Thursday, June 7, 2012

MENA Tweeps, Relax About The Mideast UFO

Discussion on Twitter at the moment about a rocket of unknown origin visible throughout the Middle East is a case study in the pros and cons of social media as a tool of analysis.  If the goal is preliminary and largely baseless speculation, social media is excellent.  In the 24/7 media environment, it's a fast way to compare notes instantly with a global community.

However, in this constant tidal wave of breaking news, we almost never go back and examine our assumptions and predictions.  The intention of this post is not to discuss the "Mideast UFO," which at the moment appears to have been a Russian ICBM test.  Rather, it's about the settlement bill yesterday.  Keep reading, the UFO discussion will be there when you are done.

The split which has emerged in the Likud party over yesterday's settlement vote is an important development in Israeli politics and has its origins in factors which were entirely present before the vote.  That MKs in Likud supported legalizing settlement outposts was a known fact when the new coalition formed last May.  That there are differences of opinion between the strategic PM Netanyahu and more hardline members of his party was known.  

And yet there was no major speculation on social media when this coalition formed that it would split the Likud party on settlements.   In the sea of major speculative pieces on newspaper websites and blogs which appeared in the following days, only Tovah Lazaroff and Michael Kaplow's pieces referenced the internal Likud tension over settlements.  In the wake of the news of a coalition, there was a sense of shock in what political science might call the epistemic community and what social media enthusiasts might call MENA Tweeps.  There was plenty of speculation to go around, but only a thimble-full of analysis that sufficiently explains the first major coalition vote.

Why did the internal splits in the Likud not manifest themselves in the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition, but did so in the Likud-Kadima coalition?  Why were MKs like Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely empowered by a lack of support from Likud's coalition partner?  More broadly (read: political sciencey), do unity governments enable splits within parties?  Do these cleavages have an impact on policy outcomes?  Under what conditions are such cleavages most likely?

Obviously, expecting journalists and analysts to stop following breaking news and unpack these extremely complex questions is unreasonable.  However, a better relationship between the conversations of political science and the conversations of the foreign policy world as a whole would be a way to better address the lack of attention these important questions are receiving.  This goes not only for the esoteric questions but the more policy-relevant ones as well.  Political science should think more about the relationship between the variable-based social science it does, and its relevance to current debates.  In return, the foreign policy community should not be quick to write off political science in favor of Middle East UFOs.

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