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.

5 Political Scientists on the Crisis in Egypt: Consequentialism over Idealism

In the aftermath of the July 3rd military intervention that removed the elected Islamist government from power, the political crisis in Egypt shows no signs of abating. The events which led to the second military intervention to oust a civilian government in just two years is the culmination of a severely flawed process of political transition which utterly failed to account for the consequences of an idealistic and misguided rush to electoral politics. The reason, it appears, is the persistent inability to understand the strategic dynamics of political transitions and the continuing insistence on courses of development grounded in a “logic of appropriateness” that seems to equate electoral institutions with democracy. While this is a continuing fault of policymakers and activists, the academic record is somewhat stronger on this ground, despite the fact that it is largely ignored. While structural theories of democratization continue to be the vogue for the international community, it is the process-based accounts of democratization, emphasizing strategic choice, that provide the keys to understanding the failure of Egypt’s political transition of the past two years.

In 1999, Robert Bates remarked:

A major reason for the relatively democratic outcomes [in Southern Africa] is that the new regimes left the former repressors in possession of a political hostage; the private economy… Should the [retreating] tyrant and his followers own industries or banks, should they control capital, physical or financial, should they, in short, possess economic power, then those seeking their political surrender should respect their rights (1999, 83-4).

Bates’ comment, which forms the core of his explanation for successful democratization in South Africa and Namibia, constitutes an argument that successful transitions cannot lead to the replacement of one ruling group with another, for democracies are never born of revolution, but rather that successful transitions must seek to incorporate elements of the old regime into the new. This argument is also made by Adam Przeworksi in his strategic-choice account of democratization, Democracy and the Market (1991). Przeworksi’s account of transitions identifies splits within two opposing camps and predicts that successful democratic transitions are born of alliances between reformers within the old regime and moderates within the opposition, against their hardliner and radical counterparts. In both formulations, democracy is impossible without participation of the old regime.

In the Egyptian transition, this did not happen. The coalition underpinning the old regime, a combination of military and commercial power, fractured in February 2011. As a result, the military overthrew the civilian commercial elite and extended their hand to the opposition. However, the second stage of the transition caused the collapse of the process. The opposition insisted on the punishment and marginalization of the old regime, and increasingly after the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, the moderate opposition. While in revolutionary contexts, such as Iran in 1979, moderates find themselves without an ally owing to revolutionary bloodshed, Egypt experienced little revolutionary violence; the military continued to play a dominant role as powerbroker and members of the old regime retained their economic “hostages;” Egypt did not experience a true revolution. Two years later, facing a similarly intransigent challenge from the Brotherhood, “Reformers” and “Moderates,” the groups responsible for the ousting of Mubarak, united once again to oust a hardline regime that was as authoritarian in tendency as that of Mubarak.

If Egypt is to successfully complete its transition towards a more democratic form of rule, the Muslim Brotherhood, as Przeworksi’s “Radicals,” can have no leading position carrying the state forward. This is where the conclusions of Przeworksi clash with the liberal ideals of international democracy activists arguing for a greater role for all Egyptians in the path forward. As Przeworksi argues, democratization is possible only if “(1) an agreement can be reached between Reformers and Moderates to establish institutions under which the social forces they represent would have significant political presence in the democratic system, (2) Reformers can deliver the consent of the Hardliners or neutralize them, and (3) Moderates can control the Radicals” (1991, 68). In the Egyptian context, only condition (2) was fulfilled. Rather than tread carefully to ensure equitable representation and guarantees for vulnerable groups and to protect a centrist “core,” impatience both within the Egyptian secular opposition along with international observers (especially in the United States) led to an emphasis on a rush towards participation before the scope and terms of contestation had been decided upon. The “Radicals,” representing a more unified bloc than the disorganized “Moderates,” gained control of the process and progressively sidelines moderates, manipulated electoral rules, and mounted an attack on a judiciary which largely carried over from the old regime. This attempt at consolidating power was doomed from the outset. Participation was opened before the basic institutional infrastructure of the system could be determined, and an under-informed electorate was pressured to support a constitution that was ill suited for the promotion of meaningful democratic politics. Constitutions should not be selected through majoritarian politics.

