About Chris Clary

PhD candidate in Political Science at MIT by day, think tanker by night. I've collected an excessive number of institutional affiliations; none of them are responsible for my opinions. I care about security studies, South Asia, and clear-headed thinking about politics.

A Case for Modest Military Force in Syria

I wanted to explicate briefly a case for the modest application of military force in Syria, just because it seems that the blogosphere and opinion pages are over-representing arguments to do a lot or to do nothing. In a way this might be viewed as a counter to Eliot Cohen’s argument that “Syria will require more than cruise missiles.”

It goes something like this: Let’s assume that the Assad regime made an intentional choice to use chemical weapons. If so, let’s further assume they are doing so because they have determined chemical weapons are modestly more effective than conventional weapons to kill militants or to dissuade people from supporting the militants. They believe this will modestly increase the odds of regime survival.

If those assumptions are valid, then it could be rational to believe the modest application of military force—say cruise missiles against regime targets—might be useful. Such a use of airpower need not be decisive, it need only to modestly decrease the odds of regime survival. In other words, airpower needs to cost the Assad regime more than chemical weapons buy.

But shouldn’t we care about dead Syrians no matter if they die from chemical warfare or conventional weaponry? Yes, we should. But it seems likely the Assad regime has determined indiscriminate violence is necessary for regime survival. This means that only regime change as a policy has any possibility of stopping indiscriminate violence. And regime change only can stop indiscriminate violence if you believe that post-Assad, Syria will be relatively stable. It seems like 1980s Lebanon is the more likely analogy, particularly since many of the exact same players would have very similar incentives. This means further, that if you believe stability must be imposed by an outside presence, just as in 1980s Lebanon, the cost of peacekeeping to preserve stability is likely to be very high for outside powers.

Protecting Syrians from chemical weapons might be a distinct, worthwhile goal from protecting Syrians more generally. First, deaths from chemical weapons might be especially unpleasant. Second, it is very plausible that chemical weapons might disproportionately kill civilians (they drift into homes) and disproportionately kill kids (less exposure to kill than an adult). Third, if reasons one and/or two are valid, then it might be useful to attempt to delegitimize this class of weapon more broadly. If that is the case, it might be worthwhile to exert modest force (“cruise missiles”) even if it fails to alter the Assad’s regime’s calculation, so long as the force signals to other states that there might be costs to chemical weapons use. If you believe the Assad regime might have “priced in” the possibility of U.S. military action in the event of CW use, then compelling a change in behavior becomes more difficult, but dissuading future actors might still be a possibility.

A few final points on compellance. To be successful, it is important for Obama to signal that if Assad stops using chemical weapons, then the United States will cease punitive strikes. Otherwise, if Assad believes future U.S. military action is inevitable, then he has no reason to cease chemical weapons use. Often in compellance situations, there may be reputational concerns, but since the Assad regime says it is not using chemical weapons in the first place, it should be easier to back down on future chemical use.

There are a lot of assumptions built into this analysis, and if the Obama administration concludes some of the planks of this argument are not present, then this case for moderate military action quickly collapses. But if you believe the assumptions above, U.S. military power may be appropriate to prevent additional chemical weapons use.

Speculation on India-Pakistan Violence

Overnight 5 Indian soldiers were killed and another injured in an ambush along the Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Since 2003, the Line of Control has witnessed a mostly intact ceasefire. Indian officials publicly claim that some of the attackers were in Pakistan Army uniforms. People are angry, with some calling for the end of the ceasefire. What happened and why did it happen?

What happened? Without being overly pedantic, and in no particular order, it seems like three possibilities are most likely:

  • A group of mujahideen got lucky, and except for whatever “steady state” support provided by the Pakistan Army, the Pakistan military was not a major player in the episode. The reports of a Pakistan Army uniform are either incorrect or are reports of a uniform procured second-hand.
  • A local commander, in an action coordinated with militants, decided to take action with limited approval from senior commanders in Rawalpindi.
  • Rawalpindi, perhaps on its own initiative or perhaps responding to a request from a local commander, authorized the action.

