems like the right result from this election. 60% of voters lean conservative, so it would make sense for a moderate conservative to win. Tactical voting seems to be the only way of producing that result here.

A Silver Bullet? 

Changing voting systems would solve at least one problem entirely: the “spoiler candidate” who earns just enough votes to deny a victory to an ideologically similar candidate. The Nader scenario would be solved by either ranked voting or a runoff. However, beyond that,it gets murkier. Some problems would be solved, but new ones would be created. Alternative systems produce winners who are less controversial. Ranking favors candidates who can build a coalition of voters who don’t particularly dislike them over candidates who have a devoted following. This can be seen as either a bug or a feature. Some of America’s most popular presidents today were incredibly divisive in their times. Abraham Lincoln and FDR come to mind. Would a compromise candidate have been preferable with the Civil War looming on the horizon?

Advocates for ending First past the Post often only look at half the picture, as do advocates for keeping it. Every system will sometimes deliver a result that seems wrong to someone. Our own beliefs about who should win are tied up in our beliefs about what criteria we should use to measure victory. Those who want big change might think FPTP is ideal because it allows a vocal minority of 35% to surge to victory. Those who want consensus and moderation might prefer ranking or a runoff system. There are good arguments for and against every voting system: if we are to change it, it should not just be because our guy lost in the current system. It should be because we have determined that the system is no longer in line with our values.

Sources and further reading:,_2006#Results,_2000

“Why Flip a Coin” by H.W. Lewis

Bonus: The idea that there is no perfect voting system actually has some mathematical validity. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem says that no system can simultaneously fulfill all the criteria we want from a voting system if there are three or more candidates up for vote. There are a few caveats, of course, but they are too technical for me to go into here. But there is one interesting idea that gets brought up in response to Arrow that I want to mention. That is “cardinal voting.” Basically in a cardinal system, your ballot lists all the candidates who are running and asks you to check off all the ones you approve of. The one with the most check marks wins. If we decide we want the ideal consensus candidate, this would be a good way of running elections. It gives you the right answer 100% of the time if that’s what you’re looking for. Of course, it might be a boring bureaucrat, or even someone nobody’s ever heard of.