Such an observation dovetails nicely with the core arguments of Robert Dahl (1971) and Samuel Huntington (1968), both of whom argued that institutions of contestation must precede the expansion of participation. Such a trajectory of political development characterizes early democracies, such as Britain and the United States, along with certain colonies, most notably Mauritius, and even such repressive regimes as South Africa. In fact, in 1984, Huntington, in a rare moment of forward-looking insight, predicted that South Africa was on a path towards democratization. In 1999, Bates’ remarks validated this observation. By gradually expanding participation, newcomers to the system, “invaders” in the parlance of evolutionary game theory, cannot destabilize the system due to their small numbers in an already consolidated system. Instead, they must accommodate to the equilibria already specified by the system in place. By collaborating with remnants of the old regime, coalitions of compromise were required and radical politics eschewed.

What does this imply for Egypt? First, Przeworski and Bates both explain the trajectory of Egyptian political development from February 2011 through July 2013. The failure of the “Moderate”-“Reformer” alliance took the form of demonstrations against military rule and the demand to turn politics over to the opposition before the constitution was written led to the emergence of “democracy without guarantees” and an attempt to monopolize the system by the radicals. In turn, this attempt threatened the power and privilege of the military and the economically powerful remnants of the old regime. In response, these remnants (Ar: fulul) manipulated the economy and eventually intervened outright to depose the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this leaves Egypt in much the same position it was in two years ago, with a military regime facing a decision about where to go next. The solution being pushed by many in the liberal camp would entail an essential repetition of the process which failed previously. Perhaps the Brotherhood has learned its hard lesson, but I suspect their reaction to a second chance would be an attempt to cut a narrow deal with the military at the expense of the rest of the population. An Islamist-dominated process in Egypt, because of its polarizing tendencies, is doomed to authoritarianism.

If Egypt decides to follow the policy prescriptions stemming from the conclusions of Huntington, Dahl, Przeworski, and Bates, then Egypt’s future would entail a strongly managed transition negotiated by leaders of the moderate opposition and the military. They would decide on the ultimate form of the state and write a constitution that would establish the institutions necessary to ensure such a state, and then would impose it on the rest of society. Elections would only be held after the imposition of a new constitution. Entry into the system would be somewhat guarded so that no group could enter the system and undermine it from within, leading to the prohibition on participation of some forces, notably the Brotherhood, during the transition. This is not to say that individual members of the Brotherhood should be barred from participation, which would push them towards renewed radicalism, but rather that the organization must be politically demobilized and individuals remobilized in other frameworks specified by a new constitution. One solution would be a constitutional clause mandating separation of religion and the state (Turkey), another would be a ban on religious parties, which is currently being considered by the interim administration. The remnants of the old regime would have to be integrated into the new state and their basic privileges protected alongside new rights and protections for groups composing the moderate opposition. Finally, the new process must guarantee the rights of individuals rather than groups.

Such a prescription is not a panacea, and it will undoubtedly be received with discomfort, if not outright revulsion, by pro-democracy activists and policymakers. In fact, outspoken voices across the globe have been advocating precisely the opposite, demanding the reincorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood! Moreover, the violence that has gripped Egypt in recent days has gravely damaged the cohesion of a moderate coalition and increased moderate sympathy for radical positions, once again polarizing Egyptian politics. Furthermore, it has lent credence to a false narrative that equates Mursi supporters with pro-democracy activism, leading liberals to support the continuation of a process which has done nothing but undermine political liberalization in Egypt. While this violent repression has served little constructive purpose, the alternatives being advocated, ranging from the reinstatement of Mursi to reconciliation and reincorporation of the Brotherhood, will not put the country on track to democracy. The only solution is to begin again with closer attention to the possible consequences of constitutional decisions and recognition that constitutions reflect the interests of their writers.

The consequences of the rush to elections and universal inclusion have made themselves felt in Egypt and beyond. Similar transitions are in danger in Libya and Tunisia. Unlike the others, however, in Egypt the military is ideally situated to manage a transition to political democracy due to its corporate identity, cohesion, and general dislike of civilian politics. While they would be, as Barbara Geddes argues in her analysis of authoritarian breakdowns (2004), the most suited force to lead a state to democracy, the generals must not succumb to the pressure of idealists to exit politics until a new system is in place, as this would be just as damaging as a decision to remain in politics in the long term. Simultaneously, they must not antagonize those inclined to support their intervention by continuing their offensive against Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. For as the continuing stalemate, marked by mutual recriminations, reveals, the Egyptian state cannot get on without the military in an active stewardship role in the short term, even if they cannot prosper under military rule in the long term.