I think we can dismiss as unlikely that the civilian Nawaz Sharif government authorized the action. More on that later.

Why did it happen? Again, a few possibilities.

  • No real reason. This really only makes sense under the “militants get lucky” scenario.
  • Something vaguely to do with Afghanistan, where India also suffered an attack against its consulate in Jalalabad on Saturday, August 3. As with past attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan, there is widespread speculation that Pakistan was involved in the Saturday attack. For the longest exposition of a link between Afghanistan and last night’s LoC violence, see Praveen Swami’s post today. I think the connections are tenuous, though in the long run, if you assume a finite supply of Pakistani jihadists and if the war in Afghanistan is winding down, it certainly is possible that more will go east from Pakistan than north.
  • A tit-for-tat for an alleged Indian commando raid that snatched five men from Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control earlier this month. For the longest exposition of this hypothesis, see a different Praveen Swami post today. This might be consistent with other, recent rounds of cross-LoC violence, which also had this tit-for-tat feel.
  • Someone is trying to sabotage any peace process that might be brewing between Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh. Indian and Pakistani diplomats were supposed to resume talks early next month, with an eye toward a planned meeting between Sharif and Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at the end of September. Such “spoiling” behavior has also been characteristic of past peace processes.

What is clear is that starting with the Jalalabad attack on Saturday and the LoC attack last night, it’s been a bad few days for India-Pakistan rapprochement.

Phil Schrodt, Not a Huge Penn State Fan

Phil Schrodt’s goodbye missive to life as a professor is worth reading for several reasons, but his broadside at Penn State is especially breath-taking:

While I have been fortunate in my set of departmental colleagues at Penn State, the institution as a whole is phenomenally weird, following a North Korean governance model without the transparency, and with an Office of Sponsored Programs—OSP, the Office for the Suppression of Productivity—that has the tapeworm as their mascot. In discussing my decision to leave with a colleague who is an ardent supporter of the system, I referred to PSU as “an authoritarian hellhole,” which elicited the reply “Well, it is that…” Suffice it to say that the serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky found a welcoming and protective environment at Penn State not out of luck, but rather as an all-but-inevitable consequence of the institutional culture.

Forecasting and Ethics, Ctd.

A few additional thoughts (original thoughts here) inspired by posts on Duck of Minerva and Dart-Throwing Chimp.

First, I just want to agree wholeheartedly with Jay Ulfelder’s conclusion on Dart-Throwing Chimp:

Look, these decisions are going to be made whether or not we produce statistical forecasts, and when they are made, they will be informed by many things, of which forecasts—statistical or otherwise—will be only one. That doesn’t relieve the forecaster of ethical responsibility for the potential consequences of his or her work. It just means that the forecaster doesn’t have a unique obligation in this regard. In fact, if anything, I would think we have an ethical obligation to help make those forecasts as accurate as we can in order to reduce as much as we can the uncertainty about this one small piece of the decision process. It’s a policymaker’s job to confront these kinds of decisions, and their choices are going to be informed by expectations about the probability of various alternative futures. Given that fact, wouldn’t we rather those expectations be as well informed as possible?

And I just want to underscore something that Daniel Nexon on the Duck referred to as the peformativity problem, referencing some interesting work in economics. I do agree that an interesting intellectual question is if political scientists ever get good at forecasting–a big ifand those forecasts do generate policy interventions, then the forecasts might become self-defeating or self-fulfilling. The goal is for them to become self-defeating, but one could imagine the opposite: military intervention or aid could destabilize a perilous society or warnings of risk could lead to better data collection which could lead to categorization of a problem as being more serious than in an area without warning. Either self-defeating or self-fulfilling predictions present a host of empirical problems. It’s worth a longer discussion, but I think it’s worth starting the discussion. My hunch is political science is shifting methodologically to a fight between the forecasters (probably bolstered by big data) and the causal inferencers. The issues associated with causal inference have been fleshed out in some detail, but the issues associated with forecasting are still relatively unexplored. Let’s start exploring.