In Syria, It Takes Three to Tango

Mark Katz has an interesting post on his blog, which is repurposed from his 1982 book about Soviet military thought, but applies to Syria today. The operative part is here:

In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction, both radicals and moderates unite to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (radical Islamist rule or some form of democracy). The radicals in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the moderates fighting the dictatorship. However, the radicals stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while some external forces are supporting the dictatorship, others will support the radicals, making them stronger compared to the moderate opposition. When the dictatorship eventually falls, the radicals are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from their allies while the moderates have received nothing. Either of these could come to power, and so external support of the radicals increases their chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the moderate opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the radicals can take advantage of.

He adds several caveats, but he introduces the idea that this is not a two-player game but rather should be thought of as a three-player one. There are similar dynamics between Brezhnev-era communist struggles in the Third World and Islamist-tinged insurgencies in today’s Middle East, in that radicals were often the most organized and thus most poised to successfully overthrow a dictatorship because they enjoyed more outside support, while moderates tended to get sidelined by their external sugar-daddies (especially after the dictator was ousted). Should Assad fall tomorrow, one can imagine that Islamists would enjoy greater means to organize voters and rally Syrians around their cause than the moderate elements within the opposition, which are divided and underfunded.

Is Syria’s Civil War A Result of Too Little ‘Bandwidth’ in Washington?

A commonly heard refrain about why the Obama administration has not done X or Y in [insert global troublespot name here] is that there is just not enough bandwidth. Richard Haass, discussing how Iraq distracted us from other more pressing priorities with Diane Rehm, said, “Presidents only have so much bandwidth.” 

The administration’s mouthpieces are also fond of the web 2.0 metaphors in discussing U.S. relations with the world. Benjamin Rhodes on Africa: “[There’s bandwidth in] the relationship for a lot of cooperation, even when we have difference, and even within the Syria issue, there’s that bandwidth. And that’s the message that the leaders wanted to send.” Even Obama himself has employed the notion of freeing up “national-security bandwidth.”
Huh? I understand that there are only so many hours in the day. Bandwidth is treated by its users as a finite and depletable resource, like political capital or canola oil, that should be used prudently. But part of me feels this “bandwidth” metaphor is a cop-out. When are presidents’ in-boxes ever empty? Juggling the breakup of the USSR, Tiananmen Square massacres, South Africa overturning apartheid, an invasion of Iraq, a follow-up no-fly zone in that country’s north, and an economy crumbling around him, George Bush Sr. still found time to send U.S. forces into Somalia to save lives in a place barely anybody at the time had heard of and which was of zero strategic interest.
All of which is to ask: Have scholars ever tried to code “bandwidth” in any systematic fashion? In other words, is it possible to examine the number of other pressing issues (e.g. immigration reform, healthcare, SARS outbreak, etc.) an administration is juggling at the same time? If there are more than, say, a dozen, that might cause the system to short-circuit and lead to paralysis. Do we intervene less overseas or lean more isolationist when bandwidth is low? Discuss.

What We’re Reading

What We’re Reading

What We’re Reading


  • Substitute political words for the medical words in this excerpt: “The current regime was built during a time of pervasive ignorance when the best we could do was throw a drug and a placebo against a randomized population and then count noses. Randomized controlled trials are critical, of course, but in a world of limited resources they fail when confronted by the curse of dimensionality. Patients are heterogeneous  and so are diseases. Each patient is a unique, dynamic system and at the molecular level diseases are heterogeneous even when symptoms are not. “
  • A military and strategic assessment of the situation in Syria from Yezid Sayigh at Carnegie. Brutally honest about the existence of good, clean options for the rebels and its potential allies–there aren’t any–it’s a nice companion/update to Dexter Filkins excellent overview of Obama’s options in Syria from the New Yorker a few weeks ago. The crux is that Assad’s position is slowly stabilizing, making a prolonged stalemate increasingly the likely outcome of the conflict.
  • From the Monkey Cage: Akis Georgakellos and Harris Mylonas with a great overview of the structural realignments in the Greek political system. Many Greeks are still in denial about the very real–and immense–changes to Greek political life. At the core, Greece has been transformed from a two-party electoral system with one-party governance into a fragmented electoral system with multiparty governance.