Forecasting and Ethics

Idean Salehyean has a provocative post over at the Monkey Cage arguing that forecasting is not a value neutral enterprise. If we forecast some outcome, we should expect policymakers to take some steps as a result, and those steps may or may not be acceptable ethically. Okay. But not forecasting may or may not be acceptable ethically either. I’m a bit of an ethics novice, so I assume people are coming at morals from either some consequentialist or deontological frame. It’s difficult for me to see how forecasting is directly a rights or rules violation, so we’re automatically in some realm of consequentialism when we are worried about forecasting. And once we are down that path, we have to explicitly consider the counterfactual of not forecasting. And not forecasting when one has some ability to do so might lead to bad moral outcomes.

We probably aren’t in the business of chaining Nate Silver, Andrew Gelman, and Gary King to their desks to forecast genocide even if it would achieve salutary consequences (probably for good deontological reasons about letting people make choices about their lives). But I think Idean Salehyean’s point ends up being a banal one because more or less everything we do is not value neutral.

Nothing is special about forecasting, I would stress. Observational studies—the democratic peace, for instance—might lead one to conclude that democracy should be spread, by force if need be.

We are inhabitants of the world. We happen not to be particularly influential inhabitants so the chain of causation from our studies to positive and negative consequences is lengthy. We shouldn’t be paralyzed or fascinated by our presence in the moral universe.

The Gestation of a New Indian Strike Corps

Indian newspapers have variants of this headline today: “India to create new Army corps along China border.” (For example, here and here.) And I think to myself, man, am I getting old? I swear I read this story like ten times now. So, I decided to go look. It might only be interesting to those that track Indian security issues closely, but I think glimpsing the news stories over the years on the new Indian strike corps gives you a little bit of a feel for the Indian bureaucratic process at work. It’s not pretty, but it’s not absurd either. A proposal is generated. It moves forward. Questions are asked. It goes backward. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. More after the jump for those that care. Continue reading

Snowden and Rawls

Edward Snowden continues his journey down the Freedom House ladder. He left the United States (56 on on Freedom House’s 60-point civil liberties scale) for Hong Kong (51) then on to Moscow (19). In the last 24 hours, rumors have had him going to Venezuela (24) or Cuba (10), though the present top contendor is Ecuador (36), a middling protector of civil liberties. If he does make it eventually to Uruguay (58) or Iceland (60), then his earlier talk of Hong Kong’s  “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” will seem less instrumental than it currently appears. 

Setting aside Snowden’s current excursions along the despotism trail, I wanted to reflect briefly on whether it is possible to think through the ethical obligations of being a whistleblower. We live in a democratic society where we have decided to allow our representative institutions to make certain decisions on our behalf. Those institutions have decided certain aspects of governmental functioning can be secret. Secrecy is inherently in tension with representative government because the content of the secrets might inform the representation we choose. Recognizing that there is a tension, however, does not allow us to relieve that tension through unlimited whistleblowing.

The U.S. system has accommodated whistleblowing by accepting two channels in addition to the formal chain of command: the inspector generals at various executive departments and the U.S. Congress. All indications are that the Select Committees on Intelligence in both the House and the Senate were informed of the program, though Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s statements in unclassified sessions are understandably worrisome. In a March hearing of the Senate Intelligence committee, Clapper responded to Sen. Wyden’s question of whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” by saying “no” and then adding “not wittingly.” Clapper has subsequently clarified his answer as the “most truthful” or “least untruthful” answer possible. All indications suggest that Wyden had been informed of the scope of the program in classified briefings, even if Clapper’s response in the March unclassified session is dubious.

The fact that two Senators—Udall and Wyden—were concerned about the program is not proof that the program should have been unclassified or eliminated. Wyden and Udall had both appropriations and legislative mechanisms they could have availed themselves of if they wanted to force greater disclosure of executive activity or restrict it, and if they were able to convince their colleagues of the validity of their concerns. They were unable to do so.

In addition to legislative oversight and inspector generals within the executive, there is an additional check on classified activities in this area: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which provides legal authorization for certain types of intelligence gathering activities, and was created by the eponymous Act. The consensus view in the media about the FISA court suggests it is an inadequate oversight body, largely because it rejects very, very few requests. I say suggests because there may be an important selection bias if reports are true that the FISA court often asks the government to modify or withdraw unsatisfactory requests. We do not have data on modification or withdrawals of FISA warrants, and if the FISA court routinely informs executive officials that a warrant will not be viewed favorably, it would be no surprise if the formal rejections are scant.

But, let’s imagine that one buys the argument that U.S. inspector generals, and the U.S. Congress, and the FISA court are all insufficient checks on the executive. Is there a right to whistleblowing other than through the channels established by law? I’m not certain. But to the extent that there is, it seems as if it must occur after established channels have been attempted. Why? I think whistleblowing only makes sense morally if is viewed as a type of civil disobedience.

I’m not a political theorist, so I go back to major works when I’m trying to think through something. And John Rawls has a long section on civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice. Rawls frames the issue: “At what point does the duty to comply with laws enacted by a legislative majority (or with executive acts supported by such a majority) cease to be binding in view of the right to defend one’s liberties and the duties to oppose injustice.” He defines civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.”

So, sounds like whistleblowing. But are they the same? And does Snowden meet the definition? Rawls lays out several requirements, but two are especially germane to the Snowden case. The first is “that normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith and that they have failed. The legal means of redress have proved of no avail.” It’s unclear in Rawls whether this is an individual or general requirement. Could Snowden, perhaps seeing the Wyden-Clapper interaction, determine normal appeals have failed, even if Snowden himself never pursued “the legal means of redress”? I’m dubious that Snowden met this requirement, but I can at least see what the argument on the other side looks like.

The other requirement is civility, met through publicity and nonviolence. Rawls is reasonably explicit on these requirements, and he goes further: civil disobedience expresses “disobedience to the law within the limits of fidelity to the law, although it is at the outer edge thereof. The law is broken, but fidelity to the law is expressed by the public and nonviolent nature of the act, by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of the act.” (Emphasis added.) Rawls goes on at some length, but the basic mechanism he outlines is that by accepting the legal consequences, it forces society to reflect on the rules it has enacted. If the society, even upon the reflection engendered by the act of civil disobedience, proceeds with the punishment, this suggests the convictions of the political community differed from the dissident, which happens in democratic countries. In Rawls’s words: “We must pay a certain price to convince others that our actions have, in our carefully considered view, a sufficient moral basis in the political convictions of the community.” Otherwise, individual’s nullification of rules they deemed unjust would lead to considerable social instability, even in a “nearly just” society. We would permit an individual to arrogate to himself governing authorities that were not vested in him.

I find exile, Snowden’s apparent choice, to be insufficiently similar to the requirement of acceptance of legal consequences, and hence the act is not civil disobedience by definition. It does not meet Rawls’s requirements of publicity, since it was only public after Snowden had escaped legal consequences. Even if I were to view Snowden’s actions as civil disobedience, it is still possible for me to view it as something that deserves punishment. By accepting punishment, the civil disobedient only forces us to face society’s rules squarely. The civil disobedient is not always right and so hence the civil disobedient should not always go unpunished. 

I do think this opens up interesting questions of whether an individual can ethically “shoot and scoot,” via civil disobedience followed by pursuit of political asylum elsewhere. By no means would these requirements prohibit asylum more generally. Snowden could have sought political asylum if he would have been badly treated in the United States for his political opinions. This is not what occurred. Snowden poor treatment  is a result of his violation of a non-disclosure agreement. His political opinions could have been expressed vocally without consequences, as is evidenced by his contributions to the 2012 Ron Paul campaign.

At the outset, I said secrecy is special because it is in tension with representative institutions. But it is special in another way, that complicates the acceptability of civil disobedience in such cases. Secrets once revealed cannot be un-revealed. They are forever public in a society free of censorship. I am troubled by this lack of reversibility. A “sit-in” or an unauthorized protest march does not permanently alter a social situation in ways that unified social action cannot fairly quickly repair. An individual that leaks state secrets—particularly in large quantity—might do lasting damage, something I think insufficiently considered in Rawls’s treatment several decades ago.